February 3, 2019
4th Sunday After Epiphany
St. Paul’s Teaching on Collaboration
‘O, for the love of God’
There is a poster on the notice board of a church in France, translated it reads: “When you enter this church it may be possible that you hear ‘the call of God’. However, it is unlikely that he will call you on your mobile. Thank you for turning off your phones. If you want to talk to God, come in, choose a quiet place and talk to Him. If you want to see Him, send him a text while driving”. (This joke is relevant to my sermon but you may have to think about how.)
About two years ago this parish embarked on a journey to move from our traditional way of being church towards a collaborative model of ministry. Four Pastors were appointed to work in collaboration with our Rector to provide leadership in the areas of Pastoral Care, Mission and Outreach, Christian Education, and Stewardship. The parish was offered opportunities to study collaborative ministry. We have spent the last two years experiencing and learning about what collaborative ministry looks like at St. Peters. We are well on our way. However, a concept like collaboration means different things to different people, so arriving at a common understanding and vision for this way of being church takes time, effort, and a willingness to change how we worship, live, work and play together.
“A female CEO called a male employee into her office. She stayed seated behind her desk. The young man stood facing her across the desk. She said, “As you know George, as a female CEO, I like to use a collaborative management style. With that in mind, how would you prefer to be fired?”
That’s not quite the model we had in mind here. Collaboration can be messy and often takes more time, because it’s not about efficiency, but about relationship and effectiveness It is much closer to how Christ calls us to be church. Donna and the Pastors team have been reflecting on collaborative ministry and how it is developing and working at St. Peter’s. We have been reflecting on how best we can continue to make progress in living out this model throughout the parish.
So collaboration was definitely on my mind when I looked at the readings for this week. The Old Testament and Gospel readings each emphasize the challenges we face once we begin to fully discern and answer God’s call to us. But the reading that really spoke to me this week was chapter 13 of Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth. It became clear to me that Paul’s teaching is the kind of practical teaching needed to achieve a successful model of Christian collaboration.
I need to preface the rest of this sermon by pointing out that Paul was writing to a young church that he had heard was displaying many unhealthy behaviours. There were many divisions within the church. Paul in his lengthy letter was coaching them on how to become a more healthy and vibrant community serving Christ. We don’t have that situation at St. Peters. We are blessed, in my opinion, with being members of a healthy and vibrant parish. However, a parish doesn’t become or remain healthy or vibrant by accident. It takes vigilance, care and commitment, commitment to one another. It seems to me that the best time to heed Paul’s teaching is when we are healthy, and use his words and wisdom as preventative medicine.
There are some significant barriers to collaboration: we each would like church done “my way”, by that we often mean “the right way”. My mother taught me there were two ways of doing things: her way and the wrong way. We each probably have our own priorities for the ministries carried out through our parish and we tend to think in terms of concentric circles. You know, circles within circles, like a target, with my priority or ministry in the centre, and the other ministries and activities in circles radiating our from the centre. The Further out the less importance they have for me. This thinking can lead our ministries to becoming discrete, independent entities. Which, in turn, can lead to competition and jealousy - these are the enemies of collaboration, health and vitality.
Christian collaboration means putting Christ at the centre and recognizing the interdependence of our ministries - the interdependence among each of us. This is counter to the contemporary culture of emphasizing independence and self-sufficiency. We need to recognize that what one of us does affects all the others, and the same is true for individual ministries.
We can turn to Paul for some help in thinking about this. It’s funny, we think of collaboration as an innovation, something relatively new, but it is clear that that was the model of church, of being the Body of Christ, Paul had in mind.
Let’s start with what we read last week in the previous section of Paul’s letter, when he wrote about the body of Christ (the Church). He said, “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one spirit we were all baptized into one body”. Paul then described the interdependency of all the parts of the body, from what we consider the least to the most important - and how the body needs all of them. He then described the church and how God had provided all the gifts it needed. Paul said all members of the church are needed and all need each other.
We need Christ at our centre if we are to live this model. Paraphrasing Paul, he said that unless we are motivated by the spirit of love [love of God and love of neighbour], all our efforts and activities are in vain - actually, he puts it more starkly than that writing, “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!” Nothing!
Then, Paul tells us what it is like when the Body of Christ is based on a foundation of love, and is motivated and energized by love. He tells us what loving discipleship is like, and what it isn’t like. He was expecting the Corinthian’s to translate these descriptions into healthier behaviours.
