Lenten Noonday Preaching Series
Calvary Episcopal Church
Memphis, Tennessee
March 2, 2001

The Power of Community
What can happen when the church is a place of confident faith
The Very Rev. Ward B. Ewing
Dean and President
The General Theological Seminary
New York, New York

(This sermon is also available in audio.)

When we think of church or religion, generally we think of support; we think of pastoral care; we think of belief in life beyond this life; perhaps we may think of forgiveness and relief from guilt; but few of us think, the church . . . now, there's power!

The early church, in comparison with churches today, was small and had few resources. They met in homes. At times they were persecuted by the authorities. But they experienced the power of Christ, and they saw themselves as God's agents in changing the world. Today we look to religion to help us cope with the difficulties of life.

I believe the central factor in the decline of the mainline churches, and therefore in our loss of confidence, is the loss of this experience of the power of our faith. We are concerned about burnout. We are concerned about money, buildings, and institutions - and let me be honest, as the Dean of our Church's oldest seminary, I am concerned about money, buildings, and the institution. We are too often uncomfortable talking about salvation; we are uncomfortable sharing what our faith means to us. Too often the sermons in our churches (I'm sure this is not true here.) are intellectual dissertations about how to live and how faith supports and helps. Where is the power? We do not need to be anti-intellectual, but if we are to strengthen our churches, we must recover the power of faith to change lives, to change communities, to change our world!

Let's try something - Look around. It's OK. I know we don't look around in church, but try it, just this time. Kind of a motley crew, don't you think. Not too many people who make headlines here. Let me share a truth: You are the means God has chosen to exercise the divine power for the mending of creation! You (with the other churches) are the power of God present in this city at this time! That thought is a bit scary. And it is not the way most of us think about the church.

So let's go back to the beginning - the ministry of Jesus and the nature of the community he developed. And I begin with a statement that may at first sound a bit surprising: Jesus was not a charismatic leader. In fact the gospels are clear that he did not desire to be a charismatic leader who gathered great crowds. One of the temptations was to be spectacular - to jump from the pinnacle of the Temple and be miraculously saved. That would have attracted huge crowds. But in his ministry we see that when the crowds became too large, Jesus would leave the area and go to another place where he was less well known.

Jesus was not a charismatic leader who led a movement; he was a servant leader who built an organization. He gathered a small group of men and women around him - a group that traveled with him, that learned from him, that misunderstood him, that experienced what it was like to live in a community based on acceptance and forgiveness. His ministry lasted only about three years, and he focused much of his teaching on this group of disciples. He even sent them out on what we might call a training mission. He had great compassion for those around him, especially those who were treated as outcasts - the lepers, women, those with chronic illnesses that were interpreted as signs of God's judgment, and even gentiles and tax-collectors who worked for the occupying Roman government. As a charismatic leader, he really blew it. He could have had great crowds following him. He could have been the most popular man in all of Galilee. He could have begun franchises and schools and dial-a-prayer services. But he went to Jerusalem to speak his message in the place where the leaders of Rome colluded with the leaders of Judea to impose policies that were destroying the lives of the peasants of the land.

And after his death, the community he had built continued his ministry. Jesus had healed; now the community of disciples healed the sick. Jesus forgave sinners; now the community forgave. Jesus welcomed the outcast; now the community expressed the same hospitality and bridged the vast division between Jew and Gentile. Jesus confronted the authorities; now the community spoke through Peter with a confident voice, "We must obey God rather than men."

The point I want to make is simple: Jesus did not make headlines; he nurtured a community, a community based on God's unconditional, forgiving love, that welcomed the outcast and honored those who serve; a community whose members experienced the power of God's love when they gathered at the table - during Jesus' life and after his crucifixion. And that community has changed and is changing our world. I believe the most remarkable event in all of human history is the movement of the Christian faith in about 250 years from a tiny, Jewish sect to the official religion of the Roman world.

Today the church is still called to be that community formed by Jesus: a community based on God's unconditional love, that welcomes all races and peoples, whose members experience the power of God's love when we gather at the table. The community of Jesus was and is a nurturing community where the power of God's love can be experienced and can be seen by our world. It is a quiet voice, but hugely powerful.

