This Week's Sermon

Phil Blackwell

Phil Blackwell

Unfinished Business
I Corinthians 13

I ran into Jonathan Winters in a china shop in York in the northeast of England several years ago. I saw him standing just beyond the crystal goblets on display in the middle of the store. I, of course, went over and introduced myself to him. He responded by doing a fifteen minute Maudie Frickert routine, much to the dismay of the British shoppers, who had no idea who he was.

Jonathan Winters, comedian of bizarre characters, including First Lieutenant Matthews of the Marines. I have been thinking of First Lieutenant Matthews as I anticipate my retirement in eight days. Matthews is giving a pep talk to his men on the eve of a major invasion. “Gentlemen, we are going to get into our landing crafts tomorrow before sunrise, and we are going to hit the beach running and guns blazing. The resistance will be great, and we will need to crawl across the sand, hide in the tall grass, and steadily move our way to the village, which will be securely defended. It will be dangerous, but we will prevail.”

“Now, I wish that I could be with you guys tomorrow, but they need me here in the office. But trust that I will be observing from a distance through thick lenses.”

“I wish I could be with you tomorrow,” you the church, not in any pitched battles but in moving forward together into new territory. There is unfinished business which you must faithfully address, and I confidently entrust you to Myron McCoy as you move forward under his leadership.

Without being too grandiose, I feel like Moses at the river. For forty years he has been wandering around in the wilderness and finally delivers the Israelites to the Promised Land; it lies just across the river, the Land of Milk and Honey. Some people have said that they could have made it there a lot faster if only Moses had stopped to ask for directions, but really he was under God’s dictate to wait for the emergence of a new generation with which to enter the Promised Land. Except, Moses never gets to cross the Jordan. Rather, he must entrust the people to Joshua, and as they enter into their future he stands on the far bank and waves good-bye.

A bit overly dramatic, I know, but it is a way of saying that there is unfinished business for this church that lies ahead, but in reality, that is true for every congregation in every era. The Church always has unfinished business to do if the people are following the guidance of God. When the Church thinks it has finished all of God’s business, it has become irrelevant.

I said a decade ago that I felt our congregation was operating at about 65% capacity. That was a metaphorical number. Today I would say we are at 70%. That is, we are working very hard to do some very good things, yet we acknowledge that there lie ahead many more things to do and to be. What I truly believe is that this congregation is on the verge of great things about which we have not even begun to imagine.

What is the unfinished work of worship? The one act that distinguishes the Church from other organizations in society is worship, along with synagogues, mosques, and temples, of course. A lot of groups hold classes, give concerts, offer personal support, and do good things to change the world, but it is the religious community that defines itself by worship.

Every week we have six worship services here at the Temple – Sunday at 8:30 and 11:00, Saturday at 5:00 pm, Wednesday morning for Holy Communion before work, Wednesday at noon, and a Taize meditative service Friday after work. What else is God calling us to do? Daily prayer services? A weekly service in Spanish? A Sunday evening service for some of the 65,000 college students in the Loop who may not be up on Sunday morning but are seeking something communal later in the day? I do not know, but there is nothing more essential in a congregation’s life than worship.

Education – what is the unfinished business here? We could be doing a lot more in the field of adult education. We showed that we could do it last autumn when Bill Schweiker of the Divinity School at the University of Chicago led a six-part Thursday evening class on “Thinking Like a Methodist.” It was challenging and eye-opening even for life-long Methodists; and one person said that it changed his life.” What more can we do, and how can we partner with Chicago area seminaries to provide weekday classes of the most provocative sort?

Youth ministry – a key part of our work, emerging as something substantial, thanks to the leadership of the young people themselves.

And children – they are not “the future of the Church,” as we are prone to say. They are “the present” of the Church. There is no future of the Church if there is not a present commitment to learning alongside children. Take time to look at the art work the children have given to us that now is on display in the narthex. It is their depiction of “peace.” Some of our children commented on the anti-gun decals we are obligated to post as a declaration of this being a weapons-free zone. (Only in Amercia! How embarrassing!) They said that they are unnerved by the imagery since the decals are at their eye-level as they enter the church. And so, they are ministering to all of us, right now, in “real time,” with their art. The future is now, only now.

We have a lot of work to do when it comes to taking care of each other, of becoming a community of friends within the congregation. One of the realities of being a city-center church is that we have members coming from all over the city and dozens of suburbs. Look at the distribution of our members and calculate that, by looking 15 miles north and 15 miles south and 30 miles inland, we have a 900 square-mile parish. John Wesley claimed “the world is my parish,” and we at the Chicago Temple are responsible for a large chunk of it. As we move toward instituting a Stephen Ministry format for developing lay callers who can reach out to our members, we are tending to a crucial part of our unfinished business as a congregation.

