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9.17.17 Rev. Barnes

“We celebrate the gift of Christian community….”

That’s what we are all about today.

We are celebrating 100 years of Christian community gathering to worship in this sweet space.

We celebrate the blessing that we begin our second hundred years here as a healthy, strong community. Thanks be to God!

Healthy community is a blessing.  But it’s not an accident.   It takes intention.

That’s what Jesus has been teaching his disciples in the gospels we’re reading now. In last week’s passage, Jesus laid out a respectful, effective method for addressing conflict (in the unlikely event that there would ever be conflict in a church).

This week’s lesson gets to the heart of the matter—the way to diffuse conflict before it becomes critical.   Forgiveness is the key.

Forgiveness is the essential component in healthy community.   To err is human—and how!   Nobody, no community, no group is perfect.   We all make mistakes.  We have to accept that fact about ourselves and others.    We need to seek and accept God’s forgiveness from our hearts so that we can forgive one another.

What makes communities strong? Turns out that–like an individual human body—the body of a community is strengthened when it rises to meet a challenge.     The epic floods of Hurricane Harvey did that for my hometown of Houston last month.   As I followed the unfolding storm on line, my fear and horror became tempered by pride and gratitude at the strength that emerged.    Houston is enormous: 10,000 sq. miles, slightly smaller than the state of Massachusetts; home to 6.5 million people, who speak at least 145 languages, it is the most culturally, ethnically diverse city in the US.

Bringing together that huge international stew of a population strewn out across a vast megalopolis was a miracle of nature. It took a massive storm—a 500-year flood.   And it happened.  As people stood arms linked to form human chains in chest-high water, or walked, or swam, or went in boats–even swimming- pool floats!–to rescue one another, they discovered what Afro-Caribbean writer Junot Diaz calls “radical hope” in the “strength of their multiplicity” (On Being interview by Krista Tippett this week).   Crisis-hardened reporters who came from all over the country recorded their awe about the community spirit, the kindness, the compassion, the generosity, the heroism of the people.

One blogger wrote: “The only color in greater Houston today is red, white, and blue.  The only religion in our streets is love.   There is no race, no creed, no gender, no socioeconomic class, no nationality, no sexual orientation, no religion.  There are only people helping people.   There are only strangers opening their homes to strangers.   There are only women and men risking their precious lives for other precious lives.”

Houston’s response to Harvey is just one example of the human goodness that crisis can arouse.   New York City’s response on 9/11, 2001 was another.    It’s happening today in Florida and the Caribbean islands in the wake of Irma.  It would take all year to list other examples worldwide through history.

Let us hold fast to the truth of the fundamental goodness and compassion that humans show one another when the chips are down. Let us recall it when events like the white supremacist march in Charlottesville lead us to despair about who we have become.

St. John’s community has been strengthened by challenge from the outset.   Our cornerstone was laid and construction begun in the spring of 1916.   When the US entered WWI a year later, our founders did not stop.    They completed this building and held the first service a hundred years ago yesterday: September 16, 1917!

Our forebears at St. John’s went on to endure other epic global and national challenges including the flu pandemic, the Great Depression and the Second World War.

St. John’s and other mainline Protestant churches grew and thrived in the post-war boom of the 1950s-60s.   Then came the biggest challenge we have faced in modern times.    As we heard in last night’s oral history performance, in the 1970s and ’80s events in US culture and in the Episcopal Church combined might have brought St. John’s to its knees.   Instead they strengthened us and made us who we are today.

On one hand there were civic upheavals around Civil Rights, women’s rights, and the war in Viet Nam.   If that wasn’t enough, in the Episcopal church we had: women’s ordination, prayer book revision, hymnal revision, and St. John’s own pioneering stand in support of gays and lesbians.

St. John’s survived thanks to the commitment of a small group of devoted members.   They were (and still are) a community united and grounded in faith, in mutual affection and respect, in love and laughter, in truth-telling, in the commitment to justice and peace and to the rights of all people.   St. John’s values, St. John’s character today were forged in that time.

Many, many members fell away then.   Each of the people who stayed, who made that commitment, decided that their life together mattered more than the countless things that might separate them from the church and one another.   Their willingness to love each other, to forgive each other as Jesus taught, is the foundation of the warmth and hospitality that we all cherish here.

Healthy, strong community takes commitment. You can’t have one without the other.

Today we celebrate the addition of forty-five people from fifteen households whom we welcome as new members.   We thank God for their presence, the commitment that they are making to us and we to them.

Doing so—full disclosure—we’ve got to confess the truth about ourselves.   Jane Gilgun, whose oral history has made her the expert on all things St. John’s, put it succinctly.   “We’re great.  But we’re not perfect!”

As you cast your lot with us, know that we will need you to forgive us for our mistakes, and that you can ask and expect forgiveness for yours.

We do not know what challenges lie ahead for St. John’s.   But our history shows that  we can survive and even thrive through them.

Dear, dear friends, healthy community is a gift we must never take for granted.

On this—the very first day of our second century in this Sanctuary–let us commit to cherish and to preserve the healthy community of faith that God and our forbears have entrusted to us.