The Value of Practice
A letter, to you:
“Calvary is the place where I learned I could be Baptist again. A place that taught me there was an expression of my faith tradition and denomination where I was able to worship authentically. It is a group of people who connected me to tough questions which deepened my faith and experience of community. From a personal development standpoint, it was the place & season in life I grappled with my vocation and call; being encouraged by those around me to never stop discerning one’s role in the church.
Calvary is a place that works to welcome each person for their season of life there. Calvary is busy being a place of constant in a city that is ever moving. There is not a fear of having people for a short period of time. If you join Calvary the expectation is the same across the board – be present, be engaged, seek justice, extend and receive grace, and invest in those around you.”
As we continue this morning our series on the Identity, Values, and Mission of our congregation, we hear these words from Morgan Caruthers, a former pastoral intern on our church staff. Let her words settle into your soul, and hear again the ways in which this community—you—have impacted the life of another.
It’s important to hear these words as we are taking these next few weeks to think about who we are together, what it means to be part of this community of faith, and what we’re here to do. Over the last weeks we’ve explored the values of Perspective (our congregational legacy), and Place (our role and calling here in this building on this corner in Washington, DC), and Prophecy (how better to do that than Carol Blythe leading our children in a political protest around the sanctuary?). Today we’re exploring our congregational value of Practice, of how exactly it is that we are the church in the world, how we live out the call we’ve been given.
As it turns out, it is a value of our congregation that we practice our faith and practice it well. Being, as we are, in Washington, DC, it is often the case that people are watching us. We have a unique opportunity to do what we do in ways that are innovative, creative, different, excellent…to model to the world: church done well. And, it’s a value of ours to live as the church here and now, in ways that others can see and emulate.
And that’s awfully convenient, because today’s gospel passage is all about just that. Following up on The Beatitudes last week, this week’s scripture is part of the Sermon on the Mount, the gospel writers’ compilation of Jesus’ basic teachings. Jesus talks today about salt and light, about our call to be both in a world that desperately needs opportunities to see life and faith lived out in ways that are transformational.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve always heard this passage as a critique: do certain things, behave a certain way, or else. I don’t know who it is who made Jesus into this jerk who was always telling people what to do, making us all feel guilty for the many ways in which we fall short. If you’re not salt of the earth, if you’re not light of the world, if you don’t behave in the right way, well, then, you’ve failed.
But here’s the thing. I think that being the salt or being the light is not so much a standard of behavior. I think Jesus might have been saying that as gospel people, people whose lives are shaped by the practice of following Jesus, being salt and light are intrinsic parts of who we are. We are, at our core, tangy. Salty. Filled with light. And our calling is to live boldly into that. That is, when people experience us, when folks come into contact with the Calvary community, they will be impressed somehow. I don’t mean, of course, impressed like: wow, they are so amazing! (although that could, of course, happen). I mean impressed like they see our light…it shines in their eyes even after they leave. Or the taste of our community lingers on their tongues, like salt, impossible to forget.
On July 4, 1976, our country celebrated its Bicentennial. I will bet that most of you were either not born yet or too young to remember. But some do, right? Who’s with me? I was six years old, an age where memory forms but it’s not as clear as it could be. My parents decided it would be fun to celebrate the Bicentennial by going…to Disney World. Don’t ask me; I don’t know why.
Still, I remember. And here’s what I remember: the crowds of people, open spaces thick with so many people I felt swallowed up by the sheer numbers. I remember sticky sweetness, cotton candy, I think it was, that we ate and ate and ate (my parents must have not been paying close attention, because I recall eating a lot). I remember the light…the fireworks, more stunning than any I’d ever seen or have seen since. I remember the grass, scratching my bare legs as we sat together in a big field, watching the fireworks in the inky black of that night. That’s what I remember, just impressions, not really specific incidents. But here I am, almost forty years later, and I can still close my eyes and go right back there. That’s how much that experience impressed me.
At the risk of dumbing down Jesus, I think that’s what he’s talking about when he’s talking about being salt and light. Live in such a way that when people close their eyes and think about you—about your community, about their experience here—they remember. You impressed them; there’s a tanginess on their tongue, there’s the reflection of light in their eyes.
