Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks.
We worship an odd God.
Jesus, when the crowds push for proclamations about the kingdom, often resorts to the telling of a tale that pops every circuit breaker in the minds of those who hear what he has to say. Preachers like me, on the other hand, rejoice in providing “aha!” moments from the pulpit in which everything is tied neatly in a bow. But Jesus tells all sorts of parables that simply do not explain anything to anyone’s satisfaction. Instead, Jesus’ parables call attention to all the unsatisfactoriness of every previous explanation.
Listen to the so-called parable of the Watchful Servants: “Be dressed like those who are waiting for their master to come home from the wedding, so that you may open the door for him as soon as he arrives. The master will have you sit down to eat, and he will come and serve you.”
Jesus asks us to imagine ourselves as those waiting for a master to return from a wedding that we weren’t invited to. Stay awake and welcome the Lord’s arrival because he, apparently, is bringing the party with him.
Jesus is wild. He, again and again, contrasts the ways we so foolishly live in this world by showing how the opposite, in fact our doing not much of anything, is the only good news around. The sooner we accept that our lives are already changed in Jesus, forever, the sooner the party walks in through the door.
Therefore, we needn’t worry about whether or not we’re invited to the party, we don’t have to lay awake night after night fearful if our popularity, goodness, or faith have been enough. Our salvation, the party incarnate, is never contingent on our ability to make it happen.
Jesus does not come to the door with sober judgments about what it takes to make it in this life and beyond, nor does Jesus come with grim requirements about what it means to make it past the bouncer at the party called the kingdom of heaven.
Instead, Jesus comes humming along to a song from the distant dance floor, perhaps with a few snacks and drinks hidden under the cover of his robe, and before we can say or do anything, he sets up the table and beckons us close.
It’s a strange parable.
But it’s right there in the strange new world of the Bible, and it’s also right here right now.
We are blessed by the risen Lord who knocks at the door, even in our deaths, and he comes bringing the party with him. And, wildly enough, the party is not off in some different place or some different time. It is with us right now, it’s just that most of us are too stubborn to notice. We, to take the language of the parable, are so consumed by the busyness of our lives that we can’t even hear Jesus banging on the door.
Our whole lives, the mess of our busyness, lead only toward our deaths. And it’s all okay, because in baptism we’ve already died with Christ. It is Jesus who is our life. Jesus is the one who comes for us from the wedding feat – he comes to us with the celebration under his arm and he wants nothing more than to rejoice with us.
On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding.
It’s a bit I often use when I’m preaching for a wedding. Something about how, in the Gospels, people are forever asking Jesus about the kingdom of heaven and he has some rather strange and bizarre answers. The kingdom of heaven is like… a mustard seed. The kingdom of heaven is like… treasure buried in a field. The kingdom of heaven is like… yeast. On and on. But the thing Jesus compares the kingdom to most of all is a feast, a party.
I like to bring this up at weddings because immediately following my part, the newlyweds usually lead everyone in attendance to a reception during which they celebrate. It is my attempt at showing how the marriage ceremony, the part with all the religious language, is connected to everything that happens after. Or, to put it bluntly: Jesus is just as much present in the celebration as the ceremony.
And so it came to pass, during one particular wedding, that the bridal party actually listened to what I was saying throughout the ceremony to such a degree that, for the rest of the evening, they shouted “Party Like Jesus!” every time they lifted their campaign flutes.
I’ll admit that it was a rather contradictory moment, and yet it held the promise of the Gospel!
Contrary to how we might like to imagine it, a fair amount of Jesus’ ministry took place over a cup of wine with friends. He, to use the language of Robert Farrar Capon, was literally the Spirit of the party. Therefore, we do well to remember that feasts (maritally oriented or otherwise) are blessed opportunities to have a little slice of heaven on earth.
I love that Jesus compares the kingdom to a feast because a feast (more often than not) is something we’re invited to. It is an ever ringing reminder that no matter what we do, or leave undone, God is the host, and God likes crowded tables. There is no bouncer at the party, save for a king who insists on dragging in people off the street. There is no list of pre-requisites to enter, save for recognizing that we have no business being at the party to which we’re invited. There isn’t even an expectation of reciprocation, save for the fact that we’re encouraged to stumble out from the party doing whatever we can to share the joy of it with others.
Or, as Capon put it:
“Grace is the celebration of life, relentlessly hounding all the non-celebrants in the world. It is the floating, cosmic bash shouting its way through the streets of the universe, flinging the sweetness of its cassations to every window, pounding at every door in a hilarity beyond all liking and happening, until the prodigals come out at last and dance, and the elder brothers finally take their fingers out of their ears.”
