Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord, O my soul! I will praise the Lord as long as I live; I will sing praises to my God all my life long. Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help. When their breath departs, they return to the earth; on that very day their plans perish. Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord their God, who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them; who keeps faith forever; who executes justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry. The Lord sets the prisoners free; the Lord opens the eyes of the blind. The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down; the Lord loves the righteous. The Lord watches over the strangers; he upholds the orphan and the widow, but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin. The Lord will reign forever, your God, O Zion, for all generations. Praise the Lord!
In the beginning, we met in people’s homes. The church wasn’t even called the church; it was called “ecclesia” which means a gathering. The earliest disciples of Jesus gathered together in homes to retell the story, break bread together, and engage in prayer.
As the centuries passed and the Good News spread across the world, gathering spaces called churches were erected in certain communities. Through this period, we met for worship in whatever church was closest. In didn’t matter if we didn’t agree with what the person at the front said, or even if we hated the people in the pews next to us, we only really had one option for church and it was good enough.
Today, in the American context, we have every possible flavor of church you could ever want. In our town alone there are at least 87 different churches within the city limits. We are no longer bound to attend church based on proximity; instead we attend church based on denominational affiliation, pastoral performance, and opportunities for youth. Whereas we once gathered as a truly diverse community of faith, we now tend to gather with people who make us comfortable and appear just like us. Whereas we used to be stuck with the church in our neighborhood, now there are websites dedicated to church reviews and helping people find the church that fits them best.
This week, I got online and I started reading church reviews from all over the country. After all, it could only help to see what people think of other churches to get an idea about what many of you might think about St. John’s. And, I’ve got to be honest; most of them are awful…
“Absolutely doumbfounded. Checked this church out for the first time today, and really wish I had read some of the other reviews first. It was creepy how strangers kept smiling and maintaining eye contact even after the service started. I lost track after 15 people introduced themselves. And the sermon was about nothing more than tithing. The ushers passed around cards talking about a “90 day challenge” … giving 10% of your income to that church for three months, but that’s not all folks, it said, “if you don’t feel blessed after those 90 days, there is a money back guarantee!!!” It felt more like an infomercial than a worship service. But they did share how they are giving away a free cruise on Father’s day weekend… The thing I regret most is not walking out of there in the middle of the service.
“Young people ruined the church. God used to be the foundation of our community and members got to know each other until they came and everything went downhill. The new young families came in wearing blue jeans and tee shirts; they were disrespectful of what it means to be holy. My heart is heavy that my church has become just another soulless generic space in hipsterland.”
“This was the worst restaurant ever. First of all, their bread was terribly sweet, and they make you literally stand in line for it. Then, you wait in line to dip your bread into a cup of what tastes like decades old grape juice. There was no main course. I sat in a stiff wooden bench for an hour before I was able to eat and there was a man wearing a dress who shouted the whole time. It was free however, though they asked for donations near the end and passed around a plate. I give it 1 star, and do not recommend it to anyone.”
However, I found one review that was so positive that I had to share it:
“In my life, I have never been with a group of people who were so fired up to make positive changes in the world. The entire experience was surreal, in the best way possible. There was a lady near me who came up at the beginning and wanted to know all about me. I honestly didn’t know it could be this exciting. I loved that the speaker didn’t need to use notes while he was talking. It felt genuine and meaningful and he even encouraged us to shout back when we felt the need to do so. Other people might make comments about how the parking lot was crowded but I think that’s a good thing! I’ve gone to gatherings like this my whole life, and for the first time I feel like we’re moving in the right direction and I left feeling charged up for action. It’s time to make America great again!”
That last review was a mash-up of descriptions from two recent political rallies centered on presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. After reading negative church reviews for an hour, it shocked me that gatherings in support of the next president of the United States were garnering better reviews than households of God. And even more than their positive language, what they described appears like a perfect worship service; except for the fact that they are worshipping politicians rather than almighty God.
From the beginning we have looked for other people to take care of our needs. Whether it was in the Garden, or just the other day in Staunton, it is part of our human condition to rely on the “other” to help us. This is even more prevalent when it comes to our modern days “princes” otherwise known as politicians.
Now there isn’t anything inherently wrong with politicians: they stand before us and tell us what they will do for us. We vote for them and they represent our interests. Our failure is in our tendency to look for politicians to be our saviors.
The psalmist knew this basic fact of the human condition. The Hebrew people wanted kings just like all the other gatherings of people and so they got what they wanted. But in raising political leaders to be saviors they committed the ultimate sin that we still commit today: believing that we can save ourselves.
Praise the Lord! Do not put your trust in politicians, in feeble and broken individuals. When their breath departs, when their days come to an end, their plans perish. However, the Lord endures forever. Happy are those whose hope is in the Lord, who keeps faith forever, who executes justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry.
God is the one from whom our help will come. God is a nurse who opens the eyes of those who refuse to see. God is a social worker who lifts up those who are bowed down under the weight of the world. God is a political activist who sets the prisoners free and watches over all foreigners. God is the one who reigns and remains steadfast forever.
The question for us, the question the psalm begs us to ask is this: Who do we really worship?
A few weeks ago the General Conference of the United Methodist Church met in Portland, Oregon, and among other things, they voted on a global annual budget. From now until 2020 the global United Methodist church projects needing and spending $604 million dollars. This money will be used in a variety of ways to support the denomination’s mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.
The number, I’ll admit, is staggering. However, it pales in comparison to the 1 billion dollars that has been raised and spent in the 2016 presidential race. Add that to the countless hours we have spent glued to the television during debates, or the infinite number of Internet articles that support the candidate of our choosing, or just the mind-boggling number of bumper stickers and yard signs in Staunton alone and you will start to realize who we really worship.
It’s time to make the church great again. Not by going back to the days of old to be what we once were, but to look boldly to the future and believe that God can save us, not politicians, not public leaders, not even pastors. Can you imagine how much good the church could do if it was supported like a presidential campaign? Can you picture how many lives could be changed for the better if we worshipped the Lord the way we worship our politics?
God can use politicians to bring about God’s will on earth, but there is a limit to what they can accomplish. Moreover, the longer we wait for our politicians to save us, the longer we pass the buck on to someone else, the longer we will prevent God from using people like us to make the kingdom come here on earth. Believe it or not, God uses people like us to work for justice, feed to the hungry, love the outcasts; watch over strangers, orphans, and widows. As disciples of Jesus Christ our work is to act like Jesus.
If you get online and search for reviews of St. John’s, you won’t find any. Trust me, I looked. Either we haven’t offended people enough, or we haven’t inspired people enough to write a review of a “worship experience.” But maybe, just maybe, there are no reviews of St. John’s because we know the church is not something to be done and reviewed. We know the church isn’t like a restaurant or business that we can experience at our leisure. We know the church isn’t like a political party that makes promises that cannot be kept. We, after worshipping in these pews – offering these prayers – eating this bread and drinking from this cup, we understand that church isn’t about what we get out of it, but instead it’s about what God gets out of us.
If we really want to make the Church great again, then we need not look further than this table and the meal that has been prepared for us. For it is here, where heaven and earth meet for a brief moment, where we confess and are reconciled, that we remember how the Lord is the one who lifts us up when we’re down; how the Lord opens our eyes when we are blinded by the world; how the Lord reigns forever. Praise the Lord! Amen.