I’m going to touch briefly on the two votes we took last Sunday, look a little more carefully at the 5 points of our 2015 Purpose Statement, and finally point to how the last of those five points intersects with Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians.
Let us pray.
In light of the two unanimous and clarifying votes taken last Sunday, it’s worth considering what’s happening in our life together here.
The first vote was to sell the back lot, with an eye to make this building, usable and stabilized, for our next 25-50 years of ministry here. To replace our current education wing roof with a sloped one, to install Air Conditioning and Double Paned Windows into the Sanctuary, and to upgrade to more modern bathrooms.
Our second vote was to adopt a new Purpose statement for this year
—it describes who we are as a community,
what our focuses are for the coming year,
and will help us to plan a vision for the future.
You’ve already heard the statement once this morning:
St. Stephen Lutheran:
A Worshipping Community of the ELCA, who partners with other Christians.
Where the Faith is Taught, Connections are made, and people are Cared for.
A Worshipping Community
Worship is our primary act as a congregation; it’s where we meet together in the greatest number.
It’s where Word, Sacrament, and Community come together—in other words, where we most fully meet Jesus.
Of the ELCA, who partners with other Christians
We’re part of a larger body of Christians, we’re part of the New Jersey Synod and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. That means there are people in authority who keep us honest.
They also help to coordinate our larger works together—like building and maintaining the affordable housing down the street, tackling Malaria, our missionary work in 80 countries, and the training and placement of Pastors and Associates in Ministry.
Now, it would be fair of you to ask why do we need to add, “who partner with other Christians?”
Let me tell you a story—I recently went to a Cambridge Alumni event in New York City, and was asked about what I did, and I said—Lutheran Pastor…
and next thing I knew I was being read the riot act—this woman was so offended by Lutherans, because she had heard that a Lutheran Pastor who attended the same 9/11 prayer vigil she did, was defrocked for doing so.... defrocked for playing nice with fellow Christians, for praying with them…
This Pastor was, of course, Missouri Synod Lutheran—our conservative cousins who practice closed communion and are against ecumenical work… but the average person on the street just hears Lutheran and assumes we’re a bunch of spiritual hermits.
So, it’s worth letting folk know, proudly and loudly, that we play nicely with others—we drink beers with Catholic Sisters, respectfully listen to Rabbis, and worship with a whole cadre of Christians in town.
Where the Faith is Taught
Worship builds up the faith, and teaching helps us to make sense of that faith—we offer lots of learning opportunities here, because it helps us to understand the faith we affirm—we practice faith seeking understanding.
We’re more noticeably focusing on discipleship this year—we’re becoming clearer and more concrete about how we follow Jesus.
Additionally, one of the best parts about teaching is you learn
—you have to know something in your bones in order to authentically pass it on to someone else. I’m sure the Sunday School teachers can affirm this—they know that old old story a little better because they’re passed it on.
Connections are made
While our couple of hours together on Sunday is exceedingly important, it’s also important to stay connected to the faith, to the congregation, and to one another, throughout the week.
We also ought to be encouraged to share our faith with people outside these hallowed walls. In order to do this, we try to act in ways that invite people to faith and allow them to more easily enter into this worshipping community.
People are Cared for
All these things, connecting, teaching, partnering, and worshipping—they’re all built on this last one.
People are cared for.
One of the dangers of ministry I’ve most experienced, is the danger of doing the church’s work
—the many tasks of the faith—as ends in themselves
—we can forget that they involve the lives of people.
Worship is a gathering, of people. The Church in its many forms is filled, with people. The faith is Taught, to people. Connections are made, with people.
And while it’s not Lent yet, I’ll gladly confess to you all that, as your Pastor, I’ve failed at living this truth out as often as I’ve succeeded at it—I am human and I err. God help me.
And that’s what Paul’s talking about today. He’s talking about the stratospheric heights to which we should hold our relationships with one another—the great importance of community.
Paul is confronted with a question from the Christian Community in Corinth… some folk think it’s okay to eat meat sacrificed to pagan idols; others are offended by it.
What’s the right thing to do?
How do we stay together as one community?
Paul answers by saying, “Those who say you can eat pagan meat are right. They’ve thought through the issue correctly. The so-called gods of the pagans aren’t real, so eating the meat offered to them will not honor them or give them any power, nor will it harm those that eat it…
But, (Paul adds) those Christians who have taken this position, have not felt through the issue relationally… they’ve not asked the question: “is acting in that way caring for people?”
They’ve not asked: “If I act this way am I building up my brother or sister”?
Because there are other people in the Christian community who have deep and serious hang ups about participating in pagan society—they used to believe in those gods the meat is being sacrificed to…They know those rituals in their bones…
“Imagine,” Paul insists, “what eating with Pagans, and eating the food of Idols, does to their conscience!”
“You strong folk, don’t let your knowledge separate you from the heart of Jesus, that heart which you share with the weaker members of the community.”
Sometimes people try to bring this up to the present day, and say something like, “Look, a Republican and a Democrat kneeling before the same altar and receiving the Body of Christ despite their disagreement the Tuesday before on Election Day. This shows how much they are bearing with one another’s weaknesses. Building one another up with love. How they care for one another.”
And that is a beautiful image, Red and Blue before the Altar of God… but it doesn’t get to the depths of sacrifice, yes true sacrifice, that Paul is calling on the Community in Corinth to undertake.
He’s telling these folk that, for the sake of community, for the sake of sharing their love with those they disagree with
1. they ought to sacrifice their major source of protein.
2. Sacrifice most social connections in Corinth,
3. Sacrifice their loyalty to country.
All that, for the sake of these people who Paul acknowledges are wrong!
There really isn’t a good modern analogy. Perhaps, the modern equivalent would be something like… for the sake of someone you disagree with in church--
1. Become a Vegan.
2. Quit all the social clubs you belong to, and give up your cell phone and the internet.
3. And swear your allegiance to Canada in front of the local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution.
All so the person you most disagree with in church will have a clean conscience.
That’s the kind of sacrifice for community we’re talking about.
That’s how seriously Paul takes building up the community through sacrificial acts of love.
That’s the kind of seriousness with which I pray you take that fifth description of our community here—how seriously you take, “People are cared for.”
Our building could be a castle on a hill, a cathedral in the sky, with no leaks and not one blemish–faultlessly taken care of, with every amenity possible, but if a community of love was not found inside, we would be wrong for dwelling therein.
Our worship could be perfect in form, every liturgical movement executed with excellence—but if it excludes the participation of any of the people, it is wrong.
We could be the Lutheran Church known throughout the State for partnering with other Christians—we could ask good Lutheran Questions and give good Lutheran answers about the Duality of Man, the Centrality of Christ, and the Reality of the Crucifixion—but if we stop acting out of Faith, Love, and Charity, we are wrong.
We could teach the faith so well, that our members know scripture backwards and forwards, the Bible and the Confessions on our tongues night and day—but if all it does is scare and scar folk, it is wrong.
Our Website, Newsletter, Weekly St. Stephen Message, Youtubed Sermons, and Facebook Page could be the envy of every church in the country. We could have 135 prayer partners praying together daily, fellowship events galore, and do church in such a way non-churchy folk can’t help but be sucked into our maelstrom of connectedness… We could be so very connected, but if we aren’t caring for people, we are wrong.
It is really an impossible task to ask of a Purpose Statement. An impossible task, even, to ask of a community who is truly the Body of Christ filled with sinner-saints.
And yet, LORD God, I ask you in the name of your Son Jesus Christ, that you would send your Holy Spirit upon this congregation. Stir up in us the sacrificial active fierce love that builds up; give us, Dear Lord, the will to care for people.