And, because I believe that music often does a better job at conveying theological claim than mere words alone, here are some tunes to put us in the party spirit:
Miner is a folk-rock family band based in Los Angeles. Their propulsive “Tomorrow” is simple in terms of its lyrics and yet profound in its arrangement. The thematic “waves washing over” are conveyed through the repetition of the vocals and the drums which build throughout the song. In a time when it feels like we’re bombarded by nothing but bad news, the proclamation of the Good News of better days is something, I think, we can all use right now.
Real Estate is known for their catchy guitar earworms, and their easy rock feel. When I saw them live a few years ago everyone in the audience exuded happiness as they swayed back and forth to the music. The band covered the Grateful Dead’s “Here Comes Sunshine” back in 2016 and I love returning to this track for a little boost every so often. I hope it does the same for you.
May Erlewine is a singer-songwriter from Michigan who teamed up with the Woody Goss (of Vulfpeck fame) Band for an amazing record in 2020. The single “Anyway” has funky drums, a picky guitar riff, and a smooth melody. Who wouldn’t want to hear “I’m gonna love you anyway” over and over?
How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of hosts! My soul longs, indeed it faints for the courts of the Lord; my heart and flesh sing for joy to the living God. Even the sparrow finds a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young, at your altars, O Lord of hosts, my King and my God. Happy are those who live in your house, ever singing you praise. Happy are those whose strength is in you, in whose heart are the highways to Zion. As they go through the valley of Baca they make it a place of springs; the early rain also covers it with pools. They go from strength to strength; the God of gods will be in Zion. O Love God of hosts, hear my prayers; give ear, O God of Jacob! Behold our shield, O God; look on the dace of your anointed. For a day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere. I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than live in the tents of wickedness. For the Lord God is a sun and shield; he bestows favor and honor. No good thing does the Lord withhold from those who walk uprightly. O Lord of hosts, happy is everyone who trusts in you.
What’s right with the church?
That’s what it said at the top of a word document on my laptop this week while I was working on this very sermon in a coffee shop.
The flashing cursor mocked me with every passing second as I sought to answer my own question: What’s right with the church?
Because, of course, all I could think about was what’s wrong with the church.
It’s archaic, it doesn’t meet my needs, it’s not relevant, it’s full of hypocrites.
Or so I’ve been told.
There’s this statistic that haunts me, and I shared it with this congregation on my first Sunday – The average person in a Methodist Church invites someone else to worship once every 38 years. Now, there are plenty of reasons why that’s the case. It’s not easy inviting someone to church, it can feel uncomfortable, we don’t want others to think we’re making assumptions about them. But I think it’s also uncomfortable because we’ve become consumed by what’s wrong even though we, who are here right now, are the very people who go to church.
Anyway, I was sitting in the coffee shop, staring at my non-existent sermon, when I overheard behind me the beginnings of a conversation about, of all things, what’s wrong with the church!
Now, I tried to be a good person, a good Christian, and mind my own business, but they were talking about my business so I made it my business to hear more about their business.
Here’s the first thing I heard: “Can you believe he had the nerve to say something like that, from the pulpit? And he calls himself a preacher!”
Friends, I prayed it that moment, “Lord, please don’t let them be mine!”
And, thanks be to God, when I looked over my shoulder I didn’t recognize them.
So I tried to refocus, get back to the sermon, but I was hooked.
“And the people are so judgmental,” the other person responded, “They only care about themselves and their own problems.”
It went on like that for some time and eventually they went outside to sit at their own table.
I tried, I promise, I tried to work on this sermon but I couldn’t get their words out of my head and before I knew what I was doing, I packed up my things, walked out the door, and went straight over to their table.
I said, “I apologize, I shouldn’t have been listening to your conversation. But I’m a pastor myself and I just have to ask: If there are so many things wrong with the church, then why do you keep going?”
And without missing a beat one of them said, “Because it’s where I hear Jesus.”
What’s right with the church? It’s a far more interesting question than what’s wrong. All of us have examples of what’s wrong – a time we’ve been hurt, a sermon that went too far, on and on.
The church is broken because it is filled with broken people.
And yet, listen to the psalmist – How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord! My heart and flesh sing for joy to the living God! Blessed are those who sing to the Lord. I would rather be a doorstop in the house of God than live in the land of wickedness!
There must be something right with the church, otherwise none of us would be here.
I never really had a choice about being a Christian. My earliest memories are synced up with the rhythms of church life from standing on pews during worship, to dressing up for Christmas pageants, to hunting for Easter eggs on the lawn.
As a kid, my answer to the question at hand would have been: The church is fun! Where else do we get to spend time on a regular basis hearing about the remarkable stories of God with God’s people? Where else will adults willingly make fools of themselves for the sake of sharing the Good News? For me, the church has always been the nexus of faith and joy in which I learned about who and whose I am in ways that were fun and exciting.
