This was my last sermon at Trinity Church in Princeton, New Jersey. Listen to the sermon here.
If you were to star in a caper movie, which character would you be? Would you be Marty Bishop or Danny Ocean—the charismatic, handsome leader of the group who pulls the gang together for one last heist? Would you be Mother Roskow or Lyle, the tech genius who works behind the scenes to make sure alarm systems are disabled and traffic lights cooperate with the plan? Would you be Basher, the aptly named explosives expert? Would you be the financier? The arch enemy? The beautiful girlfriend/ex wife/expert locksmith who participates only reluctantly because she just can’t stay away from her man?
Caper movies are incredibly satisfying to watch. Unlike watching a superhero or Bond movie, you know the characters must work together to accomplish their goal. Each of them has unique characteristics vital to success.
As far as I know Steven Soderbergh is not planning to write and direct a caper movie based on the early Christian church, but he totally could!
All the elements are there. You have the Apostle Peter, the charismatic leader of the group. And the early church did not have lock pickers and explosive experts, but there were prophets and teachers and people who spoke in tongues. The early church was not in the business of breaking into banks, of course, but they did have a mission. In our Gospel lesson today, Jesus speaks of his mission as,
…to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
The mission of the early church was to proclaim and enact this good news to the world! God was doing a new thing, and it was the church’s job to let everyone know.
A caper movie wouldn’t be a movie without some tension, some conflict that threatens to tear the team apart. One of the problems for the early church was its diversity. Suddenly Jews were hanging out with Greeks, slaves were peers with free people, women were as respected as men. You can imagine the arguments that took place! On top of that, members of the church at Corinth began to argue about whose spiritual gifts were more important. Was being an apostle more important than being a prophet? What about being a teacher—or having the ability to speak in tongues? The church started getting competitive. The church’s mission was threatened.
The Apostle Paul writes the Christians at Corinth to remind them that they need each other. He famously uses the metaphor of a body. Since Christ has ascended into heaven, the church becomes the body of Christ in the world. Each has an important role—only the foot can be a foot. Only the ear can be the ear. Parts of the body work together for the good of the entire person. In the same way, members of the church work together for the good of Christ.
We are still the Body of Christ, of course. We are still in the business of carrying God’s good news out into the world. We may not think of ourselves in quite the terms Paul uses—I haven’t heard many of you speaking in tongues lately—but we are each still just as important to the work of God in the world.
Each of you has something special and unique to offer God. You may think you are a pretty boring person, but I am here to say that you are part of a caper! You won’t be robbing any banks, and you probably won’t get to rub elbows with George Clooney, but your job as a Christian is to offer your unique self to the team, so we can get on with our mission in the world.
So, who are you? Are you the incredibly well organized professional who will help the church get its programs into shape? Do you enjoy a chance to perform physical labor and want to help with rummage or at Crisis Ministry? Do you love kids and want to tell them about God? Are you an introvert who doesn’t much like meetings, but would be happy to keep a spreadsheet for a ministry or send a card or knit a prayer shawl? Are you a truth teller who can give honest feedback to the vestry? Do you have the gift of stubbornness, which will help you start a ministry from scratch? Do you love meeting strangers and want to be an usher or on our newcomer committee?
There are as many different gifts as there are people sitting in this room. Without you, the Body of Christ would be incomplete. Without you, we could never pull off this caper! And of course, if you are essential, so is the person sitting behind you, and the one sitting next to you.
Princeton is a town full of brilliant, independent people. So much of our life outside these walls is about competition, but in church what makes us thrive is cooperation. Like the parishioners in Corinth, you may not like everyone within these walls. You may think you don’t need someone in this room. Alas, you are part of the Body of Christ, and so you are connected. To everyone in this room. You need them. Each of them. And they need you.
I am sad about leaving you, but I am not anxious for you because I know there are people with incredible gifts who will help Father Paul, Jenny and Nancy until someone is hired to replace me. And I am not anxious for myself because I know there is another branch of the Body of Christ, ready to receive me. If I could ask anything of you, it would be to continue to live into this idea of the Body of Christ. Take heed of Paul’s words to the Corinthians and remember that you are absolutely vital to God’s work in this world, and so is the person sitting next to you.
I would ask you to treat one another with gentleness, seek to help one another, and give one another the benefit of the doubt.
I have so enjoyed being part of this caper with you. Thank you for teaching me that small groups of determined people can serve God in amazing ways! Our Sunday School teachers are incredibly faithful and loving. Our pastoral care team would not stop until every homebound person who needs communion is receiving it regularly. Our Newcomer team has called numerous newcomers, welcoming them to this parish. Our choir gives me goosebumps every week with their incredible singing. Our outreach team has pulled off mission trips, emergency response, One Table Café, fundraisers and more! Our rummage team takes thousands of pounds of castoffs and turns it into treasure. Our prayer shawl group has knit dozens of shawls that have traveled all over the world. Our Bible studies have been a safe place for people to encounter the living God. And there are a dozen other groups—interns, parish life, the sound team, ushers, readers, acolytes, chalicists, technology committee, buildings, grounds and more—all working hard to serve God.
I have learned so much from our staff, as well. Paul and Jenny work tirelessly, often behind the scenes, leading and pastoring. They are always working to think of creative and new ways Trinity can better function as the Body of Christ. Tom is not only a spectacular musician, but has taught me about how important volunteers are to a great program. Elly and Pat serve God through striving for excellence in their work. And you may not realize it, but you are blessed with the best sextons of any church ever. Enrique, Roberto and Joe understand their work as ministry and perform it with excellence and love every day. If you want to know what I mean about living out gentleness, helping one another, and giving one another the benefit of the doubt, see if you can apprentice with them for a week.
The Body of Christ is not an abstract idea from thousands of years ago. The Body of Christ is us and is lived out in this place every day. I am so privileged to have been a part of it. Godspeed.