A sermon preached by the Reverend Trevor Jamison at Saint Columba’s United Reformed Church, North Shields, September 22nd, 2019.
Welcome to this week’s sermon in our short series on the theme of “stewardship”. Last week we looked at stewardship of time. We discovered that stewardship of time is not the same thing as time management. Stewardship of time is about how we use our time in relation to God. So, stewardship of time is about taking time to thank God for the gift of time; stewardship of time is about trusting God in relation to chronological time (past, present and future); stewardship of time is about the seeing and taking right moment of God-given time in which to act. Today, though, we’re looking at stewardship of community.
These days, as we all know, fewer people take part in church life than did in previous years. What was once taken as a given is now a matter of conscious choice. Asked to justify their choice, quite a few of those people who take part in church will frame their answers in terms of “community”. The church is a community, one that’s sometimes even described as a family.
As my late uncle put it, concerning the Sunday worship part of church life, “you get together for a singsong, you spend time thinking about and naming other people and situations in the world, you listen to an interesting talk, you sit down with your pals for tea, coffee, biscuits and a chat; all in all, as he said, not bad value for only ten pence in a collection plate. For the avoidance of doubt, and in anticipation of our service about stewardship of church finances, my uncle wasn’t really serious in that “only ten pence in the collection plate” part of his description.
Still the church community is important to all of us. That sense of importance will vary from person to person, but if we thought it wasn’t important at all none of us would be here in church today. All that said, however, I have to tell you that just as stewardship of time is not really about time management, so stewardship of community is not just about the church community. In fact, having all of us spending all our time on cultivating the church community would, in fact, be bad stewardship of community.
Think about today’s Bible readings. Our frankly puzzling tale told by Jesus, in which he seems to commend dishonest financial stewardship, contains no mention of religious community, though it does conclude with an observation about the impossibility of serving God and money at the same time. Our OT reading from the prophet Amos, and that segment of a letter sent to Timothy, a young pastor of the early church, do mention or feature religious communities. In the situation described by Amos, religious community is thoroughly marginalised. Its seasonal festivals and weekly demands are an inconvenience to those wanting to get on with the important business of financially exploiting the poor and weak: ‘when will the new moon be over so that we may sell grain; and the sabbath so that we may offer wheat for sale.’ (8:5)
In 1 Timothy, the life of the church community is much more in view. After all its written in the form of a letter from a senior church pastor (Paul) to a younger one (Timothy), with advice about how to conduct himself in the congregational setting. But the congregation or church community is by no means the whole show. The pastor shouldn’t let concern for the church community result in ignoring the wider community around them, including social and political communities.
So, for example, supplications, prayers intercessions and thanksgivings should not address situations in church life alone. Instead anyone and everything in wider communities, such as nations and kingdoms, are the proper subject of such prayers: ‘I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions and thanksgivings should be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity. This is right and acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour.’ (2:1-3)
So, what should we say to all of that? First, stewardship of community, which is about building community with God in mind, means building a distinctively Christian church community. Second, good stewardship of community involves growing that distinctive community by offering others the chance to play a significant part in it. Third, though, good Christian stewardship of community involves each of us in making a distinctive contribution within other communities.
So, first, stewardship of community is about building a distinctively Christian church community. Never take for granted the social benefits of gathering for worship, as laid out by my uncle. Don’t take for granted the impact of social activities and actions offered through church congregations, including this one. But neither let’s forget the challenge of Sunday Assembly.
Sunday Assembly is the movement founded in 2013 by Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans, two comedians, who wanted to continue their positive experiences of church life but without any of that religious content in which they no longer believe. There are about fifty Sunday Assemblies around the world. There is one meeting on a monthly basis in Newcastle. One local Sunday Assembly says on its website, “We tend to have around 60 people attending, and the assemblies last an hour. They typically include some congregational singing of well-known uplifting pop songs accompanied by the house musician, some gorgeous performance poetry, a stimulating talk, cake, and a chance to chat with others. Children are welcome – we don’t currently include anything in the programme specifically geared towards kids, but we are open to suggestions/ideas/volunteers to help! We also have socials in-between assemblies, and occasional community volunteering events which we are trying to do more of. Our book club started meeting earlier this year.”
