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Sustenance

Rev. Terry McKinney
Sun, Mar 17

The Fifth Sunday in Lent
Text: Exodus 18:5-9, 13-27 and Ephesians 4:1-7, 11-16

“Habemus Papam!”

“We have a pope!”

Oh wait, that’s an unusual way to start a sermon in a Congregational Church. But I begin with it because it’s been at the forefront of the American imagination for the past few weeks.

If I took a secret poll of those of us following the story of Benedict resigning, the conclave to follow, and the election of Francis I – either by TV, internet, radio, print, or water cooler – it would include the vast majority of us. We seem to be fascinated by a pageantry for which we don’t have an equivalent in the US. The royal wedding of William and Kate kept thousands of Americans glued to their television sets, for example. And here, if you can set aside any theological objections you might have, there was pageantry going on here too.

For a lot of us, there was also a fascination with the hierarchy, how much of it there is, and how tricky it is to remember. From the pope to the cardinals, to the archbishops, to the bishops, down to the diocesan priests, then finally the deacons. The monsignors fall in there somewhere, but I have no idea where. I probably left somebody out, so please remind me after the service.

By watching all this, it’s easy to be distracted by all the pomp and hierarchy, but perhaps there’s another way of looking at it. This is just one example of being one people, an expression of God’s desire for our wholeness, or as is written on our United Church of Christ from the Gospel of John, “that they all may be one.”

For me, it was difficult to look out at the thousands and thousands of faithful from the vantage point of the papal balcony, to see all of them waiting for the announcement of the new pope, as well as scenes of the faithful all across the globe, and not marvel at all that united them, despite nationality, age, gender… And even though there are tensions within the Catholic Church, and even though their expression of faith differs from mine, I thought, “That they all may be one.”

This conclave reminded me of the election of Benedict in 2005, when I was attending a Jesuit seminary as their token protestant. My fellow students were nervous because the Vatican was wary of the Jesuits. They always dance on the line of orthodoxy, doing crazy things like letting a gay protestant into one of their seminaries.

So I appreciated for the first time just how much, as head of the Catholic church, the pope sets the tone/standard for how Catholic theology is practiced, all the way down to diocesan priests, seminary deans, and monastic orders; the church proclaims their faith to be eternal and unchanging throughout the entirety of the faith, but how it’s practiced and what parts are emphasized changes from pope to pope, as does the experience then of each Roman Catholic.

It’s easy for us Congregationalists to scratch our collective head at this and wonder at the structure of it all, but for many Catholics around the world, this is a powerful manifestation of what they might see as an unchanging yet paradoxically dynamic faith that traces its history all the way to the apostle Peter.

It’s not simply a top-down hierarchy only, which would be easy to conclude; it’s bottom-up as well. In my own experience, I’ve seen the support and the individual talents and gifts brought by faithful Catholics to their parishes, and to their pastors. A Catholic friend of mine attends a church strongly committed to social justice. She sells her artwork to help fund their work, others make signs, some make calls, some write elected officials, and others provide rides so they can all get there. All these gifts support each other, and support the pastor who’s equally committed to their causes.

And having been in the basement room where Cardinal Sean O’Malley hangs out with his fellow Capuchins (yes, that’s a true story, for another time), I’ve seen the support he receives from pastors and bishops. For the structure of the Roman Catholic Church to work, both directions are required: the faithful support the clergy with their gifts, and on upward to the pope, and the pope supporting the faith of millions. It’s a structure that sustains them. Many gifts, mutual support. This is how they’re called to be church. How could it work otherwise?

Many of you may be scratching your collective First Church head at this point, wondering why I’m going on about the hierarchy of the Catholic Church. We can look at something so current, and with such mystery surrounding it; we can consider something so many of us have just witnessed and considered foreign; and we can see how it’s just one of the manifestations of how a people called by God operate with a kind of structure we don’t experience as Congregationalists, yet can still appreciate as one of kind of wholeness.

So let’s shift our attention. On from Catholicism to Moses, it’s wonderful to compare this to the story from Exodus. Isn’t it great? It’s almost as if we’re getting a sneak peek at the birth of a kind of leadership organism.

Moses is carrying the weight of an entire nation on his shoulders. Up to now, he’s been the sole agent between God and the people. How’s that for a big job?

In comes his father-in-law, Jethro. He takes one quick look at the burnt out Moses and makes an observation, grave in consequences, that opens Moses’ eyes and changes the picture of his leadership entirely. Jethro’s concern isn’t just for Moses; he points out that if Moses cracks, the nation will crack. As goes Moses, so goes Israel. The problem is clear: Moses cannot do this work alone, and for the sake of the nation, should not. And to Jethro’s mind, the solution is obvious. Moses must choose people he can rely on to help carry the burden of his work.

