• Quality sermons from a well recognized preacher, church leader, seminary dean, Bishop of Massachusetts and president of the Episcopal House of Deputies
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Holiness and CommunityJohn Coburn Preaches the Faith
By JOHN B. COBURN
Morehouse PublishingCopyright © 2010 Estate of John B. Coburn
All right reserved.
Chapter OneAn Appeal for Your Life
The Twenty-Fifth Sunday after Trinity, November 15, 1970
The first draft of this sermon began like: "This sermon is an appeal for your money. An appeal to you to give your money away. Not all of it, but more than you ever have before and without any guarantee that you will get anything back, except the satisfaction that comes from making clear to yourself and to God what your set of values is."
I am going to read the second draft, because the first draft has been thrown away and the second draft goes like this: "This sermon is an appeal for your life. An appeal to you to give your life away. Not all of it, but more of it than you ever have before and without any guarantee that you will get anything back, except the satisfaction that comes from making clear to yourself and God what your set of values is."
How you spend your money determines how you spend your life. That maybe is a distortion. It may be more accurate to say that how you spend your money is probably an index of how you are spending your life.
If you want to know what your life means, how are you spending your money? You can find out very easily. Money is a part of life. It is a partial index along with other parts, it is one of many pieces. It just happens to be visible. But altogether the pieces reflect your spirit and how that life is directed by your spirit. How you spend your money, then, along with how you spend your sex life, or family life, or recreational life, or intellectual life, or cultural life, or business life, or church life—all together these various pieces express your spiritual life because finally life is all of a piece. How you spend your life is your spiritual life, of which money is a part and church is a part.
You and I, no matter how divided we may be inside or how compartmentalized we think we can carry on our life—so much for business and so much for pleasure and so much for the church—no matter how compartmentalized we think we can make our life, we are finally always one person, one body, one life, and one spirit. How that spirit possesses us is reflected in the variety of ways in the different parts of our life. What your values are, what my values are, are determined in what we pay our money for.
So an appeal, in other words, for money—an appeal to you to give away money—is really not that at all. The money in itself is not all that important. The appeal to give away your life is important.
The value of money depends upon the meaning we put to it. The value of life rests upon the meaning we give to that. If we give it away, give some of it away—if we give more of it away than we ever have before—then our life will mean more than it ever has before. The appeal is for life and within life the appeal is for money. To be generous in your giving of yourself is to give greater meaning to your whole life—the totality of your life. If that has been determined, then the money will fall into its proper place, along with your family life and your business and professional and recreational life.
It can be put the other way around. When you say a man is stingy because he does not give money—a man who says, "I do not believe in charity," you say he is stingy. You say his spirit is stingy. That is the kind of man he is. He is stingy all over, in all aspects of his life. He wants to hold on to everything that he's got or direct traffic according to his rules—wanting his way all the way. So, of the generous man who gives freely of his money, we say not simply that he has a generous spirit, we say, he is a generous man.
An appeal will come to you this week for the support of the work of the church. The importance of the appeal is in the giving of ourselves in a generous spirit to life itself: in a generous spirit to our family or to our associates, our neighbors and because we have money, to the poor who are our neighbors. How you spend your money is a parable of how you spend your life. It is very down to earth, which is why Jesus used parables to teach about life.
A man was once given $5,000, and he invested it. Some time later the man who gave him the $5,000 came back and said, "How much do you have?" He said, "I have $l0,000." He replied, "That is a good job you did." Another man at the same time was given $2,000. He turned it into $4,000. When the donor asked him what he had done, he said, "I have now doubled your money." He said, "That is a fine job you have done."
Then he went to the third man to whom he had given $l,000. He asked, ''Well, what did you do with the money?" He replied, "I was afraid. I was afraid that I might not succeed and that you would hurt me. So I put the money in a safe deposit vault and here is the $l,000." And the donor said, "You are a fool. You are just plain stupid to act like that. You are never going to get anywhere in life if you are fearful all the time. If all you ever do is to be concerned about your own skin, if that is the way you are going to live, you are finished." So he took the $l,000 and gave it to the man who had the $l0,000 and remarked, "That is the way life is, brothers. If you've got it, you had better invest it. Everybody has something and if you don't invest it, it's taken away. That is the way life is." So that man curled up and died—just like everybody with that type of spirit. We can't play it safe. We can't take it with us. We can't get anywhere by hoarding.
The talents—they have to be invested. Both money and life. Of course, it is a gamble because, until you put your money down, you do not know whether it is going to come back. You can look and see that people who never put their money down die in their spirit.
