Together

Sermon preached at Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church for the twenty-fourth Sunday of Ordinary Time.

John 15:9-17

“As the Father loved me, I too have loved you. Remain in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love, just as I kept my Father’s commandments and remain in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy will be in you and your joy will be complete. This is my commandment: love each other just as I have loved you. No one has greater love than to give up one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I don’t call you servants any longer, because servants don’t know what their master is doing. Instead, I call you friends, because everything I heard from my Father I have made known to you. You didn’t choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you could go and produce fruit and so that your fruit could last. As a result, whatever you ask the Father in my name, he will give you. I give you these commandments so that you can love each other.

 

1 Peter 1:22-2:10

As you set yourselves apart by your obedience to the truth so that you might have genuine affection for your fellow believers, love each other deeply and earnestly. Do this because you have been given new birth—not from the type of seed that decays but from seed that doesn’t. This seed is God’s life-giving and enduring word. Thus,

All human life on the earth is like grass,
and all human glory is like a flower in a field.
The grass dries up and its flower falls off,
but the Lord’s word endures forever.

This is the word that was proclaimed to you as good news.

Therefore, get rid of all ill will and all deceit, pretense, envy, and slander. Instead, like a newborn baby, desire the pure milk of the word. Nourished by it, you will grow into salvation, since you have tasted that the Lord is good.

Now you are coming to him as to a living stone. Even though this stone was rejected by humans, from God’s perspective it is chosen, valuable. You yourselves are being built like living stones into a spiritual temple. You are being made into a holy priesthood to offer up spiritual sacrifices that are acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. Thus it is written in scripture, Look! I am laying a cornerstone in Zion, chosen, valuable. The person who believes in him will never be shamed. So God honors you who believe. For those who refuse to believe, though, the stone the builders tossed aside has become the capstone.  This is a stone that makes people stumble and a rock that makes them fall. Because they refuse to believe in the word, they stumble. Indeed, this is the end to which they were appointed. But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people who are God’s own possession. You have become this people so that you may speak of the wonderful acts of the one who called you out of darkness into his amazing light. Once you weren’t a people, but now you are God’s people. Once you hadn’t received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

***

When I was in seminary, I spent some time visiting in a local nursing home. I remember distinctly one warm October day when I was talking with one of the women there, a lovely, funny, lifelong Catholic. She was excited to find out I was going to be a pastor. She asked me about my plans for ministry. I nattered on a bit about the Presbyterian ordination process and maybe finding a church once I’d graduated. She listened patiently, then pressed again.

“But what are your plans for moving up the ladder?”

Her question caught me off guard. She noticed, and rephrased it. “How soon till you can be a bishop? Or whatever Presbyterians have?”

I appreciated her confidence in me, but I was forced to tell her Presbyterians don’t have bishops. We don’t have popes or cardinals either. In fact, in the Presbyterian church, there is no ladder to climb.

She seemed disappointed, but I remember that visit as a turning point for me. I’d always loved the Presbyterian church, but mostly because it was where I grew up. I loved it because it was home, not for anything about itself particularly. But that day I realized I had fallen in love with the Presbyterian church’s polity.

Occasionally I get asked what I would be, if I weren’t Presbyterian. Sometimes I say Methodist; it was my dad’s church, and I admire their grit and dedication to study. Sometimes I say Episcopalian, because I like bells and whistles as much as the next girl. Or somedays I think it might be fun to swing way over to something like Quaker, and just follow my inner light.

But there’s a reason I’m not in any of those traditions, and that reason, again, is our polity. I mean, I love our theology too. But I could worship in lots of different churches. I’m not sure I could work in them.

Polity is a fancy church word, but what it really means is just the way we structure our community; polity is the way we set up our relationships with each other. And the core of our polity is that we are all equals here; that nobody in this church is more or less important to God. The way we make decisions, the way we do church, it all goes back to the idea that each one of us has something to contribute. That we are all chosen and valuable to God, and therefore, to each other.

That we are, to use Martin Luther’s phrase, a priesthood of all believers.

When Luther broke with the Catholic church, one of his most radical stances was that every single Christian was a priest in God’s eyes. Every last one of us had something to offer God. Every last one of us could come before God fully. We didn’t need mediators or middlemen. Jesus had shown us God, had drawn back that curtain for good, and now we could talk to God face-to-face.

