Feb 20th | The Reverend Kevin Scott Fleming | 1 Corinthians 12:12-26
A few years back, Dun and Bradstreet, the renowned business research company, conducted a study to determine why executives fail. The organization studied twelve hundred executives who had been fired from their jobs. Their research discovered that the firings were not the result of the executives market expertise, financial understanding, or product knowledge. In 85 percent of the cases studied, the primary reason the executives were dismissed was because of the lack of relational skills on the part of the executives. They did not relate to their co-workers or their customers.[i]
Think about that in relationship to the nature and work of the church. If we were to study the church – individual congregations – might we discover that one of the most significant reasons that churches fail is because they’ve failed at the one thing the church should be really good at doing – building, sustaining, and cultivating relationships? I can take you to churches in Evansville, Indiana, this very morning, that are struggling to stay alive, because years back they turned from looking outward to looking inward – they stopped caring for others and cared only for themselves – and when they did that, they began their spiraling decline – a decline that may not be able to be stopped now.
Could it really be that simple? Could it be that churches begin to decline when they fail to build, cultivate, and sustain life-giving, life-changing relationships with the world around them? Is the work of the church really that closely tied to the relational ability of faith communities?
Back in my college days, I worked for two summers at a Boy Scout camp. The first year, I was the camp chaplain. The second year, I was the program director. I had never been a scout as a boy, so this was a whole new experience for me. One of the things that the boys did every summer was to make rope. There was a simple, little machine, to which a scout would attach three pieces of twine. A handle was cranked to turn the wheel to which the twine was attached and another scout would move down the length of the twine with another piece of wood that would enable the three strands to come together in one piece of rope. The end result was that three weaker pieces of twine became one strong piece of rope that could be used in a variety of ways.
I don’t know if the author of Ecclesiastes made rope at scout camp, but he, or she, knew the important key point: relationships can be the difference between life and death. “Two are better than one,” Ecclesiastes tells us, and the wisdom in the statement can be seen immediately. There is reward in working with another. When there is success, there is another with whom we can celebrate. When there is trouble, one may fall but the other is there to lend a hand. When attacked, one might be able to fend off the attack, but two had far better odds of withstanding the confrontation. And then, as we heard again, this piece of wisdom: “A threefold cord is not quickly broken.” (Ecclesiastes 4:12)
Could it be that this ancient wisdom-writer is passing on to us a critically important piece of insight for our life as individuals and as a community of faith? Could it be that so very long ago, people of faith knew, or discovered, that life was meant to be lived in relationship? Could this idea that we consider so modern, in fact, be quite ancient?
The Apostle Paul spent a great deal of his time and energy dealing with young, growing churches. Some of the churches were strong and growing well. Others, like the church in Corinth, were struggling to figure out what it meant to be the church.
Paul offered them an image that we continue to use to this very day. Paul suggested to those early churches and their descendants that the nature of the church is like that of the human body. The human body is comprised of hundreds of parts, each one with a unique part to play in keeping us alive and being human. And all of those hundreds of parts rely on the other hundreds of parts in order to do what they do. This inter-related, inter-dependent system that we call the human body is a miraculous thing. But, when one part fails to operate as it was designed, when one part of the body goes “off line,” the whole body feels its absence.
Paul reminds us that the church is just like the human body. The church has many parts, each uniquely gifted to do a particular part of the work to which God calls it. Each of those parts are valuable and important. Each of those parts brings something to the life and mission of the church that is needed in order to meet the challenge of God’s call to life and ministry. And, if one part fails, the failure spreads across the body of the church.
The church – every church – our church – is an intricate and complex system of relationships that work together for the common good. That’s what Paul reminds us again this morning.
If you think back to the days of the early church, it’s a wonder we are even here today. Think of what they didn’t have. They didn’t have web sites, email, or cellular technology. They didn’t have direct mail marketing, or print ads, or broadcast ads. They didn’t have bumper stickers (they didn’t even have bumpers!), or decals, or billboards. They didn’t have big buildings, acres of parking, or any of the other things we think are critical to the success of a church in our day and time.
But what they did have were relationships. All they had were themselves. As Eugene Peterson writes in his telling of the New Testament called The Message:
They followed a daily discipline of worship in the Temple, followed
by meals at home, every meal a celebration, exuberant and joyful,
as they praised God. People in general like what they saw. Every-
day their number grew as God added to those who were saved.
The early church had connections – connections within the church and connections to the communities in which the church took root. As people outside the church came into contact with those inside the church, people caught a glimpse of what could be and how their lives could be more than they were. They liked what they saw and wanted some of it for themselves.
We saw the movie, The Social Network, the other night. It was, for me, a dark and disturbing movie about the creation of “Facebook.” Now, for the uninitiated, “Facebook” is a social networking site on the internet – a way of connecting and reconnecting with friends, relatives, colleagues, and neighbors. The current value of “Facebook” is somewhere around $26 billion. Now, I’ll leave you to see the movie, but what it reminded me was just how much people are trying to do over the internet what we used to do face-to-face. That is, people are looking for meaningful relationships. They will settle for “Facebook” when they have to.
But, what if a living, breathing, caring church were to offer relationships of meaning and purpose, that brings some light into the shadows of life, that offers some hope when all around seems to lead to despair, that puts some meaning back into life that’s been lost along the way? What if a living, breathing, caring church took the time and the effort and the resources to help children learn, to provide food for the hungry, to offer companionship to the lonely, care for the sick, hope for the incarcerated, and welcome to the strangers in our midst? What might happen if a living, breathing, caring church looked for the deepest needs in the community it calls its home and then thought of ways it might help address those needs?
Last week I shared with you a quote from Frederick Buechner. I’ll give it to you again. Are you ready? “The place God calls you is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”[i] Did you get it? Once more, “The place God calls you is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”
And there is “the power of three.” God’s calling to ministry and mission, our deep gladness and faith, and the world’s deep hunger. “The power of three.”
This is the life the church was meant to have. It is a life of relationships – a life that is grounded in God, a life that finds its joy and gladness in a vibrant faith, a life that is lived with and for others. This is the life to which God calls all Christian people – the life to which God calls us. It is a life that is marked by the very thing we always talk about but only occasionally see: love.
“The power of three.” God’s calling to ministry and mission, our deep gladness and faith, and the world’s deep hunger. As we answer this calling, we discover life – life as it was meant to be. And the words of Ecclesiastes take on a new experience of the truth: “A threefold cord is not quickly, or easily, broken.”
Let relationships be the way we answer God’s calling. Let our love for God, for one another, and for our neighbors in need, be our mission. Let this three-fold way of life be our joy and gladness.And may the world, through us, discover the life-giving, life-changing love of God. For now and evermore. Amen.
[ii] Buechner, Wishful Thinking