Love and other unnecessary things

Sermon on Matthew 18:15-20 offered to the people of the Church of the Heavenly Rest in Abilene, Texas on the occasion of the dedication of their new fellowship space, Gerhart Hall.

There is a revealing photograph of Heavenly Rest that comes from just after the church building was completed. Since it was taken before the pews had been installed, this picture shows the nave filled with neat rows of metal folding chairs. It is my favorite picture of this church; it actually hangs on the wall of our house in Pennsylvania. There are several reasons I like it. For one, it makes me laugh: the contrast between the gothic beauty of Heavenly Rest’s nave and the stark utility of the folding chairs makes for an amusing visual. There is a deeper reason this photograph resonates with me, and that is the fact that it makes the church feel so empty. Part of what makes this church so wonderful is the people who inhabit it. Those rows of empty folding chairs are reminders that, as important as buildings can be, a church is only a church when its people are gathered there.

Our gospel reading this morning understands that the church can only be the church when God’s people are present. It also understands that when people get together, there is going to be conflict. As such, the gospel offers some practical instructions about managing conflict in the Christian community. Before we assume that we know how nasty conflict in the church can be, remember that Matthew was writing to a group of people who, until very recently, wouldn’t even be in the same room together. His was a diverse community of Jews and Gentiles, those who had grown up following the Law of Moses and those who had never heard of Moses, those who kept kosher and those who ate what they wanted. With such a diversity of backgrounds, conflict was, to some extent, inevitable. As a leader of the church community, Matthew seems to assume that those who disrupt the social order ought to be removed from the community. The evangelist recalls Jesus’ instructions for dealing with conflict in the church and as we heard this morning, he spells out the procedure pretty explicitly: if another member of the church sins against you, take him aside and talk to him about it. If that doesn’t work, bring two or three other people to see if they can get through to him. If he still refuses to repent, bring him before the whole community, and if the person fails to respond even to the whole church, “let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” In other words, Jesus seems to say that those who persistently and unrepentantly sin against other members of the community ought to be removed from the body of the faithful. This cannot be a rash decision. It’s not like someone can just get rid of someone they don’t get along with. The whole process assumes that the actions of the one being excommunicated have become destructive of the very fabric of the community. Not only that, the offender is given three distinct opportunities to make things right. Matthew describes a rigorous due process, one designed to be as fair and equitable as possible. In Matthew’s community, excommunication is a last resort. Nevertheless, it is sometimes necessary to make the hard decision: to exclude those who disrupt the social order in order to maintain unity within the church.

While this verdict seems harsh, there’s a level at which I think we can understand the need for a process like this. We have all been in situations where we have seen a single person cause problems for an entire community. There’s the person at work who refuses to pull his weight, the friend who selfishly takes advantage of her relationships, the family member whose self-destructive behavior has yielded only frustration and shame for those closest to him. These people will often continue in these behaviors no matter how much we cajole or threaten or beg. Matthew was dealing with his own version of these issues. In these seemingly intractable situations, Jesus himself appears to indicate that we ought to remove these people from the community so that those of us who remain can move on with our lives and live in harmony. But notice how Jesus frames the sentence of excommunication: if you aren’t able to get this guy to repent, “let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” This feels like a fairly definitive condemnation. After all, labeling someone a Gentile or tax collector means that person is naturally excluded from the fellowship of those who worship the God of Israel. But remember that Matthew’s community includes Gentiles. Remember that Jesus himself calls a tax collector named Matthew to be his disciple. Remember that at the end of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus exhorts the disciples to go into the world and make disciples of all nations, literally “all of the Gentiles.” Gentiles and tax collectors, in other words, are those whom we are called to embrace, those with whom we are called to reconcile, those to whom we are called to proclaim the abundant and redemptive love of God made known to us in Jesus Christ. For Matthew’s community and indeed for the whole Church, the door is never closed; there are always seats available for even the most notorious sinners, even those who persistently reject the community, even the Gentiles and tax collectors. Matthew reminds us that the church exists for those outside its walls.