I am a product of the church. That is, I am who I am because of the liturgies and the scriptures and the songs and the prayers and the people who make the church what it is. The continued presence of the church in my life, and its influence over my actions and my choices is an ever present reminder that the choices made for us and in spite of us are often of more lasting consequences than the choices made by us.
In other words, we like to think that we choose God, when in fact God is the one who chooses us.
The church is the place where people discover the truth that God is on the move searching in the bushes of life for those who are lost. Which, to be clear, includes each and every one of us. Sure, we might experience the divine in all sorts of other spaces and places, but it is here where we learn the language to articulate those experiences.
It might take one Sunday, it might take a lifetime of Sundays, but at some point we realize that God is the one who found us, and not the other way around.
As I got older, I might’ve answered the question about what’s right with the church by saying: the music! We’re Methodists! We sing our faith! The words and the melodies of our music are transcendent and they tune us into God’s frequencies in the world. It is a rare Sunday that I am not bowled over by some part of church music whether its because I’m connected to a memory of the past or I’m casting vision of a future in which whether or not I’m around these songs will endure.
Music gives us the space to experience what we believe and how we pray when we don’t know how to put those things into words – music gives us the opportunity to feel whatever it is that we are feeling without feeling like we’re not allowed to feel what we feel.
Recently, my answer might’ve been something along the lines of how the church is an alternative community in and for the world. We’re different. We’re different because we believe God’s future, what we call the kingdom, is already intermingling with the present and we’re different because we believe we’ve been given a new past in which we are no longer defined by what we’ve done or by what has been done to us.
But most of all we are different in terms of story. The story called Gospel is not something we own, or control, or earn, but is simply a gift we’ve received. The Gospel tells us we’re more than our mistakes and that there’s more in store because we know how the story ends.
But if you asked me today, “What’s right with the church?” My answer would be: Jesus.
Jesus is what’s right with the church.
It is because of Jesus that we have hope and we have community. And hope and community are rather counter-cultural words and ideas these days. They might not seem very different, but the world provides us with the opposites: doom and isolation.
The pandemic has only furthered our division from one another, while terrifying us about whatever might come around the corner next, while we sequestered ourselves into bubbles.
But, in Jesus, we are given hope and community because the church embodies hope and community.
We call the Good News good because it is, in fact, Good News. Despite a rather sordid history, the church doesn’t exist to wag its finger at Christians for doing certain things or not doing certain things enough.
The church exists to tell the truth! God, author of the cosmos, came to dwell among us through the least likely of families, in order to teach and live and heal and preach and provide a vision of a new reality that, when push came to shove, led to our rejection of the truth through the cross, but then Jesus was given back to us three days later and his resurrection is now our promised resurrection.
That truth gives us both the courage and the conviction to live not for ourselves, but for the sake of others. When we consider God’s humility (read: humiliation) for us, it starts to change the way we see and interact with each other. We start to do all sorts of strange things like give away food to people who are hungry, and provide friendships to the lonely, and hope to the hopeless.
The church can be, and is, the place for life-altering blessings because the church is Jesus Christ’s body for the world.
We, today, have the blessed and remarkable opportunity to be what we’ve always been called to be: different. We, the church, model God’s future in the present. We don’t see one another through the lens of cultural controversies but instead through the mercy, grace, and love of God.
We can do this because we have the scriptures and the songs and the psalms and even the sermons that do not exist as a brief reprieve from the harsh realities of life but instead they make our lives intelligible in the first place.
In short, the church is called to be a community of ordinary virtues – that is, we live by grace.
Thus, we are not just a group of people who get together for an hour once a week who happen to believe in love, and peace, and liberation, or any other abstraction.
Instead, we are a complicated people complicated by a complicated story of a young Jesus from Nazareth who lived, taught, suffered, died, and rose for us and for the world.
Church, contrary to how we might imagine it, isn’t a noun – it’s a verb. Church is something we do and it is something done to us.
What’s right with the church? In spite of all its weaknesses and shortcomings, it is the church where we get to hear Jesus remind us about the love of God that refuses to let us ago, about the waves of mercy that never stop coming, about the grace to flourish into who God has called us to be.
This is the place where we hear Jesus tell us the things we need to hear most of all: You have value – you have worth – you are more than your mistakes – you are forgiven.
So, to those of you who love the church – make more room for it, bring to it your best and highest devotion. Pray fervently for its renewal and commitment toward being Christ’s body in the world. In short, love because you are loved.
And to those of you are still unsure about the church – we are not yet what we can be without you. Help us make the church better. Encourage us to open our eyes to the ways in which God is living and moving and speaking in the so that we can really be the church God is calling us to be.
