1 Cor 14: 20-25 ; Matthew 25:31-46
How much would it be worth it to you, if someone were to disclose “the secrets of your heart?” If you came in here on just an average Sunday, greeting the regulars in the regular friendly way, exchanging the normal pleasantries, greasing the wheels of social commerce, and you sat down behind your regular pew neighbor, and she turned to you and met your eyes, and said, “My God, you’re looking at a divorce. I’m so sorry. What can I do to help?” Would you take her hand, and bow down and worship God with her? Or would you lie; swallow that deep, painfully private secret; smile quizzically, and say, “of course not. And it’s none of your business, anyway.” I suspect that’s what I would do. “Hmm. The nerve,” I would say to myself, loud enough for her to hear. (For the record, success in potty training has made Jessica and my marriage better than ever.)
In the sermon response you gave back to me two weeks ago, I asked you, “With what words would you describe this church if we became what God wants us to be?” And you were to indicate if we already meet that description. The most frequent response was, “welcoming.” Three of you wrote that, some others wrote “friendly,” “open to all.” You disagreed about whether we are already welcoming—interesting. I of course agree that we should be welcoming, if we are the church God wants us to be. The UCC slogan we adopted is good: “Wherever you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.”
But how odd the newcomer is treated in Paul’s vision of the church of Corinth, being as God would have it be. For some context on our reading, the issue he is dealing with is speaking in tongues. This was a fairly common phenomenon in the ancient world, and something like it reappeared in the modern world about a century ago with the rise of the Pentecostal movement. In the ancient world, people in a variety of religions, aroused into a spiritual state, would break into so-called mantic prophesy, uttering out loud an unintelligible language that was attributed to supernatural beings. Look at 1 Samuel 10:9-13: There Saul joins a band of wandering prophets, and “falls into a prophetic frenzy.” Sounds like a similar phenomenon. It is clear that many in Corinth had this gift of ecstatic tongues; their worship was probably a little wild. Women were apparently breaking into a frenzy and letting their hair fling wildly, which is why Paul feels the need to weigh in on women’s hair styles in chapter 11—an at times baffling discourse.
As was their wont, the Corinthians were very proud of this gift of tongues; those who had it apparently felt superior to those who did not. They were given to rivalry and jealousy—remember from last week? That’s why Paul told them, “You are still of the flesh.” Correcting them, Paul says, in effect, “Ho hum. Yes, I speak in tongues too, more than all of you in fact. But I’ll take prophesy any day. He tells them, “Those who speak in a tongue build up themselves, but those who prophesy build up the church.” By “prophesy,” he doesn’t mean predicting the future; he means inspired telling of the truth. Prophesy is what is said “with the mind;” it “instructs others,” according to Paul. And he wants them to take turns prophesying, speaking the truth, and also listening to one another. We can do that too, and we do. Sounds like we are not missing much without the tongues.
So, in the midst of this discussion, Paul notes that if someone new shows up in church, an “unbeliever,” and hears everyone speaking in tongues, he’ll think you are crazy. But if you all prophesy to him, and he “is reproved [or corrected] by all and called to account by all,” and the “secrets of his heart are disclosed,” Paul thinks this newcomer will worship God with you. I say, “Let’s not try it!” Can you imagine? … “Are there any visitors with us today?” …
But there may be a more subtle way to employ what Paul is talking about. I hope people don’t just come to church to feel nice. Just to feel welcomed. Just to pass an hour in mild, polite company. One of you said in your sermon response that we should be “Not plastic or fake.” We should be coming here to have the secrets of our hearts disclosed, and to be accountable. He wants church to be a place to disclose our secrets. Not just our private worries and troubles, although definitely that. We should come here to be called to account, to be challenged and set right. Not by me; Paul wants us to do this for each other, and for ourselves. (Someone said, we should be “questioning.”) We should be looking for prophesy, for honest and insightful truth speaking. We might think we got a handle on the truth; we’ve been educated, we watch the news, we’ve got our two cents. But if you ask yourself, what do I want out of church? I hope the truth is high on your list. Again, not from me. God can disclose the truth through Scripture, prayer, sacrament, fellowship. God is very good at truth. It may happen in the silence of your heart, but if it’s from God, it will come upon you as if from beyond.
I know we need to be a friendly place. This church has a long history as a social hub in this community. This was always one of those churches where decent folk go to be friendly with each other. But this church is not the pillar it was once; there are no such pillars anymore. When we seek to be welcoming, friendly, open, to make others and each other feel comfortable, that’s just what some people might be looking for. But some might be looking for, prophesy. For difficult, uncomfortable truths. Last week in my sermon, I called out just about all of you, called you to account, as Paul says, like I have never done before. And I got the most compliments on that sermon that I’ve ever had. Was I being welcoming? Affirming? It’s like you were asking for it. “Please sir, may I have another.”
Only one of you, on the sermon response, said “Giving” (circled) and “Committed to community” (uncircled). However, the second question asked you to rank how we should prioritize the things we do. There was a very healthy diversity of responses on this question, and that diversity is a gift. But “Service to each other and to our neighbors and our world” narrowly beat out “Fellowship, discussion, education” and “Worship, prayer.” Now, it’s tempting when you start to make a list of things and rank them, to think that they are entirely separate from each other. They are not. If we are the church God wants us to be, then we will have one continuous life as a community. We will acquire our spiritual height and depth from worship; we will be bonded to each other and will grow in our shared grasp of truth by fellowship, discussion, and education; and we will be thereby empowered to serve God and our neighbors wisely and spiritually. Service, you see, is not something we should turn over to a Board of Missions. Service is an inherent part of our spiritual journey. Certainly, the Letter of James says, “Faith without works is dead.” And the two great commandments of Jesus are “Love the Lord,” and “love your neighbor as yourself.” You cannot live the Christian life only looking up; you must also look out, to each other, and beyond the church, to the streets. And not just look, but get your whole body into motion for the good. As Christ took on human flesh to unite us to God, so we, united to Christ by faith, must incarnate our faith into our working bodies, doing service to others. This is not how we relieve a burden or pay a debt, or fulfill a responsibility; service is how we spiritually participate in the reality of the living Christ.