When Willis Gerhart stepped off the train in Abilene in 1920, he had an unusual dream. He believed that what this West Texas town really needed was a gothic cathedral. For someone as eminently practical as Parson Gerhart, this was unexpected. This, after all, was the same man who couldn’t pass a beggar without giving him money, who gave away his coat more times than anyone could count, and who wrote his sermons in the cold during the Depression because he gave the stove in his office to a family with 12 children. Surely, he could have imagined raising money to combat poverty or alleviate homelessness, instead of building a church, of all things. Parson Gerhart understood something that most of us fail to recognize throughout our lives. Most of us evaluate the world in terms of what is necessary or useful: will this event be worth my time? will this class prepare me for a career? Parson Gerhart, however, understood the things that truly matter in this world are not strictly necessary.

If you think about it, it is not necessary to reach out the Gentiles and tax collectors in our lives. In fact, it would be easy and expedient to exclude those who have repeatedly failed to meet our expectations. As Christians, we are called to be guided not by necessity, but by love. In fact, classical Christian theology suggests that it was not necessary for God to create the universe, that creation is not intrinsically useful to God. The scholastic theologians argued instead that God created the universe out of love. There is something astonishing about this claim. Love has no intrinsic utility. It is not goal oriented. It cannot be quantified. It serves no useful purpose. But for this reason, because it is not strictly necessary, love is more powerful than any of those forces the world considers indispensable. Love is the only thing the world truly needs.

This is something the people of the Church of the Heavenly Rest have understood since the beginning. This beautiful church building, the bell tower, the parish house, Gerhart Hall; none of these are strictly necessary. There is nothing that would have prevented this parish from worshiping in the Quonset Hut for the last 70 years. But this parish recognizes the architectural marvels of which you are the stewards are not merely buildings: they are expressions of God’s love for the whole world. These structures point us away from our selfish preoccupations and toward the eternal. As one parishioner is fond of observing, you can’t help but look up when you enter this space. Moreover, these buildings remind us that this church was not built for the sake of those who built it, but for those outside its walls. They encourage us to consider those who are missing from our fellowship, those who ache to know the grace and love of God, and those who have rejected it. These buildings help us recognize that the world is bigger than anyone of us, and that the only way we can truly celebrate what we have been given is when all of us are at the table.

This is a momentous weekend at the Church of the Heavenly Rest. It is the culmination of many years of vision, dedication, and hard work. The sheer number of you who were directly involved in building Gerhart Hall is a testament to the amazing quality of the people at this parish. Many of you are justifiably proud of what you have accomplished. You are the next in a long line of faithful people who have served and built this parish. But even as we celebrate, we must not forget our call to reach out beyond these walls, to recognize that these buildings were built not for the sake of those who built them, but for the people of this community. Gerhart Hall is more than a building; it is an icon of who you are and who you hope to be. It is a sign of God’s reconciling love, a love that, in the end, is the only thing the world really needs.

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Good is not the same as Gentle

Sermon on John 10:11-18 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.

Last week I had the enviable opportunity to spend time with our fourth and fifth grade Sunday school class. As is often the case whenever I talk to the youth of this parish, I was struck by their intelligence, sensitivity, and passion for the faith. Moreover, I was deeply impressed with the constructive criticism the students offered, including some carefully considered suggestions about how to improve the sermons here at The Redeemer. In fact, they had a three point plan that they suggested I bring to the next clergy meeting: 1) make sermons shorter, 2) add more humor to the presentation, and 3) be more emotional. On one level, these are the same shopworn suggestions that kids have been making to preachers since time immemorial. Conversations like these are an important part of what it means to be pastor. On a deeper level, however, these suggestions belie one of the fundamental assumptions about our culture: that everything ought to be catered to our individual desires and expectations. This consumerist assumption tends to inform everything that we do: our buying habits, our political participation, even our experience of the divine.

imagesThis morning, we are presented with one of the most well-worn symbols of our faith: Jesus as the Good Shepherd. A favorite of stained glass artists and children’s book illustrators, this image from John’s gospel is ubiquitous in our culture. As a matter of fact, when it is conflated with Luke’s parable of the lost sheep, as it often is, the tenth chapter of John gives us one of the most recognizable pictures of Jesus there is: a meek and mild savior carrying a lamb across his shoulders. For many of us, calling Jesus the Good Shepherd is a way of making him the calming presence in our lives. Even when we feel overwhelmed with the stresses and challenges of the world, we can return to the Good Shepherd, who will lovingly embrace us in his strong and gentle arms. The problem with this popular picture of Jesus the Good Shepherd is that it does not accurately depict the passage we read this morning or the vocation of a shepherd. Indeed, very little about the role of shepherds, good or otherwise, can be considered gentle at all.