In the last century, especially in the last twenty years, we have seen how powerful the faith community is for the healing and transforming of our world. Look at South Africa, look at Poland, look at the Phillippines, look at the civil rights movement in this country - behind each of these dramatic political changes lies, almost hidden, the community of faith. Most know of the role of the Catholic church in Poland and the Phillippines. We know about Bishop Tutu and the transformation of South Africa. But the story of the Lutheran Church in East Germany is less well known. Somehow our press missed the story. Looking for dramatic headlines, our press does not see the quiet, persistent groups that bring true change to a society.

In East Germany the Lutheran churches' resistance began in 1949, after the war, when the two separate German states were founded. Having been used by Hitler, the church vowed not to be a servant of the state again. It refused to be divided and continued to maintain close relations despite the Cold War and the political hostility between East and West Germany. For forty years the church in the West supported the church in the East as it addressed the injustices of the Communist regime.

In 1978 the government of East Germany launched paramilitary training in public high schools, similar to our college ROTC only at a younger age and required for all in school. The church countered with a peace education program. They began youth classes that taught nonviolence as a political strategy and introduced the new generation to the thought of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.

In 1983 when NATO decided to deploy Cruise and Pershing II missiles in Western Europe, the churches organized weekly prayer meetings for peace. Five years later these prayer meetings evolved into the "new forum," which in Leipzig turned into mass street demonstrations that toppled the old regime. The church's peace education programs provided much of the self-discipline and commitment to nonviolence that kept those demonstrations peaceful.

Following the fall of the wall, the churches continued to play an important role. Inviting representatives of the Communist Party, existing minority parties, and opposition groups, they began what became known as the "roundtable meetings," which developed procedures for elections in East Germany and led to the reunification.

We have these dramatic examples of the power of the community of faith. There are also hundreds, thousands, of stories of how the community of faith, the church, transforms society and improves the quality of people's lives. Yesterday at lunch I heard a story of this congregation and the Shelby County Interfaith group. It seems the Tennessee highway department wanted to improve the exit ramp from I-240 to Jackson. Through the use of eminent domain, they planned to take the land of the home owners adjacent to this intersection. They even began work on the ramp. It is a common story - non-Memphians making decisions for Memphis; powerful government agencies trampling on the dignity of the poor. These folks who had spent their lives paying for and improving their homes came to the church. "We are powerless to do anything to stop this action. They are paying us far less than our homes are worth. We do not want to move; these are our homes." As individuals they were powerless. As a single church, Calvary could do little. But the Shelby County Interfaith group organized the community and provided effective opposition and saved these family homes. You can go see it today. I did. You can see where the work was started. It is a monument to the community of faith that believes the dignity of human life is more important that efficiency, another quiet action of the servant community of Jesus.

We truly live in an exciting age. We have seen changes unimaginable 15 years ago. The voice of the community of faith has been incredibly powerful. But it is a voice that has not sought publicity or quick fixes. Like the voice of Jesus, this effective voice of the church has focused on building and nurturing communities where the awesome presence of God can be experienced, where strangers are welcomed and healing takes place. When these communities, often small and struggling, become places where God's love is truly known, they become transforming for individuals, for neighborhoods, and for our world.

My point is simple: The power of love builds communities that can exert great force in a society. It takes great strength to build community. To enable community means to set aside one's own agenda and allow the needs and concerns of the entire community to set the agenda. To nurture community means to accept blame without becoming so defensive that one's reaction becomes destructive. You know one problem with community-- there's always someone who just irritates the fool out of us. Nurturing community means learning to tolerate and ultimately to appreciate that irritating person. To nurture community means to give lots of praise to others, to share tasks with others when you could really do better, and to express thanks to others for their contributions.

One must be strong to nurture community. It involves a kind of death to being the center of attention. It involves a kind of death to seeking first to get one's own needs met. It involves taking up a cross and following in the way of Jesus. But we do not walk alone. When we must sacrifice for others, we have a God who understands and suffers with us. It is the power of God's unconditional love known in the cross of Jesus that gives us the strength to build and nurture community. Such communities can reach across divisions, resist injustice, and help build a new world.

So Sunday when you enter your church, look at the cross and say to yourself, "Now, there is the power of God, the unconditional love of Christ that transforms and empowers." And then look around the congregation and say to yourself, "And we are the agents of God to bring healing to those in need, to bring renewal to the businesses in this community, to mend divisions in this city."

Copyright 2001 The Very Rev. Ward B. Ewing.

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