RCL Year A, Proper 15
You remember that children’s song with the hand motions?
The church is not a building
The church is not a steeple
The church is not a resting place
The church is the people…..
I am the church
You are the church
We are the church together
All who follow Jesus
All around the world
Yes, we’re the church together!
We are all digesting the news of my leaving ECA – me no less than you. There are a whole lot of feelings amongst us. Some of you are angry; some of you are sad; some of you, perhaps, are relieved. Deep down I believe that Jim and I are following God’s call by this move to New York, but it is nonetheless sad to be saying goodbye to all of you and to this beautiful place. This change is coming sooner than we all anticipated, and it has not been easy sharing the news with you.
There are a whole lot of feelings that you are feeling, and all of them are normal and understandable. But there is one feeling that I want you to resist, and that is despair and hopelessness. Whether you believe it or not, I am convinced that you will be fine. I am not ECA. To paraphrase the song, the church is not the clergy – the church is the people. You are ECA. You, the people, are the church together.
We know this not just because of the song. We know it because you’ve been a congregation for nearly 47 years and I’ve only been here for the last 3 ½ of them. Some of you have been here for most of that 47 years. Some of you have been here much less. But you’re all the church together, every one of you as important as the others.
We know you’re the church because when one of you is sick or grieving, lots of others of you go out of your way to take care of that person. Whether you’re able to ‘pay it back’ or not, many of you have had to learn to accept the gift of care and attention when crisis hit. And many of you have been glad to give the help when it’s been needed.
We know that you’re the church because you’ve met together in groups and committees and vestries and talked long and hard about your mission and how you serve God in this neighborhood. You did that in your last rector search, you’ve done it as we’ve stepped into community organizing, you’ve done it in dinner parties and lunch groups and offsite meetings – many of those meetings, I might add, without the benefit of clergy.
We know you’re the church because you gather here Sunday after Sunday, regardless of who is or isn’t up front leading the service. You have opinions about what happens in worship, but you come whether it’s exactly to your taste or not because you know it’s an important foundation to your life together. You show up.
You are the church, and you will go on long after you’ve called your next rector to join you along the path.
I think you know all of this. And I think over the last few years you’ve been realizing more and more why you are church. That understanding has been expanding and evolving over time, for you and for the wider church. As the culture around us has been changing, we as a whole church together, God’s people in the world, are learning just who we’re here for.
The gospel story we heard today is all about that question. Jesus has an exchange with a woman that still sounds shocking even to our ears. He leaves Jewish territory and roams through Gentile lands, escaping at least for a while the wrath and hostility of the Jewish elders. But even here he is known, and a woman shouts out to him, demanding that he cure her daughter. First Jesus ignores her, then he shrugs her off, and finally when she will not let him go, he insults her to her face. It’s hard to read and hear. Is this Jesus meek and mild, Jesus the loving and inclusive? Doesn’t seem much like it. But the woman persists still further, arguing that even she, a Gentile woman, is part of his mission field. And suddenly he looks at her with new eyes. You’re right, he realizes. Great is your faith!
There are commentators who go out of their way to explain that all of this rudeness from Jesus is just a way of testing the woman’s faith, pushing her to persevere and claim Jesus as her own. It bothers some people that Jesus could actually not know something, that he would need to have his mind expanded by a woman. Personally, I don’t buy it. I think God’s mission and purpose for Jesus was something Jesus was slowly living into and understanding, maybe right up to the end. I think this encounter really does record an instance where Jesus realized that if he was messiah, it was not a role limited to the Jewish people. In fact, his people weren’t really accepting him well at all. In this story, Jesus learned something he hadn’t realized before – who he was here for.
God’s purpose and mission is something we all grow into over time, each of us in our own lives, and as a community together. We start out coming to church for all kinds of reasons, most of them having to do with our own needs. We need community. We need something for our kids. We need support in a hard time. We need a place to try out our new faith and sense of calling. But as we join and keep coming and as we begin to belong, the purpose of our being church grows and evolves. We start to come because of other people, people there we’ve become friends with, or people who we realize have come to need us. We come because it’s a place where we can serve others and participate in something bigger than ourselves. And gradually, it grows beyond ‘me’ to ‘us.’
But there is further that it can go still. Jesus knew he was not living for his own self; he believed he was living for his people Israel. But the Canaanite woman showed him that it was greater even than that – he was living for everyone, those who came to listen to him and those who never would. For him it went beyond ‘us’ to ‘all.’
And that is where our mission lies as well. We are church not just for this community of people gathered here; not even just for the wider community of our extended family and friends. We are church for people we don’t know and never will know; who may never darken this door or any church door. As one of our music candidates said to me the other day, we sing our hymns for those who have no voice. We take care of one another on behalf of those who are lost and alone; we take counsel together for the greater good of the world beyond our walls. As we live our common life together we hold the world in prayer and intention; we cannot block them out, those who are hurting and in need. No matter how comfortable our lives, no matter how easy it is not to remember them; no matter how anxious we are about our own particular future. We are church for more than just us alone.
I know these next weeks will not be easy ones for us together. But who you are and what you have done so far has not depended on me or any of your clergy; who you are and what you do going forward will not depend on that either. Your and my mission is greater than that. We are God’s people in the world. May we live that out for all to see, and know it ourselves. Amen.