In some ways, it’s no surprise that we mishear the shepherd imagery in Scripture. After all, the twenty-third psalm, the ultimate biblical job description for a shepherd, has been a source of great comfort to people of faith for thousands of years. But I think it is helpful to examine the nature of that comfort. The psalmist acknowledges that there will be times when he walks through the valley of the shadow of death, when he will suffer all that flesh is heir too. Yet even in the midst of that, he trusts in the abiding presence of his shepherding Lord. Moreover, the psalmist affirms that he is comforted by God’s rod and staff. In the ancient world, a shepherd carried both small, clublike stick (a rod) for warding off predators and a long, slender staff for directing the sheep away from danger. Occasionally, the staff would be used to yank a sheep from the edge of a cliff or shove her out of the way of an oncoming gullywasher. In other words, the shepherd’s rod and staff were not the gentlest of tools. Nevertheless, they were both designed to protect the sheep, to give them what they needed even when the animals weren’t sure what that was. I suspect that this is the source of the psalmist’s comfort: the recognition that God knows what we need even when we aren’t sure what that might be.

Francisco de Zurbarán_Agnello di Dio_c_ 1635-40_Olio su tela_cm 35,6 x 52,1_The San Diego Museum of Art
Agnus Dei (1640) by Francisco de Zubaran

This is why Jesus identifies himself as the Good Shepherd. Christ’s identity as the Good Shepherd is not an articulation of his gentleness; it is an affirmation that his mission is to give the world something that can only be given by God, something that defies the world’s expectations. Immediately after Jesus says, “I am the Good Shepherd,” he tells us that “the Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” This statement is anything but gentle, but it is consistent with our understanding of who Jesus Christ is: the one who lays down his life in order to pick it up again, the one who gives himself to those who would betray and abandon him. The infidelity of the disciples partially stems from the fact that Jesus frustrated their expectations. The disciples and those who opposed Jesus expected him to overthrow the Roman occupiers, reestablish Israel’s glory days, and put himself at the head of a religious kingdom. As the Good Shepherd, however, Jesus eschews worldly power and becomes instead the Passover lamb, the one who is sacrificed on behalf of his people. As the Good Shepherd, Jesus gives the world not what it expects or desires, but rather what it needs.

Over the past several decades, the Church has found herself in a challenging position. The cultural primacy of the church has eroded as fewer and fewer people feel obligated to attend with any regularity. Some have suggested that reason for this decline that the Church has become irrelevant, that we are no longer in tune with the zeitgeist. Those who have made this diagnosis have a very simple prescription: we should make church participation and the Christian life as easily digestible as possible. We should cater to the tastes and interests of prospective members and “give the people what they want.” Invariably, people will frame this as the “pastoral” approach, with the understanding that “pastoral” means fading as much into the background as possible. But our text this morning reveals that the pastoral vocation, the vocation of a shepherd, is about something very different. If the gospel teaches us anything it is that God our shepherd does not necessarily give us what we want; God gives us what we need. What would it look like if the Church once again recognized that it had something the world needed, even if it didn’t know it yet? What would happen if we recognized that the true pastoral responsibility of every Christian is to recognize and proclaim that the gospel of Jesus Christ has the power to transform lives? The image of Jesus the Good Shepherd invites us to embrace these possibilities as it calls us to follow the one who defies our expectations in order to give us what we need.

