Acts 2:1-21; Psalm 104:25-35, 37b; 1 Corinthians 12: 3b-13; John 20: 19-23
The Rev. James M.L. Grace
In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. AMEN.
We have billboards all over this city. You drive along the freeways, you can’t miss them. I try to ignore most of them, but some occasionally catch my eye. Like one that used to be on 1-10 which asked a provocative question regarding our mortality. You all might have seen it when driving back into Houston from San Antonio – the billboard said something like “If you were to die right now would you go to heaven (the word “heaven” was in elegant blue cursive script) or hell (written in giant red letters H-E-L-L)?”
The effect of this particular billboard was somewhat diminished, however, by a sign for the “Buffalo Wild Wings” restaurant which was placed almost immediately in front of it. If you were driving by at just the right moment and glanced up at the billboard, the question presented would read this way: “If you were to die right now would you go to heaven or Buffalo Wild Wings?” That’s a tough question, especially if you like wings as much as I do.
Something I’ve noticed about billboards in our city that advertise churches is that those billboards frequently feature a person or two on them. Typically the person on a church billboard advertisement is the Sr. pastor or head priest (and because they all tend to be mostly men and straight, they are pictured alongside their wives, who stand beside them with perfect hair and smiles plastered smile on their face as if the perception of “success” those billboards present are what being a Christian is all about. Those billboards depress me for a number of reasons, including the fact that they promote and perhaps reinforce the idea that the pastor or priest in charge of the church has it altogether, which is a lie, but more distressing to me is that these billboards promote, at least to me, the toxic idea that the head priest or pastor (and of course their spouses) are the center of the church, the very hub at the center of the wheel.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Today we hear part of a letter written by the Apostle Paul to a church he helped establish in the Greek city of Corinth. The recipients of the letter 1 Corinthians lived in a commercial city accustomed to trade, commerce, and culture – similar to Houston, just without all the billboards.
Which is probably for the better, because in the part of the letter to the church in Corinth we hear today, Paul reminds the community that every person in the church has a gift given to them by God. Paul calls them spiritual gifts: the gifts of knowledge, faith, wisdom, healing, working of miracles, discernment, and the list goes on.
I can only imagine that the purpose behind Paul writing these words was that the church he was writing to was not dependent upon the person on the billboard to run the show. It was understood back then that a church was not about a leader or even a building, it was about the community. The word in Greek used to describe this community is ekklesia, which means “to call out.” It’s another word for “church.” An ekklesia community was one in which the people brought their diverse gifts to the table for the well-being and betterment of the whole.
Three years ago this month, we had a service in this church in which I was “installed” as the Rector of this congregation. I always have found that language confusing – it makes me sound like an appliance. You install a refrigerator or a microwave, and apparently in the Episcopal Church we “install” clergy too. During the service, the priest who gave the homily said something which stands out in my memory, and it was this. He said that priest, or a Rector, whatever you want to call me, can do very little acting alone. He continued to say that if I and by extension, Carissa, were to try anything by ourselves at this church, the chances of failure would be high and the reason is simple: it takes a community – an ekklesia, a church to affect change.
For the past several months you all have heard about the work we have been doing as a parish in order to consider our vision for where and what we believe God is calling us to be in the coming years. We have had meetings, a parish survey; you can read an update on our Visioning work in the June issue of our newsletter, The Voice. And there is much work left for all of us to do, and that is a good thing, because it’s not just a few people doing this work, it’s an effort of this community, of you all, of the Vestry, the staff, because if we want to become God’s dream, we cannot do it alone – we need each other.
Today is Pentecost, a day when we celebrate the birth of God’s dream, which some call an ekklesia, a community of people coming together for a purpose and a meaning larger than themselves – a community which recognizes that the power of the people is greater than the people in power. When the Holy Spirit descended, she didn't say ‘you all go do a bunch of stuff, go out and minister but make sure Paul is involved because he's in charge.” If that would've happened - the church would have died, quickly. Thank God it didn’t. Thank God people listened to the Spirit, and began doing new things.
That same spirit that empowered the disciples is here, and it is calling us to do the same. And we are listening. We are going out into the world, serving. Next week part of our church will help cook and serve breakfast to a homeless community of two hundred people. One of our parishioners, John Ibanez, has answered a call to pursue the ministry of serving as a Deacon in the church, and been approved by the Diocese to begin that work. Things are happening here! So what is your gift? How have you shared your gift with this community? And if you haven’t yet, how would this church be improved because of your contribution, your gift, your ministry?
For those of you who have already shared your gifts and are resting on your laurels – you’re not off the hook. Your job is to invite others to share their gifts in this place, because we are too big for that responsibility to fall on one person alone. We are a community. Nothing is more powerful than a community that knows its purpose and knows what God is calling them to do – nothing is more powerful than the Spirit of God present in the gifts, talents, and ministries of her people. AMEN.