What’s interesting to note here is that Jethro doesn’t propose a strict hierarchy; he proposes a dispersing of work, a branching out, a model of sharing the load through a kind of mutual support. Jethro introduces a powerful notion of a semi-autonomy, a distributive adjudication. Moses’ trusted men individually and independently decide for themselves all but the major cases, which are then referred to Moses. This must have required an extraordinary relinquishing of control on Moses’ part that can’t have been easy. Moses had to remain, after all, the sole agent between God and the people. But by distributing what’s required to be that agent, he recognized God’s will that being leader of a nation requires partnership and support, just as he needed that same partnership with Aaron in freeing his people from pharaoh.

What an amazing story. In just a few verses, a new structure of being God’s people is changed. Jethro saw what was unsustainable for Moses and all Israel, and knew what it would take to sustain it. Many gifts make it possible: Jethro gave the gift of his wisdom, Moses gave the gift of extending leadership, and the trusted men gave the gift of taking on what weighed so heavily on Moses. By this evolution in polity, so to speak, the gifts and mutual support were key: Moses had to support the men he trusted, and the men had to support Moses. Alas, we’re not told of the many gifts of the people, but judging by any community of faith I’ve witnessed, they were there. By giving the gifts they had, and working together, they ensured that Israel could all be one.

To skip ahead a few thousand years from Moses, through the Roman Catholic Church to us, how does this compare with our structure? In a way, we’re the opposite of the Roman Catholic Church. One might say we’re hierarchy-free, but that’s like saying we’re non-credal, neither of which is entirely true.

Ours begins not at the top, but at the very bottom with the individual church. And in that church, there’s a dizzying array of clergy, deacons, committees, ushers, musicians, Christian educators, and faithful attendees bringing what time and talents they have to share, in a wonder of interwoven mutual and interdependent support.

From there, it goes upward to associations, conferences, synods and national associations. And here’s one of the most amazing parts: all of it is optional.

It would be very tempting at this point to see the path I’ve been taking as tracing the evolution of hierarchy, as if we traveled through Moses’ experience, passed blithely through the Roman Catholic Church, only to reach hierarchical zenith in the Congregational Church! But we are, in fact, no different from other denominations. We’re simply yet another expression of the mutual support and exchange of gifts that’s needed by a people of God, so that they all may be one.

Just as with the Presbyterian Church, the Johavah’s Witnesses, the Lutherans, the Seventh Day Adventists, the Episcopalians, the Mennonites, the Baptists, the Disciples of Christ, the Eastern/Russian/Greek Orthodox, the Quakers… None of these could exist without a way of living that involved showing up with your faith, showing up with your gifts, ready to give, ready to receive, ready to support, and ready to be supported.

And this is where, at long last, we turn to our passage from Ephesians. It’s so important, and so germane to the ideal of the wholeness God wants for us, that I’d like to read it again.

I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all. But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ's gift. The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people's trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body's growth in building itself up in love.

We’ve all been given many different gifts, they’re all of it rooted in God, and their purpose is that we, as one body, may grow into Christ, the head of the church. And finally, the unforgettable imagery: a whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it’s equipped. With which you and I are equipped.

This is a call, not to denominational wholeness, but to the wholeness of body, that we all may be one.

That day will come, but in the meantime we have to ask ourselves: how do we work toward the wholeness God calls us to? How do we support one another? How do we give and receive? How do we lead and be led by one other?

We’re lucky enough to share our discernment about these questions with one another after church, but until then, I encourage you to listen to what’s inside you:

What are your gifts? What talents do you have to give? How do we practice sustainability? How do we promote the body’s growth by building itself up in love?

Some of you may be wondering what gifts you could possibly have: You could have a gift for cooking and fellowship. You could have a strong singing voice. You could be a very good doodler. You could be bold in welcoming people to the church. You could make us aware of the importance of composting. You could have the gift of knowing how our plumbing works. You could have the gift of humor when it’s most needed. You could give rides. You could be a poet or composer. You could show up with casseroles. You could be a planter. You could be a doctor or an architect. You could take what you experience here, and bring it out into a world that so badly needs it. You could send cards. You could be an accountant. You could have a deep practice of daily prayer that sustains our faith. It’s a beautifully woven interdependence that supports each other, gives to one another, and brings about our wholeness, that we may all be one.

This is how we are called to live as church. How could it work otherwise?

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