Sainthood

Today is the day the Church commemorates the feast of St. Michael and All Angels.

imagesOn one level, it makes perfect sense to take time during the liturgical year to celebrate St. Michael.  Like many saints, Michael demonstrates considerable devotion to God’s will during the course of his prominent, albeit fleeting, appearance in Holy Scripture.  On another level, however, the inclusion of Michael in the calendar of the saints is downright bizarre.  After all, St. Michael is an angel, a heavenly being appointed by God to carry a message or accomplish a specific task.  “Saint” is a designation that seems as though it should be reserved for human beings who are particularly attuned to God’s will for creation.  Sainthood implies a certain moral fortitude and a capacity for doing good and obeying God’s will even in the face of overwhelming difficulty.  Angels don’t have a choice about doing God’s will; they are created to do so.  Moreover, saints are generally held up as moral exemplars, people who share our struggles but show us that it is possible to persevere even we experience the limits of our human finitude.  It is all but impossible for us to pattern our lives after angelic beings specifically created to be messengers of God.

This confusion about Michael’s presence on the calendar of our saints raises a broader question about our understanding of sainthood.  While I gave a definition of “saint” in the previous paragraph, the reality is that the Church has never been settled on what a saint really is.  The word comes from the Greek hagios, which literally means “holy,” i.e. set apart for God’s purposes.  In the early days of Christianity, therefore, the term was applied to everyone who had been baptized into the body of Christ, since the Church was set apart from the world.  The Church was, quite literally, the community of the saints.  As the Church grew, however, “saint” was applied more specifically to individuals whom the community considered particularly holy and worthy of emulation, like those who had been martyred.  Gradually, the Church began to regard these individuals as fundamentally different from everyone else.  If you think about it, this notion that a saint is a different kind of person persists today.  Most frequently, “saint” is applied to someone who is preternaturally well-behaved or long-suffering: “her husband is so hard to deal with; she’s a saint!”  Given this popular assumption that saints are different from you and me, the inclusion of Michael makes perfect sense; what could be more different from a mere mortal than an ageless and deathless divine messenger?

I wonder, however, whether we are missing the point when it comes to sainthood.  All of the definitions that we’ve explored assume that saints are special because of something that they have done, whether that is dying for their faith or tolerating a boorish husband.  But what if sainthood is less concerned with what we do and more concerned with what God does?  What if the holiness of saints has less to do with their good behavior and more to do with their ability to be in touch with the boundless grace of God?  If you think about it, there is no way you could apply the conventional definition of “saint” to some of the Church’s most celebrated holy people.  St. Paul, for instance, was a judgmental, misanthropic persecutor of the Church and St. Peter denied that he ever knew Jesus.  What these two pillars of the Church had in common was that they each had an experience in which they came to know the radical and transformative power of God’s grace.  The saints are saints not because they are fundamentally different from normal human beings, but because they reflect and radiate the grace of God that is available to each and every one of us.  Ultimately, Michael the Archangel is a saint because his example helps us to remember that God’s grace is more boundless than we can possibly imagine.

Remembering we have been Redeemed

Sermon on Romans 7:15-25a offered to the people of the Church of the Heavenly Rest on July 6, 2014.

At Quarterman Ranch in Amarillo, our former diocesan camp and conference center, there is a sidewalk covered in names that leads to nowhere.  During Quarterman’s final years, each camp session ended with the addition of another slab to the woebegone sidewalk.  Campers, counselors, staff, and clergy would sign their names in the wet concrete, leaving a permanent reminder that they had been present in that place.  imgresSome campers acted as though they were outside Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood; they would leave their handprints and sign their names with the flourish of budding movie stars.  Others would immortalize the romance that they had kindled that week by writing that so and so and what’s his name would be together forever.  Still others would correct the professions of eternal love and devotion that they had made in previous years and indicate that what’s his name was, in fact, a jerk.  I always loved this moment in the week.  In spite of the self-indulgence of some of the contributions to the sidewalk, the act of gathering together and writing our names was an opportunity to recognize that we had been in that place together.  As we mixed concrete in the hot panhandle sun, we were reminded for a moment that we were more than individuals floating through life alone, that for the past week or so, we had been a community.  Each of those slabs of concrete was a sacramental reminder that we were called to be in each other’s lives, that we were called to love one another.

