It’s been a good sermon series, but I am ready to move on! And then I forgot to give people time after the sermon to fill out the sermon response. Even after I asked our musical director to play something for that time. Sorry Michael!
1 Cor 3:5-16
Next week marks the third great concentrated moment in the Christian liturgical year: Pentecost. Pentecost is easily overshadowed by its sister festivals: Christmas and Easter. Just the same, the work of God the Creator and Father at Christmas and of Jesus the Son at Easter can easily overshadow the work of the Spirit in the church, even though the whole Trinity always works together.
Especially since Pentecost has been neglected, I want us next week to focus our worship energies on receiving the Spirit of God. Receiving God’s Spirit is at once deeply personal and powerfully communal. It is the key to our success as a church. So let us prepare to receive the Spirit.
But for this week I want to share some thoughts about specific steps we can take and activities we can implement that will make us into a stronger church, if the Spirit be our source of power. This is not my platform, nor “my agenda,” not if we listen seriously to how Paul describes the work for building up the church in his Letter to the Corinthians. If all my talk represents nothing more than “my agenda,” then it’s all about my ego, about strengthening “my hand.” And then you will all take sides, for or against Pastor Bill. Paul knows that such divisiveness results from bad leadership. He countenances no leadership of this kind in the church, which is why he takes great pains to say that Paul and Apollos, who was another apostle guiding the Corinthians, are nothing. There is no place for ego in leadership that builds on the foundation of Christ.
And so he makes a startling claim: “If your work is burned up, the builder will suffer loss; the builder will be saved, but only as through fire.” That is, as those who build up the church, you are going to be saved one way or another. Stop worrying about saving yourself, your ego. What Paul is interested in is how much of your work survives the fire, by which he means the judgment of God. Yes, our work is going to be judged by God, even though we are “saved.” The Bible often talks about salvation as a refining fire, separating the dross from the pure metal, or the chaff from the wheat. As far as Paul is concerned here, the Christian life is not about whether my soul goes to heaven or hell, or whatever. It is instead about whether I am contributing effectively to the new life in Christ that ought to be happening in the church. For then he adds, “You”—you plural, all of you together—“are God’s temple” and “God’s Spirit dwells in you;” God’s Spirit dwells in your common life together. The point is not that each one of us finds personal salvation; it’s the joy and excitement of being a part of the building of this temple of God’s Spirit in this human community, and how then that community can become the agent of God here in Granby.
So, I have ideas that I have ‘chosen with some care,’ ideas about how we can build on who Jesus Christ was and is. Trying to emulate Paul, I do all of this for you as the Church of Christ. These ideas are worth nothing if they are not helpful to you in your Christian life, and if they do not bring more of the power of God into this community of ours. But having said that, I do not submit these ideas to please you, no more than to please my own ego. Instead, I realize that God’s fiery judgment is the sole test of my works. I hope they survive God’s scrutiny, which Paul sees coming as some dramatic Day in which all will be disclosed; he seems to have the Second Coming of Christ in mind. But perhaps this fiery judgment is happening all the time, we just don’t have the eyes to see it.
I want your thoughts on these ideas, and I want to hear your ideas too. Please follow along in your sermon response. I haven’t been giving you special time to fill them out, so today we will have a few minutes after the sermon to fill out this last response.
Quite deliberately, I am not going to begin with how to attract new members. I know many of you want that to happen, and so do I. But we should not be looking for bodies to bring in for the purpose of increasing our budget or filling the empty slots on our committees. We should be anxious to attract new members because we believe God is doing something really important here, and we genuinely believe that other people will receive God’s grace by taking part in this community. So not: “Welcome to our church; we’re glad to see you, because we really need someone to do” this and that; But “Welcome to God’s church; we really believe you are going to receive so much from being here.”
And so the place to begin is by attending to what kind of community we are. How can we become a place of loving communion and an embodiment of God’s righteousness in our world, so that we can truly believe in ourselves enough to really open our doors and welcome people, not just to join us, but to join God among us. The classic creeds follow this order: We believe in God the creator, in Christ the redeemer, in the Spirit of new life, and in the Church. We need to be a church that we can believe in, have faith in. So attracting new members comes last, not first.
