“Even the Smallest Counts”
Jan. 27th “Even the Smallest Counts” Nehemiah 8:1-10*Psalm 19*1 Cor. 12:12-31a*Luke 4:14-21
It was pouring down rain when we left for Kennewick last Friday, and it didn’t let up much the whole way. Usually it stops by the time we get to The Dalles, but not this time. In years past such precipitation would most likely close the Columbia River Gorge, but it looks like winter isn’t really coming this year. Certainly, I am very concerned about climate change and global warming, but I don’t miss the ice and snow. We stopped for dinner at Cousins’ Restaurant and Hotel in The Dalles and then continued in the dark and pounding rain, taking a little longer than planned since I missed the exit heading north and had to turn around Hermiston. I prefer taking the Washington side, it is prettier, and I never get lost, but it was dark, and we thought it would be quicker on the Oregon side, plus there are more rest areas. In the spring I will take the Washington side to admire the wildflowers. If we leave after work, there should be enough sunlight left.
We had a good visit with my folks, with nothing planned, just relaxing, doing some shopping and trying out their new Instant Pot. They have long since moved out of the house I grew up in, but it still feels like home there. They still go to the same church that I grew up in, and it is always good to visit there, also. The church is always trying new things, and there is a mix of people I have know since I was a kid and others who have joined over the years. In a small church like this, we may not notice how much things change, as the pace of life tends to be much slower. Bigger churches have a more broadly fluctuating group of regular attenders, where folks can leave and not be noticed for a while, but here, one person can make a very noticeable difference, especially if they stop coming. Bigger churches need to have a culture where change is expected, as they must adapt as things change quickly, or they risk losing touch with their mission field. Things may seem slower here, but we too need to have a culture where we can try new things without alienating anyone. We may like things just as they are, but the world we are called to serve is constantly changing, and we need to be able to adapt quickly in order to effectively perform what God has called us to do here. We can turn on a dime and face the issues that confront our community, while our denomination is so big that it simply cannot keep up with the changes in society.
We often talk about how to get new people into the church, but that really is not the main driving force in our decision making. Our task it to make disciples for the transformation of our world, and so our focus needs to be on worshipping God and growing as disciples of Jesus. We seek first to be a healthy church, in order that we can then share the Good News of Jesus more effectively with our neighbors. Certainly, we want to grow in numbers, and get some younger folks to join us, but we must first make sure that those who are already here are getting their needs met also. It is better to not grow in numbers and be healthy than it is to grow and be unhealthy.
Our reading from Paul should be very familiar to everyone, and you are probably reminded of the various corny jokes you have heard from pastors over the years about toes and warts and other things. We seek to be one body, but we all know that the body of Christ has been routinely dismembered over the centuries. Some folks like to say that the early church was better and that we should get back to how things once were, but the Bible shows us that there were conflicts and divisions from the very beginning. Certainly, we would like to be at peace with all branches of the global church, and should continue to work towards unity, but there are many churches that simply won’t accept us because we do things differently and don’t preach the same doctrines as they do. We will also have disagreements with others within our denomination and even within our own church. So our main task is to take care of each other here, first, and then do what we can to help other churches. St. Augustine once said:
Aren’t the hairs of your head certainly of less value than your other members? What is cheaper, more despicable, more lowly in your body than the hairs of your head? Yet if the barber trims your hair unskillfully, you become angry at him because he does not cut your hair evenly. Yet you do not maintain that same concern for unity of the members in the church. The Usefulness of Fasting 6.
We live in a culture that glorifies those who were born beautiful and those who excel at sports because they are freakishly tall or strong or have amazing abilities to throw a football or put a basketball into a hoop. Paul’s point here is that even those who are not that good looking or couldn’t score a touchdown unless someone picked them up and carried them into the endzone are just as crucial in the Kingdom of God. Now I certainly don’t want to dismiss the tremendous effort and discipline professional athletes and others put into their careers, I just don’t support the fact that we tend to glorify them and think of ourselves as being inferior because we have different gifts and talents and are not rich and famous. As Paul says:
God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the part with less honor so that there won't be division in the body and so the parts might have mutual concern for each other. If one part suffers, all the parts suffer with it; if one part gets the glory, all the parts celebrate with it. You are the body of Christ and parts of each other. (1Co 12:24-27 CEB)
When I say that it is better to be healthy as a church than it is to be adding numbers, what I really mean is that a healthy church is unified and functioning as one body made up of many different parts. If we have more people here, it means we will have more problems. In a bigger church, people are easily overlooked and forgotten. At the same time, there are more people jockeying for control. Control freaks tend to complain about everything while not participating in any of the actual functioning of the church. Such people are very harmful to the health of a church, as they contribute nothing but negativity. These kinds of things happen in small churches too, but we are better equipped to act quickly without having more hoops to jump through. John Chrysostom once commented:
Paul points out that if division in the body is to be avoided, greater attention must be given to the lesser parts, so that they will not be harmed or feel excluded. If they were badly treated they would be destroyed, and their destruction would be the ruin of the body. Homilies on the Epistles of Paul to the Corinthians 32.3.
Like in most organizations, in the church certain people tend to get more attention and credit when things are good but are also blamed when things are bad. There are also people who tend to be forgotten, and we need to work harder to make sure everyone gets the support and gratitude that they deserve. To quote St. Augustine again:
Far be it from us to refuse to hear what is bitter and sad to those whom we love. It is not possible for one member to suffer without the other members suffering too. Letters 99.
A nice sentiment, but too often we don’t see or hear the suffering of those who could be encouraged by a little kindness from us. In big churches, it is easy to be overlooked: that is why some people go to big churches, they can slip away unnoticed when they are no longer getting what they want from church. But here, we must be aware of each person and what they need from us. We all choose to be here because we know that a small church has much to offer that a big church may not, and that includes a greater level of intimacy and responsibility. We may not have to take attendance like a big church does, but we notice when somebody is missing, and we also notice when someone needs a little extra love. The passage right after today’s reading from Paul, which we will read next week, is one of the most famous chapters from the Bible, heard and appreciated even by non-believers at weddings, 1 Corinthians 13, the great love chapter. Love allows all the various parts of the Body of Christ to work together to the glory of God.
Now I don’t want to sound negative about big churches, and I certainly don’t want to create any sense of “us verses them”; but we as a small church can do things differently and better, just like a big church can do different things and do some things better. The Kingdom of God is made up of both small and big churches, medium sized churches and churches of all kinds of people, together we are all the Body of Christ. We as a small church must do our part in the Kingdom and do it as best as we can. Our greatest strength is our unity and closeness as a church family, which is unique to us. In a small church, each person is precious, and makes a profound contribution. Each of you belong here, each of you is deeply loved, each of you have a part to play.
On our way back home, we stopped in Yakima to have lunch with Kristen’s aunt. While they went off to do girly things, I sat and had coffee in what was once an old train depot, reading. Yakima has changed even more than many places since I was a kid, and not for the better. From there we headed over Satus Pass, stopping at the Orthodox Monastery near Goldendale for baklava. After a wet weekend, it was sunny and beautiful as we headed home. The beauty found in nature never gets old, and essentially doesn’t change unless we harm it. God’s Creation endures and renews itself, speaking of his providence and unchanging faithfulness, even though the world of people may change constantly. Our communities and churches may change, but the beauty of the trip through the Gorge just seems more amazing every year. We too may change, but we still seek to reflect the unchanging beauty of God’s eternal grace and love for us. Our Scripture readings today deal with the hearing of God’s Word and our response to it. May this always be a place where we listen to God and do what he tells us to do, responding as one, unified people.