Today, we heard one of the stranger passages from Paul’s letter to the Romans.  Out of context, this passage looks more like an entry from the diary of a teenager with low self-esteem rather than an excerpt from the letter of a self-possessed apostle who writes letters of advice to people he’s never met.  Normally, Paul’s letters are dripping with self-confidence, so much so that one New Testament scholar says that Paul’s most obvious attribute is his “robust conscience.”  This is, after all, the same guy who, in the letter to the Philippians, tells his audience that he was “blameless” in regards to righteousness under the law.  In other words, this vacillating, uncertain passage from Romans is out of character for its author.  It is unusual to see  Paul saying things like “I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” or “I know that nothing good dwells within me” or “I can will what is right, but I cannot do it.”  What is the reason for this change?  Why is it that Paul focuses so thoroughly on his struggles with being a sinful person?  On one hand, it could be that Paul is saying that all of us, including him, can fall victim to the power of sin, that we must remain vigilant at all times and not allow sin to exercise dominion in our bodies.  On the other hand, there could be something very different happening in this passage.  Before we delve directly into that possibility, it would probably be helpful for us to remind ourselves what Paul has been doing so far in this letter to the Romans.

Romans begins with Paul addressing a diverse community of Jews and Gentiles he has never met.  Immediately after he dispenses with the traditional pleasantries at the beginning of the letter, Paul apparently lays into the Gentiles, saying that the wrath of God is being revealed against those who disobey the Law of Moses.  Rhetorically, this is meant to encourage the Law-abiding, Jewish members of the congregation to think, “You tell ’em Paul!  Tell those Gentiles just how sinful they are.”  But, just when it seems like Paul is going to say the Gentiles in the Roman church are destined for perdition, Paul turns it around, saying at the beginning of chapter two: “Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are…because you… are doing the very same things.”  Paul explains what he means by this when he comes to the crux of his argument, asserting that, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”  Paul is saying to this congregation: no matter who you are, Jew or Gentile, all of you have fallen short of God’s commandments.

The good news, however, is that even though we have all sinned and fallen short of God’s glory, Jesus Christ died for us while we were yet sinners.  Through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we have been justified, or made righteous, apart from the law, in spite of the fact that we have failed to honor God and God’s commandments.  Through the redeeming action of God through Jesus Christ, we have been empowered to live a new life of righteousness and peace.

This is Paul’s main purpose in the first chapters of Romans: to tell the congregation that regardless of who they are, they have been redeemed by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  But Paul has another purpose in these first chapters.  He wants to explain that while the law is valuable, it is no longer necessary to follow the strictures of the law.  One of Paul’s biggest rhetorical challenges in all of his letters is to make this case, the argument that the law, which he believes was ordained by God, is good, but no longer necessary.  In the first part of chapter seven, he does this by saying that sin used the law to bring death into the world.  But in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God destroyed the power of sin.  In other words, the law no longer applies, not because God nullified the law, but because God defeated the power of sin.

All of this brings us to the passage we read today.  While it might appear that Paul’s purpose in this passage is to illustrate how difficult it is to be good, there is something much more important happening, something that is informed by where we’ve already been in Romans.  Paul has been saying that the power of sin has been destroyed and that the law has been rendered unnecessary, only to launch into this prolonged, self-loathing, legalistic complaint about how hard it is not to be sinful.  If this is all this passage is about, it doesn’t to jibe with where we’ve come in Romans (or where we’re going, for that matter).  But if we look at the very end of this passage, we see that Paul has a very different purpose.  After complaining tediously and self-indulgently about his struggles with sinful behavior, Paul melodramatically writes, “Wretched man that I am!  Who will rescue me from this body of death?”  Without missing a beat, he immediately answers the question by reminding himself of the redeeming work of God that he has been discussing for the last six chapters: “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”  You’ll notice that Paul’s rhetorical strategy in this passage is pretty similar to what he does at the beginning of the letter: he draws us in to the point that we also begin to wallow in self-loathing until he snaps us out of it, smacking us over the head with the gospel message of redemption and reconciliation.  This passage is not a meditation by Paul about his sinful behavior; it is a pointed and powerful reminder that we should not be distracted by our apparent failures, that we should not wallow in our supposed sinfulness.  Instead, Paul insists that should live our lives in assurance of the fact that we have been reconciled to God by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Why does this matter?  Why would Paul be concerned if people wallow in a sense of their sinfulness?  Isn’t there a certain nobility in trying to do everything right?  There are two problems with being preoccupied with our sinful behavior.  On one level, if we believe that the power of sin has indeed been destroyed by Christ’s death and resurrection, then focusing so intensely on our sinfulness devalues what God has done through Jesus Christ.  On another, even more significant level, focusing on our sinfulness means that we become completely and destructively self-centered.  Paul is trying to build relationships between the Jewish and Gentile members of the Roman church.  But if they are totally inwardly focused and completely self-centered about their behavior, there is no way that they are going to be able to recognize themselves in the other members of the community.  Did you notice how many times Paul used the word “I” in the passage we read this morning?  If we truly wish to be part of the Church, it is impossible to be that “I”-oriented.  If we value being part of a community, it is impossible for us to be entirely consumed with our own behavior.  If we truly trust that we have been redeemed through Jesus Christ, then we must look outside ourselves and reach out to those around us.

