The Family Table
A sermon preached by The Rev. Dianne Andrews at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Port Townsend, WA, January 31, 2016, Annual Meeting Sunday.
The writer Nora Ephron once defined a family as “a group of people who eat the same thing for dinner.” Her simple statement implies… not necessarily blood ties, or like-mindedness, or even civility. But it could. The make-up of the group gathered around a table to share family meals will change over time as new faces appear, and those gathered at the table move through their life cycles… as babies are born and learn to walk, and run and are soon to donning cap and gown, at some point leaving the nest, reconfiguring their lives, leaving town, returning to the table, moving through the stages of adult life finally leaving the earth bound table for good as they move on to their final reward…with new family members continuing to take their places the table. If we use Nora’s definition that family is “a group of people who eat the same thing for dinner” we can most certainly say that church is family, a group who gathers together, to share stories and meals, and to share the work clearing the table and doing the dishes and planning the next gathering. Church is a family whose identity is not known in a common last name, but rather in the identity of belonging that we claim at our baptism into the Body of Christ. We are welcomed into the family of faith through the waters of baptism and together we return again and again to be fed at Christ’s table to share the holy food of our common life.
In her book Searching for Sunday Rachel Held Evans has written that the church is “God saying, ‘I’m throwing a banquet and all these mismatched, messed-up people are invited. Here, have some wine.”1 And so it its. When we think back to the early church we must remember that they were budding communities, groups of individuals and blood relatives who brought their gifts and their foibles to the challenge of being a family of faith… navigating an uncharted course as they lived into their new identities as followers of Christ. They were not yet known as Christians but rather as people of “The Way” a term that implies no walls, stained glass, pulpit or choir. It is a term that is inherently dynamic. Church was a way of living faithfully… a journey that promised blessings and challenges in this life with the final destination located beyond this earthly sojourn. There was no “how to” recipe for being “church.” Church in the first century was a Jesus movement composed of small clusters of the faithful who gathered to worship in homes and to share the meal known as Eucharist. This budding group of Jesus followers was the church in its infancy… and there was much change and growth in the centuries ahead. In fact, the early church family could hardly have envisioned the forms that church would take as it grew and changed over time constructing buildings that reached to the heavens and an institution that at times became weighted down with jewel encrusted finery and restrictive legalism. And then the church changed some more. We are members of a large and diverse family that share the name Christian, that has now known two thousand years of building, and reforming, of being challenged, changing and not changing, and of being challenged again. Yet we are still a people of the Jesus movement, we are people of “The Way” as we journey forward into the promise of ever more abundant life.
As in any family, in any time, the nascent church knew challenges, disputes, missteps, and personality clashes. They were groupings of fallible human beings trying their best at times, and failing miserably at others. The early church had Paul as their pastor, one who had had his own encounter with the risen Christ in an experience of total conversion that forever changed his life and set him on a totally new course with a vocation to spread the gospel out into the larger world. When we read Paul’s letters in our time we must do some translating… our context is different from that of the early church…. But the central and abiding message of Paul is that we are now and forever called to live in the light of Christ’s transforming love… a call that invites us to grow in on-going relationship with the living Christ and with one another. Paul’s message is that there is more life… and then more…and then even more life in the One into whose name we have been baptized.
Today we are considering the 13th chapter of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, known as the “love chapter” in which there is a lot of “love language.” This 13th chapter of 1st Corinthians is located smack in the middle of a letter that only later, centuries after its writing, was divided up into 16 chapters. This portion of Paul’s letter is often read at weddings, in fact it was read at my own wedding. If one hears 1 Corinthians chapter 13, without considering the rest of the letter, it can sound merely like a sweet and lovely prescription for Christian love:
(read sweetly) Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.
