A Stewardship Sermon

This week I couldn’t stop thinking about the four men in today’s lesson, fellows who ditch convention and dig through a roof to lower their paralyzed friend down so that Jesus might heal him.

As I contemplated these men’s determined, unusual effort, a song from the musical “Oliver” started singing itself to me. You might remember it: “I’ll do anything for you, dear, anything, for you mean everything to me.”

Even before the paralyzed man has come face to face with Jesus, he has already met the Spirit of Christ. It’s there in his friends, men who simply will not allow the man to spend another day, another hour, another moment confined to his mat. These men, like Jesus, will do anything because their friend means everything to them.

We know these kinds of people. Indeed, we are these people. The kind of folks who, in love, act on one another’s behalf. It’s folks like these, folks like us, about whom the Apostle Paul wrote in his letter to the young Christian community in Corinth: if one suffers, all suffer together.

This morning marks the first of four stewardship Sundays centered around the abundant life Jesus promises in John’s gospel. Because we are who we are as a church, we know that this abundant life is not a “someday” promise but rather something we find here and now and consistently.

Abundant life isn’t the same as smooth sailing, though. We have had a lean time or two. We have faced our share of challenges. But never have we not experienced abundant life, and we have God to thank for this.

Abundant life speaks to a way of living together in love. Notice I said love and not like. Notice I said love and not uniform belief. Notice I said love and not shared political orientation.

Like the five men in our lesson, we are a community bound by love. Like them, we are a people whose hearts overflow on each other’s behalf. Because of this, we take turns playing the different parts of today’s lesson. Sometimes we are the ones doing the carrying. Other times we are the ones being carried. Sometimes we are even Jesus offering healing.

Consider your experience of abundant life here at Community Spirit. Raise your hand if you have ever been one of the four friends in our story, ready and willing and able to do just about anything for someone here.

Now raise your hand if ever there was a moment or season when you needed someone or someones here to carry you in love.

Finally, raise your hand if someone here has been in some way Christ to you.

In her book Braiding Sweetgrass, the author Robin Wall Kimmerer writes movingly and often about the reciprocity in relationships that is woven throughout all creation. Every living thing on earth has something divinely bestowed to give, just as every living thing on earth has a built-in need to receive. (If you happen to catch the latest Ken Burns documentary about the North American buffalo, you will see this sacred reciprocity played out between man and beast.)

This same law that governs all creation, this dynamic of reciprocity, is present in our story. It’s here in the Christian community, too. One day we have something to give—and by giving, we receive. Another day we need something—and being open to the care of others is the gift we give.

In an unhealthy community, folks quietly keep score. But in a healthy community like ours, this holy flow of serving and being served, of giving and being given to, is a natural part of being called together in love. Living this way, we participate in divine abundance, no matter what role in today’s lesson we might find ourselves playing.

How moving, no?

And yet abundance isn’t abundance if it remains confined. Abundance, by its very nature, tries to spill out everywhere. So my question to us this morning is this: what happens to people who do not belong to a community like ours?

Visit YouTube later today and type “no friends” into the search bar. There you will find video confession after video confession from people of every age and circumstance sharing that they have no meaningful connection to anyone.

Social scientists have been telling us for some time that Americans are growing increasingly isolated. You might remember the Robert Putnam book Bowling Alone, which explored this cultural shift all the way back in 2000.

Now sociologists, health care professionals, and even pastors are studying what is being called “the loneliness epidemic,” a reality gravely affecting not only mental health but physical and spiritual health as well.

To belong to others is a basic human need. But what do you do when you lack authentic community?

I am often moved by the number of people on our local message board who have no one to turn to when they are in a bind of some sort. Desperate and alone, they make a post outlining their situation and hope beyond hope that they will receive support from the wider community. “No hate,” these folks will sometimes stipulate. Why? Because they know that by opening themselves up online is also to make themselves vulnerable to unkind comments from strangers.

What I’m describing is survival, not abundant life. And it’s not what God has in mind for anyone.

To belong to others is a basic human need. As the late Jean Vanier observed in his book, Becoming Human, “The heart is where we meet others, suffer, and rejoice with them. It is the place where we can identify and be in solidarity with them. Whenever we love, we are not alone. The heart is our place of “oneness” with others.

As we each look back on our participation in and support of Community Spirit throughout the years, let us together be glad and grateful that God has enabled us to create the kind of community that genuinely meets others where they are, that willingly suffers with them, that eagerly rejoices with them.

Let us be glad and grateful that the abundant life of which Jesus speaks is not just some heart-warming possibility off in the distance but rather is a lived and rich reality now.

Yet even as we recall how blessed we are to carry and be carried by others here, let us not fall prey to temptation. The temptation of imagining that there is no other soul in our area who needs what is abundant here. Because this simply is not true, now or next year.

Montrose sees new arrivals every week. Some of them have moved in next door or just around the corner. We exist for them.

There are those just outside these doors who are not unlike the paralyzed man in our lesson. The feeling in their legs of faith is gone, and they are unable to continue on. How would they ever know that you and I have already dug through the roof and would gladly lower them down to Jesus, where they can be helped to walk and then run again?

Who else craves—and deserves—the kind of community God has blessed us with here? This is my question this morning, one that relates directly to our life together and our generous support of this congregation in the coming year.

Who is not yet here? May the God who has blessed us burden us in the best possible way with this question.

Who else yearns to belong to a community such as ours?

There are those who are paralyzed by concern for the future of the planet and for the human family. Just as we do, they ache to belong to a community that refuses to turn a blind eye or simply surrender to what can feel inevitable.

There are those who crave meaning, purpose, and genuine belonging that they have not found or no longer find in their careers or social circles.

There are those who are just discovering that they, or someone they love, loves or lives differently. We can carry and then lower them down into the healing safety of Christ’s love, changing their lives and our own in the process.

Think about the people who live on your street. Think about those you know through your day job or volunteer work. Think about the folks you have chatted with while out.

Who among these children of God has God called us to carry or be carried by? Who might be eager to participate in the abundance that is already here?

Maybe several folks come to mind. For now, just choose one. One person who, by being part of this community in some way, would surely come to life would perhaps be healed by our embrace. One person who, by simply being who they are, would bless us in return.

Settle on one person. And with this one person in mind, turn to someone—and without naming names or being too specific—tell your partner about this individual and what might make Community Spirit a place of abundant life for them. Also, tell your partner how we, in turn, might be blessed, maybe even changed, by this person’s presence. Take two minutes to share and two minutes to listen. (Allow time for conversations.)

Let us now gather up all that has been shared and pray:

Loving God, we offer into your care and keep the beautiful souls we have just mentioned to our partners. Bless them all, we pray and point them toward life-giving community.

We also pray for all those, near and far, who feel alone, who have no one to carry them, or who would gladly carry others in love. Show them where they can find true community.

Finally, O God, in this season of prayerful discernment around the gifts we will bring in the support of the church next year, keep ever before us the abundance we have been given, the abundance we ache to share. As we live into this day and the weeks to come, gently remind us that you have created us not only for ourselves but for others.

All this we pray in the name of Jesus, the one who heals, helps, and gives hope. Amen.