First Lesson: I Corinthians 13:1-13
Children’s story: Exodus 3:1-4:20
A few years ago a church I was serving was doing some serious thinking. They were looking around at churches that were larger than ours and seemed to have more younger people than we did, and seemed to be more “active” whatever “active” means. So the session sent me off to one of those newer, larger, younger, more active churches to see what I could learn.
I went and my experience was a good one. The church building was large, and built within the last twenty years, and very well maintained. The congregation was large and seemed pretty affluent. As I came into the building, people at a welcome area smiled at me, and greeted me and shook my hand. A very kind woman took me on a tour of the church building and showed me the rooms where the children had Sunday School – very impressive, brightly painted, with murals on the walls – and a well-stocked baby nursery. Once the service started there were many things that I appreciated. The singing was good. I didn’t know the songs, but most of the words were taken directly from scripture which I was glad about. People raised their hands in the air as they sang, which I had never done before, but I realized that was the way people in Old Testament times sometimes sang and prayed. The pastor spoke well and seemed very sincere. The pastor’s wife also spoke and she seemed very sincere as well. But all of a sudden, in the middle of that worship service, I had the terrible feeling that I didn’t fit. That I wasn’t really welcome – even though all those people had smiled at me and shaken my hand and said hello to me and taken me on a tour. I had the feeling that if I had a real conversation with that pastor and he really heard what I thought, he might not like me so well, and maybe the members wouldn’t either.
I looked around me in the congregation and most of the women and certainly all the women in leadership were cute blonds in their thirties or so, wearing tight black pants and very high heels. And I’m not any of those things. I’m not a cute blond. I’m not in my thirties. I don’t wear tight black pants and if I tried to wear those high spiky shoes, you can’t begin to imagine what would happen. I suddenly realized that I didn’t belong there, and neither did a whole lot of other people whom I love.
So I’m very glad to be here, with you, whom I love. We genuinely welcome people of all ages and all abilities. We have attractive blond women in their thirties in our church and I suppose they sometimes wear high heels. There are also gray haired women in their seventies and eighties who wear low heels. And there are men of all ages. There’s no particular dress code in this church and we don’t pay much attention to what people wear.
There are people in this church who go to work every day in positions of responsibility and there are people who are retired. There are people who can speak very eloquently of their faith in Jesus and who inspire the rest of us. There are people who know all about the plumbing and electrical systems in our building and they make sure we are comfortable when we come to worship. There are people who bring food every week and one of us brings it to North Kent Community Services. There are people who teach Sunday School and people who make prayer shawls. There are people who sing in the choir and lead us all in praising God. There are people who mark the prices on the items at our garage sale. There are people who keep our financial records and others who give generously. There is one person who provides the bread for our communion services every month and one who prints our worship bulletin. Some speak in worship. Some provide good food for the rest of us to eat happily. Some visit in nursing homes. There are some who care for our children in our nursery and a few people who encourage the rest of us in the mission we want to do but we wouldn’t know where to start. Some have strong administrative skills. Some have warm, generous hearts. Some have developed the art of forgiveness. Others are peace makers. There are some in this congregation who have lived through a great deal of pain and sadness and who are gentle, genuine people of great faith. Silent examples for the rest of us. Some of you are very wise. Some of you are long time students of the scripture and teach it passionately. Others are just learning. Some pray eloquently and simply. Others are learning that, too. Some of you are called to be deacons and you are the back bone of this church. Some of you are called to be elders and to make decisions and to lead this church wisely as God leads you. I am looking at people who are genuinely kind and creative in their caring. Many of you have known each other well for a whole lot of years and you have learned to accept each other’s foibles and oddities and it’s obvious that you love each other. You listen to each other respectfully and you complement each other, and I have witnessed that you have learned to look past a lot of differences and you work and worship well together. And do mission, and learn and laugh together. You love children and you hear the voices of those who are younger and accept them into leadership positions. You welcome newcomers warmly and you are moving into the future together in harmony.
I am very proud to be your part time temporary pastor, and I wouldn’t trade you for all the larger churches or all the tight black pants or high spikey shoes anywhere.
Pastor Paul would have been proud of you too.
He wrote this letter to the church he founded in Corinth, in Greece. We’ve been talking about that church and this letter for a couple of weeks now. There were these quarrels going on in that little church that Paul loved. There were wealthy business men and wealthy independent business women and there were an assortment of slaves and free servants and they were motley bunch. And if we read between the lines here we get the feeling that some of them felt that their contributions to the church were more important than others. That maybe the ones who made the most money or gave the most money, or owned the largest businesses should have more authority in that church than their slaves who worked in their homes. Or be more honored than their slaves. And that somehow the deacons were more honored, or the elders were more respected, or those who spoke in tongues in worship. And Paul goes to great lengths, for many paragraphs in his letter, to set them straight. He compares a healthy church to a healthy body where all the parts of the body are necessary and honored and important and we can’t do without any of us.
I remember who you were when I first met you a little over a year ago. I sat with almost all of you in those early months in small groups- mostly in the pastor’s office. I asked you to tell me anything you’d like me to know about North Kent Church, and I heard a great many painful stories of past years. There was a lot of hurt. And a lot of anger. Some of you were not talking much with each other – either because you were so angry with each other, or because you were intentionally avoiding any conflict. Or because you were weary of it all. The session was dispirited and pretty much inactive. The committees had pretty much given up. A few stalwart souls had taken over doing what was essential to be done, or pushing through a wall of discouragement. A number of you thought the church would not survive, and I heard you use the word “hospice.” Others of you were desperate. A whole lot of you said, “We’ve got to get some new younger folks here or we’re going to die.” Or: “We’ve got to get a new very young pastor in here or there’s no hope for us.” It was all painful to see, and I grieved for you. But maybe the most painful conversations I had were with the younger folks in the church who told me that they were repeatedly ignored and their ideas were beaten down by the older folks. I honored them and thanked them, wholeheartedly, for staying in a place where they felt so unwelcome.
But have you looked at each other lately? Now you’re functioning like the healthy body that Pastor Paul was talking about. Everybody offering their skills and talents. Respecting each other, appreciating each other’s gifts. Talking with each other. Forgiving each other. Practicing kindness. Working together. There’s a holy hubbub in the narthex before worship and I can’t get you into the sanctuary on time. There was a whole lot of happy hugging last week as we welcomed new members. Coffee hour is lasting longer and longer because you can’t stop talking with each other. There’s a strong little Sunday school, with good curriculum and good teachers and good planning. There’s a new vibrant Bible study group, and two other strong continuing study groups for adults. Hunger Fast for youth is coming up and next Sunday is Scout Sunday. Financial giving is strong. We continue the very strong mission support that this church is well known for, and we’ve added Mel Trotter Ministries to our very long mission list. I’m thrilled to see that younger folks are being asked to serve and their ideas are being heard. The PNC is up and running and working very hard. They’re a cohesive group of really good people with a common spirit. You’ve learned well from the guests we’ve invited to speak to us. Every once in while Dr. Jack Stewart and Dr. Laird Stuart check in with me and ask me how you are and I’m very pleased to give them this very good news.
See what can happen in a church when the Spirit of God gets ahold of it?
So now maybe it’s time for another set of questions to be circulating about the church. Maybe this is the time to focus on the future instead of the past and to ask, “What’s the next almost impossible thing this church will do for God?”
Or maybe you’d like to pray and ponder another thought: You have heard me say more than once that “Churches grow when the members know who they are and like who they are and offer themselves as a gift to others.” Take a look at the insert in your bulletin. Pray and ponder that for a bit, why don’t you?
Maybe we could talk about those questions in small groups in the next months.