Becoming friends.*

(Photo taken at a Church Without Walls service.)

(Photo taken at a Church Without Walls service.)

It was my privilege to preach this sermon at the 172nd Convention of the Diocese of Florida at Holy Trinity Church in Gainesville, Fl, on Jan. 30, 2015.

Micah 6:6-8
Hebrews 12:1-2
Matthew 25:31-40
Psalm 15

O Lord, may only your word be spoken here.
May only your word be heard.
In the name of God, Father Son and Holy Spirit. Amen

Last week I sent an email to my folks:
Please pray for me, I wrote.
I am terrified to preach at convention,
and I have absolutely nothing to say.

Perfect, Marcia responded. A blank slate.
Just tell us what you have learned.
Tell us what your people want to say.

My people.
The people who come to Church Without Walls.
The hungry. The thirsty.
The stranger. The sick.
The prisoner. The lonely.
And the forgotten.

What would they want me to say?

About three weeks ago we had our monthly
congregational meeting.
Anyone who has ever attended a Church Without
Walls service gets seat, voice and vote.
We gather for prayer and fellowship.
We talk about what is meaningful to us
about our gathering and what we hope that
our community will become.

This particular gathering was small
but representative:
Darlene and Bob, who drive in from their home
In Ponte Vedra Beach;
Cathy, who comes from Baymeadows;
Zeno, who lives in alternative housing in the urban core;
Thurman, a resident at Trinity Mission, who has
served as our chief greeter for more than a year;
Robert, who rides the bus in from the Northside
where he camps with others; and
Mr. Cook, a severely delusional man,
who participates in all of our activities.

As we dreamed our dreams for the future,
I noted that one of our members recently
had gifted us with a music stand –
a sure sign that God will raise up a choir
in our midst.

As we pondered this, Thurman spoke up.
“No, Mother Beth, no. I don’t think that
a music program is such a good idea.
At least not now,” he shook his head vigorously.
“Why not?” I asked.
“Because people in other churches need a reason
to come worship with us.
If they have a job to do — bring music or lunch –
they are more likely to come.
And if they come, then they’ll have a chance
to experience God here.”

Often, this is exactly what happens.
Those who visit us as a curiosity are startled to
experience Jesus in a very tangible way.
Some time ago, a youth group came to worship with us.
Before the service, a woman from the visiting church
sat next to a man who was with us for the first time.
He was neatly dressed but visibly
downtrodden in spirit.
As she began to speak to him, he interrupted her:
“Lady, I don’t know why you’re sitting with me.”
“Maybe God wanted us to meet,” she told him.

Eventually, he shared that he was having a
terrible time with anger.
“What’s that like?” she asked.
“It’s awful,” he said. “It’s like it hurts
all the way through my entire body.”
With that, she called over one of the young boys
from the youth group.
“Billy, you struggle with anger, don’t you?”
“Yes, ma’am,” he replied.
“What’s that like for you?” she asked.
“It’s terrible,” he replied.
“It’s like it hurts all the way through my entire body.”

This is what Thurman is talking about.
This is what Thurman wants us to know.
The power of Divine Love in action,
acting upon each person who experienced
that conversation.
Acting upon each one of us.

“We love because he first loved us.”
This verse – the theme for our convention –
sounds like a mission statement,
but it is much more than that.
This Love that created us all is living and dynamic.
Our experience with it is more like a dance –
an exchange of give and take.
I don’t know about you but I need to
experience this love again and again.
This interrelatedness, this giving and receiving
speaks of an active, living relationship with our Creator.

The One who knit us together in our mother’s womb
longs to knit us together anew –
as a community – as a living body that moves in
a transforming relationship with and in the world.

Ministry involves doing good in the world –
and our diocese does plenty of amazing things:
Delivering dental care to the working poor
and homeless.
Providing food and health care in rural
communities and in the inner city.
Educating children, and housing and caring
for the elderly and disabled.
And encouraging and accompanying the prisoner
and the newly released.

Jesus calls us friend.
And he calls us into a place of risk and
sacrifice as we learn to become friends with
the unlovable — just as we have been loved
and befriended ourselves.

