Building the Beloved Community: The Church of Gifted Learners

This sermon was first preached at Kalamazoo First Congregational Church on March 24, 2019. You can listen to the audio here.

Text: I Corinthians 13:1-13

When I was in seminary, the church where I did my internship began using the Young Children in Worship curriculum for Sunday School. This is the same curriculum we use for our Peaceful Streams class, and it is designed like a worship service, with prayer, singing, a Bible lesson, and free response time. One week a six year-old used her free response time to draw a picture of a brightly plumed bird.

 

When we showed it to her parents after worship, her mom told us that ever since we told the story of Jesus’s baptism and the Spirit of God descending like a dove, her daughter had included a brightly colored bird in every single picture she drew at home. When she drew the family, there was the bird. When she drew herself, the bird was there. When she drew their house, the bird was in it. When she drew school, the bird would be in the picture. When asked why she liked drawing the bird everywhere, the child told her mom—“Oh, that’s God. God is everywhere, and sometimes God is a bird.”

Young Woman with Ibis, Edgar Degas.jpg
Young Woman with Ibis, Edgar Degas, from the MetMuseum Open Source collection

We didn’t teach her to look for God everywhere. We told her one story from the Bible, and that was enough for her imagination to take off, and for her to see the wild, wonderful, colorful Spirit of God showing up all over her life as a bird of blessing. She taught me how to look for God everywhere.

 

For centuries the church has educated children in the faith through processes of rote memorization. Memorize Bible verses. Memorize songs. Memorize the books of the Bible. Memorize the Questions and Answers in a book of doctrine. The emphasis has been on accuracy—making sure that children acquire the right information about God, because transmitting a faith that adheres to a group’s doctrinal standards has been one of the goals. These educational strategies also reflected the culture more broadly. Classrooms at school also emphasized memorizing historical facts, the “canon” of classic literature, times tables and periodic tables.

 

But a big cultural shift has happened in the last century. Pedagogical models like Montessori and Waldorf have shown us that concrete experience of the natural world is the foundation for all abstract understanding; educators like Paolo Freire and bell hooks have broken down the assumption that a teacher is an expert who imparts their knowledge to receptive students, and have instead issued the challenge for classrooms to be places where every person is liberated to be a learner. And in the church, we have moved toward models of faith transmission that emphasize the practice of faith in daily life over the adherence to doctrine.

 

First Congregational Church is not a community in which experts teach children or youth or new Christians what to believe about God. This is a church that assumes that every person of every age comes to church on Sunday morning with a God-given gift for our community. And it is a church that assumes that every person comes to church with something to learn from someone else in the church, even if the person they are learning from is younger, or newer to the church. Every one of us is gifted for ministry, and every one of us has a lot left to learn about how to follow Jesus. We are all gifted learners.

 

When my spouse asked me a couple weeks ago what passage of scripture captures my vision for Faith Formation, the passage that came to mind was this chapter of 1 Corinthians, but most especially a verse toward the end that is often overlooked: “Now we see as through a glass, dimly; then we shall see face-to-face. Now we know only in part; then we shall know fully, even as we are fully known.” This line is a little enigmatic. When exactly is the “then?” What will we know fully? By whom will we be fully known?

 

Knowing and being known is language about intimacy, which is why it so often gets read at weddings, but what we often miss is the fact this is stunning passage about intimate love is not actually about marriage—it’s about the church.

 

This letter was written to a community in Corinth where conflicts were raging. People had divided into all kinds of factions—the founding members baptized by Paul and the new members baptized by Apollos; the wealthy members who would gather early and share a meal and the working-class members who arrived later, when their jobs allowed, and found that all the food was gone; the members with gifts for public speaking and leadership and the members whose behind-the-scenes gifts were not celebrated.

 

In chapter 12, right before this familiar chapter on love, Paul talks about the varieties of gifts given to the church—how every person is given a gift and all those gifts are meant for the common good. He talks about the church as a body in which every part is essential, and he confronts the members of this church who treat certain gifts as more valuable than others.

 

And then comes love. We hear these words as lovely, lilting—maybe even fluffy—”though I may speak in the tongues of mortals and angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.” But these words are pointed. This is a tirade. Paul urgently needs this church, divided across so many lines, to know that they are missing out on everything. “I could have all the prophetic powers, and understand all the mysteries and have all the knowledge, and have so much faith in God that I could change the world, but if I do not have love, I am nothing.” Without love the church is nothing.

 

That’s the bad news for Corinth. But behind it is good news for us all: Faith Formation is not about imparting the right knowledge, or about teaching the right skills. God has gathered in this place all the knowledge, all the skills, all the gifts we need to function as the Body of Christ. Faith Formation is about intimacy—it’s about learning to know each other, and recognize and celebrate those gifts, and make connections between each other so every single person’s gifts can serve the common good. We have all that we need! If you are a new member or new to this whole idea of Jesus, do not shrink into the background—you bring a gift with you! If you have been a leader in this church for decades and feel your energy waning, or worry that your skills are irrelevant, do not drift away—you are a gift to us. We need you. If you have energy and vision, we want to receive your gift. If you are tired, and need to rest, we want to celebrate the gift of who you are—not only what you do.

children.jpg
from dreamstime.com public domain collection

Faith Formation is about intimacy—it is about growing closer every day to the God who knows us fully, even when we do not fully know ourselves. And the only way to do this—the only way to grow closer to God, is to grow closer to one another. Intimacy with God is something that we experience in relationship with other people. This is why we are beginning to build a Faith Formation Community—a community of people who are passionate about faith formation for all ages, and who are committed to gathering together on a regular basis in a way that forges meaningful relationships, generates creative ideas for the Faith Formation programs of our church, and consistently works hard together to realize them. If this kind of community sounds exciting to you, please check the Faith Formation box on the back of your connection card, and I will be in touch with you this week.

 

If building this kind of community is not your gift, but you are looking for a place to plug in to the life of the church—a place where your gifts will fit, and where you can begin to form meaningful, intimate relationships with this Body of Gifted Learners, please check the “I would like the pastor to contact me” box and write “plug in” next to it. Over the next month either the pastors, or other leaders from this church will reach out to you and help you find the right place to connect with the ministries of this church. Every person here has a gift, given by God for the good of our church and the world. And it is only as we build deeper relationships with one another that we will be able to learn what it really means to be the church.

Amen?

Amen.

 

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