We Are Not a Building, September 6

We Are Not a Building

Romans 13:8-14; Matthew 18:15-20

Rev. Catherine Schuyler

Catskill United Methodist Church, and online; September 6, 2020


The church is not a building, the church is not a steeple

The church is not a resting place; the church is a people.


The man who wrote these words, Richard Avery, died on March 15, 2020, the day that many churches, including our three churches, were forced to wrestle with the truth of his words.  All of a sudden, on that third Sunday in March, we had to be church without buildings.  We couldn’t gather in our buildings because we were under stay-at-home orders in order to stay safe from the novel corona virus.  But we did worship.  We managed to cobble together a worship service over the internet.  We’ve improved our technical capacity somewhat since then, and some of us are able to come together for a different sort of worship, outside, with masks and no singing.  But we’ve seen the truth of Richard Avery’s forty-eight-year old hymn in a way we hadn’t before.  The church really isn’t a building.  It’s us.


Most of us would have agreed with that statement in the abstract well before this pandemic.  But the everyday reality isn’t always the same as the abstract declaration.  When I tell new friends in Catskill that I’m the pastor of the United Methodist churches in town, they always ask me where those churches are.  Up the hill in the village and just across from the creek in Palenville.  I guess I could answer their questions with ‘in the hearts and bodies of our members,’ but that doesn’t feel like the info they’re looking for.  Our buildings give us a concrete witness in the community.  I’m happy that we now have concrete ministry visible to the community too, in the form of our Blessing Box and Little Free Library.  Strangers comment to me of those ministries as well. 


It turns out that being the church doesn’t actually require a building at all, useful though it is.  Online worship has been recorded from the Catskill church building since March, but we could have recorded worship from my study at home if we’d had to, and it would have reached you all just the same.  We now have meetings via Zoom or conference call and do the same work we used to do in the building.  It’s true that worship and meetings and Bible study and hymn sings aren’t precisely the same online as they are in person, but they’re possible.  And we can accomplish ministry without setting foot in our buildings at all.   We offer food and diapers and Bibles to our neighbors through our Blessing Boxes, books through our library, used household items and clothes through the Well in Saugerties, and Bible studies and missions funding and prayer services over the internet.  We have continued to be the church without fully gathering in our buildings for almost six months now.


When we look at the New Testament witness of church, there is precious little about buildings at all.  Most of the scriptures about the church speak about the community of the church and the behavior of the people in that community.  Building one another up in love, declaring God’s marvelous deeds, sharing life with glad and generous hearts, and encouraging each other. 


I don’t think the three churches of our charge have missed their buildings much at all.  What we miss is each other.  We know that the hymn is correct – we are not actually a building, we are the people.  We miss the building because it’s where we see each other.  Not seeing each other is the hardest part of being church in 2020.  Because we are church when we are disciples of Jesus together.  The witness of scripture is still today’s truth – we are Christ’s body and individually members of it, appreciating each other, encouraging each other, and making disciples for the transformation of the world.


Today’s gospel word is an integral part of what it is to be church.  Matthew’s depiction of the church is such an intimate community that conflicts within it need to be faced and fixed, not ignored.  The Rule of Christ, laid out here quite clearly, step by step, is here given to every follower of Jesus, but is not frequently put to use by church members of the 21st century.  We love our church, and we cherish the opportunity to be with one another, but we are, in general, no lovers of face-to-face conflict.  If someone in the church sins against you, you are much more likely to talk about it to your close friends in the church than you are to talk about it with the one who has hurt you.  The model of the church here in Matthew 18 is of a community that trusts one another enough to address and solve interpersonal disputes.  We know that the church we love is the community of the people who are part of it.  It’s another step deeper into intimacy to trust that we can confront one another with ways we’ve been hurt or concerned about another’s behavior.  Practicing the Rule of Christ, the procedure described here in Matthew 18, is about expecting you and me and all fellow disciples of Christ to be accountable to one another for our behavior.  Jesus talks a lot about the behavior of his disciples.  Love your enemies, feed the hungry, make peace with your brother or sister before coming to offer your gift to God, forgive each other over and over again.  In contrast, we don’t talk a lot about our behavior to each other.  At least, we don’t talk about it to the people whose behavior we don’t like.  We probably do talk to others about it.  That’s precisely the practice this procedure is meant to discourage.  When you have a problem with a brother or sister – and you will.  The word here is when, not if. When you have a problem, talk to them about it.  If you need someone else present, ask for help.  I will witness that I have been part of discussions like this.  It’s not a magic spell; it doesn’t immediately solve the problems that arise among us.  But it does increase the trust and the understanding, and the compassion among all those involved in the conversation.  It’s a respectful way to talk to your church friends.  It’s not a difficult process.  And the more we do it, the more normal it becomes.


Jesus’ call to follow him is not to only one or two of us.  It’s to all of us.  So how we behave together matters as we walk the way with Jesus.  The church is, of course, not a building but a people.  And as a people, a community of persons, loved and called and empowered by God, we learn to be the church by trusting each other, believing that your call and love of God is as real and authentic as mine or someone else’s.    As we look ahead from this time, we will find a way to incorporate new people into our community, some we will know mostly through the computer screen, some we have known but who will stay home still for months to come to stay safe and healthy.  Being the church, loving one another, serving God, and welcoming new followers of Jesus among us, will look different from how it was in previous years, but so much won’t change.  Building one another up in love will always be at the heart of what we do; making disciples – of ourselves and of new friends who join us on the journey – is still at the heart of Jesus’ great commission.  And this world in which we live is in dire need of transformation and hope made manifest in love.  We are the church, in and out of the building, witnessing to the power of love and to the grace of God, walking together as we follow our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.  May the Spirit continue to guide us as we go.  Amen.





Romans 13:8-14

8Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. 9The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 10Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.


11Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; 12the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; 13let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. 14Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.


Matthew 18:15-20

15“If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. 16But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. 18Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. 19Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. 20For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”




What Is the Church?

A Litany


The Acts of the Apostles describes the church this way:

All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.


Acts then describes the behavior of those in the church:

Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people.


Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians says, in chapter 12:

The church is the body of Christ.


The letter to the Ephesians says in chapter 1:

The church is Christ’s body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.


The letter to the Hebrews says in chapter 10:

The church are those who “consider how to build up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together,… but encouraging one another…”


The first letter of Peter says in chapter 2:

The church are those who “declare the wonderful deeds of the One who called us out of darkness into the marvelous light.”


The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church says:

The church is about making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.


We say:

We are the church, Catskill United Methodist Church, serving Christ, caring for each other, widening the circle to include all who would come.

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