I want to take a few minutes this morning to talk about how we do that. How we live out the challenge of being church is something others want to see, so approaching our life together with attention to health and vitality is important. When I first came to this city a colleague took me to coffee and said, “Ministry is hard in this city. You will work twice as hard for half the results, because this is a city that embodies transience. As soon as you get to know someone, help them assimilate into your community, they will leave and you will have to start all over again.” And, boy, is that true. We say goodbye to people around here all the time: important people, people who have meant so much to us, who have impacted us in life-changing ways. It’s the nature of this city.
Last year, some of you challenged me to begin to think of this transience in positive ways, to try to understand this part of our life together as an asset rather than a liability, as something life-giving. How to do that? Salt. And light. The awareness that we may have the specific mandate and call to live fully and intentionally into who we are in this place, with the understanding that our living influences people who take what they’ve seen and learned here to other places, all over, to help others know what it’s like to be healthy church community. That’s not twice the work for half the result. That’s a gift; and, it could be…our calling.
Those of you who were at our annual business meeting a few weeks ago will already know that in August of this year Calvary will live out this calling to excellent practice by beginning a residency program. That is, like a medical residency, we will have two new seminary graduates on our staff in pastoral roles. Each one will function as a pastor to our community, doing everything that a regular member of our pastoral staff would do: plan and lead worship, visit us when we’re sick or grieving, staff our church office, plan programming to help us learn…and those are just some of the things listed in the job description. Any of you who have spent any time at all in the church office will know that there are many, many more things that cannot be quantified as they are probably too weird to even imagine.
Our residents will come to work here for three years, and at the end of three years they will leave.
This will be hard for us and for them, because being in community shapes and changes us; we live life together, we work through conflict, we accompany each other through dark and painful places, and we come to love each other. When that happens, parting is painful. And, it’s just part of human life. We feel it all the time in this city, as I said; we live it over and over as evidenced by the lovely letters we’ve heard from Calvary folks today.
And so, we will take this dynamic of our community and of this city and use it to live out our mission. Newly minted pastors will come to this community and learn from all of you. They will learn what it means to be fully engaged in the life of faith. They will learn what it means to build and sustain healthy community. You will teach them what it looks like when a group of people deeply believe what Jesus said, and when they have the courage to act in ways that are brave and prophetic and risky. They will learn what it means to be a community in the way of Jesus Christ. You will teach them, and in so doing you will be, again, salt…and light…your example and influence rippling out further and wider than you ever even imagined.
This may sound risky.
Because this is what we do. We live life in community in such a way that people leave this place with a tangy taste in their mouths, with reflections of Jesus in their eyes. And they, in turn, share the salt and light they’ve gathered here, as one little way of changing the world.Or scary. Or a bit overwhelming. But, may I remind you of the incredible young ministers you have already shaped? Elizabeth, Morgan, Rich, Jackie…the list is longer than you remember. And may I remind you of the lovely people who have come and gone from this place, people whose lives have been changed by the way you live your faith?
Listen to what former pastoral intern Rich Havard has to say to you: “626.28 miles separate me from Calvary. And you’re all aware that DC is a transient city, but I was only there for three months – two years ago! Even with such a long distance between us and such a short time shared together, Calvary continues to shape who I am.
Calvary is currently exploring its Identity, Values, and Mission on Sunday mornings. Full disclosure: I am often quite suspicious of such series. With Calvary, though, I find my doubt transformed into belief. Perhaps its because Calvary wants more than a tagline or a nice elevator speech. The people of Calvary actually live out the Identity, Values, and Mission of this community of faith. Maybe that’s why, despite distance and time, Calvary still plays such a meaningful role in my life.
And I take it as my responsibility and joy to try and embody the Calvary spirit, too. Because of Calvary… My faith is riskier; my love is wider; my commitment to justice is stronger; my life is more authentic; my belief in the church is deeper; my relationship with God is more real.
Calvary, keep living out your call. It affects people near and far in ways you may never realize. It certainly has affected me.”