The Church for Other People
Category: Bishop's Sermons
Speaker: The Rt Rev Mark D.W. Edington
Tags: spirit, others, pentecost, outsider
May 28, 2023 • The Day of Pentecost
The Cathedral Church of the Holy Trinity • Paris, France
Text: 1 Corinthians 12:7: “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.”
Today is a day for the riff-raff and the castoffs. Today is a day for the strangers and the slightly suspicious. This glorious last Sunday of May, with the Seine glimmering in the sunlight, today is a day when all of a sudden we are surrounded by the unfamiliar and the outsiders are suddenly inside.
We have this vagrant band of choristers who have wandered here from far away as a reward for finishing their exams, and for some of them their degrees. Don’t think for a moment we don’t know perfectly well why you showed up here this morning. It was to send a photograph of yourselves here in this church back to your long-suffering parents to convince them that you’re really on a working trip, right?
And we have a group of confirmands here, only some of whom are from the cathedral congregation. The others are from other churches in the Convocation. Churches that aren’t even in France! This is what happens when we put our street address right on the website.
We even have people among us this morning who aren’t yet baptized. Can you imagine? I mean, where have our standards gone? When did the ushers stop checking everyone’s baptismal ID at the door?
Today is a day of outsiders. And that is exactly as it should be, because today, the day of Pentecost, is the day we are confronted with the fact that the church, the church that is brought into being on this day by the coming of the Holy Spirit, is not our private possession.
Maybe, like me, you grew up in a congregation where today was observed as a birthday—the birthday of the church, the moment the church as the community of the baptized empowered by the Holy Spirit is set loose on the world. We all would wear red to church, and we had a giant birthday cake at coffee hour complete with little tongues of flame on a forest of candles, one for each of us in church that day. One year I remember my mother making tiny little tongues of fire out of yellow, orange, and red ribbon that everyone pinned to their lapels or their blouses.
It was a happy, joyous occasion, made all the more so because it usually coincided with the liberty that came with the end of the school year. In my university town we had a great babble of languages for reading the gospel, just as we had today.
But you know, looking back, it was more than a little uncomfortably about us. Celebrating the birthday of the church was a little bit like celebrating the birthday of our not so little elite prayer club. It was a party for us, because of course the church was just for us.
Except that’s not the church that Jesus decided to build. It’s not the church that Jesus promised the Holy Spirit to us for.
Think again about that first reading we heard, that story from the chapter of the Acts of the Apostles. Saint Luke starts by setting the scene for us. The disciples are all in one room together in a house. Probably they are trying to figure out what to do with themselves now. It’s been ten days since they watched as Jesus disappeared out of their sight on the mountain top; now what are they supposed to do?
And then comes the wind, and the fire, and in a flash suddenly all of them are linguists, and they are speaking languages they themselves would not have known the day before.
Now stop just right there a moment and ask yourself: What would we do if that happened here, to us? What would we do? Many of us already have the command of a few languages, yes, but what if suddenly, some Sunday morning, we heard ourselves speaking Georgian, or Armenian, or Xhosha, or Dinka, or Nepali, or Tagalog?
I’ll tell you what would happen. The Vestry would form a committee. We would talk among ourselves about what to do about it. Should we let anyone know? What if the préfecture finds out? Is there some way we could create a revenue stream from it?
Of course we would try to figure out what it all meant for ourselves, because who could possibly know better than us?
But that is exactly what doesn’t happen in the story from Acts. The disciples aren’t the ones who figure out why they’ve been given this gift. The first people who speak in the story, the very first voices we hear, aren’t even the main characters. The people who speak up and make sense of what has happened are the people outside the room—people who hadn’t even been part of the Jesus movement. At least, not until then.
It took the world outside the church to tell the church what its gifts were for. It took the outsiders, the people who were searching and hoping, to tell those disciples that they were now apostles, bearers of the message, people sent out to share what they have with outsiders. That is what the church is supposed to be—a church for other people.
We are not a church of the chosen—at least not if we are the church God needs. We are not a church of those who have walked the same walk we have, or think the same thoughts we do, or can satisfy us that they’ve been through what we’ve been we’ve been through. They don’t have to prove themselves to us. We have to open ourselves to them.
Douglas, Arizona is a small town that sits right on the border of the United States and Mexico. There is a border crossing there, and so not surprisingly the Episcopal Church there, a little mission named Saint Stephen’s, has for a long time worked to offer ministry to outsiders—migrants who have crossed the border, not always with the benefit of the correct paperwork.
Saint Stephen’s is on the corner of Eleventh Street and D Avenue, right next door to First Presbyterian Church. It has been there for a hundred and twenty two years; First Pres came just three years later. First Pres also has been offering help to migrants caught up in the waves of desperation trying to get out of the gangocracies that run much of Latin America. In fact the whole block is taken up by four churches; the other two are the Baptist Church and the United Methodist Church.
But Saint Stephen’s is one of ours, you know. It’s welcoming not just to the migrants who come across the border, but to anyone—the gay and lesbian and trans community, the Hispanic community that makes its home in Douglas. It’s a place at home in two languages and two cultures, something we know a little bit about here. It’s open. It’s a church for outsiders.
On Wednesday of this past week a man drove up to the church in broad daylight, parked his car near the small pathway that separates the two churches, and then got something out of his trunk. The security cameras caught all this, but then they lost sight of him as he walked up the path toward the building. Fifteen minutes later, smoke was pouring out of the building; five minutes after that, the smoke started wafting over First Pres.
The roof of the Presbyterian Church was destroyed. But Saint Stephen’s was burned right down to the ground.
When those people outside the room heard the good news of God’s love in the language of their own hearts, so many of them rejoiced. Finally here was a message of hope that was open to everybody, with no barriers, no rejection, no disqualified people.
But the story goes on to say that some of them sneered. Some of them could not bear the thought of a God whose love extended even to the people they despised, whose welcome and affirmation was just as open to the outsiders as it was to them. What sort of a God wouldn’t hate the same people I hate? Certainly no God worth my time.
That is the attitude of much of the world around us, church—even a shockingly large number of people who imagine themselves to be Christians. The resistance we face will be directly proportional to the wideness of our welcome. A church behind a gate is safe; and a ship in a harbor is safe. But that is not what ships are for. And it isn’t what churches are for, either.
Someone tried to shut down the open doors of Saint Stephen’s by burning down the church. But even that didn’t work. They will gather again this morning for worship, somewhere else in Douglas. I will bet you that they’ll have way more people than they usually do. And their work of welcoming and walking with the outsiders will continue.
Antonio, Blandine, Jacob, Justin, Lily, Meghan—these are your last moments of being outsdiers. We’re about to make insiders out of you.
We have learned that all of the gifts that all of us here have been given are meant to be given over for the single purpose of giving to others, sharing with others, the hope we have found here. But understand as you stand up before us that we are welcoming you because being a church for others, being a church open to the people that God insists on chasing after, is hard. And we have come to believe that we will be better at it with you among us. So welcome. The door is open. Won’t you please come in? Amen.