A call to those of you who are distracted to re-focus

Sunday Sermon

The Rev. Tara McGraw
Rector (2007-2015)

July 26, 2015

Good morning, everyone. Hopefully all of you who email already know that I announced yesterday I will be leaving St. Paul’s about the middle of October. The letter is being post office mailed to you who don’t email, but a copy is in the narthex today if you want to pick it up.

Do you know what the average term of a rector is these days? I just found out from the diocese a few days ago. It’s 5 to 7 years. In one more month, I will have been here ten years. You and I have beat the odds in ministry at St. Paul’s. That’s something I’m very thankful for.

Why such relatively short terms for rectors? Multiple answers, but foundational, I think, is an understanding of what church is. Church is God’s people gathered in God’s name, to worship God, deepen relationship with God, and do God’s work in the world. You can find other definitions with different phrasings, but you pretty much have to cover all the elements of the definition I just gave you to understand church anywhere: Church is God’s people gathered in God’s name, to worship God, deepen relationship with God, and do God’s work in the world.

Let’s start with the first part. Church is God’s people gathered. Well, we are God’s people, but none of God’s people are perfect. God’s people are being made perfect, thanks be to the Holy Spirit, but none of us are there yet. Not me, not you, not anybody. There is a scene painted in Scripture, in the Revelation to St. John, that says this so well. John is privileged to a vision of being in heaven just prior to the end of earthly time. He writes:

Then I saw in the right hand of the one seated on the throne a scroll written on the inside and on the back, sealed with seven seals; and I saw a mighty angel proclaiming with a loud voice, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?” And no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to look into it. And I began to weep bitterly because no one was found worthy to open the scroll or to look into it. Then one of the elders said to me, “Do not weep. See the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.” (5:1-5)

And of course he referred to our Savior Jesus Christ.

So when we gather as church each one of us brings our flawed humanness with us, and that makes church subject to all the unhealthy human dynamics, and all the unhealthy institutional dynamics, of every other organization. Unhealthy dynamics happen all of the time in church, just like everywhere else, and every so often there is going to be some major experience of unhealthy dynamics.

Some people who will never enter the doors of a church on Sunday morning say that is why they don’t come. They think the definition of church is a gathering of people who think they are perfect, or almost, or better than everybody else, and when those observers see we are far from it, they call us hypocrites. They don’t understand what church is. And that leaves them hopeless, because where are they going to go? To a social club? To a neighborhood bar? To a secular charitable organization? There is no gathering of humans anywhere that isn’t subject to all of the risks of human dynamics.

What makes church different from every other gathering of humans is the second half of the definition. The reason we want to be part of a church is the second half of the definition. Church is God’s people gathered in God’s name, to worship God, deepen relationship with God, and do God’s work in the world. Do you get the emphasis there? God, God, God, God. Church is identified with God, focused on God, desiring God’s presence and direction, and in active partnership with God. Church is all about God. Church can never be about any one individual, or any group of individuals or their desires. Church can never be about a person here, or a person not here. Church can never be focused on the rector, or the lay head of any ministry, or the music director, or the person working beside me in the field, or any person at all.

In church, we ask “What is God doing in our midst?”, and then we pray, “How are this person and I a part of it together?” Right at this moment in St. Paul’s, as some of us struggle with some polarized relationships, danger falls upon us, that we could be so stuck and distracted in the human dynamics that we forget whose we are and why we are here. Heaven forbid! My departure from you is my call to those of you who are distracted to re-focus.

St. Paul encountered something similar in the church he founded in Corinth. To help them, he writes, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose, and each will receive wages according to the labor of each. For we are God’s servants, working together”. (1 Cor 3:6-9a)

When we gather as God’s people, and keep our focus on God, God graces our flawed selves with the privilege of holding God’s holy purposes. Together with each other and God we achieve God’s purposes in the world, despite our flaws. When a person’s limitations or perspectives create friction, we can in God’s grace forgive each other and even see that we complement each other to God’s glory.

But when we lose our focus on God, we distance ourselves from God, we lose our way and our purpose, and the unhealthy human dynamics coming from our flawed selves divide us from each other. Right now at St. Paul’s, this has only happened to a limited degree, though that has been devastating enough! I look out among you today in the congregation, right now, and I see CHURCH, church intact and vigorous and beautiful. I participate in worship with you today and I feel God’s presence in you, I look back over the last ten years and even through an experience four days ago, I see God’s active care and intercession for St. Paul’s. Be affirmed!

And each of you sitting here, hear the affirmation of our Old Testament reading and our Gospel today that if you but offer your meager resource – yourself, to God’s service, God is able to provide from it far more than your human estimations could ever conceive. We have positions open on our vestry, which will work with our diocese to call your new priest. And your new priest will be awesome! God will not forget you. This is your time, you out there, to let God bless St. Paul’s through you. And God will! Don’t say, “I don’t think I bring enough skills” or anything like that. If you have a heart open to God, you have enough.

“To every time there is a season,” and it's time that my time with you come to a close. But that opens the way for God to do new and wonderful things here at the same time you continue all that blesses and move forward from that which does not. This is an exciting time for St. Paul’s. Be an active part of it!

And now, our New Testament reading this morning constitutes a beautiful blessing I would like to give from my heart to each of you and to St. Paul’s:

I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name. I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.

Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen. [Ephesians 3:14-21]