Acts 2: 41-47, 1 Corinthians 14:26-33a
In our Scripture readings this morning we get two different images of worship. The first one, from Acts, is of a community that is working it all out together. This is often seen as the ideal community-- the one where people are eating together, praying together, seeing miracles, giving of everything they have so that all have enough, and praising God.
The second image of worship comes to us from one of Paul's letters to the Corinthians, and it's not so pretty or idealistic. Paul is encouraging the people to share their gifts, but to do so while being aware of others around them. As far as we can tell, the reason he is needing to say this, is because the Corinthians church is a bit competitive. We can read between the lines of Paul's letters and presume that there are people who are prophesying in a way that isn't building up the community; and there are people speaking in tongues that isn't being helpful to the community; and there are people in general using the gifts they have in what we might call today immature ways-- to get attention, to have some power, Maybe out of fear that they aren't as good as they want to be... Who knows? But something isn't working right, because Paul feels the need to address it.
Which one is closest to your experience of worship? Of the church?
Many of us have experienced that community in Acts. In times of crisis or loneliness or grief, we have been surrounded by people praying for us; we have been fed by those who are reaching out to us; we have been surrounded by the community have seen that worship is not just something that happens here on Sunday morning, but is something that is lived out when we extend grace to one another, and we sit in awe at being a part of something like that.
But others of us are all too familiar with the community in Corinth that Paul is addressing. We've seen people fight for power in church; compete over who has the better gifts; and focus on themselves more than on following Jesus. In Fred Craddock's book, " ", he tells the story of a Sunday morning when a woman walked up to the front of the church during the closing hymn. The congregation was curious as to what was going on-- was she responding to the Spirit? Was she feeling a call to ministry? What could be calling her to go forward? She talked briefly with the pastor, and then she went to a microphone. "I joined this church publicly, so I thought it only right that I unjoin it publicly," she said. "I have been frustrated that this church hasn't lived up to my expectations of what it means to follow Jesus. I don't have the easiest life, and some of you had helped here and there, but I have decided to move on and I just wanted you to know."
People didn't know how to respond. Craddock said they all left that day wondering about their own commitment to the church now that they had seen someone else make a different decision. It made them question what they were doing, how had they failed someone among them?
One of the strangest things about being the church is that the more we focus on being the church rather than on following Jesus, the less like the church we become.
Greg Boyle is well-known for his ministry to gang members in LA. He started his ministry many years ago now, and now has the biggest gang rehabilitation centers in America. As you might guess, his methods have changed over the years as he has gained more experience. And when he reflects on those early years, he often talks about how much burnout he experienced. When he first began to reach out to gang members, he thought his job was saving lives. But now, he says, "I realize that saving lives is for the Coast Guard. Our choice is always the same: save the world or savor it. And I vote for savoring it. If you savor the world, somehow-- go figure-- it's getting saved."
As a community of faith, when we are focused on saving ourselves-- fixing the church or this community or clinging to what we have built so far, etc. etc., than we find ourselves acting like the church in Corinth-- desperately looking for someone to blame, seeking a silver bullet that will fix all of our problems; we get distracted as to why we're here and how it is that we worship together.
And the same is true when we're focused on saving others-- fixing others' problems or making them see the light or assuming that our experience has to be their experience. When we need others lives to get better in order to feel good about ourselves, than we also end up acting like the church in Corinth-- showing off all of our skills while there is no one to interpret what any of it means.
But if we take time to savor the world-- to be open to receiving grace from each person we meet; to be able to look for Christ in each person we interact with; to be anchored in the sacrament of the present moment in such a way that we are able to both give of our gifts and receive the gifts of those around us, following where Jesus is leading us, than we will look more like the Acts 2 community. There are four practices that we are told that first community did together: They prayed together, they ate with one another (sharing communion), they learned together, and they shared what they had.
In order to pray with each other, we have to be open to being vulnerable to each other-- vulnerable enough to share what we need prayer for, and vulnerable enough to say real stuff to each other and not just pretty words. In order to eat with one another, we have to be willing to sit down and get to know each other; to hear where we are coming from and to let go of stereotypes or judgments we have about each other. In order to learn from one another, to share how we've seen God and to read Scripture together and to be open to where the Spirit will move us, we have to be able to listen more deeply than we usually do. To hear the Spirit at work in people's lives and to allow the Spirit to change our hearts to more faithfully follow Jesus. In order to be generous with one another, we have to be willing to be filled with awe at how God is at work and to let go of thinking of ourselves first, trusting that God will take care of us.
That's how we worship-- praying together; eating together; learning together; sharing together. It may be here on Sunday morning, and it also may be at the hospital at midnight; or your work place at 6am; or your neighbor's house on a Saturday night. Worship happens in every place when we take the time to see God's grace in the world, when we stop long enough to savor the world, as Jesus so often did, when we recognize our place in it, and are open to how the Spirit is leading us.
In the next few weeks our Church Council is going to be prayerfully discerning whether God is calling us to a process called the Missional Church Consultation Initiative. This is a process that the Bishop has invited us and five other churches in Minnesota to be a part of. The point is to help churches get back to following Jesus in the ways they are best gifted for and in ways that reach out to their communities. It's a several year process of action, discernment, and thoughtful reflection. It's not about saving our church. It's about savoring the opportunities before us, the gifts God has given us, and the ways God is calling us to share those gifts. The Minnesota UMC Conference sees us as a high impact church. They recognize that we have many gifts, assets, and abilities. They want to come alongside us and give us the resources we need to really make a difference in the St. Cloud Region.
On April 26th we'll be voting on whether to take this opportunity. But either way we choose, I think our path is actually already laid out for us. When we're serious about following Jesus, then we will be praying together, eating together, learning together, and sharing all that we have-- not just with each other, but with the whole St. Cloud region. When we focus on walking in the way of Jesus; when we trust that God can do far more than we can ever imagine by ourselves, than we will know how to worship and God will do the rest.
Resources Cited or Consulted:
Brian McClaren's We Make the Road by Walking
An interview with Greg Boyle from faithandleadership.com (out of Duke Divinity School)
Craddock's Stories by Fred Craddock