The Purpose of This Place
Preacher: Mark Edington
Text: James 3:5b–6: “How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire.”
Welcome to Saint John’s! Maybe it seems a little odd to you to begin a sermon that way, especially near the beginning of the ninth month of the year, and more than halfway through our season of plain ol’ ordinary time.
But for most of us this really is the beginning of months. Somehow the year begins in September and ends in August. Somehow summer is the last season of the year, and fall is the beginning, when the energy of nature is slowing after the exertions of summer growth. It is the start of a new academic year, that complicated week of new routines, weary students, and rejoicing parents.
Here in the church there is absolutely nothing special about today at all. We have arrived at the sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, which this year is the twenty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time. We have been here every Sunday since Easter.
But even so, we make something out of the day because we know the rest of the world is starting up again. The landscapers were here yesterday cleaning up the grounds. A few folks were here yesterday just tidying up and picking up things that had sort of collected during the summer. We’ve tried to pick up the clutter and make the place ready for a party. Because, of course, we’ve been hoping we’d see you. And here you are. So, welcome to Saint John’s.
Exactly because it’s a moment of things starting up again—exactly because pretty much all of us are back from our summer sojourns or perhaps acting this morning on a resolve to try out a new Sunday morning activity by coming out to sit in the pews—it seems like an opportune time to offer a few words about just what the purpose of this place is. Just what it is we’re here for.
One answer, a very good answer, is provided for us this morning in the words of the Epistle of James. If we take these words to heart, then a lot of what we are about here in this place is learning to talk. Or, perhaps it is better to say, we are here to learn to speak.
We are here to learn the difference between good speech and bad speech, between words and statements and proclamations that help communicate God’s message and words that don’t. And we are here to get better at doing the first, and speaking up against the second.
We are here to learn how to speak, whether we speak through our words, our gestures, or our actions, about how it is God has revealed through the life of Jesus we are meant to live in relationship to each other, and with God.
And we believe we have been taught that the foundation on which that all stands is that justice is found through mercy, that reconciliation is stronger than revenge, that we all stand equal before God, and that because of this the most difficult and most essential Christian virtue is genuine humility.
We are here to find the courage to speak for the possibility of the sacred in every person, and the boldness to speak absolutely against the claims of religious extremism and the justification of violence in the name of God. We do this knowing that the church itself has been guilty of this failure in its own history. But we also know that just because a institution made of human frailties fails to live up to its ideals does not mean those ideals are a lie.
And we are here to learn how to speak of these things with the generations that follow us, to give them some kind of foothold, something to hold onto, as they try to explore the gift of their own spirituality in a culture that increasingly denies the possibility of it.
We are here to speak together, to speak the words of our prayers and the words of our faith, to give voice to the praise of God and to be brave enough to speak in each other’s hearing our willingness to acknowledge and confess our mistakes. We are here to speak words of reconciliation and peace, sometimes to each other, and sometimes in order to be ready practice forgiveness when the world would rather we argue, or fight, or sue.
That is the purpose of the place. It is to remind us that every word we speak can light a fire that can shed God’s light and warmth in the world; or it can poison the hopes and hearts of people around us. The purpose of the place is to remind us that as disciples we have the power get it right or to get it wrong—and that we need the help of each other to get it right.
Later on in the service, we will celebrate as we always do the thanksgiving feast of the Eucharist. Just before we gather around the table to share this together, the old words of the prayer book teach us that as people who call themselves Christians, speaking the words of the Lord’s Prayer is an act of boldness for us. As your pastor it does not matter to me whether you believe every word of the creed, or feel your prayers are well crafted. It does not matter to me whether you show up every Sunday—although it sure helps all of us when you do. It does not even matter to me if you find my invitation at the time of the offering compelling or movingly persuasive.
But it matters a lot to me that you find your own voice from what we say here, and by what we do here. It matters a lot that all of us, not just me, are here to speak God’s acts in the world, God’s love for all people, God’s hope for creation. That is what disciples do.
The purpose of the place is to help us speak like the disciples we are. We have each other to learn from, to practice with, and to listen to. So here we go again—another year of finding and using our voice. I can’t wait to hear what I’ll hear from all of you. Amen.