How lovely is the dwelling place of the Lord of hosts! My soul longs, indeed it faints for the courts of the Lord; my heart and flesh sing for joy to the living God because this is where we hear Jesus! Amen.
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Drew Colby about the readings for the 5th Sunday After Pentecost [A] (Genesis 24.34-38, 42-29, 58-67, Psalm 45.10-17, Romans 7.15-25a, Matthew 11.16-19, 25-30). Drew is the lead pastor of Grace UMC in Manassas, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including the paradox of doing nothing, an arranged marriage, the scandal of particularity, allegory, Pauline honesty, the goodness of our badness, having fun with Jesus, and the strange burden of Christianity. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Yokes Over Easy
Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.
Years ago one of my seminary professors lectured about how the church survived the first few centuries when Christians were being regularly persecuted for their faith. He first noted that the resurrection of Jesus was so powerful and transformative that the early disciples could not help themselves but stay committed to such a thing. But then he said something else that has stuck with me ever since, “And the gospel is fun!”
On Sunday afternoon I was running around in my “Church Can Happen Anywhere” shirt across out parking lot and thanking God under my breath for the beautiful weather. We had people from all over our local community spread out with more food than they knew what to do with and I was trying to make sure that everything for the celebration was going smoothly. The moon bounce on the other side of the pavilion was a huge hit, the drinks were nice and cold, but for some reason the slip and slip was remaining un-enjoyed over on the hill.
I promptly made my way over to make sure the water was flowing properly when a few kids followed closely on my heels. “Is it working?” “Am I allowed to go on it?” “How cold is it?” were the murmurings behind me and I assured the children that all would be well.
After checking the hose connection I encouraged the closest child to try it out and before I could talk her through how the whole thing worked she was racing down the hill cackling with joy. Within the new few minutes a small crowd of kids and adults had gathered around the slide and it became abundantly clear the time had come for me, the pastor, to slip and slide down the hill as well.
So I did.
I spent the rest of the celebration continuing to check in on people as was necessary and when we started cleaning up I overheard one of the little girls exclaiming to her mother (while drenched from head to toe), “This church is fun!”
The church is supposed to be a lot of things: faithful, holy, transformative, contemplative, etc. And sadly, one of the words least associated with church is fun. But on Sunday, we had fun.
The writer of Hebrews notes that doing good and sharing what we have is pleasing to God. Which, when considering the fact that Jesus spent his final evening with his friends doing exactly that, it makes a lot of sense. However, it strikes me that many churches and church-related activities have lost their sense of fun. And if the joy of the gospel was enough to sustain the earliest disciples, why aren’t we seeking that same kind of fun today?
All the people gathered together into the square before the Water Gate. They told the scribe Ezra to bring the book of the law of Moses, which the Lord had given to Israel. Accordingly, the priest Ezra brought the law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could hear with understanding. This was on the first day of the seventh month. He read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive to the book of the law. And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was standing above all the people; and when he opened it, all the people stood up. Then Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God, and all the people answered, “Amen, Amen,” lifting up their hands. Then they bowed their heads and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground. So they read from the book, from the law of God, with interpretation. They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading. And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and the scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, “This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.” For all the people wept when they heard the words of the law. Then he said to them, “Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”
One of the blessings, and curses, of being a pastor is that you pay particularly close attention when you experience a worship experience outside of the church you serve. If any of you were to participate in another’s churches liturgy on a Sunday morning, say you were on vacation or something, you might notice a different wording to a familiar tune, or a changed phrase in the apostle’s creed, or you might sit through a boring sermon all while thinking about how good you have it here with me every week.
But for me, it’s hard to even pay attention to what’s happening because all I can think about is why is it happening in the first place.
I was sitting in a large cathedral one Sunday morning, it was so large in fact that the preacher had to pause after every sentence to allow the echo of his voice to make it through the hall before stepping on the last word of his last sentence. We stood to sing the hymns. I got distracted by the abundance of stained glass windows during one of the longer scripture readings.
But then, all of the sudden, everyone stood up around me.
No one announced that we should do it. There wasn’t even as asterisk in the bulletin noting that this was a proper time to rise.
And so I stood and just looked at all the people around me and tried to figure out what it the world was going on.
Someone came walking down from the altar carrying the Bible, as if the service was ending thirty minutes too soon, and as she walked toward the middle of the aisle, everyone in the front turned around to watch her.
And then she stopped dead in her tracks in the absolute middle of the church.
The preacher then stepped down from the pulpit and slowly made his way to the middle of the cathedral, and when everyone was appropriately facing the center the center of the church, the Bible was opened, and he read from the gospel.
