Let me begin this morning with a story. It’s called, “The Silent Sermon.”
A member of a certain church, who had previously been attending services regularly, stopped going. After a few weeks, the minister decided to visit him. It was a chilly day. That evening, the minister found the man at home all alone sitting by a blazing fire. Guessing the reason for the minister’s visit, the man welcomed him, and led him to a comfortable chair near the fireplace and waited.
The minister made himself at home but said nothing. In the grave silence, he contemplated the dance of the flames around the burning logs. After some minutes, he took the fire tongs, carefully picked up a brightly burning ember and placed it to one side of the hearth all alone. Then he sat back in his chair, still silent. The host watched all this in quiet contemplation. As the one loan ember’s flame flickered and diminished, there was a momentary glow and then its fire was no more. Soon it was cold and dead.
Not a word had been spoken since the initial greeting. The minister glanced at his watch and chose this time to leave. He slowly stood up, picked up the cold, dead ember and placed it back in the middle of the fire. Immediately it began to glow once more, with the light and warmth of the burning coals around it. As the minister reached for the door to leave, his host said, with tears in his eyes, “thank you so much for your fiery sermon. I shall be back in church next Sunday.”
When I use a story like this in a sermon, I always wonder how it’s going to come across. “Thank you so much for your fiery sermon.” Well, probably not. In our tradition, we hardly ever hear anything close to what you would call a “fiery” sermon: fire and brimstone that is. We don’t usually believe people are in much danger of failing to get into heaven; which means that the fires of the underworld don’t tend to hold much power over us, and consequently, don’t figure prominently in our preaching.
But that doesn’t mean we’re above occasionally saying things that make people feel uncomfortable. In my experience, few things make Congregational people feel more uncomfortable than suggesting they should come to church more often. I can’t begin to tell you how many times I’ve bumped into members of my various churches out on the street, only to hear them immediately begin apologizing for not being in church lately. Like the minister in the story, I don’t have to say a word. People just see me and immediately start apologizing. I don’t know. Maybe that’s my job: play on your guilt. There are an awful lot of ministers who seem to think so. Maybe I should be taking attendance every week and chasing you down to deliver “fiery sermons” in your living rooms if you don’t show up for a couple of weeks. What do you think? Yeah … that’s not going to happen.
I remember a conversation I had once with my father-in-law. Jim was the Senior Minister of Asylum Hill Congregational Church in Hartford, Connecticut when I first met him. We got to talking one day about how people feel guilty around ministers, especially if they haven’t been in church lately. Jim asked me, “What do you say to them when they do that?” “I usually say something like, “Well, I know where your heart is and I know you’ll come when you can.” Jim sort of snorted and said, “I don’t say that.” “Alright,” I said. “I’ll bite. What do you say.” “Whenever someone comes up to me and says, “I’m sorry I haven’t been in church lately,” I look them right in the eye and say, “I’m Sorry Too!”
I have to give him credit. Jim was always very clear. He was usually nice about it, but he never left people wondering how he felt. He was a wonderful minister, and, I might add, very successful at filling the pews. But I left that conversation knowing that what worked for Jim would never work for me. I am absolutely no good at playing on people’s insecurities. That’s probably because I got a lot of that growing up. My mom was a big one for getting what she wanted by making people feel guilty. I never responded very well to that kind of approach. It always seemed counter-productive to me.
When someone tries to make us feel guilty about something, sometimes it works, in the short run. Sometimes they get what they want. But it always leaves behind this residue of anger and resentment. Guilt tripping people always seems to set up more conflict down the line. And since I feel that way, I generally assume other people feel that way too, and I normally try not to do it. I much prefer it when people do the right thing because they want to. But that’s the question isn’t it. How do we get people, how do we get ourselves, to do the right thing? Well, first of all, we have to know what the right thing is, and that is really hard these days.
It seems as though we used to have some pretty good clarity about what was right and wrong. We didn’t always do the right things, of course, but at least people mostly agreed on what the right things were. That clarity came from an understanding that right and wrong, good and bad, were things that the majority of reasonable, mature, thoughtful people all more or less agreed on. Things like integrity, trust, compassion, hard work; these were not just individual values, they were the values of our whole society. And when it came to disagreements over values, the assumption was that people would get together to work out their differences. These days, in some circles at least, the only thing that seems to matter is winning, by any means necessary.
I believe this has come about because, somewhere in the last two or three decades, we began elevating individual values over the collective values of society as a whole. Suddenly, it wasn’t supposed to make much difference what other people thought. We weren’t going to allow ourselves to be guilt-tripped into following someone else’s values anymore. All that mattered was our own values, our own truth, our own wants and needs. I remember a very popular old poem from back then that went something like this, “I do my thing and you do your thing. And if by chance we meet, it’s beautiful. And if not, it can’t be helped.” So, based on this philosophy, a whole lot of people these days are running around doing their own “things,” regardless of how it may impact upon the “things” of others. It may be beautiful when we do meet, but mostly, we are not meeting each other much anymore, and, if you believe the poem, apparently it can’t be helped.
Do you remember back when most of us were caught up in the TV series, “Lost”? If you don’t know the story, basically there is a plane crash that leaves about forty people stranded on an unknown island in the South Pacific. They quickly discover that the island is a very dangerous place. Several of them die in one way or another. Early on, Jack, who has risen up to become the natural leader of the group, calls them all together to deliver a sermon of his own. He says that, if they’re going to survive, they all have to stop behaving like it’s everyone for themselves and begin working together as a community. The line he leaves them with is this: “Live together. Die alone.”
To me, that’s the message of the silent sermon, and it’s a message we desperately need to hear these days: “Live together. Die alone.” It’s not a matter of guilt. It is simply a demonstration of the way things are. A burning ember thrives when it’s in the midst of all the other embers. When it becomes isolated, it quickly burns out and dies. It’s not a matter of guilt. It’s simply a matter of physics. And the obvious point is, like embers in a fire, we thrive in community. As it says in Genesis, “We are not made to live alone.” And not only does an individual cease to thrive in isolation, but the community of the church is also diminished by the absence of that individual. It’s not a matter of guilt. It’s simply a matter of fact.
That’s why Paul spent so much of his time building and nurturing the church communities he planted all over the ancient Mediterranean. That’s why he wrote them letters to “encourage their hearts.” He knew that the church was not simply about gaining personal enlightenment, it was about strength in numbers. It was, and continues to be, about community. Or, if you prefer an older term, “Blessed Communion.”
There’s an old quote that makes this point beautifully.
The starting point is the Christian community. The Christian person is a member of the community of faith. One cannot be a Christian apart from the community. On occasion one hears the remark that one can worship God better without the encumbrances of the organized church. The implication of such a remark is that the church is limited and fallible. Of course this is so, but the admission of that fact does not require the further conclusion that the church is dispensable. As St. Cyprian wrote, “Whoever he may be and whatever he may be, he who is not in the Church of Christ is not a Christian.” The church is the human community, in which and through which God’s revelation is mediated, but it is not a human community only. It is divine in that it is established as the agent of God’s initiative in the world. (Author unknown)
“He who is not in the Church of Christ is not a Christian.” That’s a pretty strong statement, but it happens to be true. It’s not enough to simply “be a good person,” as people so often say. It’s not enough to come to church simply for our own personal edification. Christianity is fundamentally about community, and community suffers when it is not nurtured. That is not a matter of guilt. It is simply a matter of fact.