If you walk toward Heavenly Rest on the south side of Sixth Street, you will notice that someone has etched words into one of the paving stones on the sidewalk.  Unlike the concrete slabs that comprise the Quarterman sidewalk, however, this block doesn’t include petty recriminations, professions of eternal love, or Hollywood dreams.  Instead, written in block letters are two simple words: “Look Up.”  347914039_5954ef24c5_mWhen you do, you are greeted by the soaring majesty and beauty of the Heavenly Rest bell tower.  I have no idea who carved those words into the concrete, but it might as well have been Saint Paul.  Because those words are a pointed sacramental reminder to all of us.  Those words remind us to look up from our preoccupation with everything wrong in our lives and pay attention to the reality of beauty and possibility.  Those words remind us to look up from our assumption that must go through this life alone and recognize that we are part of a community that has been shaped by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Those words remind us to look up from our self-centered, self-indulgent perspective and remember that we worship a God who looked up at the world and redeemed creation through Jesus Christ.

Fragments

Today’s post is going to be brief, as I not only have to put the finishing touches on a sermon, but also need to watch (need!) a very close national semifinal game between the Florida Gators and the Connecticut Huskies (go UConn!).

imgresThough I’ve been watching the game on TBS, I’ve noticed that there are two other broadcasts available: one for Florida fans and one for UConn fans.  Presumably, the Florida broadcast will include commentators with a rooting interest in the Gators, while the UConn broadcast will feature people transparently supporting the Huskies.  It occurs to me that the existence of these team-specific options is symptomatic of a wider trend in our culture today.  Our society has become fragmented; we tend to spend time only with people we agree with and listen only to people who share our worldview.  This is part of the reason for the proliferation of news networks that cater to people of a particular political bent.  We would rather pretend that everyone agrees with us than engage in the challenging work of listening to people who do not share our views.

This is not a new issue.  The early Church had to deal with a huge variety of perspectives and understandings about how to be faithful to God: Should Christians be required to keep the Law of Moses?  Who has the authority to speak for the Church?  What should we do with people who have committed notorious sins?  Much of the New Testament is devoted to dealing with these questions.  In some cases, like in the letters of John, the solution is to exclude those who do not share the majority view.  In most other cases, however, we see the Church struggling to hold a variety of perspectives in tension, to include as many people as possible, and to recognize that unity can exist even with diversity.

In the Church (and the world) we must remember that we can be in relationship with one another even when we disagree or root for different teams.  Ultimately, we are called to recognize that our unity is grounded not in anything we have done, but in what God has done for us in Jesus Christ.

Potluck

Last night, we had one of our Lenten potluck suppers at the Church of the Heavenly Rest.

potluckThose of you who have spent any time in a church community are familiar with potlucks (or “cover dishes,” as they are called in certain parts of the American South).  The concept is simple: everyone attending an event brings a dish to share with the group.  In spite of the simplicity of the premise, however, some people have a tendency to make potlucks as complicated as possible.  At the church where I grew up, for instance, dishes were assigned according to the first letter of a potential contributor’s last name: A through K brought main dishes, L through R brought salads, and S through Z brought desserts.  I understand the impulse behind these guidelines; they are one way to ensure that you won’t have 75 apple pies for dinner.  At the same time, I always found these requirements frustrating, and not just because I have an “R” last name and may be the worst salad maker in the world.  Rather, guidelines like these tend to hamper people’s creativity and prevent them from offering their specialty, the dish of which they are most proud.  And as it turns out, the alphabetical guidelines I grew up with solve a problem that doesn’t really exist.  At Heavenly Rest, we have no such “potluck rules,” and yet the buffet table always features a healthy balance of main dishes, vegetables, salads, and desserts.  The potluck, in other words, works itself out even without the influence of external guidelines.