And when the text ended, the Bible was carried back to the front, everyone turned around, and we sat down for the rest of the service.
Only later, when I asked the pastor what it was all about, did I learn the justification for the liturgical turn: In that cathedral, the gospel is read from the heart of the sanctuary.
I was sitting in a small chapel one evening for a special worship service, and I was the only white person in the room. I remembered being particularly grateful for the fan that was handed to me on my way in because the longer the service ran, the hotter the room felt.
The only way to describe the preacher was that he was on fire. He never once looked down at any notes, and he preached one of the best sermons I’ve ever heard. He would occasionally reference a lyric from a hymn and the piano player would start tapping on the keys and the whole room would break out in song, until the preacher raised his hand to keep on preaching.
At some point he said something like, “Jesus is either the Lord of all or he is not the Lord at all.” And the woman sitting next to me stood up like a bolt of lightning and shouted, “Preacher! Say that again!”
And so he did, “Jesus is either the Lord of all or he is not the Lord at all!”
From the high vaulted ceiling of a cathedral to the struggling hum of a beat up air conditioner hanging of a window in a chapel, there are many many many ways to worship. And how we worship, though important, pales in comparison to the One whom we worship.
The Bible, this holy and beloved book, is full of stuff. It’s got sermons and prayers – hymns and homilies – laws and genealogies. It’s even got prescriptions about how worship is supposed to take place, but it is relatively rare that we get a picture in the Bible about how worship actually happens.
The people of God who gathered to hear Ezra read were away from their homeland for a very long time – a whole generation. They might have heard about the law of Moses or of David the shepherd turned King while they were in exile in Babylon, they might’ve even recognized the names of the places read aloud from the text, but here, in this little moment, they are home. They are in the place that the story promised and promises.
And worship was something all of the people of God did together. There’s a lot of “all” in this passage, eight times in fact. Men, and women, and children are beckoned to come and hear the Word of the Lord. And the scope is even bigger than that because when the reading ends, they are sent on their way to bring food and drink to those they encounter on the way.
The allness of the worship is remarkable. And it speaks a radically countercultural word to the types of individualism we often experience in culture of the day. While doing things on our own, even things like spiritual disciplines, are important, there is no substitute for gathering together to worship.
As someone once said, there are many things we can do on our own, but being a Christian is not one of them.
We call this, the things we do on Sunday morning, the liturgy. But liturgy is about far more than what happens in worship. The word liturgy literally means work of the people. But if it feels like work, then we’re doing it wrong.
Liturgy is like the play of a child. (And the play of adults, but children are always better at playing than adults). Like play, the spontaneous and engrossing and transformative practice, has no real purpose or end goal and yet it is full of meaning and power.
Without play, without liturgy, we cease to be the beautiful creatures that God intends us to be.
Without play, worship becomes another notch on the endless list of things we’re supposed to do as Christians.
Without play, everything we do in this room rings out like a hollow gong or a clanging cymbal.
Worship, at its best, is a reflection of the playful dance that takes place within the trinity, and within all of us.
And so, of course, we could copy the ancient people of God. We could stuff as many people in this space as possible. We could all stand together in solidarity when the book is opened and we could bow to the floor and worship God with our faces on the floor. We could get someone like me to interpret the words so that, to use the passage of Nehemiah, you all would understand the readings. And then we could send everyone home with the call and the charge to eat the fat and drink the sweet wine in joy while sharing that joy with others.
But that’s already kind of what we do anyway. We worship the way we worship because it is the way that we discover something true.
In that Episcopal cathedral, they stood with attention and respect and silence when the Bible was brought into the middle of the sanctuary because it was the way they affirmed the truth of the Word of God. It was a physical embodiment of the recognition that the Holy Word of scripture demands attention and focus because it contains all that is needed to guide and shape one’ss life.
In the Black church, it is common to see members stand when the preacher says something that rings true with them. It is part of the call and response heritage and practice of the black church. You’re likely to hear the “mmmhmm” and “Say that preacher!” and “Amen!” Because those are the things people say when they know they have heard the truth.
In many ways, the ways we worship today, are the new ways of standing tall or laying on the ground before the Word of the Lord.
Because God is not just the object of our worship; God is also the subject of our worship – the living and Holy One we encounter, and who encounters us, in worship.
It’s kind of strange, reading a passage like this one, to see how far we moved in our own worship. We still prioritize the reading of the Word, but in some churches the worship is far more likely to kill someone (out of boredom) than it is to give new life. In some churches people are wearing fine suits and long dresses which is kind of crazy – we should be wearing hard hats and the ushers should be carrying first-aid kits. The God of Israel is here with us, and we never quite know what God is going to do with us!