So it is a parable. It is more about life than it is about money. As they say, the crunch is where the money is. Your life, your talents, your gifts, they are given. They are given to be used. If you use them, they will grow. If you do not use them, they will dry up. Give your life outward with courage—you will get hurt but you will thrive. Back away, protect, keep, hoard—you will die.
This is true of personal talents: the ability to play the piano or to sing. It is true of the gifts of the intellect. It is true of religious gifts, the gift of faith. It is a great mystery, some people believe and other people do not. The tragedy is not with the people who do not believe if they have not been given that gift. The tragedy is with the people who have been given that gift and then never act on it. That is death.
It is true of the gift of our heritage, any heritage: the gift of our nation, the gift of a city, the gift of a church—guard it, protect it, put soldiers around it, do not let anybody have any share in it, and one day it is gone. It is true of the gift of the gospel. It is the same thing. Give it away and it flourishes. Hold on to it for ourselves—it disappears. The gospel demands that it be given away; that is to say life demands that it be given away. This is what the gospel and life are all about: God giving himself away. Not just once, but day after day after day, he is giving himself away in love for you and for me. We in response then are willing to give ourselves away, or to give ourselves more away each day.
That is the only way love and compassion and caring can ever be spread. That is the only way that the spears will be broken and that peace will come. So if you hold the gospel and protect it and refuse to share it, it disappears. Then the church is left only with the church, an ecclesiastical organization to support. There is no life there. There is no gospel.
So the appeal is not for the church as an institution for your life. The appeal is for the gospel, the grace of a free spirit. That is different from holding on. It is the sparkle of a young child who gets an overcoat or who learns the alphabet, or who takes an excursion with his friends. That is different. That is healing. That is life. That is the gospel. The church may be a vehicle for that gospel.
All this is simply to say that your life, in a way, will depend upon how you give. Not how much you give—nobody can determine that except you and God—but how, you give, with what spirit.
It is important then to use both the first draft and the second: to appeal for your money, for this is the way that Christ appealed for your life. Amen.
Chapter TwoThe Ministry of St. James' People
The Third Sunday in Advent, December 13, 1970
The best way to answer the question, "What does the Episcopal Church believe?" is to say, "Read the collects." These are the prayers of the church, a different prayer for each Sunday of the Church Year, and taken all together they declare the belief that the Episcopal Church has in God. So the collects in Advent are preparation for God's coming.
The first Sunday in Advent's collect presents a theme which is carried on through all four weeks of Advent. All life—the shadows and the dark places as well as the light and the brilliant places—all life is to be prepared for Christ's coming. Don't therefore try to exclude part of your life in preparation for Christmas. Don't put aside temptations or the passions or the pain or the sorrow or the burdens or the deaths. Don't try to put aside any of those parts of your life that you are not happy with. Rather include them in the affirmation of all of life being prepared for God's coming. As you think of that Christ child coming into your life, think of him as the one who may pull together all the loose strings into one whole. So do not hide or do not try to pretend but open everything.
The second collect about which Mr. Warren preached last week has as its theme the Bible. Christian people are waiting for God to come again. They have a history which is described in the record of those early people of God written in the Bible.
There is a record there of how God prepares the hearts of people for his coming, not just once but generation after generation, year after year after year. If you would prepare yourselves now, it will be in the same old way that the people have always been prepared: the way of honesty, of confessing failure, of confessing our concern for ourselves before our concern for our neighbors; acknowledging that from the deepest wellsprings of our life, we do want to be more honest, more open and more loving and more forgiving and more just—more committed, more really committed to the forces of righteousness that we see around us. It is in that kind of a spirit that we are reminded Christ comes.
The third collect today has exactly the same theme, but this time it concentrates upon the place of the ministry in helping the people of God prepare for his coming. The task of ministry, says the collect, is to help the people prepare for Christmas by having their hearts opened more, that their actions may be more just, so that they may be strengthened to live in that spirit of Christ when he comes in their lives in the world.
This sermon is about this ministry and this ministry in relation to God's people. As Mr. Warren related the Bible to the church school program of St. James' Church last week, let me attempt to make reference to the people of God in St. James' Church this week and to the ministry that we hold in common.
Now if you are a stranger to St. James' Church and do not intend to ever come back again, you are welcome to any free wisdom that you want to take back to your parish or if you would like to take a snooze, this would be a good time.