Does any of this sort of activity sound familiar to you? Given the overlap with many church activities, the question I put to you is this: “Why come to St Columba’s United Reformed Church rather than attend a Sunday Assembly?” What is the essential, significant difference between St Columba’s and a gathering founded by and reflecting the values and beliefs of a couple of pleasant-sounding atheist stand-up comedians? Hopefully, having given it some thought, one or two things might occur to you.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with much of this sort of activity. We do a lot of it ourselves, but if a church, like us, devotes all of its time to such activities, and there is no distinctive Christian element contained within it, then that would be poor stewardship of Christian community.
Then, secondly, as well as being distinctively Christian, good stewardship of community involves growing that distinctive community by offering others the chance to play a significant part in it. This week, I had two conversations here in North Shields churches about getting others to join in with distinctive Christian community. One person commented to me about a community café offered by a church which has been going for some years. They said that when it began, they made sure to have visible information and indications of how Christian faith was the impetus for their activity. Somehow, though, this part of the café’s identity had been let slip, so that, apart from the location, in a church, there was little clue for diners in off the street about that aspect of this dining community.
I wonder if the idea that we are exploring about having “faith corners” in the parts of our buildings where the public go during the week, offering faith and spiritual images, leaflets and booklets might be one way to address that sort of ongoing challenge
In my second conversation, someone told me that at their church their most effective evangelist is someone who is neither a member of the congregation, nor even yet a signed-up Christian believer. This person had wandered into a service and enjoyed it. They liked the discussion and consideration of faith issues. They have brought another two people along to the services, and only the other Sunday were chatting with an acquaintance they had bumped into on the street outside the church and were inviting them to come inside. This person, still on the edge of faith, and on the edge of the church faith community, has not yet learned to feel self-conscious about the distinctiveness – the oddness – of the church community.
If as a community we take care to remain distinctive – which, for us, is about how we have discovered the love of God made know to us in Jesus Christ – we must also take care to give others the opportunity to discover that for themselves, in any of the activities of our church community. Being distinctive – being odd – their response might be “no thank you”, but unless there is something distinctive about our church community to what could people ever say, “yes”?
So, Christian stewardship of community is about building a distinctively Christian church community. Christian stewardship of community involves growing that distinctive community by offering others the chance to play a significant part in it. Third, though, and a warning to us all, good Christian stewardship of community involves each of us in making a distinctive contribution within other communities.
Remember what it said in that part of the letter to Timothy? ‘I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions and thanksgivings should be made for everyone.’ So, if we spend all our time wrapped up in the life of the church community, we’re not being good stewards: God created not only the Church but the world after all. That’s why so many of those climate change protests which took place all around the world on Friday included so many Christians. It’s not that we don’t care for God’s Church but that we’re also called to care for God’s world.
And that means making the effort to be a distinctive Christian presence in the other communities where you live your life. Some of us, however, spend too much time being Christian in church and not enough being Christian elsewhere. Church ministers, including myself, are some of the worst offenders here. Think of the other communities of which you are a part. Even in this congregation, without too much effort, I can think of people involved in schools, hospitals, golf clubs, bowls, PROBUS, Rotary, Inner Wheel, and workplaces. As I rush from church activity to church activity, I note that there are walking groups and (gentle) cycling groups traversing this town and I’m not part of them, though I like both walking and cycling.
In an era when fewer and fewer people come through church doors to take part in church community there’s a call to faithful Christians stewards of community to develop community life in other places, in ways which involve Christian influence. I’m aware that that’s no easy task, and we could do with some support in thinking about ways in which to do that well. To ignore the communities of our world, however, within the world that God has made, sustains and loves, would be an example bad stewardship.
So, stewardship of community is about creating a distinctively Christian community, which is worth a lot more than ten pence in a collection plate each week. It is also about inviting others into taking part in all of the aspects of its distinctive life. But let’s not get obsessed with church community, for there’s a host of other communities out there where God calls us to be Christian.
May God give us the faith, the courage, the discernment, to be good stewards of community today. Amen.