The Sunday Sermon – June 14, 2015
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 reveals for us the first Christion community we have record of. Massive scholarly consensus. So … let me ask again …
Somewhere between the years 33 CE (when Jesus was crucified) and 55 CE (when 1 Thessalonians was written) 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?
Yes! A new group took shape. One we now call “the church,” but that was first called “The Way,” and later the “ecclesia,” the gathering, the Body of Christ on earth, and more.
This new society 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 society was first formed by those who watched Jesus die and then experienced his presence even after his death. This society 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!
This society had some pretty peculiar characteristics, or features. Listen for the Word of God …
The Word of the Lord …
This summer, at least for the next month or so, we’re engaging our discipleship. this summer. Two weeks ago, we set out once again to discern how our faith in the church ought to intersect our lives in the world. How we should use the convictions of our faith and the experiences of our God to comfort those who are hurting. To explore more deeply what we mean when we profess that the “kingdom of God is here?” To better understand how we should share the Good News, as “comfort and challenge” for our own lives and the lives of others. To dig deeper into the use our own faith to “perform healings, exorcisms, and even resurrections” in the world, and to understand more honestly God’s will and our Christian response to social “ills” such as poverty, injustice, intolerance, and more. We set out – once again – to discern, how our Christianity ought to intersect our lives in the world. We’re taking a closer look at the “cost of discipleship” this summer.
Jenna “thickened” the task last week as she explored what it may mean for us to heed Jesus’ admonition to hate their family. In first century Judaism, family – mother, father, wife, husband, children, brothers and sisters – blood family required one’s final loyalty. The gospel writers shared the understanding that to be a disciple of Jesus,to be a member of this new community gathering in Christ’s name, required – and still requires – a deeper loyalty. A loyalty to God, Yahweh, Abba, that placed just as much concern, if not more, on the immigrant, the widow, the orphan – those beyond one’s blood family, indeed those without any other family. Discipleship to the one called Christ created a whole new loyalty and whole new understanding of who “family” was.
So this is our first stop this summer. Our first real “investigation” into how our faith ought to intersect our world. Our faith brings us together to be a part of a community that is like no other in the world. And I want to engage this first discussion very particularly. That is, I want us to consider ourselves this morning, 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 share in this way, describing 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 St. Al’s or Christ Church or Northeast. We’re comparing ourselves, and consciously or unconsciously we too often find assign a kind of “secondary status” to ourselves. Somehow we’re just not as important or we aren’t doing something as “right” as those other, larger churches.
But here’s the thing for this morning: 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 in 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 slip past those stone pillars on 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 its old carpet needs to be torn up. Even as I shout this out, we are, of course, preparing to “pay for services” – painting, flooring, carpeting. But we’re doing that through a very intentional, once in twenty years, three-year long campaign (!), and we’re kicking off later this morning with some intense “sweat equity,” and monetarily cheap labor! 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 pockets. I know that there are, probably literally, hundreds of small gatherings or interest groups that a part of larger church ministries, but I don’t think of them eve n as “communities.” Which isn’t to say that they don’t have relationships, or don’t pray with and for one another, or don’t help each other when they are in need. I know they do, some of you, and many of your children, have experienced that 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 or 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 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, our Session consistently lifts up the “community” aspect of Pewee Valley Presbyterian as 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 … and the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ is with us.
Reverend Joel Weible, Pastor