The essence of ministry is always personal.
We are called to be friends of God.

So what might that look like?

“I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”
Are we willing to be with a stranger
in their isolation?
To sit with the guilty and shamed,
whether they exist in a literal prison or
a prison of addiction, greed, mental illness, or
chronic poverty?

What God requires is too much
for any one of us.
But we can do this together.
And when we risk being friends –
when we risk being vulnerable,
not just as individuals but as a community –
we will experience the love of Christ in a way
that is real and meaningful.

Many a Sunday I am not feeling it.
But I’ve been taught to suit up and show up.
And then, one-by-one, the people, driving in
from across town or arriving on foot,
gather under a sycamore tree in the
middle of a parking lot.

Christ-bearers – missionaries — one and all.
Something amazing happens when we
strip church down to its bare essentials –
the people, an altar, bread and a cup.

It seems so small, this gathering that we do.
Can it possibly make a difference?
Often I wonder how on earth are we
to do justice, love kindness, and walk
humbly with our God?
I don’t have a simple, one-size-fits-all answer for you.

But I do know this:
These pews are filled with people who
are working to ensure justice and mercy
in our broken world,
whether taking on a corrupt, cruel prison system;
or welcoming the foreigners in our midst;
or feeding and tending the broken-hearted,
who are exhausted and defeated by relentless poverty.

When the work seems too overwhelming,
we need only remember this simple truth:
All that Jesus requires of us begins at that table.
The bread and the cup are a perpetual
source of new life.
At the table, we celebrate not only
what Jesus has done for us but
what he is doing right now.

One of our Church Without Walls parishioners —
Carey – lives with untreated mental illness.
For months I would spot him hovering
at the edge of our gathering.
One Sunday, at the end of the service,
he suddenly appeared before me at the altar,
as I was putting things away.
“Would you like to help consume
the remaining bread?” I asked.
As I handed him a piece of bread, he spoke up:
“I want the prayers with it,” he said.

That was the first time he received
communion with us.
Now he no longer hesitates to join with
the rest of the community.
And he participates in fellowship, engaging
regulars and visitors alike with
his unique take on reality.

I can’t say for sure what has happened in Carey.
But I do know this:
He is a beautiful part of this living body,
which God continues to knit together.

Holy communion is the great equalizer.
We come to the table just the same—
hungry, thirsty, defeated and looking for hope.
We offer the only thing we have –
our radically imperfect, broken selves –
depending on the mercy, kindness and humility
of a God who gave everything because he loves.

When we remember that church is about relationship,
about building genuine community,
we are free to experience Jesus in a way that
is immediate and life-changing.
What if instead of just counting revenue and
average Sunday attendance,
we were to track things like:
Have any of us experienced reconciliation this year?
How often did we stop a church meeting and ask:
“Who’s voice is not represented here?
How many difficult conversations were we willing
to have around alcohol and substance abuse?
How many times did we gather with the
church down the street, across the diocese,
or in a distant land, to share dreams and
help to carry one another’s burdens?

The Holy Spirit is at work,
and can do great work through us!
Jesus asks us to suit up and show up.
We aren’t required to solve all suffering,
but we are asked to make it personal,
to be friends with those struggling in our midst.
In this way, we become friends of God.
And Jesus rejoices in our friendship.
Amen.

*This phrase comes from Paul J. Waddell’s beautiful book Becoming Friends: Worship, Justice, and the Practice of Christian Friendship.

About Mother Beth Tjoflat

Episcopal priest, urban contemplative, playwright, lover of hounds, American of Chilean-Norwegian-Moravian descent. Interests include transformational ministry with the forgotten and marginalized; church planting and congregational development; 12-step spirituality; Hispanic ministry; radical hospitality, and spending time with dear friends.
This entry was posted in Christianity, Diocese of Florida, Episcopal church, faith, Grace, Recovery, Uncategorized, unity and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Becoming friends.*

  1. Tim Lynch says:

    Thank you, Beth.!!! This evoked tears of love and joy!!

    Much love, Dear One!

    Tim

    >

  2. Deacon Joe says:

    I have read this wonderful sermon twice now. I am so proud to have been a part of CWW standing behind you.

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