When something is true whether it’s inside the church or out, it grabs a hold of us in a way that we can barely understand. I could regale you with stories I’ve heard over the years of people whose lives have been radically, and I use that word specifically, transformed because of the truth encounter in Jesus Christ.
Like the racist woman who fell out of her pew in repentant tears when she heard about Jesus’ interaction with the woman at the well.
Like the adulterous husband who stood during the middle of a hymn and begged for forgiveness and the courage to admit the truth.
Like the young adult who rejoiced when she heard the liturgist read those words from Genesis “Let us go create them in our image” as she felt peace about her identity for the very first time.
I could go on and on and on.
It can hit us like a ton of bricks falling from the ceiling, or like a gentle breeze flowing through the window, it can happen in one moment or take an entire lifetime, but when we encounter the truth, it grabs a hold of us and it refuses to let go.
One of the many things that’s right with the church, is that God’s Word in the midst of a community can change our lives better than just about anything else. Scripture read in community gives us a lens by which we can look at the world round us, and at our own lives, through God’s eyes.
Being the church together is the regular discipline of showing up and being prepared for the unpredictable movements of the Spirit shaking the floorboards and the rafters of our lives.
And, being the church is, or at the very least should be, fun! In the scripture read for us today the people who heard the Word responded with the merriment of eating fat and drinking the sweet wine – Life in God should produce a gladness in our hearts, particularly while we are listening together for the Word that continues to speak to us even today.
This day is holy to the Lord your God – do not mourn or weep. And as you go from this place, eat the fat and drink from the sweet wine of life, and send portions of those great things to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy!
And do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength! Amen.
See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.
Families are complicated. There was a time when “the family” meant a husband and wife, 2.5 children, a dog, and a white picket fence. But frankly, that time never really existed. Regardless of Leave It To Beaver and the Andy Griffith Show, the family has never been normative for everyone, and it certainly isn’t today.
Families have, and always will, constitute a difficult and confusing set of relationships. There are families with children and without children. There are families with two dads and two moms. There are families that represent different races, different languages, and different cultures. The family is anything but ordinary.
And somehow we believe that we become a new family as the church.
We might spend most of our lives debating who is in and who is out, whether its in regard to our family units, or our communities, or even our country. But here in 1 John we are offered a corrective: in the church we are all children of God, regardless of our community or culture or race or ethnicity or sexual orientation or just about anything else. Here in this place we are family.
We are in the middle of Eastertide; that time when the glory of Easter is still shining bright. And we have scriptural texts all about how to be in relationship with people we do not know in addition to the people we do know – we are God’s children. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy.
Particularly when we say things like, “our church is a family” while we all act like we’re the adults and we forget what it means to be children.
The images of children are pervasive in scripture. And for good reason! Children live and work and play together with energy. They are not consumers sitting in pews waiting for something to happen. They are drawing in their bulletins, climbing over the pews, wandering around the altar area.
And even outside of the church, in the schoolyards and playgrounds, that’s where children live out their identities. They learn to communicate when something has gone wrong, they joyfully tug at one another, they make up new games, and they play.
Everything children do is about navigating a world in which their identities are still being formulated. They are not content with being labeled and placed in any kind of box. They live lives based on a fluidity that most of us have lost.
For some reason, as we mature into adulthood, our joyful play begins to fade and for some of us it completely stops. We just accept things the way they are, we make peace with the labels placed on us by society, we accept the love we think we deserve. We do all of this without ever asking, “Why?”
We are comfortable with our current relationships instead of forging new ones. We come home most evenings not with thoughts of what went well, but instead with thoughts about how everything fell apart. And, more often than not, we’d rather relax than play.
But not today.
The children of God, that’s us, work out their identities and relationships with energy and commitment and patience and intensity. They do it through play.
1 John 3, the text read for us this morning, compels and encourages us to see one another as children. It begs us to imagine a world in which we are still those joyful playful versions of ourselves.
So, I could fill this sermon with stories of how children play and come to inaugurate new visions of reality. I could call on each of you to remember your childhood games and imaginations. I could even ask us to think about the importance of being inclusive in the midst of playing with other and end with some sort of egalitarian vision of the church.
Or, we could just play…
(For the next fifteen minutes everyone in worship had the option to play with play-dough, percussion instruments, blocks, coloring books, and an assortment of other activities.)
Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved. I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you also, my loyal companion, help these women, for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel, together with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life. Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.
What’s right with the church? Easy sermon topic… I thought. I was having lunch with a some friends a few days ago when I casually mentioned the theme for our worship service this week, and shared with them my desire to accentuate the positive aspects of communal Christianity. I realized that this sermon was going to be very difficult to write when I asked them to share their ideas about what the church is doing right, and the table remained silent for an uncomfortable amount of time. What’s right with the church?
