I’d like to tell you a story about a statue that sat in front of an old church, and greeted you as you came in. It was a gift given by one of the church’s wealthier members who hired a well-known artist to create a sculpture that would be the centerpiece for the growing town. The patron wanted the statue to say something about the ministry and mission of the church, something that reflected an open invitation to the community, to come and worship the Lord.
And so, inspired by the gospel story of Jesus’ calling James and John, the Sons of Zebedee, the sculptor created a six-foot figure of Jesus with outstretched arms overlooking a long rectangular reflecting pool. There was a kindness to the face, a certain grace in his smile, and mercy in his eyes. His body language was both stoic and sympathetic. It called out to you as well as invited you in.
Because of his prominent placement at the east end of the pool, Jesus seemed much larger than life. If you stood in the right place, and looked at your reflection in the water, it looked as if Jesus was embracing you. As you might imagine, it was a magnificent work of art that quickly became the church’s pride and joy.
Each Easter, volunteers draped Jesus with white linen and adorned the edges of the pool with beautiful and fragrant Easter lilies. For the sunrise service, the congregation would gather around it and worship; always amazed at how the silhouette of Jesus came alive in the blinding, rising sun.
Still, beautiful as it was, the statue could not stop the effects of time and progress. As the years went on, the town began to grow and generations changed from one to the next. The statue became less prominent, almost invisible. Smog stains, tree sap, the dirt and grime of modern life could only hide the cracks for so long.
When the homeless claimed the pool as their own personal bath, the church let the water evaporate. The once grand reflecting pool had become nothing more than a swallow box that collected trash and the occasional rainwater. Then one day, and sadly, no ones exactly what day it occurred, something terrible happened. A vandal took a hammer to Jesus, smashing off both hands and part of his right arm.
The heartbroken church members lit candles around the empty pool. And held a prayer vigil as the hustle and bustle of the city passed them by. The only one who seemed to notice their sadness, was Jesus who looked down on them; holding out his broken outstretched arms that gave him the appearance of a homeless man seeking alms for himself.
Slowly and mournfully, the church community returned to worship as normal. But something was brewing underneath. There was an air of uneasiness and sadness. And soon a bigger problem began to surface. The statue that once defined the heart and soul of who they were, and how they wanted to be seen in the community, had begun to redefine them.
They began to see themselves as aging, broken, and overlooked by the community at large. No longer did they have the prominence they once had. No longer were people being drawn to their worship. They began to feel like beggars themselves, desperately trying to get the world’s attention to rescue them.
Feeling lost, the members of the church did what they have always done. They formed a committee. And at their first meeting, they voted unanimously to hold a fundraiser to repair the statue to its full glory. They were going to save Jesus, no matter the cost.
For the next month or so, volunteers spent hour after long hour making the preparations for the fundraiser. They made flyers to get the word out. They visited local businesses and gathered donations for a silent auction. They even convinced a well-known caterer to donate her professional time as a way to draw more people from the community.
Yet a week before the big event, the minister, who had been mostly silent on this issue, stood at the pulpit and showed them of a wonderful opportunity to serve Jesus in a much more meaningful way.
God was not asking them to repair the statue. It didn’t need to be repaired. Instead God was asking them to look at the statue and be reminded of their call: to be the hands of Jesus. Just as the statue once reminded them of their hospitality and place in the community, it was once again reminding them of who they had always been. And what we all have always been called to do.
The church community decided to cancel the fundraiser and agreed the hands would not be replaced. Instead, standing together, they publicly declared, “We will become the hands of Jesus.” And that’s just what they did. They opened a food and clothing distribution center; reached out into the immigrant community to teach English and help people find employment; they started a prison ministry to the youth in local detention center; created a community garden and even filled the pool back up with water.
Their story is a good reminder that the church is not a building, any more than it is a statue. The church is the people. And if we want the world to notice us, then we must become the centerpiece, God’s pride and joy in our community.
Paul reminds us that race, gender, or social status will no longer define or divide God’s people. Through Christ Jesus, we are one united and holy body. Through our baptism, we have been filled with the Holy Spirit and ordained to continue Jesus’ ministry. For just as we rely on God for help, so too does God rely on us.
To paraphrase his final words Jesus said to his followers, “Go and make disciples. Go baptize them and teach them to bear the fruits that I have shown you.” Paul defines the fruits as “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” Jesus warns us that it is by these actions our life, our faith, and our church will be defined, both by the world and by God.
And so I encourage you, implore you, and beg you from the bottom of my heart, to stop the pettiness that divides and devours the church. And be the arms and hands of love, the visible presence of Jesus Christ our Lord; serving him and one another with gladness and singleness of heart. Amen.