First thing: we need to be a place of pastoral care. We need to make sure people who have spent their whole lives in this church, or people who have only recently made this church their home, are cared for when they are down. The new commandment in the Gospel of John is that you love one another. As of now, we have a part time minister. I am contracted for 25 hours per week. You assessed how much you can afford; and I accepted this limitation, because I want to spend part of my time researching and writing. (I am still waiting for that to happen, but that’s mostly my problem.) Now I’ve got way more to do as your minister than 25 hours a week worth. I’ve made Christian education my top priority, especially for our high school youth but also for our adults in sermons and a Bible study. That means pastoral care has not been my top priority, although there is no good reason it shouldn’t be, and I really enjoy visits. But if I make one or two visits a week, it’s a good week. And that’s not enough.
Here’s what we can do. In Jessica and my former church, even though we had a full time pastor, the Deacons had “shepherding groups.” Each Deacon, and I was one, kept tabs on a portion of the congregation. If we had time, we would do home or hospital visits. If not, we’d try to check in with our group on Sundays, or make a phone call. It’s a way to make sure the leaders of the church are aware of what is going on in your life. Because I can’t do that all by myself. In the meantime, you all can help by communicating clearly and persistently if you need pastoral care or help. I wish you had the luxury to just wait until I or someone else came around, but you don’t. You need to make your needs known, maybe more than one time.
By forming shepherding groups, the Deacons can help provide ministry, although they are not trained for pastoral care. Kelly Gallagher, our Associate Conference Minister, will be coming here to do a deacon’s training for us, which will help. But our Deacons are already stretched thin. We need more Deacons, especially if we want to add to their already heavy duties. Would you consider coming to the Deacon’s training and learning more what it is all about? If so, indicate on your sermon response.
I have another idea, however. Yale Divinity School, one of my alma maters, has a ministry intern program. I would need a little training to be a supervisor, but we stand to benefit from having a current divinity student serve us for a year-long internship, if we can find a student for whom our location works. Our financial support of the intern would be minor. Would you be willing to host a pastoral intern, or help fund her or his ministry?
Second to pastoral care, we need to provide more in terms of Christian education and formation for adults. You don’t stop needing formation and education when you join the church at age 15. You are just beginning; some of us could be benefiting from and enjoying 60 years or more of Christian education and formation. And we just might need that much. Christian faith is complicated in our day, as I’ve often said, but not unintelligible; the same goes for our world. There is much for us to discuss about how to be God’s church in this time and place. But especially because we are congregationally governed. As Jefferson noted, if you want to run things like a democracy, you need a well-educated citizenry. You all need to be well-informed and we need to understand each other and work toward a consensus on how to do things. It won’t do to just lazily lift a hand to vote once a year on some proposal you just heard about.
The good new is, Christian education for adults, when done right, is really fun and interesting. I promise you, if you make time for it, you will enjoy it. You can ask the regulars at Bible study; they really seem to enjoy it. Christian education can be the best way to enjoy meaningful fellowship with each other. Now you are all interesting and enjoyable people to get to know. If we spend more time together under pleasant circumstances talking about interesting things, I’m pretty sure you’ll enjoy it a lot more than watching the game on tv, or the candidates’ debate, or shooting the breeze and gossiping down at the bar or at the salon. (I have no problem with you doing those things, just leave some time for church!) My recommendation, which I’ve brought up before, is that we host a monthly dinner and speaker series. We should probably hire a student chef to do the meal, and ask for a modest cover charge at the door. Because the church is called to be holy and excellent, as I said last week, I am committed to serving food that is healthy and delicious and shows our commitment to justice for God’s creation and helps sustain our local farmers. (And by the way, the market for good food in Granby is wide open; let’s capitalize on the lack of good restaurants in town.) And these dinners can feature an informed speaker or panel on a topic of interest to Christians and other thoughtful people, with time for discussion and also just casual fellowship.
