Monday, September 08, 2008

Is the World Ready for What the Church Can Give It?

Practicing Shaping Community:
Is the World Ready for the Gift the Church Can Give It?

A sermon preached at St. Stephen and the Incarnation Episcopal Church, Washington, DC, September 7, 2008

“And just why is it that the church is so important?” asked a visitor of Dr. Samuel Johnson, eighteenth century England’s prototypical scholar. The visitor went on to make a case that was to become standard fare for many people in American society two centuries later. I can worship on my own. My relationship with God is my own business. Religion is personal. Organized religion gets in the way of being spiritual. Dr. Johnson said not a word, but reached his tongs into the coal fire in front of him and his visitor and plucked a burning coal and set it on the hearth, alone. The conversation went on to other subjects. In a few minutes, Johnson remarked to the guest, “You observe what has happened to the coal, Sir. It no longer burns. That is what happens to a Christian who tries to practice faith apart from the community of faith.”

Christians practice faith in community. Someone has put it this way: that the perennial strategy of Christianity is to gather the folks, break the bread, tell the stories. The amazing photography of Jim Stipe that hangs behind me this morning well illustrates that. On the left you see the bowl in the baptismal font. Baptism is the original act of bringing someone into the assembly. It is indeed the way we create community. You remember your baptism every time you pass through the door into this place, reach your hands into the font, and sign yourself with the cross you first received on your baptismal day. Today we’re bringing Anna into the Body of Christ. From today onward, she is as much a Christian as she will ever be, just as the oak seedling is as truly oak as is the five hundred year old oak in Rock Creek Park. We bring Anna into this community of faith precisely so that she can grow into the fullness of all her potential, spiritual as well as physical and mental.

In the photograph on the right, you see the Eucharistic feeding. When we celebrate the Holy Communion today, as every Sunday, we proclaim that through his gifts of bread and wine Jesus is, as he promises in today’s gospel, present with his community. More than any other thing at St. Stephen’s, the way we celebrate communion, gathered in a circle around the Table where everyone has a place, illustrates what we understand community to be. It is a gathering of all God’s people, where Anna, the newest member, has as definite a place as Edith or Vivian or Bill or Doris or Daphne who have been here for decades.

So between the time we gather the baptized and the time we break the bread we tell the stories. And in the middle photograph, you see hands holding the Bible. How do you think of the Bible? As an almanac predicting events? As answer book to life’s questions and problems? I suspect that most of us think of it the way we first learned it: as a storybook. We are spending an entire year, beginning today, focusing on the theme of “story.” Most, though not all, of our formative stories can be found between the covers of the Bible. The themes of the Bible, especially its major theme, “I will be their God and they shall be my people,” inform the other stories, large and small, that we tell and retell to define who we are.

These things are our sacred symbols. Water, bread, wine, story form the core of who we are. But the core is not all there is to the apple. Shaping community takes practice. I began several weeks ago leading us through a series of sermons that focus on Christian practices, some of the habitual things that we do to live out our faith. So far we have looked at two of these, discernment and proclamation. Shaping community is a third practice. Much of The New Testament is about this practice. We see the fledgling church organizing itself in the Book of Acts, and thanks to those who preserved many of Paul’s letters, we see some of the challenges that these new communities faced.

One such challenge lies behind today’s gospel lesson. Every community has to deal with the forces inside it that threaten to unravel its very fabric. And maybe the most common of those is evident when a member does another member wrong. Matthew’s gospel painstakingly sets forward a procedure of what the Christian community is to do when that happens. Shaping community, however, goes on in many ways beyond handling disagreements. The interesting thing is that Matthew’s community employs, or at least is enjoined to use, a principle in adjudicating disputes that has a much wider application. It is what I would call “speaking the truth in love” one to another. We cannot be sure that Matthew’s community, any more than Paul’s communities, always practiced that principle. Maybe they were at each other’s throats (read the Letters to the Corinthians, for example). But the principle is one that consistently reflects one of the chief values of Christian community: the virtue of honesty. In order for there to be a viable community, the members of it have to be able to be honest with each other.

What happens when we speak the truth, sometimes difficult and hard, to one another in love? Do people cringe and fall silent? Get into arguments? Withdraw? Zoom in to St. Stephen’s. What do you imagine to be the most seriously divisive issues that do or could come about among us? At this point in our life together, it seems to me that there are a couple of things that we are going to have to deal with before Anna reaches high school age. One of these is that our diversity will become harder and harder to preserve, given the changes that are happening in our neighborhood. As that develops, my guess is that we will have the choice of becoming defensive and reactive, or becoming creative in figuring out ways that such an important value to us can maintain its centrality. Another issue that will continue to require our speaking the truth in love will have to do with inevitable conflicts that arise when resources are scarce and when many needs compete against each other. Neither of these things is new. Both of them will continue to require us to make a priority of facing the tough issues with each other with candor, respect, and forthrightness.

Sometimes when we stand and renew our baptismal covenant, which we shall do in a few moments, I wonder what would happen if the Christian community were to realize that one of the greatest gifts we have to give the world (which might, in fact, be just what the world needs to be saved, quite literally) is the model of what a community can be. If our political process, for example, were to catch just a little bit of the notion of truth telling with respect (notice how I am re-casting the idea of “speaking the truth in love” for a broader audience!) how might our fractious, polarized country come together in common endeavor? The Church, as Archbishop William Temple once said, “is the only society that exists for the benefit of those who are not its members.” By practicing shaping a community in which we can safely speak the truth in love to one another, honestly and faithfully, Christians can show the rest of the world the possibility of living respectfully with neighbors who are different from us. We can demonstrate that it is possible to accord even our enemies basic respect. We can perhaps even cause people to stop and wonder at how a Christian assembly can hold up a little girl named Anna, like the wise old Baboon Rafiki holds up Simba, the infant Lion King in the story by that name, as if Anna were the incarnation which all creation has been awaiting and to whom the whole Circle of Life bows the knee. By shaping such a community we might actually give to the rest of our brothers and sisters in the world a model of how, with a little water, bread, wine, and a set of life-giving stories, we can fashion a common life in which people are treated as if they were in fact holy, and in which justice and peace are realities sitting on the bench beside you.

© Frank G. Dunn, 2008

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