Two weeks ago Sue Volskis walked into my office before our lectionary bible study and in addition to the crossword puzzles that she so graciously gives to me, she handed over a manuscript. The title read: “What’s Right With The Church; a sermon by Zig Volskis; May 17, 1987.” She had been going through some of Zig’s things and found a sermon about the state of the church that he had preached the year before I was born. Whatever I had planned to do for the rest of the afternoon was placed on the back burner and I dove straight into his writing.
It is a beautiful sermon, and I wish that I could have been there to hear it in person. Instead of focusing on all the negative elements of church life, of which there are plenty, Zig dedicated the sermon to looking at the positive and life-giving elements of the body of Christ that is the church.
Zig proclaimed that as a child he would have responded to his question with the church bells and music. They both represented the energy and depth of the worshipping community through sounds and music. The music of church reassured the people that God was the one in control, even if the world claimed the contrary.
As an adult, Zig claimed that his answer had changed over a career of serving the church for thirty years. The first and foremost thing that is right about the church is that it endures! Empires come and go, churches are destroyed by war and exodus, yet the body of Christ endures. With all its blindness, and plundering, for all its refusal to use its enormous resources, the church, nevertheless, has sought to minister to human need in a thousand different ways. And for untold numbers of persons the helping hand of the church has been a life-saver.
Zig ended the sermon with a call to those who love the church: make more room for it, bring to it your best and highest devotion. And to those who are not sure about the church: you will not find perfection here, but come in anyway, and help us make it better. There are so many things right about the church that the things that are wrong don’t really matter that much anyway. Amen.
On Monday morning I read through our scripture lesson for today, part of Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi, and I kept hearing Zig’s words in my mind. Paul, like Zig, could have listed all of the things wrong with the church and then implore the people to be better. He could’ve listed their sins and talked about the importance of temperance and self-control. But he didn’t. Like Zig, Paul instead calls the people to focus on the goodness in their church lives. Let your gentleness be known through your living. Remember that the Lord is near, and don’t worry about the trivial moments of life but instead go to the Lord in prayer and the peace of God will guard your minds and souls. Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.
This is not a call to ignore the negative, nor is it a command to turn a blind eye to the problems of church. Paul is instead offering the church a way of understanding the world through the beauty and joy of what church can be.
Take it from a young pastor – there are plenty of problems in the church; from here at St. John’s to the global church.Churches are broken because they are filled with broken people. I could stand up here this morning and outline the depth of our depravity, I could talk to you about the problems facing the Middle East, we could talk about the Ebola Crisis, I could share with you the remarkably inappropriate comments I heard other clergy make this week about homosexuality. We could spend our church service focusing on all the negative but we already do enough of that.
It is nearly impossible to turn on the television, open a newspaper, or get online without being bombarded with the problems of the world. And if the media is so inclined to mention something about the church is it almost always a controversy or a reminder of our brokenness.
So today, I want us to be different from the world. I want to follow Zig’s example, which is to say I want to follow Paul’s example, and talk about what’s right with the church.
I never had a choice about being a Christian. There was a never a time in my life where my family was not part of the church. Some of my earliest memories are of Church services, living nativities, and sitting at the altar during children’s messages.
As a kid I would have answered the question by saying the church is fun! Where else do we get to spend time on a weekly basis hearing about the incredible stories of God with God’s people? Where else will adults make fools of themselves for the sake of sharing the Good News with young people? For me the church has always been fun and I therefore had no reason to choose something else to do. The continued presence of the church in my life, and its influence over my actions and decisions, is a reminder that (unlike the popular American perspective) the choices made for us and in spite of us are often of more lasting consequences than the choices made by us (Willimon, What’s Right With The Church, 35-36). We like to think that we choose God, when in fact God is the one who chooses us.
What’s right with the church? The church is the place where people discover and live-into the reality that God has gone looking for them. I might experience God in the middle of the woods, or in the loving embrace of a friend, but church is the place where I learn the language to articulate those experiences. My eyes are opened by the church regarding how to experience God in this place, and in the world. The community of faith proclaims the Word so that we can absorb it, and live it out in the world. The people who gather as Christ’s body reach out to us in love through God’s will to call us in.
As I got older I might’ve answered the question by saying that the church’s music is awesome! Whether singing the incredible hymns from the hymnal, or wailing on the drums during a contemporary worship service, I have always loved church music. The words and tunes that we rely on every week articulate the faith of scripture and the value it plays in our lives.
I love those moments when I find myself whistling a tune, or mumbling through the lyrics of a song only to realize that it fits perfectly with my present moment. Sometimes the music of church gets the better of me and my emotions runneth over. Some of you might not realize it, but I stand behind this pulpit when I sing the hymns, so that, just in case I start crying, none of you will see it.
