The Sunday Sermon: Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost – August 26, 2018
Scripture: 1 Thessalonians 5:13b – 22
Community Not Commodity
Somewhere between the years 33 CE and 55 CE something fascinating happened. Understanding that these dates are not absolutely certain, but rather best scholarly guesses, and the most popularly used dates, who can tell me what happened between 33 CE and 55 CE? … Anyone? … It does have to do with religion, I’ll give you that hint … Well, let’s break it down a bit.
What happened in 33 CE? Right … according to tradition, Jesus was crucified and the first Resurrection experiences happened in the year 33 CE. Again, this isn’t totally historically or critically accurate, but if year “0” was the year Jesus was born and he lived until he was thirty three years old when he died, then the year 33 CE was the year he was crucified and resurrected. Easy enough …
What happened in 55 CE? Anyone? … I give you a hint on that one: Take a look at the scripture reading listed in your bulletin. 55 CE … ? Is the year most commonly used to date the writing of Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians. It is not the original text, of course, we have no original scriptural texts. They are all copies of copies, at least – of copies of copies, most likely. But the first letter of Thessalonians is widely thought to be the oldest writing in the New Testament and it reveals for us the first Christion community of which we have record. Massive scholarly consensus. So …
Somewhere between the years 33 CE (when Jesus was crucified) and 55 CE (when 1 Thessalonians was written) something fascinating happened. And that something was that a new community came together. One that was first called the followers of “The Way,” later the “ecclesia,” the gathering, and finally the Church, the Body of Christ on earth.
This new community was a profoundly counter-cultural one. It was not the first to “counter” culture, to be sure, but it did it a new way, a way not done for thousands of years, at least, since the radically monotheistic faith of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob wandered into ancient Palestine out of Mesopotamia and Egypt. This community was first formed by those who watched Jesus die and then experienced his presence after his death. This community continued through those with whom that experience was shared, who then had the Resurrection experience themselves, like the group in Thessalonica. This sharing and those experiences have continued for two thousand years and counting, all the way up to us. We have all experienced the Resurrection power of God at one time or another in our lives. Otherwise we wouldn’t have come back to this community, back to church, right?
This community, our community has some pretty peculiar characteristics, or features, and some pretty odd requirements. Some of these characteristics and requirements were recorded from the outset, through the oldest words of our scripture. Listen for the Word of God …
Read 1 Thessalonians 5:13b-22 … The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
This morning’s sermon is a familiar one. It wasn’t long ago that I shared similar thoughts on our community. But I found myself drawn to it again as this summer comes to a close, as this month ends. From Wayne’s Holy Gossip, through the Calm and Quiet of our Souls and into the Breadth, Length, Height, and Depth of Love we’ve explored this month how our faith in the church ought to intersect our lives in the world. We’ve explored more deeply what we mean when we profess that the “kingdom of God is here,” among us and dare we believe within us.
I don’t kid myself into thinking that everyone who has been here on the Sundays of the past month would say that’s we’ve doing. I know full well that many who are here don’t remember what Wayne preached on the first Sunday of the month, or even what I spoke about last week. But something brought you back. You’re here again. We’re here, gathered again. And if it’s not primarily because of the words I, or any other preacher speak, then why is it? Why are we back here?
You know the answer to that as well as I. It’s the community. It’s one another and others like us doing the same thing we’re doing, gathering together. Our faith brings us together to be a part of a community that is like no other in the world. We dare not romanticize the church, too much. It has let us down in the past. But it is different than any other group we gather together with. So, let’s consider ourselves this morning, the Body of Christ, the “community” of Pewee Valley Presbyterian Church.
One of the biggest ways I hear us described – by many of you and by those who may not be members but who are familiar with us, by me, even – is to note somewhere in the conversation that we’re a “small church.” A small congregation in South Oldham county … That little stone church across from St. Al’s parking lot … etcetera. Now, I know we often say these things to describe the church building we’re in, but we’re also comparing ourselves, or being compared by others, to larger congregations – mega churches like Southeast Christian or just bigger ones like St. Al’s or Christ Church Methodist or Northeast.