This congregation’s open-mindedness is one of our most valuable blessings from God. By the grace of God, we are not a church that tries to pit the Bible or Church authority against what secular scientists or philosophers, or faithful minds from other religions have to say. We can have really good conversations with just about anyone committed to seeking truth and justice. We have lots to add to that conversation, but we are really open to letting the conversation go where it may. Most of the other churches in Granby cannot say that. It is our special blessing and we need to make the most of it.
Look at question number 2 and let me know if you would commit to being a regular attender of a monthly dinner, when it should be, and would you be part of a steering committee for such an effort? I hope to have time this summer to pull it together.
I think we need to make more use of our fellowship hour for Christian education and formation, too. We can offer more optional activities like the sacraments discussion series we began last month. For next week, Connie Brown with my blessing has put together a presentation on dementia awareness featuring an expert in our area; that’s a topic than many in our town would benefit from knowing more about. / I would feel silly advocating it, but some have suggested we begin a sermon response discussion during fellowship hours; I know I would love to hear more of your thoughts about my sermons. My blog is one place for that to happen, and there have been some wonderful and challenging comments, but not too many. In these and other ways, I think that our fellowship hour, while it needs to remain a time for us to informally connect, could host more such activities if we formalize it just a bit.
Aside from education, spiritual formation is essential to our empowerment as a congregation. I want to continue with experiments in worship, as I did at Thursday Vespers and Maundy Thursday, including using more silence. I’d like to see us experience more awe in worship.
But spiritual formation probably cannot happen only in worship services. I’ve got ideas for spiritual formation in confirmation class next year. But I invite your thoughts: what would help you deepen your faith life? Spiritual retreats? Sessions on prayer or meditation? Mid-week evening services that are intimate and experimental? Or something I haven’t thought of?
If we become a congregation with interesting and enjoyable education experiences, with more powerful worship and more intentional spiritual formation, we will be better equipped to do the great works of service that we talked about two weeks ago. And we will also attract people who want to be spiritually well-educated and formed. And that’s what we want. But we probably shouldn’t just wait for people to wander in through our doors and find us, or rely only on word of mouth.
As we become the church God wants us to be, we will be more justified to attract and welcome new people into our midst. I’ve heard several people talk about reviving our bread ministry, something Bobby Mason and Dennis used to lead. We can once again deliver homemade bread to people new to Granby. It’s a lovely gesture of hospitality that subtly carries a sacramental touch.
I already started looking into recruiting from nearby college communities. You took the step of hiring a former professor, which is what I am. We might as well make the most of your choice and my background by recruiting from among the professors and intellectuals in our area. They may be looking for someone who can speak their language and whose thinking they can respect. If I attract them, I need you to do your best to welcome and include them. Now I know academic types can be a little snooty and can think that they know best about everything—and then there’s Jessica—but they also bring great gifts to a community. I need you to be open to receiving them.
Let me conclude by summarizing briefly what I’ve proposed during this series. I first argued that our world is lacking in strong communities; modern mobility and our consumerist economic system work against the formation of meaningful, strong communities. We need to be intentional in building one here. Then I appealed to you to consider being more involved here, or if you are involved, to be oriented to God’s Spirit rather than your ego, what Paul calls “the flesh.” Last week, I called on us to seek prophesy and truth-telling in the church; we should seek to have the secrets of our hearts disclosed in church, and also the truth of our world. And I asked you about what we can do in our community; especially, where can we be more directly involved with helping people and pursuing justice in our community? But one could say that the ideas we’ve talked about today are the key to everything. If we can create a community that is theologically well-educated and spiritually powerful, we will equip and empower ourselves to participate in serving our community, to lead the church faithfully, and to be a community where people encounter God in power, and encounter the neighbor in love. For the healing and holiness of us in this room, of our generations yet to come, and of new members whom God’s Spirit, alive in us, will draw, let us start talking with tongues of fire about how to be the church God wants us to be.