The music of our church is awesome because it can bring us to tears, bring smiles to our faces, reignite the flame of faith, and give us goosebumps. I love the music of church because it is so unlike the music we hear Monday through Saturday; it encourages us in our faith.
While in seminary I might’ve answered the question by saying the church is a radically alternative community. This place in unlike anything else you can experience. The church at its best is a place where everyone can belong regardless of anything else in your life.
Paul calls the church “a colony of heaven.” We are like an island of one kingdom in the midst of another. We exist communally because we could not survive on our own, we need others to help us stay accountable to the grace that God has poured on our lives. We work through our faith and live together in harmony as an alternative community where the world, for us, has been turned upside down.
We are a strange group of people who are more focused on others than ourselves, we believe the first will be last and the last will be first. In this alternative community we are habituated by love for love. In baptism we take vows to raise children in love and faith, in marriage we take public vows to help the new couple remain accountable to God and one another, in funerals we offer honest and truthful words about someone’s life, death, and promised resurrection.
But if you asked me today, right now, “What’s right with the church?” My answer would be: it’s incarnational. In the incarnation God took on our human flesh in Jesus Christ to be both fully God and fully human. Our church is incarnational. We gather together to hear the Word of the Lord and let it become flesh in the ways we live our lives.
The church is the fundamental location for discovering and receiving the peace of God. This peace is something that is beyond my ability to describe with words, but it is a peace that the world cannot give; money cannot by it, nor can we earn it through social positioning. The peace of God comes from God as a gift, peace which surpasses all understanding. It is a comfort that soothes every fiber of our being, while at the same time electrifies our existence into something new, bold, and incredible. In church we confront the living God who first breathed life into us, who walks along the paths of understanding with us side-by-side, and will stay with us no matter what.
The incarnational church refuses to be moved by the expectations of the world, and instead remains committed to the love of God in our daily lives. We who have been Christians for any reasonable amount of time can remember others who have lived before us a life that was full of incarnational joy, people who heard the Word and let it become flesh in their lives. We are better, stronger, and fuller Christians for having known and watched such fellow disciples. And now we have the same opportunity to be a source of incarnational joy and life to others with whom we come in contact.
What’s right with the church?
In spite of its obvious corruptions and imperfections, it is the church that reminds us about the love of God that will not let us go, as it points us toward the true home of our souls.
So, let me say to you who love the church: make more room for it, bring to it your best and highest devotion. Pray fervently for its renewal and commitment toward being Christ’s body in the world.
And let me say to you who are not so sure about the church: You will not find perfection here, but come in anyway, and help us make it better. Help us open our eyes to the way the living God is moving and speaking in the world so that we can continue to be the body of Christ for the world.
There are so many things right about the church that the things that are wrong don’t really matter that much anyway.
How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!
I prayed all week for the weather to cooperate. We had been planning the Community Cook-Out for weeks and the weather forecast kept pointing toward tremendous amounts of rain to fall during the scheduled event. As a church we had already procured a considerable amount of food, dedicated volunteers, and three bouncy houses. Yet, as the days passed and we came closer to the celebration, I became worried that it would not take place at all.
After many prayers, Saturday came and the weather wound up being perfect for the Cook-Out! The clouds provided a cool atmosphere for the children to play on the bouncy houses and allowed for us to celebrate on the lawn without having to worry about too much sunshine or rain. When people began to arrive for the event I prayed and thanked God for providing such a wonderful day for our community and was thrilled for our church to serve the folk of our neighborhood.
I spent most of the afternoon grilling more hamburgers and hot-dogs than I could possibly count. Every time I thought I could take a break, more people arrived and lined up for food! From my vantage point I was given a clear line of sight of everyone and all of the activities that were taking place: children (and adults) playing on the bouncy houses, families sitting at tables while enjoying food and fellowship, young people lining up to have their faces painted, frisbees and footballs being thrown through the air, and conversations taking place between people who had never met. While standing behind the grill I was overcome with a sense of wonder at how our church was living out its call to participate in God’s kingdom by being the body of Christ for the world.
The psalmist wrote “how very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!” During our Cook-Out we had different people from all over the community present to join together in fellowship: parents and families from the pre-school, neighbors who attend different church, friends who do not attend church at all, and people from St. John’s. As we enjoyed the afternoon together I was given a glimpse of how wonderful and joyous it can be when a neighborhood lives in unity; I experienced Christ’s presence through the conversations and outpouring of love between strangers.
This week let us all seek opportunities to live together in unity. Let us look for those around us who are still strangers and do whatever we can to foster new friendships.