How can we apply Paul’s teaching to living in a truly collaborative parish? He wrote: “Love is patient”. Oh my goodness, did he have to start with that! Patience can be so hard. It’s hard being patient with others who see or understand things differently. Why don’t they get it? It’s difficult having patience waiting to get people on side when we just want to get something done. It’s hard having patience when our priority has to wait for the priorities of others. But if we really love Christ, love our church, love our brothers and sisters, and pray and trust God, we will find the patience we need. But no question, it’s a huge challenge, and probably why Paul started there.
He wrote: “Love is Kind”. Sometimes it takes effort to want to be kind to another person or another group. We may have felt hurt or unheard - and we want to respond with words that bite, or actions that frustrate the others. Or perhaps it feels good to throw about a little gossip or innuendo. Or mumble something disparaging under our breath. Love doesn’t do that. When we get these urges we need to step back and ask, “What would be the loving response?”. Don’t get me wrong - love doesn’t mean we won’t have disagreements, or have to confront inappropriate behaviour. But we need to engage with one another out of love. Following Paul’s teaching, we offer the hand of kindness to others.
I have a real life example of what kindness looks like at St. Peter’s. One Sunday morning, one of our members was having a very difficult day. This person was feeling overwhelmed and at the end of worship remained in the pew. Another member noticed. He went up to the person and gently said “Would you like me to sit with you for a while?” The person said “yes please”. They sat for quite some time. The man didn’t offer any comments, just sat quietly with the person. When the person was ready, they thanked the man and they got up and went out of the worship space. The first person told me this story and how much it had meant to them to have the other person notice their distress and to offer such gentle comfort. Love is kind.
But Paul also wrote: “Love is not envious, or boastful or arrogant…” - Whoah, just a minute here; ‘but that other ministry team get’s all the attention, what about ours?’ Or, ‘we did fine work last year, we need to blow our own horn’. As for arrogant, are you kidding? Can I help it it if I’m always right, - just ask Susan! It is so easy to have these feelings, but if we are motivated by love, we will take to heart another thing we read from Paul last week. “If one member suffers - we all suffer together, if one member is honoured, all rejoice together with that member”. We should celebrate the successes of other groups and individuals, not feel envious of them. On Sunday mornings, it’s a lovely time when we gather for worship and take time to share with and support one another; in mourning and in rejoicing. And we need to be more intentional about this throughout our parish life.
I left out ‘rude’ from Paul’s previous grouping, I thought it needed some standalone time. “Love is not rude”. We need to think about rudeness - in an age when common courtesies seem to have vanished from our culture - we have the opportunity to see that if we are motivated by love we will avoid rudeness. In our focus on our agenda, on getting something ‘important’ done, do we ignore someone - or fail to pay them the curtesy of really listening to them? Do we allow our body language to show disrespect for another or their ideas. I’m not sure this is exactly the kind of rudeness that Paul meant - but it is very destructive to community and something we need to be more conscious of.
Paul wrote: “Love does not insist on its own way”. Well that would never happen would it? In other parishes and organizations I have heard people give ultimatums. If you don’t do this I’m leaving. And usually someone on the other side saying If you do do this, I’m leaving. In a loving community, in a collaborative community, we work these things out; we take time, we keep our patience in check, we listen to understand not formulate counter arguments. We work diligently to find a way forward together. We act respectfully to others and try not to undermine another’s status or position. As we say in our Baptismal covenant, “…[we will] respect the dignity of every human being” always of course, with God’s help.
“Love is not irritable or resentful”. Love isn’t, but people often are. These feelings can be a sign of burn-out or caused by a sense of injustice done, or lack of appreciation. As a community we need to be observant of our brothers and sisters and to watch for someone becoming overwhelmed or feeling exhausted, or under-appreciated and taken for granted, and find ways to help them and support them, not react with annoyance. And we need to control our own feelings of irritability and resentfulness and pay attention to what may be contributing to them.
The point of Paul’s letter to the Corinthian assembly, is to put Jesus Christ at the very centre of their life together. It is at our peril that we we put anything else at the centre of our communal life. Let us thank God for the blessing of this parish and for calling each of us to serve Christ here. As we go about our worship, mission and various ministries let us always and consciously put Jesus at the centre. In all our activities let us take to heart Paul’s depiction of the spirit of love, and let us strive to make Paul’s vision of loving Christian community our own, supporting one another in working towards that ideal.
May God continue to bless this Parish of St. Peter, and through the Holy Spirit, lead us ever more into a truly loving and collaborative community of faith, true disciples of Jesus Christ. Amen