Next Friday is my first anniversary as your pastor. What a year we’ve had! As we continue getting to know each other, I want to share with you some more of my MO as a pastor. A big part of the reason I accepted the call to be your pastor is your strong commitment to social justice. Jesus didn’t get killed because he was a good teacher or preacher. Jesus got killed because he challenged structures of privilege. Jesus got killed because he spoke truth to power. Jesus got killed because he championed the poor.
I accepted the call to be your pastor because you understand Dom Camara Helder’s statement: “When I fed the poor, they called me a saint. When I asked why they are poor, they called me a communist.” I am here because a faith ensconced within the walls of the church is no faith at all. We must speak power to truth. We must name and stand against corruption and evil when we see it. We need to serve the poor, and we must ask why they are poor. That is our calling as followers of Jesus. I am here because I am called to live that faith in the world…and to lead a congregation that does the same.
Here’s the thing I want to share with you today. I also am called to help us work at deepening our community. The true gift of the church to the world, the means we have of acting the world into wellbeing in Jesus’ name is the work we do as a community. If we’re all out marching, or challenging the government, or serving the poor…if we’re doing all that but neglect the health of our community, we won’t have the spiritual resources we need to sustain the important work we’re doing out in the world. This is the place where we breathe in God’s love. This is the place we connect with our deepest selves and with God, where we gain access to all that will sustain everything we do outside this place. Outside this place, we seek to save the world. Inside this place, we remember what we’re saving it for.
Paul understood this connection between how we live God’s love inside the church and how we live it in the world. Exhibit A—his first letter to the Corinthians.
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 spiritual gifts; they deemed some gifts more important than 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’s answer to the discord? Mr. Potato Head theology. If the community is to fulfill its mission of living God’s love in the world, it’s going to need every person using his or her unique gifts–“To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good,” right? “If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be; if the body were a mouth, where would smelling be?” See? Mr. Potato Head.
One thing I do find perplexing is where Paul goes at the end of today’s passage. Listen:
Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. And 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.
Does that not sound like a hierarchy of spiritual gifts? Then he says, “But strive for the greater gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way.” The greater gifts? I thought all gifts were created equally! What gives? This is a guess, but I wonder if the “greater gifts” are those that help the community work together for the common good. If so, then maybe in this coming together of our diverse gifts is where we’ll find the “still more excellent way.”
Have you ever thought about giving up on church? I thought about it a lot my first year of grad school.
Just a couple months after fleeing the Baptist battles at my seminary, one sunny fall day I found myself standing under the chapel on the Emory University campus. Deeply wounded by my experiences of church to that point, I had become dangerously disillusioned.
As I stood there, I thought: “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. I thought about all the things Jesus said, all he did. I thought about how he spent time hanging out with the hurting people of the world, the outcasts, the oppressed, the abused. And I thought of how he helped those people to see and experience the deep, abiding, non-judgmental love of God.
And in that moment, I decided that if a community tries to follow Jesus–they don’t even have to succeed…If a community just tries to follow Jesus—the world will be transformed. That day under the chapel, I committed myself to leading a community that would try—just try—to follow Jesus.
A year into my tenure, I can say with confidence: You are exactly the kind of community I dreamed of that day under the chapel.
That doesn’t mean we get it right all the time. Living in community is 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 and unforgiveable.
When she welcomed new members into the Church for All Sinners and Saints, Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber reminded them that at some point, the community would let them down, that she “would say or do something stupid and disappoint them. Then she encouraged them to decide before that happened if they would stick around after it happened. If they left, she told them, they’d miss the way God’s grace comes in and fills in the cracks left behind by our brokenness. And that’s too beautiful to miss.” In another place, Bolz-Weber says: “Church is messed up. I know that. People, including me, have been hurt by it. But … “Church isn’t perfect. It’s practice.”
THAT is what I’ve witnessed here over the last year. 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 continue to try to follow Jesus as best we can, the world is being transformed. 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.
It’s appropriate today to focus on strengthening our FCUCC community. It’s Annual Meeting day! After worship, we’ll gather downstairs to vote on the budget, among other things.
When you read my annual report, you’ll learn that a key part of my role as pastor is overseeing the church’s ministries. Based on how often I lose my glasses and forget to turn on the microphone, it might surprise you to learn that I like to organize things. I’m not as good with minute details, but I do like to get processes and groups organized…in a big-picture kind of way.
Now that I’ve been here a year, ideas are emerging about the most effective way to organize our congregation’s ministries. In your bulletins, you’ll find a list of the 8 suggested Ministry Areas. Within each area is a list of related ministries. None of these ministries is set in stone. Some have been going for a long time; others will serve their purpose for a season then disband. All of that’s part of the normal process of being church. Consider this sheet a worksheet. If you have ideas for other ministries that would fall in any of the Ministry Areas, write them down. Likewise, let us know if there’s a Ministry Area we’re missing. I invite you to write your suggestions on the sheets of paper posted on the west wall of Friendship Hall.
Here’s the exciting thing…there are many ways in which we’re already living as the body of Christ as Paul imagines it. We’re already living Mr. Potato Head theology here. I convened a gathering of folks for our security team this past Wednesday. After two minutes, I realized out was out of my element….which was fine. Because the other people in the room were in their element. Wow! I just sat back and watched the magic happen.
Another example. The last couple of weeks, the Lent planning team has been dreaming up all kinds of experiences that will help us make strong connections between our Lenten liturgy and social justice. I’ve never been this excited about Lent. Stay tuned.
Some established groups here at FCUCC are experiencing a revival—like Deacons and Faith Formation—while new groups are emerging—like the Health Advisory and Racial Justice teams, as well as the WISE team, whose purpose is to offer support for people struggling with mental health and for those who love them.
Here’s one of my favorite stories. A couple of weeks ago, I posted some help wanted ads—the Desperation Edition. The first item on the list was hospitality. Someone came to me this week and let me know that she and someone else—independently—had the idea of taking that on. “Somehow” they found each other…which, of course, means Spirit drew them together.
That’s how ministries work in a church. We open ourselves to the needs of the body, we ask how our unique gifts might meet those needs, then we serve…for the common good.
How might your unique gifts serve the common good? How might we better use our collective gifts to build up the body of Christ in this place? How might we find the still more excellent way…then live it in the world? I can’t wait to see what this second year will hold.
In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness. Amen.
Kimberleigh Buchanan ©2019 (with parts from 2015)