Our reading from Matthew 25 has been overworked, and I won’t recite it at length; but it makes this point like no other scripture. We don’t meet Christ only in church and then put Christ on display in our persons by serving others. That view of Christian service can easily become patronizing: “O poor people! Here we come bringing Christ to you in our very persons.” No. In Matthew 25, Christ on the throne says, “Just as you did it to the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.” There’s something so mysterious that happens when you do loving, Christian service well. You at once become the agent of Christ, even while you meet Christ in those you serve. Have you experienced this? Did those of you who took part in Cathedral in the Night experience it? It’s sacramental. You become the body of Christ, and you receive the body of Christ from those you are supposedly “helping,” but they are helping you. Sometimes. Other times it’s just a chore, and you are helping some begrudging people who might be trying to scam you. That’s when the order and focus of worship and the trust built in fellowship becomes such a needed supplement to our work of service.
The activities described in Matthew 25, furthermore, are remarkably to the point. These are not quite a a checklist for the service we should be doing, but we ought to dwell on what Jesus mentions: “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Many of you have done these things on your own, by your personal initiative. Two thousand years has not rendered this list of good deeds obsolete. When we consider what we can do in our community, there are other issues to address; but let’s not neglect to look for those who are hungry, thirsty, strangers, naked, sick, and in prison.
So what could and should we be doing in our community? Where are we going to meet Jesus by our service? Your sermon responses said that you want service in our community to be a high priority, if not the highest. What kind of service is best?
Because I decided to first focus on worship and Christian Education, I have so far neglected to work much with our Board of Missions, our group that organizes our service activities: Marion, Ginette, Sherry, Dennis, Marty, Diane. Can we just say, our blessings and gratitude to you! You do this work on behalf of the church, on behalf of us all. And we need to recognize that more, and bring your calling to service to the fore of our worship together, so that we can all participate at least symbolically in this essential work of the church even if we aren’t directly involved. There is no church without mission, no faith without works.
As I begin in the future to work more closely with Missions, I want to raise some questions. My sense is that we do a lot of fundraising. And we collect things, or make hats as we did recently, and then donate them to effective organizations. This is all good work. But where and when are we encountering Christ in our service? I’m not sure that happens in fundraising. You encounter Christ in service when you stand face to face with someone in need. It might not be someone who is brimming with gratitude. But it is someone, a child of God, one created in the image of God, who makes a claim on you. Whether she is proud or angry or pleading, her face will say, “I am the one that God told you to help.” That is so essential to making service a genuinely spiritual, transformative encounter, as opposed to a tally of so much money raised or so many items donated. We have done Habitat for Humanity. And we are very fortunate to have a strong connection to Cathedral in the Night, a weekly worship service and fellowship dinner with the homeless on the streets of Northampton and elsewhere, all because Lance Humphries, a member here, is one of the key organizers. My recommendation is, let’s do more of that kind of direct involvement with people in need. You will be transformed by that work, at least sometimes, in a way you will not by doing fundraising and drives.
Like I said last week, if we want to really be a church of service as God wants us to be, we may need to increase our pledging; but I’m not going to talk about that for some time. What really matters more than money is participation, and wisdom in making the most of what we can do. There is plenty of need in Granby and nearby. We are deeply rooted and deeply connected here. We ought to be serving people right here, face to face. That takes pulling our collective awareness of our own community and using our collective clout and capacities.
I was for two years the chair of the Board of Missions equivalent in my previous church. One of our big projects was Operation Inasmuch, a nationwide program in which a church devotes a day to providing home help and maintenance to those who can’t afford it or can’t do it themselves. It was powerful direct action. We could do a smaller version of that here. We got into other kinds of direct action, when we discovered that people we being released from the county jail in the middle of the night with no transportation to get anywhere, or released in winter when all they had was summer-weight clothing. And then they showed up on church doors. Our minister helped them, of course. But we on missions said, what’s wrong with our jail? So we arranged a tour of the jail. And we met with the Sheriff, and pressed him. And when he retired, we interviewed the candidates running for Sheriff, and asked them, “What are you going to do to help inmates being released?” And what can you do about all those obviously mentally ill people we saw in the jail? We used our clout in the community, sharpened by the sting of conscience.
I don’t know this community as well as you. One thing I ask of you on this week’s Sermon response is, where locally do you see people and neighborhoods that we can help directly? Where are there evident injustices in the system? Who in our neighborhood are those Jesus stood for: the hungry, the thirsty, strangers, those in prison, and I suggest some other possibilities.
We face a tremendous crisis in Granby as in many places in our country. Drug use, overdosing, alcoholism, suicide. It’s dramatically effecting the death rate. In 1999 there were just under 30,000 suicides; in 2014 there were 42700. What can we do to address substance abuse and the despair that brings people to suicide? Could we hold an anonymous prayer and healing service for those dealing with substance abuse and despair, and have on hand resources for people ready to make that step? It would have to be done well, and we’d have to be very out there about it. How’s that for welcoming!
Doing things like this will be good for our community. But even more, it will be good for this church. It will deepen our participation in the mystery of Christ, in the Spirit of God. It will remind this community that we are not irrelevant, no more than God’s promise of salvation and healing for the nations is irrelevant. It will bring us energy and vitality as only the purposes of God can do. Let’s focus our energies, wisely and deliberately, before all our energy is dissipated. Because God has a resurrection in store for us.