Sermon: A Still More Excellent Way (1/24/16)

Since I became your pastor in 2001, we’ve accomplished a lot together.  We’ve lived in to our ONA identity in some beautiful ways, including celebrating our first Transgender Sunday last November.  In 2001, I never would have dreamed that I would one day perform a legal gay wedding in this sanctuary!  And I’m delighted to hear that our ONA Team is re-forming.

We’ve also challenged ourselves to learn about and become active in addressing several social justice issues–child sex trafficking, homelessness (with our work with Family Promise and Lost and Found), Islamophobia (offering support to our Muslim brothers and sisters).  And that only scratches the surface.

And how about the music program?  There’s no way a church of our size should have a choir of that size.  Can you believe it?  And the really cool thing about the choir and other musical groups?  It’s not just the music-making that’s beautiful.  Those people love each other.  And care for each other.  And pray for and with each other.

Last month, several of us drove to Norcross to participate in a prayer vigil and information session with the Ahmadiyya Muslim community.  At that meeting, I was pleased to hear so many refer to Pilgrimage as a “great place.”  It was the first time I realized that we are gaining a reputation as a loving, service-oriented community.

In addition to all the things we are doing together as a community, several of you are leading service projects of your own.  Many of you participated–either in person or by making contributions–to Holly CothranDrake’s wild idea of purchasing Christmas gifts for every patient at the Shepherd Center.  Others of you contributed to Laurie Spencer’s efforts to replace Christmas gifts stolen from a local congregation.  Some of you take your ministry to the streets by engaging with teens feeding others who are living on the streets.  Chris and Jim work closely with the Kairos prison ministry.

Whether it’s food for MUST, gifts for Lost and Found, or any number of service opportunities, you all respond with radical generosity.  And it is so heartening to see.

How have we accomplished these things?  How have we gotten the energy and vision to act others out there into well-being?  We’ve done it by acting each other into well-being.

What we do up here is vital to what we do out there.  If we’re going to have anything to give to others, we’ve got to keep the home fires burning.  We must continue growing deeper into community.  We must continue worshiping together the God who “has loved us, loves us now, and will always love us.”  We must continue to give to and receive from each other God’s deep and abiding love.  Our main source of strength and inspiration for what we do outside these walls depends largely on what we do inside these walls.

Paul understood the strong connection between how a community lives God’s love inside the community and outside it.  That’s why he wrote a letter to the church at Corinth.

The church at Corinth was a happening place.  Full of energy.  Full of diversity.  Full of egos.  The more powerful people in the community began prioritizing some spiritual gifts over others.  Deep divisions and chaos ensued.  Paul knew that if the community didn’t work some things out, their purpose for being—sharing God’s love with others—wasn’t going to happen.

Paul himself was an excitable fellow.  And a wordy one.  When he got worked up about something, he wrote.  And wrote.  And wrote.  And, IMHO, he could have used an editor.

Because the issue at Corinth was the prioritizing of gifts—creating a hierarchy of abilities, where some were more highly valued than others—the thing Paul got worked up about in I Corinthians 12 is the diversity of spiritual gifts.  Nobody’s gift is more important than any other person’s gift, Paul says.  If the community is going to work well, it’s going to need all the gifts of everyone in the community working together.  As he said in I Corinthians 12:7, “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.”

Now, Paul could have said what I just said, but he chose instead to go all Mr. Potato Head on the Corinthians.  “If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be…”  and he riffs on that for a while

.mixed up potato head

The one thing I find perplexing is where Paul goes at the end of today’s passage.  Listen:

27Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. 28And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers; then deeds of power, then gifts of healing, forms of assistance, forms of leadership, various kinds of tongues.

Okay.  Does that not sound like a hierarchy of spiritual gifts?  What happened to all gifts being equally important?   Then Paul says, But strive for the greater gifts.  And I will show you a still more excellent way.”  The greater gifts?  Which gifts are greater?  I thought all gifts were created equally!

