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Sunday, October 05, 2014

Stewardship of Community

The Vocation of Community
Brooklyn, NY – October 5, 2014
(the Rev’d Dr.) Elizabeth Kaeton

Good evening. Before I begin my sermon, I’d like to claim a few moments of personal privilege. I’ve known your rector since he was a seminarian at Drew. That wasn’t all that long ago, but, oh, my, my, my we have come a long way, baby.

I am so proud of this man, I could simply burst. I can’t tell you what an absolute delight and honor and privilege and joy it is to be invited into his pulpit, to have earned a share of his trust.

So, I’m going to stop now before I break into tears like a proud woman who is honored to be known as one of his mentors.  Please pray with me.

Holy God, take my mouth and speak through it, take my spirit and breathe through it, take my heart and set it on fire with a passion for your Gospel. Amen.

So, as I understand it, this Evensong kicks off for you at St. Luke and St. Matthew, the Season of Stewardship – a time when you, as a community of faith, will be looking at all the different aspects of the vocation of stewardship.

Tonight, we’ll be looking at the Stewardship of Community. Which is why I chose this passage (John 19:25-27) from John’s Gospel when Jesus, from the cross, is heard to say, “Woman, behold your son.” And, turning to the beloved disciple, he said, “Behold your mother.”

You may recognize this passage as part of the “Seven Last Words” of Jesus – seven moments during the three hours Jesus reportedly hung from the cross when Jesus said some deeply profound things. You may have heard some of these “Seven Last Words” preached by various people in a Good Friday Service.

It is of great significant that Jesus spoke of caring for his mother from the cross. Now, this is a detail he could have taken care of any time. He had been talking about his death for weeks – maybe even months. He could have whispered something to someone at any time – even leaned over to the Beloved Disciple over the table at The Last Supper.

But, he waited until he was in agony, naked and hanging from the cross, to say something about caring for his mother. Which, of course, raises a question about the larger context of his words. Many scholars agree that what Jesus was saying was something much deeper, much more significant, than, “Take care of my mother.”

I believe that, with those words, Jesus was calling us into deeper intimacy of relationships. Some people call that “the family of God”. Or, make reference to our being “brothers and sisters in Christ”. And call us a “church family”. Indeed, some of you may call your rector, “Father Michael” and you might refer to me as “Mother Elizabeth”.

Whenever I hear those kinds of descriptions of church, I confess to feeling a cold chill run up and down my spine. It’s sort of like that New Yorker cartoon I once saw. It’s a large auditorium with three or four people sitting in various chairs around the otherwise empty room. There is a person at the podium on stage. And, above the podium is a banner which reads, “Annual meeting of adult children of functional families.”

Hi, my name is Elizabeth and I’m a member of a dysfunctional family. Gold star level. 

Can I see a show of hands? How many here are members of what we lovingly refer to as “dysfunctional families”? Right! Just as I thought.

So, why in heavens name do we want to recreate that mess in our church? The Body of Christ? The New Jerusalem? The Community of Faith?  Why would we recreate our dysfunctional families as our “church family”? Because, you know, that’s often what we do. We don’t mean to, or intend to, but we do it anyway. And, the impact can be devastating.

I’m a Hospice Chaplain and I can tell you that a clear 85-90% of my patients do not have a “church home”.  Some of it is due to the fact that, as people age, they are unable to get back to church. We pray for those people every week but the euphemism “the shut ins.”

 I’m here to tell you that they are not so much “shut in” as they are “shut out”.  No one comes to re-member them into the community of which they were once a vibrant, integral part.

Then, there’s the majority of that 85-90% who are “homeless” because they left their church due to some conflict in the church. Sometimes, it was over theology or philosophy, but, more often than not, it was over something stupid like how the linens were folded, or the color chosen to replace the carpet in the narthex. Hand to Jesus! As I listen to the story, it has all the markings of a stupid family squabble. That’s because, you know, it is.

Maybe it’s just me, but I’m hearing Jesus saying more than just “Take care of my mom after I’m gone.” I’m hearing Jesus calling us, from the cross, to deeper, more intimate relationships – relationships that are beyond blood and DNA, kith and kin, clan and tribe.