But Paul is writing to a congregation that is in conflict. He is offering his pastoral observations and advice to a troubled and quarreling community. In his letter Paul names problems that he has heard about and offers direction about how to move through their conflicts. When he sat down to write the letter Paul was most likely in the town of Ephesus on the coast of Turkey… about 180 miles from Corinth. The year was somewhere between 53 and 57. Over 20 years had passed since Jesus’ death and resurrection. Paul would have been sitting at a desk using a reed pen with a bronze stylus. I can envision him in a very thoughtful posture as he repeatedly dipped his pen into ink, writing on paper made from papyrus reeds that had been pounded and pressed into sheets of paper. Paul would pause between sentences to gather his thoughts as he held the struggling congregation close hoping to send a message that would touch their hearts and set them on better course. He was using the inherently limited tool of language to impart a message that is beyond words. Paul had spent 18 months with the small congregation at Corinth and was in the first of a three year stay in Ephesus. The reports that he had heard from Chloe’s people were weighing heavily on him as he put pen to paper. Maybe Paul meant to impart a more emphatic tone as he is tries to get his message across:
(read more sternly): Love is patient! love is kind! love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude!. It does not insist on its own way! it is not irritable or resentful! it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.
Some have said that in our time the 13th chapter of 1 Corinthians has been domesticated right out of its context. Whether heard sweetly or sternly, the message about the transforming power of love continues to speak to our condition as a church, as a community, as a family of faith who gathers together at the table.
This morning we will together as a whole congregation for our annual meeting to do the “business” of the church. Throughout this past year we have know blessings and challenges… and we will continue to know them. A faith that is alive and lived out is not to be staid and settled. We are a family whose make up will continue the organic movement of change as people come and people go. At present we do not have a mission statement here at St. Paul’s, and maybe it is time that we work through the processes of putting some well discerned words together that that can guide our life and our mission as a family in Christ. In the past couple of years we have been using words and images that describe an ongoing process of being church, gleaned from the College of Congregational Development. We “gather” to be “transformed” and then are sent out into the world as God’s “agents of transformation” in the world… and then we return together again to be transformed ever more. We gather at the baptismal font and at the holy table. We are transformed by our encounter and ongoing relationship with God that we know in this sacred place. And then we take the Christ’s light and love back out through those doors until it is time to return again as a community, as a family, as a people who pass the Kleenex and share the hymnal, set the table and wash the dishes… a people who share with one another life events and milestones.. celebrations and losses… bringing our blessedly imperfect selves to the table to share in this great enterprise of faith known as “church” with a family name of “St. Paul’s.”
In 1 Corinthians 13 Paul never suggested that love “feels good.” From our textured experiences of love and relationships we know that true love and caring endures life’s rough patches. What we are not to do is to throw our hands up in the air and leave the table when the going gets tough or our passion feels deflated. The invitation and promise is always to deeper life in community… that does not have its identity in a building, but in the relationships that bind us one to another in Christ. God’s love is always calling forth something new, reconciling and ever redeeming.
In his second letter to the Corinthians Paul speaks of the sacred message that is written in community, and that is far richer than words put to paper. In the third chapter of Paul’s second letter to Corinthians Paul writes:
You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, to be known and read by all; and you show that you are a letter of Christ, prepared by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts. (2 Corinthians 3:2-3)
Brené Brown, the Episcopalian sociologist who is teaching and challenging the world on the topic “vulnerability” has said:
I went to church thinking that it would be like an epidural, that it would take the pain away… but the church isn’t an epidural; it’s like a midwife. I thought faith would say, “I’ll take way the pain and discomfort, but what it ended up saying was, “I’ll sit with you.”2
The gift and the challenge of being family is that we bring all of who we are, in all of our blessed vulnerability, to sit with one another as we go through our struggles and our pain, as we celebrate together life’s milestones, and give back to God and one another in thanksgiving. May we continue to be blessedly challenged and use the language of love, spoken on our lips and in written in our lives as a beloved family of Christ here at St. Paul’s that has its membership in the eternal family of witnesses that spans the generations, a family that through these past two millennia continues to gathers around the table to share a feast of bread and wine… food for the journey… in a common meal that says we belong to Christ and to one another.
1 Pg. 153
2 Rachel Held Evans, Searching for Sunday, pg. 209
1 Corinthians 1:1-13