“Stewards of Community”
The Reverend Tasha Blackburn
October 2, 2016- World Communion Sunday
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Five years ago this December a family traveled to Arkansas for vacation. Owen and April Beaver had brought their children from Gulfport, Mississippi to visit family. What the Beavers did not know was that their 16 year old son Caleb would not return home with them. On Christmas day he died of a rare condition they didn’t know he had. He’d probably been born with it but had never shown any signs of a problem. Faced with the worst nightmare they could imagine his parents made the decision to donate Caleb’s organs.
After some time passed, the family knew they wanted to meet any of the donor recipients they could. In the middle of their grief, they sought out the person who had Caleb’s pancreas and his lung. One day they received a letter. It had been sent by the man who had Caleb’s heart. He wanted to thank them. He wanted to meet them. There is video of that meeting if you would like to see it for yourself.
It shows April, Caleb’s mother, rushing toward Chuck Shelton, the donor recipient. They embrace and she presses her cheek against his chest. Crying, she whispers two things. She whispers, “It’s Caleb!” and, pressing closer still, she says, “It’s so strong.” In that man she met her son again. She knew it was Caleb’s heart, she just knew it. And, in that man, she could tell his heart was still so strong.
I first heard this story from Rodger Nishioka at, of all places, a Presbytery meeting a few years ago. Some of you got to meet Rodger this past spring when he came to give a Capstone course. Professor and now pastor at Village Presbyterian Church near Kansas City, Rodger shared this story with us for one reason—and it wasn’t so we would cry although he accomplished that in many of us—he told it to us because he said, “This is how I think Jesus relates to us.” He went on: Jesus seeks out his heartbeat in this world. He leans in toward us desperately hoping he will hear it. Our prayer and our greatest hope is that, when Jesus leans in to the Church, he will press close and whisper, “It’s my heart!” And, even further, “It is so strong.”
Does it seem strange that Rodger describes us as the heartbeat of Jesus? Maybe it does. Except that we are the body of Christ. That is what we are. So maybe it is not so strange at all that Jesus should listen for the beat, beat, beat, sounding out of us.
This is the last of our series on being stewards and this week we are focusing on our role as stewards of community. You may be asking what this story has to do with being a steward. But it has everything to do with it. Remember the two things the mother said. She said, “It’s Caleb!” for she knew it was him. Then she said, “It is so strong.” And her words make me wonder: How will Jesus recognize his heartbeat? How will he know it is his own? And how would he know if it was strong?
There is only one answer to this. Of all the teachings and mandates we find, there is only one way he will recognize it and that is this: whether or not we kept his one commandment—to love one another the same way he has loved us.
I don’t really need to remind you but we have often been called “People of the Book” because of how much importance we put on scripture. And we are also what is called a creedal church because we believe in certain statements of faith and we believe the writing and sharing of creeds is deeply important. But I also don’t need to remind you that it would take two generations after Jesus spoke this commandment before the New Testament would get written down and it would take 350 years from his time to hammer out the first creedal statement: the Nicene Creed.
The Bible is important. It would be difficult to say that strongly enough. And creedal statements are important too. But not if we forget to do the one thing that was most important to Jesus. And this most important thing of all cannot be done alone; cannot be done by individuals. This most important part of our faith completely rests on community. It is some kind of faith if we believe the goal of life is for me alone to be saved or for you alone to be saved. That is some kind of faith but it is not Christ’s faith. I know this is not what we may have been taught but hear this clearly: Christ’s faith cannot be found if it is just me by myself and my salvation that matters or just you all by yourself and your salvation that matters. Christ’s faith rests on the community. We find ourselves saved together because we need one another to be saved. Remember: the way he knows us is by how we have loved one another together.
We are called to be stewards of our community—to continually ensure that it is faithful and strong and loving—for two main reasons. The first is because there are uncountable numbers of grieving and lost people who long for something. They may not even know what they long for but it is to hear his heart beat, that is what they long for. We steward our community because we may be the only opportunity those grieving people have to hear it. And we cannot be that heartbeat alone. We can only be it together. If our community is not strong, if the Church is not strong, where will they hear it?
And, as important as that is, there is an even greater reason we tend and care for our community. It is this: Jesus has said he will not know us if we have not loved one another. Remember when he said, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” That means that Jesus will embrace us, press his cheek against our chest, and how well we loved one another will decide whether or not he recognizes his heart beat in us. How well we have stewarded our community will decide whether he even knows us at all.
Whether or not Jesus whispers, “It’s my heart!” is not determined by me, all by myself. Nor is it because of you all by yourself. The entire basis of our faith is not the individual. The basis of our faith is to create a community, what the New Testament calls koinonia. Our faith’s goal is to be a community that beats with a heart that Jesus recognizes as his own. Of course this is true because he has asked us to be his body! And we can only do that when we love one another well.
All these weeks we have been talking about being stewards. And I’m not sure we ever actually defined the term. A steward serves, manages and protects something of great value. Sometimes it is passengers on a ship or valuable land or a sizeable sum of money. This is the definition of a steward in the world. A steward of community serves the community, even over their service of themselves individually. They manage and protect the community when it is endangered or weakened. Stewards of community do that—we do that—because community is something of great value.
It is of such great value that we cannot live out the gospel without it. For Jesus did not give up his life. He gave it away. He gave away his life so that it would never die but would continue to live. “Love one another,” he said. “The way you do that will be the way I recognize you.” My prayer is that when Jesus leans in to us, pressing his cheek against the body he has given away, he will exclaim, “It’s my heart! And it is so strong.” Amen.