Sermon for Sunday, January 30, 2022 || Epiphany 4C || 1 Corinthians 13:1-13
I spend a good amount of time every January attending to the operational and organizational side of the church as we develop a budget, analyze various metrics, review staff roles, and seek out new vestry members. I wouldn’t consider any of these activities to be in wheelhouse, so I find I have to attend to them in a very focused way.
This can cause a particular problem. I call it the January Problem. The January Problem is this: I can focus so carefully on the “what” and “who” and “how much” that it’s easy to lose focus on the “why.” So today, I’d like to extricate myself from the January Problem and focus on the “why” by talking about two interrelated concepts: love and mission.
First, love. In today’s famous passage from First Corinthians, Paul offers a corrective to the January Problem. In the chapters of First Corinthians surrounding these stirring words, Paul takes the church in Corinth to task for focusing on the wrong thing. They are so jazzed about their spiritual gifts that they forgot why God blessed them with the gifts in the first place. They forgot God blessed them so they could be blessings in the lives of all they met. On top of that, they are so worried that their community appears respectable that they forgot why God called them into community. They forgot God called them to respect the dignity of all people, especially those whom society labeled as worthless. The Corinthians forgot their great “why.” And so Paul corrects them by talking about love. He says,
“If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.”
The great “why” is love: the desire to be woven together, the will to sacrifice for one another, the commitment to remain in lifegiving relationship for the long haul. With God’s love animating their lives, the Corinthians could put their wonderful spiritual gifts to use in loving, liberating, and lifegiving ways.
We, too, are people of God’s love. We share with one another the love of Jesus and practice being a beloved community. We then share that same love out to ever-wider circles of influence as we participate in God’s mission of healing and reconciliation in this world.
And there’s that second concept: mission. Many, many churches have “mission statements” that governing boards develop and revise meticulously over months and years. They release the statement in a flurry of fanfare. This mission statement is our “why”; isn’t it beautiful? And it probably is. Unfortunately, more often than not, the statement disappears after a time, fading into the background because of all the various January Problems that seem so important. And that’s why, in my eight years here at St. Mark’s I have resisted the urge to write a mission statement. Rather, I decided our mission statement is really a mission prayer, and it’s right there at the end of every service. In 2016, I made a big deal about the words of the postcommunion prayer being our mission statement. Our fall pledge drive was based on those words that year. I even started calling it the “postcommunion prayer for mission.” And I still call it that.
I thought I was so clever, sidestepping the problem with mission statements by employing words we say every week. But then, of course, the same thing happened anyway. We say these words every week, but how many of us have taken the time to reflect on how they envision our mission and support our great “why”?
I’m going to spend the rest of the sermon talking about this prayer because, even if it has faded into the background a bit, these words still light a fire in my heart whenever I hear them anew.
Eternal God, heavenly Father,
you have graciously accepted us as living members
of your Son our Savior Jesus Christ,
and you have fed us with spiritual food
in the Sacrament of his Body and Blood.
Send us now into the world in peace,
and grant us strength and courage
to love and serve you
with gladness and singleness of heart;
through Christ our Lord. Amen.
The first half of the prayer reminds us of two things that support our mission in the second half of the prayer. The two things are these: first, we are members of God’s beloved community, the Body of Christ; and second, Christ nourishes us, feeds us with that mysterious sacramental presence. We, the Body of Christ, together are fed by receiving the Body of Christ.
This community and this nourishment launch us into our great “why,” which starts with the word “Send.” In ancient Greek, this word is apostole, which is where we get the word “apostle.” An apostle is one who is sent out.
Where does God send us? “Into the world.” This world that is broken and beautiful. This world that is groaning under the weight of injustice and at the same time glowing with the hearts of so many who are working tirelessly to build a just society.
How does God send us into the world? “In peace.” This peace happens in two ways. First, peace is the sense of inner restfulness that Julian of Norwich dwells in when she says, “All shall be well and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.” Second, peace is the condition of the just society I just mentioned, as when Martin Luther King, Jr. says, “”True peace is not merely the absence of tension; it is the presence of justice.”
As God sends us, we ask for “strength and courage to love and serve God.” We ask for strength so we can keep putting one foot in front of the other. We ask for courage because God’s ways are not the world’s ways and we fear ostracism when we work for peace and justice. With God’s strength and courage lifting us up, we are able to love and serve. This is the heart of our great “why.” We come together to love and serve God. We love and serve God by loving and serving one another, by loving and serving all people, especially those whom society labels as worthless, and by loving and sustaining this creation that God blessed us to tend and steward.
And we do all this with “gladness and singleness of heart” through the example and power of our Lord Jesus Christ. Singleness of heart means our hearts are not divided, but are devoted to the only One truly worthy of devotion.
This is our prayer. This is our mission. We follow Jesus with undivided hearts, loving and serving God and our neighbor, and working for justice and peace, so this entire world is nourished to become the beloved community of God.
When we reach the postcommunion prayer for mission at the end of this service, pray these words anew, and hear in them the great “why” that God has placed on our hearts. And together we will live out this mission, with God’s help.