Christian Community: First Things First
The first of a summer preaching series on the distinctive marks of Christian communities.
We have been doing this for so long, this gathering together of our two parishes for two of the summer months, that I have lost track of how many times we’ve done it. I only know it has taken on the rhythm of a familiar and welcome routine.
It’s a bit like growing up and spending a couple of weeks each year with another branch of your family in the place that they call home. Growing up in the Midwest, that’s what the word “vacation” actually meant for many of us. I remember that my neighbors growing up, the three girls next door, spent a part of each summer in their grandparents’ house up in Harbor Springs, Michigan. I got to go with them once, and it was the experience of entering into the peculiarities and possibilities of someone else’s home life. I remember there was a wheezy pump organ in that place, and forever after I have associated the sound of pump organs with mosquito bites and summer vacation and warm evenings with the windows open.
We bring ourselves here just as we are from Newtonville, that exotic location so far away from the sophistication of Newton Centre. We pack up the stuff we think we’ll need to bring with us for our time away, but we know that the whole point of being away for a little time during the summer is to leave the usual patterns behind and to benefit from doing things differently for a while, in the company of family.
So we are glad to be here for this summer time away, and we hope you will return the visit and come see us in August.
Because we are gathered in these weeks of the summer as Christian communities sharing the same city and joined together, I thought it might be worth exploring the scriptures set before us by the lectionary to see what they have to teach us about what it means to be Christian community—what makes us distinct, what makes this community different from other kinds of groups and gatherings that we give ourselves to, what we can find in the scriptures—and especially in the teachings of Jesus—to guide our understanding of how we’re supposed to be the living body of Christ in the world.
The people of Saint John’s know that at regular intervals throughout the year I inflict on them a schedule for the services to come in the weeks ahead, complete with the sermons I’ve planned. Part of what it means to be at Saint John’s is to be afflicted with this particular quirk of mine. You are free to speculate on what it reflects about my psychological health that I persist in this habit.
But I have made such a plan for these summer sermons, and I have shared it with you in the leaflet this morning. And as you’ll see, for four out of the next five Sundays I’d like to think together about these themes and about what kind of communities we are called to be, you here and us on the north side of Commonwealth Avenue, as gatherings of disciples at work in the world.
Today we have before us a very familiar account of a healing Jesus does in the midst of his ministry. It is a story-within-a-story; Jesus is called to the house of Jairus, a leader of the Jewish people, because Jairus’s daughter is ill. At the end of the story, he does indeed come to the little girl, a girl of twelve years old.
But before he gets there, he is delayed along his way when a woman, a woman who hasn’t just been ill but because of her illness outcast from the community for exactly those same twelve years, approaches him furtively just to try to touch his clothes, filled with faith that just this will make her well.
Now, every summer seminarian preaching this text today is going to point out to the few people in the pews before them something they have discovered about this story, as though for the first time in our two-thousand-year history.
They will make the point that the rich man who starts the story moving ends up having to wait, while the poor woman—the woman who has spent all that she has trying to get well, the woman whose illness would mean that she was banished from the community—gets healed first.
And they will teach their faithful people the lesson that in the world Jesus comes to proclaim, the order of this world gets turned upside-down; that the needs of the poor get dealt with first, and the rich wait their turn.
And that is true, of course. So that is why we have seminarians in the life of the church. To point out for us things that are shatteringly obvious.
But if we see this story from the perspective not of the kind of kingdom Jesus comes to proclaim, but of the way in which we in these communities are supposed to act in the world—as Jesus people walking along the roads of our own lives—there are a few other points we might take in view. They are how to preach, how to prioritize, and how to persevere.
If we are supposed to be in the world as Jesus was, if we are the living body of Christ at work in the world today, we should take note that the way Jesus preaches in these stories demonstrates a strong preference for actions over words.
Jesus does not greet the news that Jairus’s daughter is gravely ill by speaking to the crowds gathered around him about the terrible level of infant mortality under Pontius Pilate’s administration. He does not respond to the outcast woman who comes to him seeking healing by posting a long diatribe on Facebook about the unjust notions of clean and unclean people for all his friends to like and share.
When Jesus hears that there are people suffering, when his help is sought, he moves immediately in the direction of the need. He does not seek to persuade by arguing, but by doing. His actions offer all the testimony necessary against the tragedy of ill children and the cruelty of outcasting.
This is often not our first instinct. We love the prophetic ministry. We love proclaiming justice and denouncing injustice. It suits us. After all, we are Episcopalians. It’s in our DNA to think that we speak truth to power, because for so much of our history we were so close to power.
But that has changed. And now perhaps the focus of our communities needs to be less on the prophetic and more on the practical dimensions of ministry. The grunt work of ministry. The doing part, not so much the declaring part. There is plenty enough declaring going on. There is far too little Christian action.
Now, of course, there are great injustices present behind the specifics of the stories we hear today about Jesus’s world. There are great injustices in the world around us today. We can be forgiven for being bewildered and exhausted about the furious pace with which bad news is thrown at us these days. It almost feels as though the small problems around us reflect larger problems ,and those reflect even larger problems, and those reflect something like existential challenges to some of the fundamental belief systems and virtues that make us a society.
We can be paralyzed by all of this. But that is not the model aaaaChrisitian communities have in Jesus. The lesson of the stories we have this morning is the discipline of focusing on the problem right in front of you—the issue that is presenting itself first on the list. Even when we are focused on what seems like an immediate problem, something else, something even more pressing, can come up and demand our attention. The lesson before us today is: First things first. Don’t begin with the biggest problem you can see. Deal with the problem right in front of you, and then move on.
There are a lot of problems we could talk about. We could talk about what feels like a moral crisis in our national life, or the decline of interest in religious institutions and traditions, or the challenges we face having too much space and too few people in our parishes.
But those are not the problems right in front of us. Instead we have real problems right here: feeding hungry people here in Newton, or making sure kids at risk don’t slip too far behind during the summer. If we deal with those things, the larger problems will at least tend to get smaller.
Here’s the last point. Right after these stories unfold, right after Jesus manages to heal both the poor woman and the rich man’s daughter, right after Jesus manages to deliver miracles on demand, .he will go home to find that absolutely no one is impressed.
He doesn’t gain more disciples. He doesn’t get a New Yorker profile or an interview on CNN. He doesn’t get invited to do a TED talk or gain a bunch of Twitter followers.
In fact the text next week will remind us that back in Nazareth, Jesus seemed to be, just, you know, Jesus.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. For now, it’s enough to put a reminder in front of us that being the communities we are called to be doesn’t necessarily mean being heralded, or welcomed, or thanked, or even joined, when we’ve done the things we’re supposed to do. What we do, how we act in the world, we do not for the attention it might bring us—a radical idea in this media-driven world—but because it is what Jesus does.
Preaching with our actions, putting first things first, persevering no matter what—these are the qualities that should characterize our communities. Those are the things that the people among whom God has planted us need us to do. And the good news is, we do these things well among ourselves, in the work our parishes do. So this summer let’s encourage each other in the doing of it. Amen.