[Sermon preached on Sunday, December 17, 2017 (Advent III, Year B) at Saint Paul’s Church on Lake of the Isles – Minneapolis, MN].

They asked him, ‘Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?’

Gospel of John 1:25 (NRSV)

I knew a woman once. Let’s call her Flora.

Flora was a feisty, 90-year old, lifelong Christian had spent 60 years of her life attending the same church. She is what we call down South, a “steel magnolia.” She grew up Baptist in the Midwest, but when she married her college sweetheart and moved south to Atlanta, she began attending what was then a small, Episcopal congregation.

Like many Episcopal churches, her’s had endured it’s fair share of highs and lows. It grew and shrank. There were lean times and times of plenty. They had good priests and bad priests. There were times when they had so many young families that they couldn’t fit them in the building and they had times where former Sunday School classrooms stood empty, the laughter of children a mere faint memory.

Through it all, Flora was a constant member. She served in nearly every role she could – altar guild, Sunday School teacher, choir, and hospitality committee. She even served as the first female senior warden of her parish. She once showed me an amazing black and white photo where she is standing with her two children in the excavated hole that would soon serve as the undercroft of her parish’s new church building. She was proud and I couldn’t quite tell whether it was pride of her children, or of her parish, or both.

I met Flora right before she died. As she recalled her life, she gave thanks for her family and friends and for the wonderful community of her parish. She admitted that they had some hard times, times when it was tempting to simply leave, to go to the new church down the street, or to walk away from faith altogether.

When I asked her what made her stay, she said, “because that is what you do when you love someone and you feel that love in return. The Good Lord calls us to bloom where we are planted and I was determined to bloom with all my might.”

There are times when I envy people like Flora, people who have the amazing gift of being in one faith community for decades on end. I can’t imagine what it would feel like to watch the world around you change so much and to find comfort in the stability offered by consistent Christian community.

Stability is one of the calls of the Christian life. By stability, I am not referring to a nostalgic pining for the past merely for the past’s sake. I am not suggesting that things never need to change or that we never need to adapt to meet the present challenges of the world with the eternal Gospel of Jesus Christ. By stability I mean a rootedness, a connection, a commitment to stick with it, to grow with it, even, and perhaps especially, when times get tough.

Last week I talked about the need to rediscover the wonders of conversion in the Christian life. Each of us is called to grow more and more into the full stature of the Lord Jesus Christ.[1] The beauty of our worship is meant to glorify God and to point us in a Godward direction – it is a “foretaste of glory divine.” If glory is the destination, then conversion – the process of slowly laying aside the parts of ourselves that do not exemplify Christ – is the path. One of my favorite writers, Howard Thurman, suggests that in receiving the glimpses of the glory of God, “A crown is placed over our heads that for the rest of our lives we are trying to grow tall enough to wear.” Conversion, beloved in Christ, is the “trying to grow” and that growth happens best when we stand still long enough to, in the words of Flora, bloom with all our might.

Community is the ground where that growth happens. Whenever God calls people, God calls them in the context of community. It is in the rub of relationships that our hard and jagged edges are softened and are dull places are buffed to a glorious shine. Community is where God happens.

Archbishop Rowan William suggests that community is actually a tool of salvation. We need the contact and the conflict to produce holiness within us. We need “the actual material fact of the meeting of believers where bread and wine are shared; the actual wonderful, disagreeable, impossible, unpredictable human beings we encounter daily, in and out of church. Only in this setting do we become holy, and holy in a way that is unique to each one of us.”[2]

The Church is where this sanctifying community happens on purpose. It is where people who gather from different experiences and perspective are drawn together around the mystery of the Risen Christ. It is where we are discipled in the way of the cross.

Unfortunately for many, wearied by life or seduced by a culture with little room for discipline, we want church to be a place for “solace only, and not for strength; for pardon only, and not for renewal.”[3] In the words of Sister Joan Chittister’s commentary on The Rule of Saint Benedict, “it’s not uncommon for people… to use religion to make themselves comfortable. It is a sense of personal goodness that they want, not a sense of Gospel challenge. They are tired of being challenged. They want some proof that they’ve arrived at a spiritual height that gives consolation in this life and the promise of security in the next.”[4]

The spiritual life is hard. To look at ourselves and to accept the reality that we are simultaneously “fearfully and wonderfully made”[5] as the Psalmist suggests and “the vessel made of clay that is marred in the hands of the potter”[6] in the words of the Prophet is to accept a life lived in uncertainty. We are called to a journey with Christ, not because we are so good, and perfect, and wonderful, but precisely because we stand in need of a Savior. And we are called into Christian community because it is within the body of Christ that that salvation happens. We are made holy through our proximity with God among us.

John the Baptist baptized folks in the desert to unite them into the baptized community awaiting Christ’s arrival. John was gathering the community necessary to serve as the ground for the movement that Jesus would bring. John prepared the way by preparing the hearts of people to be in community with one another – a community that grows into a movement that would change the world for the Kingdom of God.

Our call, dear friends, is one of stability. Not only are we called to follow Christ, we are called to do so in community with others. We are called to work with one another, to build relationships with one another, to love and trust one another, and to support one another.

Together we are to build up the ancient ruins, to raise up the former devastations; to repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations. Oftentimes the ruined places lie within and we need one another’s help to make them whole again.

At it’s best, Christian community is the place where that happens. It is where we grow more and more into the image of Christ by our proximity to our neighbors who are on similar journeys. The journey is not easy because nothing worth doing is easy. The question is not – is it easy? The question is – is it necessary?

When I look at the world around us, at all the devastation right in front of our eyes, I see a world in desperate need of a transformed people, rooted in Christ, and overflowing in love. I see a world turning to ash in every direction.

We need flowers. We need people determined to bloom with they are planted, and to bloom with all their might.

[1] Ephesians 4:13

[2] Rowan Williams. Where God Happens: Discovering Christ in One Another (Boston: New Seeds, 2005), p. 115-116.

[3] The Book of Common Prayer, p. 372.

[4] Joan Chittister. Benedict: A Spirituality for the 21st Century (New York: Crossroad, 2010),p. 30.

[5] Psalm 139:14

[6] Jeremiah 18:4