In some ways, life in the Church is a lot like a potluck.  As members of the Christian community come together to be fed, each person brings something to the table and offers gifts to build up the Body of Christ.  The temptation for leaders in the Church is to regulate these offerings, to assume that we know the best use for people’s gifts and talents.  (The equivalent of making everyone with a certain letter in their name bring a salad is saying, “Oh, you teach kindergarten?  How would you like to teach Sunday School?!)  But if the Church is truly to embrace an understanding of vocation, then we must recognize that people can offer gifts we may have never imagined. Spiritual vitality in the Christian community is not about assuming that we know best and not about insisting that our approach is the only approach.  Instead, we are called to embrace the great variety of spiritual gifts in the Church and trust that God will guide us to use them wisely.

Here’s Jimmy

I have a confession to make.

Over the past several weeks, my wife and I have been ardent devotees of the Tonight Show.  Every weeknight at 10:34 (CDT), we stop whatever we are doing and turn on the television to watch Jimmy Fallon host a 60 year old television variety show.  We even watch the commercials.

UnknownThis happened quite by accident.  When we saw that Jay Leno’s tenure as the host of the Tonight Show was coming to an end, we decided to watch his final show and take a look at Fallon’s first outing.  Though we were immediately entertained and impressed, we didn’t think it could last long.  Surely Fallon’s habit of breaking or laughing at his own jokes would invariably torpedo the show.  We continued watching, mostly for the sick thrill of watching the show crash and burn.  But something weird happened: it didn’t fail.  In fact, it seems to have returned to the glory days when it was hosted by Johnny Carson. The Tonight Show has only gotten better, to the point that I can say with some confidence that it is currently my favorite thing to watch on television.

How did this happen?  How did a somewhat annoying television personality and his team revitalize a storied, yet struggling institution?  It occurs to me that there are three things Jimmy Fallon does as the host of the Tonight Show.  First, he has an enormous amount of respect, almost reverence for the institution that he has been tasked with stewarding.  Fallon frequently makes reference to the Tonight Show’s storied past, celebrating the lives of those who have performed and been interviewed  under its banner.  Second, Fallon is willing to use new means to engage his audience.  He is an avid user of social media and he encourages participation by the people watching at home.  Even if you’ve never sent anything to the show, you get the sense that your opinion and your participation matters. Finally, Jimmy Fallon exhibits an infectious enthusiasm for his work.  When he jokes with Higgins during his monologue or banters with The Roots during an interview or plays a silly game with his guest, he exudes a spirit of awe, a sense that he can’t believe he has the great privilege of doing what he does.  All of these combine to create a Tonight Show that is engaging, innovative, and exciting to watch.

It occurs to me that these three elements of Jimmy Fallon’s hosting of the Tonight Show are really important when we think about revitalization in the Church.  In some ways, the Church and the Tonight Show have been in similar places: both are storied institutions that have been struggling with questions of “relevance” over the past few decades.  I think, however, that Jimmy Fallon shows us a few things we can do to breathe life into our church communities.  First, we can have respect for the institution we have been called to steward, to recognize that we stand on the shoulders of those who have come before us, from apostles and martyrs to church members of generations past.  At the same time, we must be willing to try new ways of engaging with the people in our communities, whether that is through social media or other means.  People should be able to look at our churches and feel as though they are connected to them, even if they’ve only visited once or twice before.  Finally, and most importantly, we must recognize what a great privilege discipleship truly is.  We have been given a wonderful inheritance and a wonderful opportunity to serve Jesus Christ in the world.  I pray that each one of us will have grace to recognize this opportunity and embrace the community we have been called to serve.