— A Sermon by Robert W. Prim —
~~ 7th Sunday after Epiphany ~~
“But I say to you that listen, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again.
“Do to others as you would have them do to you. If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.
“Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.”
The question was asked twice in the span of four days — once at a Committee on Ministry (COM) meeting in Athens on Thursday and then again at our called Session meeting this past Sunday. The question is a good one. I have some thoughts on the answer which will make up the bulk of this sermon. I have to admit, thinking about this question and pondering it aloud with you now is partly due to something I want to announce and discuss with you at the end of this worship service… a good thing, no worries. The question is this: What does it mean to say a church is healthy?
At the COM meeting my friend and colleague, Rindy, was making the point that churches that focus too much on health become therapeutic – meaning, she thinks, too turned inward and always measuring success by how adjusted and happy everyone is. This therapeutic model, she posits, fails to make demands upon people and leads to congregation members that are needy and pastors who chase ambulances to try to make everyone feel special.
This model, Rindy thinks, leads to people living in a constant state of victim-hood, and turns a pastor into a spinless people-pleaser. A pastor in this model would never tell anyone to do such a thing as to love your enemy and do good to those who hate you.
I did not agree with Rindy because I do not think a healthy church makes no demands upon people. I think a healthy church is challenging. I think a healthy church cares about members and seeks to be a comfort in affliction but also an affliction in insular comfort. A healthy congregation is a place where people and pastor are pushed, lured, called into a life that will be bigger and have more depth of spirit than simply trying to feel better and be happy and comfortable. A healthy church calls forth in people behavior that can be hard and uncomfortable; e.g., love of enemies, loving instead of hating, mercy instead of retribution.
At the Session meeting the question was asked again: What makes for a healthy church? I had said that I think of Nacoochee Presbyterian Church as a healthy church, and this elder, who agrees with the statement that NPC is a healthy congregation, wanted to know why I think we are healthy. Hearing the question a second time pushed me to try to name the characteristics of a healthy congregation, the characteristics I see in Nacoochee Presbyterian Church …
First, I think NPC is a healthy congregation because we have vibrancy in worship. The music and sometimes the preaching lift us up and call us to our better angels while celebrating the goodness of this life and of earth. We call ourselves in worship to live faithfully and that faithfulness will sometimes entail doing hard things that stretch us beyond our natural tendencies, but we are called to these hard things trusting that we are within the embrace of a loving, merciful God who wants us to have abundant life. We might be, on occasion, in worship, boring… sorry … but I don’t think that is the norm.
Our liturgy is grounded in the traditions of the church through the ages — so, people coming into this sanctuary can find comfort and recognition of traditional patterns. The traditional liturgy of the Church that is used in this church creates an environment of familiarity that allows for wrestling with difficult questions and calls for justice, peace, loving one’s enemies. The liturgy gives me, as your pastor and preacher, a little room to push and explore because the pushing and exploration is enveloped within the traditional liturgy. The familiar gives us room to venture out to the edges of theology.
I think Nacoochee Presbyterian Church is a healthy church because we have vibrancy of worship.
Second, I think NPC is a healthy congregation because we have strong, steady leadership at the staff, session, and deacon levels. Healthy congregations do not grow from unhealthy leadership where people are acting territorially and with suspicion about new ideas and new people. Healthy churches have a polity — meaning, a way of governing ourselves and making decisions — that is followed, but healthy churches also have porous boundaries that can bend and take in new thoughts and new ways of doing things. Healthy congregations have leaders who work with each other assuming goodwill with one another as we seek to lead the people of God.
I’ll come back to this point in a few minutes as the conclusion of this sermon, but let me begin to say it here because it is, I think, the underlying principle at work in Jesus’ admonition to love enemies and do good to those who hate you and be merciful as God is merciful… is a call to be tenacious in relationships. Healthy churches work hard at staying connected to one another. God does not give up on us. In healthy churches we do our best to reflect this steadfastness of love for the other, for our neighbors — near and far. We practice this steadfastness because of a strong hope that love will triumph over all that might separate us from one another.
Jesus calls us to love enemies so that enemies might be transformed into friends. Jesus calls us to be merciful so that wrongs might become part of a strong relationship that has overcome adversity. Jesus calls us to meet hate with love because love just might disinfect the hate and bring healing.
I think Nacoochee Presbyterian Church is a healthy congregation because the leaders of this church are healthy and seek to model a way of being with each other based on a strong belief that love is more powerful than hate and our relationships are precious in our sight and in the heart of God.
Third, I believe NPC is a healthy congregation because we have diversity in the congregation and in leadership… diversity of thought and diversity of people — male, female, gay, straight, questioning, grounded in Christianity and new to Christianity, believers and nonbelievers, conservative and liberal and various interesting combinations of all of these terms.
We are a community of love first and foremost. Christian Orthodoxy here is very generous and is primarily focused on following the love of God embodied in Jesus of Nazareth… as opposed to being too heavy handed or demanding about a set of beliefs. Creeds and Confessions — Nicene and Apostles’ Creeds, Westminster Confession and Catechism, the Barmen Declaration, the Confession of 1967, the Brief Statement of Faith, the Belhar Confession, to name some of the creeds and confessions that are part of the PCUSA Constitution — in this community of faith serve as blazes for the trail of following Jesus, not as a fence or wall to separate the washed from the unwashed, the pure from the heretics.
Diversity in our leadership and membership also reflects a conviction that all of us have gifts to bring to the well-being of the community. To seek to have uniformity of ways of being human or faithful fails to see the strength of diversity and the depth of spirit that flows from opening ourselves to the other who may be, will be, different from ourselves. I think NPC is a healthy congregation because of the diversity of the people who make up this community of faith; we are stronger and more healthy because of our differences.
Fourth, I think NPC is a healthy congregation because there is, when we are our best selves, a humility before God and one another that accepts we do not have all the answers and there are many ways to be faithful and to seek after God. Feeling after the divine is slow and sometimes frustrating work. God has created a world that is infused with holiness but it takes discipline to see it. Our call is to open ourselves to the mystery of this divine presence. It is hard work, which means that the journey will sometimes be wayward, unpredictable, and confused. In our best mind-sets we recognize this truth and are generous with ourselves and with one another.
I think a healthy congregation is humble as a reflection of the greatness of God and the limits of the human mind and spirit searching after the holy.
The beginning of my answer to what makes for a healthy congregation, then, are these four characteristics:
Vibrancy of worship;
Healthy Leaders who model generosity of spirit;
Diversity of leadership and membership
where the gifts of each person are celebrated; and,
Humility that recognizes the greatness of God
and the limits of human knowledge.
There is something at the base of this health and at the base of Jesus’ teachings about loving enemies… Jesus believed, and we are invited to believe as well, that love and goodwill triumphs over all that might separate us from God and one another. Jesus invites us to never give up on one another even in those moments filled with tensions and enmity. Jesus invites us to never give up on one another even as we might think of one another as enemies. Jesus invites us to never give up on one another because God will never give up on us. The love and goodwill of God toward us will triumph! Let us do our best to practice that love and goodwill with one another.
Thanks be to God. Amen.