Had I been Paul’s editor, I would have pointed out this contradiction.  Then I would have asked what he was really trying to say.  This is only a guess, but judging from all that has gone before, maybe the “greater gifts” are the ones that help the community work together, to help folks use all the gifts the Spirit bestows for the common good.  If that’s the case, then maybe in this coming together of our diverse gifts is where we’ll find the “still more excellent way.”

In any given week, I hear several times that Pilgrimage “is a special place.”  And it is.  I want to tell you a story I’ve told before that demonstrates just how special.

One day walking the campus at Emory, just a few months after fleeing the Baptist battles at my seminary, I found myself standing under the chapel.  Like most of my Baptist friends at the time, I was completely beaten down by years of denominational conflict.  I’d experienced the underbelly of the Christian church and was dangerously disillusioned.

As I stood there, I thought:  “You know, Kim, you don’t have to do this.  You don’t have to stay in church.  You don’t even have to remain Christian.  You can leave.  Do something else entirely.  Why stay?”  I stood there thinking for a long while.

Then, as he is wont to do, Jesus came to mind. Potato-Head-Jesus-2

I thought about all the things Jesus said, all the things he did.  I thought about how he spent time hanging out with the hurting people of the world, the outcasts, the labeled, the abused.  And I thought of how he helped those people to see and experience the deep, abiding, non-judgmental love of God.

And standing there beneath the chapel, I decided that if a community tries to follow Jesus–they don’t even have to be successful…If a community just tries to follow Jesus, the world will be transformed.  In that moment, under that chapel, I committed myself to the Christian church and to leading a community that would try—just try–to follow Jesus.

Many of you have heard that story before.  I’m telling it again because I want to say this:  I have found the community I dreamed of that day in 1993.  I have found the community who would try—just try—to follow Jesus, the community who would, through its loving efforts, transform the world.  That community is you.

That doesn’t mean we get everything right all the time.  Living life in community is hard.  Hard, hard, hard.  At some point, someone’s going to make you mad.  At some point, someone’s going to disappoint you.  At some point, you’re going to be afraid you’ve done something irreparable, unforgiveable, unredeemable.

Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber welcomes new members to the Church for All Sinners and Saints that she pastors in Denver by making sure they know that at some point, the community will let them down.  “That I,” she says, “will say or do something stupid and disappoint them.  And then,” she says, “I encourage them to decide before that happens if they will stick around after it happens.  If they leave, I tell them, they will miss the way that God’s grace comes in and fills in the cracks left behind by our brokenness.  And that’s too beautiful to miss.”

In her book, Accidental Saints, Pastor Nadia also says this:  “Church is messed up.  I know that.  People, including me, have been hurt by it.  But as my UCC pastor friend Heather says, “Church isn’t perfect.  It’s practice.”  (Accidental Saints, K2425)

THAT is what I’ve witnessed here over the last 14 years.  We aren’t always successful in following Jesus, sometimes we disagree, sometimes we even hurt each other…but even in the midst of all the messiness of being a Christian community, because we have continued to seek to follow Jesus as best we can, the world is being transformed.  That’s what all those shout-outs from people in the larger community tell me.  Because we are working together, because we are honoring—and calling out—each other’s spiritual gifts and using them for the common good, we are beginning—just beginning to get a glimpse of God’s kin-dom here on earth, a kin-dom we are helping to create.

Now the question becomes:  What’s next?  What’s our vision as a community of Jesus’ followers?  We’ve worked hard.  We’ve accomplished a lot.  We are successfully following Jesus in many ways.  But what’s next?  How do we find the “still more excellent way?”  If Paul is to be believed—and think he’s right on with this—we’ll find the more excellent way when we honor our diverse gifts, and when we pool those gifts and seek the common good, not only our common good here at Pilgrimage, but the common good of the larger community as well.

So, how do we get started?  Stay tuned.  I’ll share some of my thoughts next week.  Until then, see what your imagination dreams up.

In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness.  Amen.

Kimberleigh Buchanan  © 2015

About reallifepastor

I'm a pastor who's working out her faith...just like everyone else.
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