One afternoon when I was serving a church in Durham, we got a call from a man in an assisted living facility. He wanted to know if a priest would come by and bring a Book of Common Prayer, he didn’t have one. So off I went.
To be clear - this was not a retirement community. This was a state-subsidized assisted living facility. Not like Blakehurst – or Edenwald – or Pickersgill. This man was in bed in his room. His sheets were dirty. His t-shirt had food stains and a hole. He didn’t have a church – he had just called around and finally someone said yes to his request. I really don’t have any memory of what we talked or prayed about – the only thing I remember is feeling what anyone of us would feel for him in that situation – how sad.
That man – he didn’t have an advocate. He didn’t have someone who would speak on his behalf – and make sure he was properly cared for. All of us know how much we need that – hopefully all of us actually have that. Relationships of mutual benefit and caring – relationships of trust – where we know that this person – has our back.
Today is our Annual Meeting – where we hear about the relationships of our common life. Honestly – it’s a meeting to name the ways that our money is where our mouth is. That we aren’t just professing creedal statements in here – but we live what we believe out there.
One of the richest and most rewarding experiences I’ve had this program year has been weekly bible study. Well of course that’s the case Arianne – you’re a priest of course you want to study the bible. Yes – but there’s studying the bible – like in college or a seminary. Delving into the historical context and the “facts” that we learn. And that’s important – you have to have some basic knowledge of the context of each text (and they’re all so very different) to help and guide you in reaching your own conclusions.
So there’s some of that in our bible study – but for the most part – we do something even more important. We read it. We read it aloud – from beginning to end. Five of Paul’s letters. Which is how they are meant to be heard – by a community – written to a community – for the building up of that community. So that the people would hear and remember that someone had their back. That they had an Advocate in Christ. And how they treated one another was the sign of this Spirit in their midst.
Almost every Sunday we hear an excerpt from one of Paul’s letters – though not today. Today – we get to sit in on Paul’s preaching – who knew you’d get to hear two sermons for the price of one (lucky!) And we hear him speak to a community that he doesn’t know – very unusual. When we read the letters of Paul those are always to communities he founded – his mission churches. And it is clear he has a deep love for the people he has left for the sake of proclaiming the gospel of Christ.
And the message he proclaims is that we are all “in God” – God is not a thing, an object. As he says to the good people of Athens this morning – God does not live in shrines made by human hands. God is a reality – that is ever present – all encompassing – and cosmic.
That way of conceptualizing God – does not come easy and tends to be something we grow into. We start out thinking is a part of our lives – residing in a certain place and time in our lives. This is true of several major figures in scripture. Like David – back in 2 Samuel. No longer the little shepherd boy with his slingshot – he’s now king and he’s settled – and he turns to the prophet Nathan and says – look at me. Look how good I have it! I need to build a house for God – a nice one, a big one! And Nathan says great idea – the Lord is with you.
But later that night – the voice of the Lord comes and says – who are you to build me a house? I have not lived in a house since the day I brought the people out of Egypt – and did I ever say once to one of the shepherds who led them – why have you not built me a house of cedar? No – because I don’t build houses – I build up people. Within the people – the community of people – that is where I dwell. (1 Samuel 7)
Which is also how the bible “ends” – ch. 21 of the book of Revelation – See, the home of God is among mortals. God will dwell with them and they will be his people and God will be with them.
This is something Paul grew into understanding. It took his life hitting rock bottom – he was blinded for three days – I would think that would be a terrifying experience. He had to grapple with his own intense regret over the pain he had caused. Remember he was the one who stood by, as we heard last week, when Stephen was stoned to death. Paul is the one that famously says in Romans – Sometimes I do not understand my own actions – for I do not do what I want to do, I do not do what I know is the right thing to do – but I go and do what I hate, what I know to be wrong.
And it is in through that wrestling – through being honest with himself (the most important person to be honest with) that he trusts God at work in his life – and the lives of all the saints (i.e. you) more and more.
When Paul says to the Athenians – God made you and everyone else – and all the world – and all of existence so that we could spend our lives searching – groping – always trying to seek out God – even though – God is closer to us than our own soul. Paul knows what we are all going through – every single one of us – at different times and different stages – in ways more similar than we’d probably imagine – trying to live lives worthy of that to which we’ve been called.
For it is in God – where we live – and move – and have our being. God is not a deity out there – but with us. The phrase he uses 164 times in his letters is – in Christ. In Christ – we are a new creation – adopted as children, as heirs of the riches of grace. And when starting from that position – from that center – we can wrestle and grope – with those things we ought not to do – knowing God loves us through. God’s grace is bigger than our mistakes – and the more often we experience that – the more grace we extend to one another.
Listen, Paul says in Galatians – in Christ the only thing that counts is faith working through love. And when you live into this love together – you will see the Spirit at work in your life – in love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.
And the place where we are to practice this stuff the most – so that we can bring it into all of our lives – is in the body of Christ – what we know as church. Its why we need the building – even though church is more than a building. Paul’s letters reflect a person who was obsessed with transforming people through loving communities. Communities that exist to build each other up. Communities that recognize that every part, every person is needed. Communities where one person plants – another waters – but God gives the growth.
For it is in those communities where you grow advocates. The spirit of reciprocity that is created when we do any ministry together – be it worship – or finance committee – or children’s chapel – or building a house – or serving a meal – we create that Holy Spirit – the Advocate that Jesus promises is always with us – so we know we are not alone.
Our Outreach is to reach out and advocate and support people who need it. All the programs we offer, here on our campus – advocate for our community – to invite people to see that maybe “church” is more than what they think it is. It is a place where we are seeking ways to be our healthiest spiritual, emotional and physical selves – always becoming who we are meant to be.
Paul advocated on behalf of Christ – for people trying to figure out what following Christ meant in the practical, lived reality of their lives. That’s exactly what we continue to do well over 2,000 years later. So if there is excellence in anything today, anything worthy of praise – just for today – Paul says – just think on that.
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, the Advocate - which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.