Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Who Is Your Church?

Scriptures cited today are Romans 13:8-14 and Matthew 18:15-20.

Here is a Sunday that feels like a homecoming. Our parish picnic will be the icing on that cake. The summer of 2008 is sliding into home plate. Don’t look now, but fall is near.

It’s also a Sunday to rejoice in new relationships. Some who worship with us here this morning are taking their first steps in building a new sense of spiritual home, a process we all hope to support. Many, perhaps most of us, have experienced this week something new, someone new, in our classrooms, workplace, and community. It’s a time of year to notice, celebrate, and commit ourselves to all who are newly among us. They may appreciate our remembering how vulnerable they feel, stepping into an orbit that isn’t quite theirs, yet. Be aware, notice, take your part in easing their entry—and recognize how our life is all the stronger for their presence.

Diana and I are just back from the Pacific Northwest, a week or so in Seattle and the San Juan Islands before driving east to Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, to help celebrate the marriage of Lili Peacock-Villada and Kyle Chambers. What beauty we enjoyed out there, and what a wedding that was, held high on a point overlooking Lake Coeur d’Alene. (And yesterday this season of portable celebrations took some of us to Stockbridge, where Betsy Ware and Andrew Fippinger exchanged vows at Chesterwood, under a tent, in the showers of Hanna—another beautiful moment of liturgy outside our walls, strengthening our people.)

Diana and I visited three churches while we traveled. The first was St. Mark’s Cathedral in Seattle, a plug-ugly square box of cement blocks, unfinished flooring, and window glass the color of lemonade. It’s been that way since being reclaimed from the dustbin of history—built during the Great Depression, the banks foreclosed on it and it became an artillery installation until, after WWII, it was consecrated for worship. I hear that Seattle is the headquarters of grunge art—there is a grunge cathedral, and it works, a simple foil that highlights not itself but the action of the people of God within it, holding them only as long as it takes to renew a readiness for the world. In fact, that Sunday being sunny and dry (not an everyday occurrence in Seattle), the first half of the service was held in the nave, and at the offertory the congregation moved outdoors to raise the Great Thanksgiving at a table in the spacious front yard of their campus. And there people served each other the bread and wine of the Kingdom of God. We were welcomed so warmly—people seemed to have all the time in the world for us.

The second church we stopped in at was Grace Church, on Lopez Island. Dear friends own a cabin there, and invited us to enjoy time on that idyllic island, where eagles soar above you and sea lions bask on the rocks offshore. Grace Church was open and quiet when we stopped by on a Wednesday. It’s a new house of worship, built along modest and traditional lines—but full of color inside, the walls painted a dusty peach, the wainscoting plum, moss-green trim… imagine the color committee they have there! Its windows are clear glass below, but above, in the clerestorey, are stained glass windows with themes of the sea and the islands. Copping a newsletter, I see they’re coffee-hour-challenged also: an article called for volunteers, and explained how they’ve simplified the technology of coffee-serving. Sound familiar?

And the third church we visited was St. Luke’s in Coeur d’Alene. It was a block from our B & B. We attended their 8:00 a.m. service, where we were noticeably among the younger present. There were many signals that this church takes care of its own people. But as visitors, a mystery faced us at the offertory: each usher presented both a brass alms basin and a small basket filled with little green slips of paper. These made me think of the slips inside fortune cookies, and I began laughing at the idea that that’s what they were. We used the alms basin, but passed when it came to the basket. Come to find out, those slips were shopping assignments to replenish their food pantry—a jar of peanut butter, a can of hash, a tin of tuna.

In our Gospel today, Jesus speaks about church. He can’t have meant church as worship space, or church as quiet island of refuge, or church as a formal organization—none of these existed in his years on earth. We may be hearing St. Matthew adding to his report of our Lord’s teaching a word that was coming to have meaning near the end of the first century: church, a wider net than the circle of the twelve disciples, where our Lord’s teaching was likely first heard.

And we’re hearing the clear vision of Jesus, who knew what he came to do: to be the firstborn of many sisters and brothers, to gather a people who would carry in the world a priesthood of belief, a people who, as St. Paul puts it today, will fulfill the mind and will of God by putting on the Lord Jesus Christ and loving all in his name and Spirit.

So the people of God in Christ are coached in how to deal with people who offend and hurt them—people within their own circle of church.

Jesus teaches, first, that what matters most to him is that any two of his people who are having trouble living together work it through together. Our Lord’s words are awfully black and white, the way Matthew reports them, almost as if we aren’t meant to open ourselves to the likelihood that each of us is part of the problem, as well as part of the solution. “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.”

Where would you expect that to get you? Blame may be met with more blame, and denial. We’re right to think that there are other ways to open a conversation with someone we’re feeling estranged from. Like, I’m feeling this way about our relationship right now—how are you feeling about it? Maybe it’s a sign of some evolution that today we teach the value of I-statements in addressing conflict, and the avoidance of you-statements.

But see the point we’re meant to catch: However you do it, open the door. Keep talking. Try.

The coaching goes on: If you aren’t listened to, take one or two others of your circle along with you… and if that doesn’t help, tell it to the church, get the wisdom of your community working for you and for the person on the other side of this growing estrangement.

Here’s my question for you: Who is your church? Who’s got your back? Who are the people you’ll call on when you need ambassadors, facilitators, coaching, support, caring?

As you consider that question, let me recount an experience I had here on Friday.

I met that morning with a little cluster of people who were grieving and exhausted. Our task was to plan the funeral celebration of a remarkable woman who died last week at too young an age, after a year’s struggle with cancer. I was meeting with her spouse, her father, and one of her close friends. We’d finished most of our work, and I was taking them along the indoor route from the library to here, where that service will take place tomorrow.

Along the way, we passed a Bible study group where today’s readings were being explored, and where that day’s life issues were being shared.

Along the way, we passed a meeting of members of Alcoholics Anonymous, a community of intense commitment that is powerfully church to its members.

And along the way, we passed and spoke to members of this congregation’s staff, who bring to my life an indelible experience of church at its best and its clearest.

While I don’t know well the three people I was with, I have no reason to expect that they’re involved in, or familiar with, the life and work of a congregation. I remember thinking, as we passed each station of support, “This is quite a tour of what St. John’s is about.” I was feeling all over again the privileges we share and offer here, various ways people may find their church, the companionship that will make a difference in how they navigate their present passage in life.

Who is your church? Who will you ask to come with you into sensitive dialogue, to hear you in your search, to help you express your faith and your questions, to encourage you in listening and in working-through to what matters most?

Finding church. Making church. Being church. These are simple expressions of our mission. In this new season together, let’s notice people who are looking for church beyond formal worship and the work of maintaining a parish. Let’s act on our own need for more than the eight o’clock or ten o’clock hour of worship on Sunday. Let’s learn how to use our being-together to build our capacity for overcoming estrangement. Let’s expect the Christ to be present where two or three gather in his name. Let’s owe no one anything, except to love one another.