As far as being involved in social issues, there is no end to it, and we cannot weary of doing good. We will never feed all of the hungry people of the city. We will never end all of the violence in our neighborhoods. We will never expel poverty from our midst. And yet, Jesus commands us to re-double our efforts, and re-double them again. And to work on just wages and fair arrest procedures and effective public education and interfaith cooperation. It is such unfinished business as this which draws us into a community so rich and dynamic that our personal faith grows beyond belief.

There is a specific issue of unfinished business which this congregation is organizing to address which has been promoted by the new marriage-equality law in the state of Illinois. Given our Statement of Inclusion printed in our bulletins adopted almost two decades ago and unanimously reaffirmed by our Church Council last Thursday night, how do we move forward, given the new law and some denominational dictates opposing the honoring of such marriages?

A case in point: yesterday several of us gathered on a beach in Chicago to celebrate the occasion of Barry Wenger’s and Steve Hoover’s marriage. That is now what is permitted in Illinois. Family members, including five children, and a few of us representing the couple’s friends in the congregation, watched as Barry and Steve renewed the vows they had made to each other seventeen years ago on June 21st, admittedly in an informal service recognized neither by the State nor the Church, and then again, two years ago on June 21st they entered into a Civil Union, which was the legal relationship recognized by the state authorities at that time. And now, seventeen years later and two years later, once again on June 21st they spoke their vows to each other in the name of God.

It was on the beach because the United Methodist Church in general, including this congregation, has not finished the business of fashioning a definition that takes into account several complex realities, including our denomination’s dictates against solemnizing such relationships while, in the meantime, nineteen states and the District of Columbia honor them, with thirty more states debating the issue.

It may well be that our unfinished business as a congregation devoted to our denomination is to find ways is to help our Northern Illinois Conference and the international body which is the United Methodist Church by employing the discipline of what John Wesley called “holy conferencing,” speaking together as people of faith led by the Holy Spirit, to discern a consistent and inspired understanding.

Right now, there is a place in The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church which requires us to be inclusive in every way, both in terms of civil law and of ecclesiastical participation, but then in another place we are told not to engage in blessing same sex marriages. It is self-contradictory.

I walked into a bakery once, and I was the only customer. I looked at the woman behind the counter and then at a sign above her head; I pointed at it and said, “I can’t do that.” She said, “Do what?” I said, “I cannot do what your sign tells me to do.” The sign read, “Form two lines.” She refused to acknowledge my cleverness, but it was the simple truth: I could not move in two directions at one time. In what direction are we called to move together? To find an answer is part of our unfinished business. The gracious gift from Barry and Steve that we meet on the beach instead of in the Temple building was to give us more time to discover our direction.

Back to the overarching point: there is unfinished business to do as a faithful congregation of Jesus Christ; there always will be. Some of it can be ushered in gradually. I tend toward being a gradualist. There is satisfaction in building a firm base for change and adding layer after layer of ministry. I think our 70% of capacity provides a firm base.

But I also have learned over 45 years of ministry that not all change can be instituted gradually. Decades ago Sally and I lived in England for a year, and it was at a time when the British were considering whether or not to shift their driving from the left side of the road to the right side, thereby conforming to the continental pattern. Someone called in to the BBC and said, “I think it is a good idea, but I think we should be cautious about such a big change. I suggest that one week we move all of the lorries (the trucks) to the right side, and if that works well, then the next week we can move all of the automobiles to that side.” Not all changes can be phased in; we need to know what is gradual and what is urgent.

So, what does love have to do with all of this? After all, we read I Corinthians 13 as a pretext for this sermon, and John 15, as well. Most wedding couples who choose I Corinthians 13 for their wedding want to skip the first three verses. They want to get on to the practical description of love – patience, kindness, no envy, boasting, arrogance, or rudeness, and so forth. But the first three verses tell us that it is love which transforms a talent into a gift. If we have the talent of compelling rhetoric, but do not offer it in love, we are just noise, or worse, a despot. If we are brilliant but not loving, we can be dangerous. It we are faithful but unloving, we are useless. If we are generous but not prompted by love, we negate the value to others.

Simply, love makes what we do valuable to others. When we address our unfinished business concerning worship, love will be inviting to others to join us. When we strive to expand our ministry of education, love will help to transform lives. When we reach out to one another as holy friends within the life of the church, love will sustain us for the journey. When we work for the common good, love will make our best efforts effective.

When we seek a vision of who we are as a congregation re-formed by God’s Spirit, love will bind us together. “Blest be the tie that binds our hearts in Christian love.” So may it be. Amen.

Philip L. Blackwell

The Chicago Temple

June 22, 2014