We’re comparing ourselves, and consciously or unconsciously we often find ourselves assigning a kind of “secondary status” to smaller communities of worship, like our own. Somehow we’re just not as important or we aren’t doing something as “right” as those other, larger churches.
But, I suggest to you that being a “smaller church” is a more difficult undertaking than being a large one. Trying to maintain a “community” is a much more demanding enterprise than offering a “commodity.” You see, at some point communities of faith, Christian churches, for example, become much more concerned with selling a product and providing a service than creating a community. And that service, this commodity is a very appealing thing in our world today. We can feel “faithful” by “going to church” on Sunday morning and “giving to the church” through a pledge each year, but not really getting much more involved than that.
But the “society” that Jesus calls us into was never intended to be a “commodity,” something to be consumed once a week and set aside until the next time it gathers. What Jesus called, and calls, his disciples into is a “community” that never stops encouraging and admonishing, rejoicing and praying, giving thanks and being patient with one another. What we offer here at Pewee Valley Presbyterian church – and what “small churches” offer everywhere is not a product or a service, not a commodity, but a community.
You can’t leave a community behind when you leave on Sunday morning, when you pull out of the parking lot onto Central Avenue. And you can’t always pay someone to “fix” a community when its air-conditioning breaks down, or its lights burn out, or its members experience sorrow and death, or it expects some lemonade after worship, or a Parish House needs a deep-clean. Because, being a part of a “community” and not just a consumer of a “commodity” means sticking around and helping each other out whenever needed and whenever we are able. We can never allow our community to get used to you not being around. Not so with a commodity.
Now, I do not mean to disparage mega-churches, or even large ones with deeper coffers. They have and are doing good things. I know that there are, probably literally, hundreds of small gatherings or interest groups that are a part of larger church ministries. I know some of you, and many of your children, have experienced positive ministry and outreach from them. But their identity, their way of being, the group itself does not rely on your presence in the way the community we offer here does. Or the community offered in other smaller congregations around the world does.
Now that’s scary to many men and women. And to some of you, perhaps. I think that’s a very big reason that “mega churches” are getting more “mega” and smaller churches are dying off. There’s a lot of comfort and relief in not being relied upon, in not being counted on to show up, in not being missed when you’re not involved. We lead incredibly busy lives, and to “not be missed so much” on any given Sunday when Saturday night went a bit long or when Sunday soccer comes a-calling relieves a sense of guilt we still feel. There’s relief in anonymity. That’s why many are willing to pay for that privilege, that product, that service, that ability to be “in church” without being “the church.”
But that’s not who we are, and I hope and pray that is never who we become because that is not what Jesus, through the gospels, or Paul in his letters calls “the church” to be. We are called to be a community for each other and for the world.
If we grow, as we grow, we may need to change – new worship spaces, increased staff, more Elders, deeper ministries, wider outreach – and we will change. But the church must always be a community that needs not only for each and every one of you to be “in” church, but for each and everyone of you to also “be church” for the future of this congregation, and the Body of Christ around the world.
At our annual retreats and in our ongoing conversations, the most common and most positive characteristic of this church lifted up is the “community” aspect of Pewee Valley Presbyterian, our strongest feature. And it is also our biggest challenge, one of the greatest “costs” of our discipleship. It requires us, all of us – those present this morning and every single person who is not present this morning to – to “show up,” to …
be at peace with one another (no small task), to admonish idlers and encourage the fainthearted, to help the weak and be patient with all. To rejoice always, to pray without ceasing, and to give thanks in all circumstances. To hold fast to what is good and abstain from every form of evil.
And so we endeavor to do. In a few weeks we begin another “ministry year.” Discern for yourself how you will be a deeper, richer part of the community here in both your giving and in your receiving.
And “may the God of peace sanctify us entirely; and may our spirits and souls and bodies be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ,” the one who calls us into being this community.
Reverend Joel Weible, Pastor / Pewee Valley Presbyterian Church / August 26, 2018