I’m hearing Jesus calling us to look beyond the blood we might share and into the blood he shed for us. I’m hearing Jesus calling us out of the placental water from which we were born and into baptismal water to be born again. I’m hearing Jesus calling us to separate out the strands of familial DNA and dive deeply into the intricate matrix of being a new creation in Christ.

And that’s it, you see. It’s about calling. Vocation. I hear Jesus calling us into the vocation of community. Community is a vocation.  Just let that thought sink in for just a moment. Let your brain wrap itself around that thought: The vocation of community.

I do believe that communities of faith are not as haphazard a thing as it might first appear, at least on the surface. I think there is an amazing grace to the ways in which we are called into specific communities at specific times in our lives – and, at specific times in the life cycle of a community of faith.

It’s like chaos theory, you know? As author Mark Helprin writes in A Winter’s Tale:
“Nothing is random, nor will anything ever be, whether a long string of perfectly blue days that begin and end in golden dimness, the most seemingly chaotic political acts, the rise of a great city, the crystalline structure of a gem that has never seen the light, the distributions of fortune, what time the milkman gets up, the position of the electron, or the occurrence of one astonishing frigid winter after another. Even electrons, supposedly the paragons of unpredictability, are tame and obsequious little creatures that rush around at the speed of light, going precisely where they are supposed to go. They make faint whistling sounds that when apprehended in varying combinations are as pleasant as the wind flying through a forest, and they do exactly as they are told. Of this, one is certain.”

“If nothing is random, and everything is predetermined, how can there be free will? The answer to that is simple. Nothing is predetermined; it is determined, or was determined, or will be determined.”
You see, we may think we “just happened” to find this amazing place, or that Michael’s coming here was chance or an amazing piece of good luck. Oh, we can talk about “God’s will” but I’d rather talk about God’s call to us to be together and live together in the intimacy of being part of the body – the very sinews and muscle, the red and white blood cells, the bones and teeth and hair – of Christ.

I don’t think it is so much God’s “will” as it is God’s “call.” We have a choice in whether or not – or even how – we answer that call. We have the gift of free will. Community is a vocation. A calling from God to be the incarnate, resurrected  Body of Christ. And, we are called into intimacy which takes us beyond social constructs of “mother/father” “sister/brother”. We are beyond mere “family” and into what the Hawaiians call “o’hana’. O’hana are not people of the same family blood. O’hana are people of the same land.

Christians are not necessarily people of the same family blood. Christians are people of the same blood of Christ which makes us the family of God.

There is no prescribed way to be a Christian community. There is only your way. Each part of the Body of Christ will have its own, distinctive quality, based on its own unique vocation. For many of us, it’s a wonderful merger of cultures and difference in beliefs, reflecting how we come to faith from a variety of multicultural perspectives and pluraform truths.

Here’s what I know to be true: An authentic community of faith is one that is strong enough to be risk being vulnerable to each other. It is one that is willing to surrender the cherished part for the sake of the even more precious whole. It is to enter into conversation with the intent of conversion. To risk personal transformation for the sake of the revolution of the Gospel.

That is why we must be good stewards of community. Because it is a precious, divine gift. It needs tending and watering so that it might blossom and flower and bear fruit.

We have a shot at redemption here, you know: To redeem the dysfunction of our families of origin by living more fully as a new creature in the new creation of the family of God.
We don’t have to treat each other like our biological sisters and brothers or mothers and fathers – God forbid! – especially if you are bearing a grudge or carrying around some unfinished business.  To be a good steward of community is to let that stuff go – prune the branches, cut out the weed or clear out the underbrush that is stunting growth – and allow yourself to grow, as St. Paul says, into the full stature of Christ.

That hard work is also part of the Stewardship of Community.

So, church, when you look at each other, please see in each other not a dollar sign, but the sign of the cross. Look at each other and allow the Christ in to  behold the Christ in the other. 

See Christ alive and living in this place, not just in the Sacraments of the church but in your everyday, ordinary sacramental lives of faith in which we are broken and poured out and consumed in the name of Christ so we can be the true presence of Christ in the world.

Take each other into the very heart of your hearts – where truth and love, honesty and authenticity abide and make a dwelling place– to live together in peace. And, love one another, as God loves you.



Beyond boundaries of reason and respectability.

And the peace of God, which passes all human understanding, will be in your hearts and in your minds and in your community of faith.


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