SERMON Epiphany 3C 1/27/19 St. Monica’s Episcopal Church
I read an interesting article the other day about body image, advertising, and the resultant effects on our spiritual, mental, and physical health. The article stated, “Although advertising aims to convince us to buy things, ads seldom portray people that look like us.” The article also stated, “The constant barrage of unrealistically skinny images can stir up feelings of inadequacy, anxiety and depression.”(1) Having a healthy self-image is essential to spiritual health, but in a world where we are bombarded with unrealistic expectations, it is difficult for us to embrace our beauty within. This distortion of “God in us” negatively impacts how we engage in the mission God has in store for us as community.
Some faith communities fall prey to self-image distortion. They compare themselves to mega churches or larger neighboring churches, which with grand ministries, enormous buildings and grounds, and expanding programs seem to be so successful. Those growing or revitalizing little communities begin to compare themselves to others and they feel inadequate, insufficient, and not enough. So, they become impatient and begin to focus on external indicators of mission success, and eventually became distracted from what God has in store for them as a community.
Throughout the history of salvation, communities that tried to discern God’s desire for them also struggled with mission distractions. When Moses led the people of Israel out of bondage in Egypt to the promise land, they were on a long journey that required trust, patience, and perseverance. However, while Moses was on the mountain listening for God’s direction to move forward, the people became impatient, built a Golden Calf (an image of worship of their own making), and through this disobedience, God’s plan for them was totally distorted.
Trusting in God’s perfect guidance for God’s people requires patience, discernment, and a self-image of the community that focuses on the beauty, gifts, and mission of the people within, not the mere external shell that contains that beauty. A healthy self-image and the resultant healthy spiritual journey have much more to do with what is inside, than what is on the outside.
The Human Body
“The Vitruvian Man … is a drawing by … Leonardo da Vinci, which was accompanied by notes based on the work of the architect Vitruvius. The drawing itself is often used as an implied symbol of the essential symmetry of the human body, and by extension, the symmetry of the universe as a whole.” (2) Consider the beauty and perfection of the human body, and you see a glimpse of the wisdom of The Creator.
The eyes, ears, nose, hands, feet, heart, and brain all function together like a well-engineered machine, and each member has its own function. This body in which we inhabit is so perfect, but it still has flaws and imperfections that make each one of us unique and amazing.
That same kind of diversity, both in mission and spiritual gifts is what makes each individual church so unique as well. Like the human body, the church, the Body of Christ gathers together in unity and purpose, but by God’s unique bringing together of that people, we find God’s purpose so we might continue Christ’s mission in the world. Maybe that is a different understanding of church than that with we have known.
Eternal in the heavens
When I was a child my mother taught me a nursery rhyme, to try and help me understand what church was all about. It went like this, “Here’s the church, here’s the steeple, open the doors and see all the people.” The problem with this rhyme is that it implies that the Body of Christ is merely a building filled with people. If we perceive the church as merely a place or edifice, we distort the concept of Christian community that Jesus had in mind.
In the New Testament, Ekklesia is the Greek word often translated as “church”. It means: a gathering of citizens called out from their homes into some public place, an assembly; or those who anywhere, in a city, village, constitute such a company and are united as one body. In other words, the Church is not the building, but the people.
The Apostle Paul, in his letter to the Corinthians, clarifies that fact. He said, “We have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.” The church is the people gathered together in unity, and not merely the edifice in which, the church gathers. We are the church, and when we gather together for worship, study, encouragement, we can be sent out there in the world in every day mission.
In my book, Pioneers, Misfits and Mission, I wrote, “to effectively be the church in the 21st century, we cannot just expect a growing segment of our population (irreligious folks) to step into a church building unaided.” (3) To “bring all people into unity with God and each other in Christ,” which is the mission of the church; we must become clear and focused on God’s purpose, mission, and desire for this particular branch of the Body of Christ. That may mean that the former models of being church in which we all grew up, may not work in this culture today. We will have to do church differently from what we remember from our childhood.
The poetic description of church that we will need to teach the next generations of Jesus followers will sound more like this, “Here’s the church, because here’s the people, look at how they serve others, love others, and are transformed together in Christ. I wonder, do we really need that nice new steeple?” Our mission today is more difficult than ever. We live in a culture where 25-30% of the people among us have no connection to traditional models of religious community.
Today, to be effective in mission, we must begin everything we do, every goal we set, and in every action we take, focused on God’s mission first. Only then will we be able to discern God’s call for how we are to move forward, to discern what the resources, tools, staffing, or maybe even a grander edifice that we will need, to support God’s mission being accomplished through us. You may be thinking, “So, what is our mission again Eric?”
After his sojourn in the desert for 40 days, Jesus entered one of the synagogues, unrolled the scroll of Isaiah and read, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
Throughout Jesus’ ministry, the miracles, teachings, self-giving love on the cross, resurrection, and ascension, Jesus fulfilled this prophecy we heard today. He did it not dot it in the synagogues and Temple, but out there in everyday life and then, he gave that mission to us. After the resurrection, Jesus appeared to he disciples and told them, “go and make disciples of all nations.” That task, my friends is our mission … to make disciples, to expand the Body of Christ, and to help others to do what Jesus does.
Jesus gave us the work to bring good news to the poor (poor in spirit, emotion, and situation); release to the captives and to let the oppressed go free (those in bondage to injustice, indignity, and division); to bring sight to the blind (who cannot see the love of God and the call to love one another). This is the purpose of the church, but we cannot do it effectively following God’s desire and plan, if we get distracted and forget the mission itself, or if we fail to care for the body’s health and welfare. You may ask, “So, why do we gather then Eric?”
Foundational Building Blocks
Our bodies need food, exercise, rest, water, oxygen, and yes, healthy relationships in order to thrive. We call these things the basics of life. Without them the body collapses, the body succumbs to the inevitability of decline and a lack of purpose. The church likewise needs communion, the Body and Blood of Christ to nourish, sustain, and make us unified. We need to exercise in the messiness of what it means to love one another as Jesus loved us. We need to rest in the prayers of mutual support, God’s grace, and in seeking God’s desire for us. We need to breath in the life sustaining grace of the Holy Spirit who inspires, encourages, and guides us all along the way. Most importantly, we need the interactions, connections, and mentoring or our mutual relationships in community.
These things are the foundational basics of Christian community, and without a solid foundation and purpose on which to build the Body (of Christ) it can collapse, and succumb to the inevitability of potential and inevitable decline. Without these basic foundations, we will be unable effectively, to accomplish the work God has given us to do.
Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man reminds us that we are an incredible, diverse, and complex system of members woven together in beauty and precision. However, we can succumb to a false self-image, believing we are not enough or we need to “keep up with the Jones’s.” So, we must be patient, listen, discern, and seek God’s desire for our common life together. We must care for the Body of Christ and build it up for healthy mission and ministry. We must invite others to join us in this journey of discovery, growth, and discipleship and bring more gifts, beauty, and diversity to the mission.
If we do these things first, we will accomplish what God has in store for us now, and in the expectant, exciting possibilities and dreams that God is already stirring in each of us. In time, God will lead us where he desires us to go that is, if we patiently listen for the Spirit’s voice, follow the Spirit’s lead, and trust that already we are the beautiful, gifted, and energized Body of Christ right here and right now, and always will be in the decades to come.
(3) Misfits, Pioneers, and Mission, Cooter, Eric, Create Space Publishing (Amazon), 2017, p. 6