January 27, 2013

No Nonessential People


A sermon for the Annual Meeting of the Parish

Text: 1 Corinthians 12:14: “Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many.”

When I was little and growing up in the middle of Michigan it was a fairly routine occurrence during the winter that a snowstorm would come on a school night. I was an only child, but I wasn’t the only person in our home whose life was shaped by school, because my mother was a first-grade teacher, a calling she answered for thirty-six years.

And so I would get up on those snowy mornings and come out to the kitchen in my flannel pajamas to listen to the radio. My father would have already been up, before dawn, to get out the tractor and clear out our driveway, and the neighbor’s driveways as well. My mother boiled the water for the instant coffee and we tuned the big black battery-powered Motorola radio to the AM news station, WJIM, to listen to the reading of the litany of closed schools.

Those were the days before our many means of instant communication, and so I knew that the superintendent of our school district, who lived about a hundred and fifty yards from my house, was also looking out his window and deciding whether or not to cancel school that day. I would visualize Dr. Docking walking across his kitchen... and picking up his phone... and dialing the radio station... and then, when the list was read again, every fifteen minutes, it would be a little longer, and this time it would include us: “Delta Township schools are closed...Eaton County Vocational Technical School is closed... Eaton Rapids schools are closed... Eagle schools are closed.... East Lansing schools are closed...” Yes!

My mom taught in the next town over, in the Lansing School District. So we would have to keep listening to more of the list, always done in the same alphabetical order: Bath Schools, Clinton Township schools, Delta Township Schools, Durand, Eaton County, Eaton Rapids, East Lansing, Flint, Gennessee County, Grand Rapids, Haslett, Jackson, Jackson County, Jackson Country Day, Kalamazoo Schools, Lansing.

But for the bigger cities, like Lansing or Grand Rapids or Jackson, it wasn’t enough to just hear the name read out. Because sometimes the announcer’s voice would introduce a qualification. And it always took the same form: “Lansing Schools closed... essential personnel only report...”

And with that my mom would go back to the bedroom to get dressed and ready to go to work. Because, as I figured out at an early age, my mom was essential personnel.

I never did figure out why it was essential for my mom to show up in a classroom where no children would be. But I learned in those days that the world was made up of two kinds of people: Essential personnel, and, well, whatever the alternative was. And I wanted to grow up into someone who was essential personnel. Someone so needed that the man on the radio would call for me to come into work even in the middle of the snowstorm.

•  •  •

And so, of course, I came to Saint John’s.

I could tell you a lot of stories about why I came and how much I have learned about the Christian faith being part of this community and how much I like everyone here; but at some really selfish level what I think kept me here was the sense that here I was part of a community of essential personnel, and that made me one, too.

We don’t really know how large the church was in Corinth that Paul wrote these letters to; it may have been about the size of Saint John’s, it may have been larger. It probably wasn’t much larger; it was a bit of an underground gathering, after all.

But the point Paul is making to them is one that he could just as easily make to us. In a truly Christian church, in a church that is living out the Gospel, there are no extra people. There are no nonessential people. Everyone is needed, everyone has a vital role, everyone is essential.

That’s not just lip service. It’s true. This is the kind of church Saint John’s is. If you don’t show up on a Sunday morning, there is a chance that something important may not get done. Some one who is hoping to see you won’t have the conversation they want to have. Some part in the choir might not get sung. Some canned goods that a hungry person really needs might not get donated.

Paul was writing to a church that hadn’t yet figured out altar guilds and acolytes and vestries and parish work days and church school teachers and finance committees and all the rest of what we simply take for granted to be the church. And yet even in that church, everyone was a member of the body. They didn’t just belong; they were essential personnel.

That is how it is here, too. It has always been that way; and never more than today, when we share the work of ministry together in new and challenging ways. We are no longer a church in which it makes sense to put one person’s photograph up on the wall with a range of dates and call them the “minister.” There is no one essential person here. This is a community of equally essential people. And that means you.

Let’s be clear about this: That idea is troubling to some folks. To be essential is to be depended on. It really does mean that, just like my mom, when it snows you still have to figure out a way to go to work. Most people who go to church want a church they can count on. But few of them are prepared to be part of a church that counts on them.

And it makes it a little harder on folks who walk through the door for the first time. How can I fit in in a place where everyone else is essential—and I’m not? Or worse—do I really want to join a community where I will quickly become indispensable?

There is perhaps only one thing worse in our current culture than being completely irrelevant and unnecessary to anyone, and that is being completely necessary and essential to your community. We want the benefits of community—the companionship, the fellowship, the people to remember our name and ask us how we’re doing. Sometimes we’re not so eager, though, for the obligations of community.

But that is what makes us essential. We are not just a community; were a living, breathing, working, purposeful body, the body of Christ. Our ministry is the continuation of Christ’s ministry, and absolutely all of us do something that is necessary for that to work. And when we grow, and we shall grow, that will still be the case. We are a community of essential people, and we give any person who comes to be part of this place the dignity and purpose of being essential along with us. Amen.