There are three things I want to say, all from the Biblical perspective. The basic unit of Christian living is the congregation. It is not the clergy; it is the congregation. It is the people of God who are gathered together. The apostles were first gathered together around the table. When they went out, they went to establish other little congregations which would gather together around tables and remember Jesus. That is what they did in Ephesus and Corinth and Salonica and Rome and all through the Mediterranean world. That has always been the thrust of the church, of the life of a congregation—moving out to establish other congregations that other people might remember Jesus. It is always expanding. It has always been mission minded. It has always had to do with the establishment of new life for new people in new gatherings that they may have something of the vigor and the vitality of people who know that God is God and Christ is their Lord.
Ministers were chosen in very early times in a variety of ways, but they were always chosen by the congregation and very largely from amongst themselves in order that they might have someone who on their behalf would break the bread in memory of Christ and would preach the gospel. The Communion and the gospel is the combination of inward nourishment and strength to go out and let the world know who Christ is. They were the servants of the congregation. The ministers therefore were called to serve the people in order that their hearts might be prepared for God's coming day after day, so that all people outside the church might know. So the first point is the basic unit which has always been the local congregation, and it always will be because that is where people meet together around the table and hear the gospel.
The second point is this. During the latter part of the Middle Ages and the Reformation, in both the Catholic and the Reformed tradition, the church began to turn inward. The outward thrust was blunted and the vitality began to diminish. This turning inward was symbolized by the almost absolute emphasis upon either the priest breaking the bread for the people or the reformed preacher preaching the Word for the people—for them alone, for those who already belong, in order that they might be comforted in their own life rather than for service to all men. Priests and ministers were engaged to please the people rather than to serve them as ministers of the gospel. That tide is now running out. It is running its course. It has been running out for a hundred years in western culture. The church concerned about itself is inevitably losing ground. In Friday's paper you may have seen the notification that one half of the national church's staff at 815 Second Avenue is being dismissed because there is not enough money. When a church has accumulated generations of primary concern about its institutional life, it always runs out of money. Unless that tide is reversed and the gospel taken by the people to the people outside the church, the funds will continue to diminish. The vitality of a Christian church can almost always be determined by its concern for those who stand outside the church rather than for those who stand within the church. There are exceptions—the Fundamentalists that have made such an extraordinary growth, tending by and large to stress the next life to the neglect of this life, and splinter groups that have broken off into small groups of meetings and formed part of what is called "the underground church" for the renewal of the church. So the second point is to identify a trend of what happens when the inward look is the exclusive look.
Thirdly, we now stand in the middle of this transition period from the nineteenth century to the twenty-first century when Christ will be coming again. He will be coming then as he is coming now. How are we in this congregation preparing for his coming? How are we preparing for his coming in this year that we may have our hearts prepared for his coming every year so that when he comes, he may come with power?
There are two keys. One is the opening up of congregational life. The central unit of the parish is the congregation, and everything the vestry has been doing these recent months has been directed to have their committees so restructured that more and more people in the life of the congregation may participate in the decisions that affect the life of the congregation.
Excerpted from Holiness and Community by JOHN B. COBURN Copyright © 2010 by Estate of John B. Coburn. Excerpted by permission of Morehouse Publishing. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
An Appeal for Your Life 1
The Ministry of St. James' People 5
Decisions-and a Promise 10
America! America! 15
A Community of Trust 19
A Community That Cares 24
Attica: Perspective and Prayer 29
What St. James' Church Is Up To 34
Your Journey with the Wise Men 38
The Making of Christ-The Mark of Maturity 43
A Life to Live-A Way to Pray: The Quest for Identity 48
Diocesan Mission '72 53
The Knock on the Door 58
The Blessing of #867 Madison Avenue 63
Theologian in the White House: The Religion of Abraham Lincoln 67
The Story of Jesus Christ: His Birth 73
The Story of Jesus Christ: His Trial (Mark 15:1-20) 78
On Returning from Vacation 83
Report on the General Convention 1973 88
St. James' Church and its Community 93
Thanksgiving Day-Day of Pain, and Joy Every Day 98
Our Brother Paul: Consciousness Raising-Christian Paradox 102
On Riding Motorcycles 107
Justice and Mercy 112
Creative Christian Conflict 117
Scenes from a Marriage 122
God's Sense of Humor 127
The Truth Plus the Person Equals Life 132
In Time Like Glass 138
Ash Wednesday Homily on Lincoln's Birthday 144
Let us Choose Life-A Sermon for Our Country 147
Celebration and Commitment-Prayer for Our Country 152
Clap Your Hands, All Ye People 156
All Saints' Day Celebration 167
A Timeline John B. Coburn 1914-2009 173