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“When you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous."
Today, as we officially kick-off a capital campaign to raise some $2.75 million to preserve the buildings at Historic St. Paul’s, Jesus confronts us with a lesson that seems to articulate that the church’s most prized possessions aren’t our buildings but the poor, crippled, lame, and blind.
Thank you, Jesus! You sure know how to make a rector squirm in the pulpit! How about a history lesson to take our mind off this startling juxtaposition?
A few weeks ago, the church calendar remembered Laurence, a deacon and martyr in 3rd century Rome. Under the Emperor Valerian, clergy and wealthy laity were the targets of intense religious persecution. Laurence, the church’s treasurer, watched as his friends and colleagues were beheaded.
One of the court officials gave Laurence an opportunity to be spared from persecution if he gave the emperor all the money from the church’s treasury. So Laurence went back to the church and gave the all the money from the treasury to the poor, the lame, and blind.
Laurence returned to Rome along with the poor, orphaned, lame, and widowed. He then announced to the court official, “These are the treasurers of the church.” This, of course, enraged the court official and Laurence was executed immediately.
At this point you might be thinking, “I’m not sure the rector knows what the definition of distracting is…He actually made it worse…seems like he is about to announce that we should sell the church and give the money to the poor…” You can breathe easy folks. I nor the vestry can put the church on the market – only the diocese can do that!
As hard as it might be to digest, today’s gospel lesson spells out the Church’s most fundamental mission – to reveal a kingdom where the poor and lame and outcast are lifted high. Even more than a community with close friends, even more than a place where you come to receive forgiveness, even more than a place to learn about God’s love, the Church exists because God’s mission is all about forming people, under Christ’s rule, to extend the kingdom of God to the people who are left out of the kingdoms that our earthly societies create.
Anglican Bishop N.T. Wright notes, “Yes, Jesus did, as St. Paul says, die for our sins, but his whole agenda of dealing with sin and all its effects and consequences was never about rescuing individual souls from the world but about saving humans so that they could become part of his project of saving the world.”
Ultimately, the question at hand in today’s lesson and in the life of the Church today asks, “In what direction is the Church oriented?” Are we inwardly or outwardly focused? Several recent studies about church decline show that the primary reason for decline in church membership is directly tied to the fact that churches are growing more inwardly focused – distracted by membership numbers and buildings and programs.
Former Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple, once said, “The Church is the only society that exists for the benefit of those who are not its members.” While this statement might overlook some service clubs like Rotary, I wonder more broadly, “Do you think most people would agree with this statement?”
Do most people really see the Church as a place that exists to serve others? And to be honest, I am not sure. I am sure a lot of people recognize the Church as a place where individual sins are forgiven. But as N.T. Wright said, aren’t we much more than that?
At a diocesan meeting a few years ago, I heard a question that shook me to my core. One of the priests on the committee asked, “What are we doing to save the Episcopal Church?” And I remembered Jesus paradoxical words, “those who want to save their life will lose it and those who want to lose their life for my sake will save it.”
Again, I will ask, “Are we preserving a church building?” or “Is Building on our Foundation a necessary step in this parish’s growing commitment to provide space where all people – poor and lame included – come to be healed, fed, nurtured, and lifted to life lived according to the way of Jesus.
I want to help answer that question by reminding you of something that a visiting clergy said when he visited St. Paul’s. After I finished giving the official tour, the priest touched the wall of the church and said, “Jack, these walls are alive!” He said he has been to a lot of historic churches and most of them seem more like museums, but St. Paul’s is alive.
I know I don’t have to remind you that a church is more than a building. We all learned that when we were three years old. The people of the church are who animate our buildings through the power of the Holy Spirit.
As I say when I give tours, when I first visited St. Paul’s I was stunned by the magnificence of this place, but the real beauty this place began to emerge after worshiping and living with all of you.
For over 140 years, this building has stood as a witness to the kingdom of God – a place where where the people strive to make a place for all of God’s children. Sure, we’ve made some mistakes along the way – but we have repented and grown in grace – that is the only way any church ever grows. And even in an age of church decline and diminishing rural populations, St. Paul’s sees growth in more ways than just church membership.
Every October, Parker Hall is filled three times over with members of the community who come out to enjoy Lobsterfest – a fundraiser for Little Friends School. Speaking of Little Friends, attendance is up and children, rich and poor, black and white, from around the community come to the school and are nurtured by the love of Jesus.
Twice a week our doors are opened for members of the community who struggle with addiction. I couldn’t tell you how many wander into our courtyard to take pictures. Next time you see this happening, I hope you will give a warm St. Paul’s welcome.
I am currently in a conversation with the Atlanta Boys Choir about hosting a community concert in December. Apparently, we are known as a hospitable place beyond the state lines. And in just a few months, the Selma Children’s Choir will start having rehearsals on our grounds.
Beginning Tuesdays on September 13, we will host men’s and women’s Bible studies, and I hope we take advantage of this as an Outreach to the community. Invite your friends. Invite a stranger. Invite the poor and the lame. Invite people to be fed in this place by the healing power of God’s love for all people.
As a priest colleague friend of mine always asks, “How can we create traffic through this place?” So I invite you to consider the same question for St. Paul’s. As you discern your response to Building on our Foundation, dream about what kind of traffic we can create through this place. How might the poor and lame find a place of refreshment here?
How can St. Paul’s continue to grow into a place where all in this community know they are welcome and cared for? What lanes and allies must we walk down in order to pull people to experience the heavenly banquet? And if there is any church in Selma that has the perfect setting for the heavenly banquet, it is St. Paul’s. Remember the Wedding Feast at Cana window? Imagine the possibilities.
At the end of the day, God is calling us into right relationship with our buildings. If our buildings are nothing more than a modern equivalent of a golden calf – a place where we worship ourselves and own accomplishments, then yes we should sell and give the money to the poor. But I don’t accept this answer for St. Paul’s, and I don’t think you do either.
I do not believe God finished with St. Paul’s – not by a long shot. I believe God planted and rooted St. Paul’s in this very spot with this very building as an enduring witness to the radical nature of God’s heavenly kingdom. St. Paul’s has will continue to have a unique opportunity to articulate and model the kingdom of heaven to Selma and even to the country.
And my prayer is that this campaign is used as an opportunity to imagine all that God is making possible through this place that is rich with history and beauty. How we might we continue to take seriously that the people of God – rich and poor, black and white, gay and straight, lame and able-bodied – are the people who make these walls come alive, are the people who add beauty and depth to this place – the people who reflect the infinite wonder and majesty of life with God Almighty?