It was a radical claim because in the medieval Catholic church, access to God was severely limited. If you were an “ordinary Christian,” you couldn’t go into certain parts of the sanctuary, or take wine at communion, or even hear the Bible in your own language. You had to pay people to pray to God on your behalf. When the priest celebrated mass, he turned his back to you so you couldn’t see what he was doing. In church, as in all areas of life, you were expected to know your place.

Luther changed all that, theologically. But in practice the Lutheran church kept a hierarchical structure, with priests and bishops. Calvin pushed it further. Calvin decided that if we were really all equal in Christ, than our church structure should reflect that. And so in Calvin’s church all authority rests in groups, not individuals. Every decision we make, we make together. No hierarchies. No power players. Nobody holier-than-thou. Just us, God’s chosen, valuable people, doing our best to love God and each other together.

What I prize about the Presbyterian church is that there are no ladders to climb, only bridges to build. That’s the vision I’m devoting my life to. A church not of sinners and saints, clearly marked and labeled, but of friends doing their best to love each other, listen to each other, and lift each other up.

After all, that’s what Jesus called his disciples. They had considered themselves his followers, under his tutelage, trailing dutifully behind, sitting at his feet. But then, right at the end of his life, Jesus changed the game. He knelt before them to wash their feet. He called them friends.

“This is my commandment,” Jesus said, “that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.”

Jesus calls his disciples friends, the people who love each other as Jesus has loved them. Jesus calls us to serve as friends, with real love for each other, not abstract love, not words-only love, but love in action. We are each of us called to serve, but not as servants, without passion for the work, but as friends. And not just each other’s friends, but friends of Jesus. God’s friends. We are God’s friends—not just God’s creations, God’s subjects, God’s servants, but God’s friends. The ones God trusts with God’s work on earth.

We don’t often talk about stewardship as an act of love, and that’s a shame. Because it is. Stewardship is not the cost of belonging to a church. It’s not the dues for a special Christian club. Giving our money to the church is an act of love for all the people in it.

Each week during the offering, I say something along the lines of “let us return our offerings to God.” And in a way, that’s true. But I could just as easily say, “it’s time to give our offerings to each other.” Because the church is just us, y’all. It’s just this community of people, this priesthood of all believers, and the stuff we share to do God’s work together. So when you make your weekly gift, you’re giving the gift of church to Corrine and Patty and Walt. You’re giving the gift of sanctuary to Terry and Tom and Carolyn. You’re giving the gift of discipleship to Nancy and Aiden and Amy.

And everyone who makes a pledge next week is giving the same gift to you.

Stewardship is at the core of what it means to be a priesthood of all believers—to say that no one gets better seats at church because they can give more money, or gets extra prayers because they write us into their will. Stewardship means we recognize that all our gifts—financial, spiritual, all of them—they all go further if we pool them together. Stewardship means tearing down the rankings and the hierarchies and saying “everybody here deserves the same gift of church, and I want to be a part of making that happen.”

And this is the other thing I want you to know: if this is not a year you can make a pledge, or make the pledge you’d like to make, that’s okay. Part of being in this community together means that there are times we carry each other. If you can’t give money this year, the gift of church is still for you. There’s no credit and withdrawal system here. Just grace.

But I also want you to know you aren’t off the hook. The thing about God’s community is every person makes it richer. Your presence, your passions, your prayers are a gift themselves. That goes for everybody, actually, whatever the number on the pledge card—it’s the gift of yourself that makes this a church. Makes this church a home for God’s people.

The church I attended in seminary had a sign out front, much like every church does, with its name and service times and so forth. But it also said this, which I love:

Pastor: Carla Pratt Keyes.
Ministers: All the members.

We are all ministers in this church, all priests in God’s temple. We are all called to love, and serve, and give, and pray. We are all called to take an active part in this thing called faith. We talk about people “being churched” but I don’t think that’s quite right. I don’t think there’s any reason to use the passive voice there. I think we “church,” like a verb, and I think we church together.

There are churches you could go to that would ask less of you. Churches where you can just sit and take it all in. And there are churches you could go to that would expect more of you. Expect you to climb and claw your way to the top.

This is what we ask of you: please bring yourself here. Just by being you, the you God created and chose, be a gift to us. Share in our love and our work. Be a friend.

No more, no less.

I give thanks for each one of you today. I could not ask for better coworkers, better co-priests, in the faith.

Amen.

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