We worshipped outdoors this day but pre-recorded a service for YouTube. Thus the sermon in the video and the one below are two different sermons.
Proper 14 (19), Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost, Year B
8 August 2021
1 Kings 19:4-8
John 6:35, 41-51
Most pastors don’t stay in one place for the entirety of their active ministry.
This has little to do with the grass being greener on the other side of the fence. Occasionally that may be the case but in our increasingly secular world the challenges are very similar in most places. Only the people are different, the histories of the congregations, and the local setting of a congregation.
In most cases pastors leave a congregation because they may believe that they have done all they could do in a place and someone else’ gifts are required to move the congregation forward. Hand in hand with that may go a certain fatigue, and then, new beginnings are always exciting and even energizing.
The Methodist tradition used to hold itinerancy as a theological principal. Superintendents sent (usually) unmarried itinerants to where they were needed to accomplish the mission of the church – a decidedly different practice than that of those churches that relied on married men (they were all men then) who chose the places they would go. In the Methodist tradition this meant the subordination of family, marriage, and career advancement to the mission of the church. But it also meant that no one stayed for very long, and if you don’t stay very long you don’t get to know one another, and if you don’t get to know one another well enough it becomes difficult to pull in the same direction.
But itinerancy is experienced not only by pastors, but also by others in the church, though perhaps not with a mission entrusted to them. Sometimes one becomes witness to conversations one is not a part of simply by being in a certain place. I remember overhearing a conversation in a Christian bookstore between two mothers about what church they worshipped at. They were both members of large Evangelical churches. The impression I got was that of musical chairs, one stays in one church for a while, perhaps because the music, the preaching, or some programming, but after a couple of years may move on to another church because of that church’s preaching, music or programming.
And then our culture requires a high degree of mobility. I remember when Fred and Alice moved to Calgary to be near their son’s family and grandchildren. We wondered how long it would take for the son to be transferred and Fred and Alice to be stuck without family and far away from their friends. I do not know whether that happened, but it could have, such is our modern life. And then you take people like me who have moved half-way around the world.
In our reading from Ephesians the Apostle Paul spells out what the new life with Christ looks like and what got my attention is that he anchors our new life in Christ by reminding the Ephesians “that we are members of one another.”
Being members of one another reminds us the image of the church as the body of Christ, many members and many and varying gifts. And yet it seems that Paul is pushing for more. To be members of one another suggest something akin to family ties, to belonging, to being inseparable. And if the community of the church were inseparable, then the church would not be a service provider of religious services but a community of people who love each other, respect each other, drive each other crazy, but stay together anyway and bear one another. And since this community in which we are members of one another is founded by Christ Jesus, it remains open for others to join, despite the closeness of its members.
Wendell Berry is a farmer and a writer. His stories all take place in the imaginary town of Port William in Kentucky. It is a town in which people have lived for generations, where they know each other, each others’ families, and each others’ secrets. Its very character consists of the absence of the mobility of industrial society, though they are experiencing the decline rural communities suffered with increasing industrialization. People know each other and suffer each other. In one story Berry says about the community, “The way we are, we are members of each other. All of us. Everything. The difference ain’t in who is a member and who is not, but in who knows it and who don’t.”1
While Berry identifies as a Christian, I am not certain how he arrived at describing the people of Port William as the membership. It is not the membership in a club or organization where one can come and go and one’s commitment is limited to certain responsibilities. Rather, it is knowing each other, and each other’s histories, and being present to one another, not only by virtue of living in the same place, something that we have lost with urbanization. We know the biggest problem in cities is the loneliness people experience.
Maybe our townhouse complex gives us a bit of that sense of membership. We hear babies cry, see children play, hear neighbours visit, and last week when we had an argument and I was not who I wanted to be, my wife reminded me that all our windows were open.
That is, I think, what Paul has in mind. Live the new life in Christ because we are members of one another. We do not live for ourselves and living in Christ means that we do not wish we were someplace else or harbour resentment that the church or others aren’t the way we want them to be.
And to return to the issue of mobility and itinerancy, the less time we live in a place, the shorter time we are part of a community, the less we are able to connect, to be part of a community, to become the membership.
Many years ago a friend of ours taught in an inner city elementary school. Her greatest challenge were the almost transient lives of her students and their families who would move perhaps three times a year, making it impossible to build relationships and effect learning outcomes. This is another argument for stability instead of mobility.
It is true that in Ephesians Paul may not be writing to a divided church in the way that the church at Corinth was divided. And Paul is not speaking of the one body and many gifts as he does in Corinthians. And yet Paul reminds us that we belong to one another, that the church isn’t just a club or service organization, but that that we are members of one another, perhaps more than we wish. And we are members of one another because of our baptism into Christ. And this is the place and the community where we can grow into the full stature of Christ.
Thanks be to God.
1Wendell Berry, The Wild Birds: Six Stories of the Port William Membership