St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church
The Rev. Barbara Hutchinson
Seven years ago, when I was interviewing here at St. Andrew’s, the Search Committee had written a marvelous Parish Profile for all perspective applicants, outlining a lively commitment to outreach, a devotion to worship, and ongoing opportunities for both children’s and adult formation. I pored over the material, absorbing it like it was the very air I was breathing, circling the phrases and sections I was most drawn toward, and writing in the margins my own ideas of how I could join with you in strengthening and developing your ministries. The one section that had the biggest circles around it was the description of the people gathered at the altar rail. The phrase went something like this: at the altar rail you will see people wearing suits and ties, Capri pants, dresses, jeans, shorts and tee shirts, and khaki pants with a buttoned-down shirt. This one sentence spoke volumes to me, telling me that there was real diversity in this parish – people coming together to be fed and to be made whole through the nourishment offered to us by Christ. There was unity here, without uniformity. And that remains true today. There are some of us who love to roll up our sleeves and get down and dirty in our outreach efforts, and there are some of us who are most comfortable writing a check. There are some of us who find God through exploring the depths of spiritual practices, finding that still small voice of God in Contemplative Prayer and there are some of us who find God through an academic and intellectual approach. There are some of us who participated in the Women’s March in Washington; there are some of us who don’t understand why our past heroes are being charged with crimes committed during an era when the world looked at sexual harassment differently. There are some of us who participated in the recent Pride Day; there are some of us who find ourselves confused as to the fluidity of sexual orientation these days; there are some of us whose hearts break for the refugees; there are some of us who are in favor of keeping these people out of our country; there are some of us have found ourselves financially successful in life; there are some of us who struggle to have enough food to eat by the end of the month; there are some of us who are single parents; there are some of us with large extended families; there are some of us for whom God’s redemption has released our pain and set our hearts on fire to praise and love God; there are some of us who feel only our brokenness and wonder where God is hiding, for it surely isn’t here. There are some of us who embrace the complexity and ambiguity inherent in our Episcopal faith; there are some of us who see our faith rooted in the Nicene Creed with little “wiggle room” in our beliefs or understanding of God; there are some of us who believe politics and church don’t mix; there are some of us who hear the narratives of Jesus as a directive for the church to speak out against political or oppressive forces. There are some of us who love the questions, believing the questions are the pathway to truth; there are some of us who believe in orthodoxy, the right belief. There are some of us who find God through our community; there are some of us who want a personal and private experience of church. There are some of us who see our faith journey as a step-by-step walk with God in Christ; There are some of us who think they’re “done”, at the deepest place they can be with God.
There is a great deal of diversity in our parish community. The common, unifying experience of receiving Communion, where we are so poignantly aware of belonging to God and to one another, allows us to enter into what are often very different lives. This diversity is to be celebrated, even though at times, it makes living together in love, as we are directed today in our scriptures, to be a bit of a challenge. I think so often the friends we chose are those who are most like us, which often doesn’t allow us to develop the skills we need to live with and love someone who can appear to be very different from us. Unless of course, we remember that we are bound together at soul-depth in Christ, that the bread, the body of Christ, is broken, so that each of us can receive a piece and, in our own diverse lives, proclaim this same love of God in a way that is authentic for us. For each Sunday, the presence of Christ is taken within us, changes us, unites us, allows us to belong to one another, even when there are superficial differences between us. This is the gift of Christian community—we can look deeper, into each other’s hearts and souls – and find God there.
Our scripture tells us today, “We are members of one another,” which means we are entrusted with each other’s care. As we are invited to share our resources of time, talent, and treasure toward our parish’s common ministries, we are also invited to share our resources of patience and presence, speaking the truth to one another, kindness, tenderheartedness, and forgiveness, for “we are members of one another.” We are each other’s stewards, for God has entrusted us with each other, for us to build each other up, as we build up and strengthen our parish community and the Kingdom of God.
We learn from our scripture today that when we don’t, when we disparage one another, when we remain angry and disappointed with one another, when “evil talk comes out of our mouth,” we learn we are grieving the Holy Spirit of God with our bitterness, wrath, and anger, so let us never do that, for we want the Holy Spirit among us to support and guide us in our common life, always pointing and leading us toward Christ.
This image of building each other up, of looking beyond our differences, of nurturing and supporting each other, regardless of our differences, reminds me of the book we read on our Wednesday evening gatherings during dinner, Nature’s Temples: The Complex World of Old-Growth Forests by Joan Maloof. This text spoke of the underground mycelium network, which would transport nutrients and water to trees, depending upon their needs.
We too can take our resources and offer them to others, here in this part of the Body of Christ, regardless of how alike or different they may seem to us, so they can grow strong in Christ. This is good stewardship of our community.
One of the best ways to acknowledge, honor, and love each other in Christian community, or whatever community you find yourself in, is to offer and experience good listening. This might seem to be one of the easiest human acts, but it’s actually quite hard. Listening to someone. Simply listening. Not advising or coaching, but silently and fully listening. There may have been a time when a friend was telling you such a painful story that you became speechless. You couldn’t think of anything to say, so you just sat there, listening closely, but not saying a word. And it was just what that person needed. Your presence, your deep listening, allowing the space for healing to open up in the other.
Maybe the act of simply listening is healing because listening creates relationship, and humans were created by God to be in relationship. We know from science that nothing in the universe exists as an isolated or independent entity. Everything takes form in relationship, be it subatomic particles sharing energy or ecosystems sharing food. In the web of life, no living thing lives alone. The natural state of humankind and all of creation is togetherness.
One way we come together is by sharing our stories. Everybody has a story, and everybody wants to tell their story in order to connect. Our parish will soon be engaging in a congregational survey, which will be one avenue for you to tell your story, so we can listen, simply and deeply listen, and then respond. As a way to begin thinking about what stories our survey may uncover, I wonder, if, sometime during the service today or afterwards in coffee hour, you can pick out two people in our parish that you would be willing to listen to their story, to be present to them, to be in relationship them, so that you can understand their lives better, and perhaps, in your simply listening, offer them healing. For listening moves us closer, it helps us become more whole, healthier, and holier. Sadly however, not listening to one another creates fragmentation, and not listening can often happen in our very politicized and polarized world, and always causes more suffering.
I love the biblical passage, “Whenever two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” For me, it describes the holiness found in moments of real listening: the health, wholeness, and holiness of a new relationship forming. I think when you really listen to someone’s story, you find you can’t dislike, be angry with, allow “evil to allow evil to come out of your mouth” or be bitter with someone whose story you know.” Listening creates a relationship. We move closer to one another. We belong to one another. We are members of one another. And “we can live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”