This is one of my favourite Sundays in the year, even if it doesn’t get a mention on the Christian calendar of feasts and holy days. Welcome Sunday is the traditional post-summertime gathering of St. Clement’s newcomers and old-timers, a time of looking ahead to the opportunities of the autumn season; a time when we are hopefully feeling rested and all our ambitious goals for autumn seem eminently achievable. On this Sunday we look forward to uplifting music, joyful worship, great food at coffee hour and great company to match. Now hold that thought.
Have you ever arrived for the first session of a new study group, or planning committee, or visioning session, and you’re so happy to see the other people there, and you’re really excited by the topic at hand, and you settle in with your coffee for a good chinwag and then the group facilitator pulls out a flip chart and writes this word in big letters at the top? NORMS.
If you’re not familiar with the term, it’s the go-to expression that’s used for a group’s agreed-upon rules for conduct - things like not interrupting each other and like using "I" statements to express your feelings or opinions in a way that doesn’t sound accusatory. Yes, these are important things to remember. But personally I find being marched through the norms at the beginning of a new venture to be a bit of a mood-killer. Can’t we all just agree to be nice to each other and move on? The doughnuts are waiting.
So, having being offered the chance to preach at our festive Welcome Sunday - that Sunday when you just really want to knock it out of the park and help set alight a great flame of enthusiasm - you can imagine my dismay when I turned to the lectionary readings for today. Here we have Moses, Jesus and Paul all with their giant flipcharts and black felt pens spelling out the norms for conduct, or as Paul might say, πρότυπα (protypa).
Well, I had to laugh. Once again, we are being drawn back to the basics and being given the space (whether we want it or not) to consider the nuts and bolts of Christian community and how we are, or aren’t, living up to its ethical requirements. And even I have to admit that that’s no bad thing. Because being together in a life-giving and sustainable way is hard work, and perhaps Welcome Sunday is, after all, the perfect time to set a strong foundation for the year ahead.
I came of age in increasingly permissive times, when it became common to talk about personal rights as opposed to duties. Some of those rights were well overdue to be recognized, and they continue to be essential. But we have seen what happens when our sense of duty to the common good sinks dangerously low.
When, for example, our community groups can’t get enough volunteers to support the parades and other activities that give neighbours the chance to gather and get to know each other. When we consistently choose couch and television over offering or receiving hospitality. When we look around and see what needs doing, but instead of doing it we write an angry online post asking why no one else is.
When we don’t feel a sense of duty to contribute to the wellbeing of the collective, our world becomes a much poorer, and a riskier, place.
All this is doubly true for our life together in the church. We aren’t a social club or hobby group; we aren’t here because we share an appreciation for gardening, or classic cars, or marathon running. We are here to love God and neighbour, even when that doesn’t feel convenient or we’re busy or our favourite hymns aren’t in the bulletin or the preacher says something that we heartily disagree with. We learn to show up and keep showing up, through all the hills and valleys, because that’s how deep relationship is formed and it’s how we are shaped and formed.
Ultimately, it is this commitment to each other, this care of each other and of the world beyond, that is the mark of a successful church, far more than fancy buildings or great coffee or the "perfect" sermon, study group, or Sunday school. Deep commitment is what will set us apart in a society that has become increasingly about personal convenience and about staying within a curated bubble of like-minded people.
People sometimes look at the "shalls" and "shall nots" of scripture and conclude that these biblical rules are all about taking the fun out of life. After all, when St. Paul says to the Romans "no revelling!" where does that leave our fantastically fun St. Clement’s dinners and dances?
Well, I think our parties are safe, even the BYOB ones. An excellent book by classical scholar Sarah Ruden, Paul Among the People, draws on historical research and ancient writings to illustrate how incredibly revolutionary the early Christian church was in its moral conduct, setting it apart from the surrounding society in a way that may be hard for us to imagine. In his letter to the Romans that we heard from this morning, Paul uses the Greek word kōmos, which has been translated as "revelling." Kōmos originally meant a village festival, but by Paul’s time it referred to the debauchery that took place after the festival, when groups of drunken men would march down the streets with torches and loud music, availing themselves of whatever and whomever they wanted along the way. Many of Paul’s admonishments about sexual and other conduct were in response to a society in which only a chosen few had rights, where a man could rape or sexually assault lower-class women or boys without fear of rebuke.
Women, slaves, labourers and others flocked to the early church because of its ground-breaking notion that we are all God’s children, each worthy of dignity, respect, and protection from harm. The fact that this is now accepted wisdom throughout much of the world is one of the Christian church’s most glorious achievements, even if as individuals and societies we fail to enact this reality to its proper extent.
Because of its egalitarian views and life-giving message, the early church was not just fast growing but hugely diverse in its membership, welcoming people from different societal classes who brought with them their varied life experiences, perspectives, habits and expectations. Given this novel mix, it is no wonder that Paul was constantly dashing off letters to various communities to smooth the waters and give instructions for getting along.
St. Clement’s, too, has been blessed by a growth in numbers and increasing diversity: we are rich with the combined energy of new babies and beloved nonagenarians, with people from all over the world and people born just up the street, with people across the political and gender spectrums. We have strict carnivores and strict vegans and everything in between. Between us we have a range of physical, mental and emotional abilities. This is a recipe for church as it is meant to be; it isn’t a recipe for comfort. In fact, I suspect that if we aren’t butting heads every so often, we are probably doing something wrong; we have perhaps failed to throw open our doors as widely as we should have, and become over-insulated as a result.
An article made its rounds on Facebook this week, shared by people like former Cathedral dean Peter Elliott and by the diocesan Facebook page as well. Titled "Words to Avoid in Church" the writer lists words he believes are an inadvertent barrier to full inclusion. Saying join "us" for coffee, for example, sets up an "us and them" situation in a way that an invitation to join "in" for coffee does not. Most of his sentiments I agreed with, but I didn’t fully buy the writer’s contention that referring to a church "family" is inappropriate. He thinks that family sounds too much like a closed system that creates outsiders and insiders.
But to me, referring to the church "family" reminds me that we are all children of God, and that we all have a place around the table. It reminds me that our ties are such that we don’t walk away when the going gets tough, or feelings get hurt, or we are stuck on the coffee hour roster more often than we might like. It reminds me that we work through our disputes, and we pitch in to ensure that no one is left doing all the work, even if that takes a chore chart on the wall just like at home.
Just as in Paul’s time, the church today must continue to take seriously its need to engage in conduct that supports and respects its members and its neighbours alike. And sometimes that means reviewing and re-committing to the "norms" that help us cope with inevitable tensions and disputes; norms that strengthen us as a church body so that we might turn to the community around us and offer it the peace and grace we have found in Christ.
I was not an active member of the volunteer group that transformed the north side of our property to the garden it is today, but I can’t help but imagine that there must have been differences in opinion along the way. But look what happens when people hang in there and keep their shoulder to the wheel. Next week we will have the thrilling grand opening of Creekside Commons. We will be welcoming people from the neighbourhood, from community groups, and from North Van District Council. We will formally offer to all around us the free use of the Commons as a place of respite and relaxation. This project was heartily endorsed at our vestry meeting at the beginning of the pandemic, and now that it has come to fruition it is something we can all be proud of. This is what happens when we work, and keep working, together.
The first sentences of today’s reading from Exodus seemed written specially for us today at Welcome Sunday. Let’s look at them again: This month shall mark for you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year for you (yup, September has that new-year feeling, check!) Tell the congregation of Israel that on the tenth of this month (that's today, check!) they are to take a lamb for each family, a lamb for each household.
Well, OK, no check mark there because we are fresh out of lambs. But I wonder if we could consider a different approach in marking our identity as people of God. In the silence that follows the sermon, I wonder if we might think about our life together as church, and recommit ourselves to taking part in the hard and wonderful work of community building. You might resolve to become better at one those norms that help us grow and thrive - like listening more attentively, for example, or being more forgiving, or learning from unfamiliar viewpoints. What norm might you be willing to work at this year?
We were all asked to select a button on our way into church this morning. By their very nature buttons hold things together. So let these buttons represent our personal commitment to this community for the year ahead. I invite you to place your button in the offering plate today as a sign of our mutual willingness to live into, and live up to, the work of being church. If you're a guest here today, we would love your button, too, because whether you come once or come often your energy enriches us. I’ll gather all the buttons after the service and put them in a jar so we have a visual reminder of the work we do collectively to hold our community together.
May it truly be said of us, as it was said of the early church, that they will know we are Christians by our love. Amen.