7 Pentecost: 15 July 2007
(Amos 7:7-17/Psalm 82/Colossians 1:1-14/Luke 10:25-37)
The Church, This Church, Any Church
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
It’s a pleasant afternoon at the beach – not too hot, refreshing ocean breeze. We’re ambling down Beach Street in the older part of town, a restored area of curio shops and restaurants. There’s no agenda for the day; we’re just browsing, pausing for ice cream, relaxing, enjoying the time with old friends. As we come out of Mandala Books she approaches us, a slight woman of indeterminable age. It’s clear, as my Dad used to say, that she’s been “rode hard and put up wet,” meaning she’s lived a rough life that will make a young woman old long before her time. It hasn’t been long since her last beating – likely not the first. The black eyes, bruises, and stitches along the line of her cheekbone tell the story. She speaks to me in a low, mushy mumble that takes real effort to understand on a noisy street – I think she’s missing a few teeth – and tells me she’s hungry. Can I spare some change to help out?
We’ve all had similar experiences, different in detail but not in kind. What’s our usual, initial response? I’m not talking about what we actually end up doing, but rather about how we feel when we first realize we’re “caught” in a situation like this. What did I feel this pleasant afternoon at the beach? Honestly, I felt hijacked. I felt interrupted. I felt put upon. I’m on vacation, after all! And here was this stranger calling me out, making demands on me. And I knew this was going to cost me something: time, money, and inconvenience if I helped her or guilt if I didn’t. I would like to tell you that I felt a deep sense of gratitude that God had given me an opportunity to minister to Christ in the guise of this broken, hurting, hungry woman. But, I’m no Mother Teresa, and that’s not what I felt in the moment. It’s taken some distance, some reflection, some prayer for me to reach that point.
We walked to a nearby Burger King – her choice – where she could sit for a moment in a cool place and get something soft to eat. I’m really not very good at times like these; I never know quite what to say. But the woman behind the counter at Burger King did. “Lord, child, what’s happened to you? Has some man beat you up?” When my companion admitted that her drunken boyfriend had abused her in a dispute over a small bit of money – “But, he loves me,” she insisted – the server – and here you have to imagine an indignant, Spirit-filled, church-going African-American woman – started preaching: “Child, that’s not love. Love is patient. Love is kind…” She preached her way through 1 Corinthians 13 right there in Burger King and ended her sermon with the words, “Ain’t no man got the right to treat you like that. Ain’t no man got the right.”
I told the Reverend of the First Church of Burger King that I was a vacationer and about all I could do was buy the woman a meal. But she, I suggested – well she could do a lot more. She could help this woman find a church that might be able to provide some long-term assistance. I knew that she knew just such a church; you don’t learn to preach 1 Corinthians 13 like that anywhere else. She said she’d take over from here, and I’ll bet she did just that. I wish now that I had gotten the name of her church. Next time in Daytona I’d sure like to worship there.
Well, it’s now a pleasant Sunday morning as we wake from sleep. The bed is soft and welcoming. The whole day stretches before us – no agenda, just ambling through the moments, sipping coffee and reading the newspaper, relaxing, enjoying time with family. And then he approaches us, this man of indeterminable age. Like the woman at the beach, he too bears scars of a brutal beating – old scars on his hands and feet and side. He calls out to us – calls us, actually to come meet him in a place where others have heard his call and gathered. He calls us to meet him in praise and prayer, in confession and absolution, in word and symbol, in bread and wine. His call, his invitation, feels sometimes like a demand and we’re caught in that familiar situation once again. And we know this is going to cost us something: time, money, and inconvenience if we respond to him or guilt if we don’t. Yes, I’m talking about this intrusive business of church – of being called out of a warm, soft bed each Sunday to assemble with other saints and sinners.
So how do you feel lying in your warm, soft, bed on Sunday morning when Jesus comes calling? I’m not asking so much about what you do, but about how you feel when you realize you’re caught. Hijacked? Interrupted? Put upon?
It’s just another day in prison. He’s been here … well, he’s lost track of the time, actually. And God only knows when or if he’ll ever be released. Epaphras has come to visit again and, as usual, he can’t stop talking about Colossae, about the church he planted there. They’re good folk he insists again to Paul, who has never laid eyes on a single one of them. Good folk, but a bit confused: philosophy, mysticism, Jewish legality – all these have crept in and blended in a theological hodge-podge that has them confused on just who Christ Jesus is and what his cross means for them. Would you write and straighten them out, Paul? A word from you – you know, from an apostle – might go a long way. And there he is again, that Jesus, calling out to Paul in the voice of Epaphras, calling him to church – to a church he’s never seen. This call has already cost Paul so much: family, friends, reputation, innumerable beatings, shipwrecks, arrest, trials, and imprisonment. What does he feel, confined there in prison, when Jesus comes calling yet again? How does he really feel about the call to and from the church?
He begins to speak and someone – maybe Epaphras, maybe Timothy – takes up pen and parchment and writes.
Paul, apostle of Jesus Christ through the will of God, and brother Timothy, to the saints and faithful brothers in Christ in Colossae: Grace to you and peace from God our father.
We give thanks to God the father of our Lord Jesus Christ, always praying for you, having heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love you have for all the saints (Col 1:1-4).
How does Paul really feel about the call to and from the church – this church he’s never even seen? This apostle who has suffered so much and so long for the church is overwhelmed with a deep and abiding sense of thanksgiving for the church in Colossae, a thanksgiving that drives him to his old, calloused knees in prayer. The church, this church, any church, is for Paul an act of God, an in-breaking of the kingdom, a sacrament of new creation – all grace, all gift, all love. The great miracle here is simply the existence of the church – the new life of Christ manifest in a people “rescued … from the power of darkness, and transferred … into the kingdom of [God’s] beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (Col 1:13-14, NRSV). To be part of this, to be included in God’s family, to share in God’s great adventure of cosmic redemption and recreation – in short, to be and to do church – is an incomprehensible blessing beyond compare. To really begin to see that is to drop to our knees in a prayer of thanksgiving. Or perhaps it’s the other way around – to drop to our knees in thanksgiving for the church, this church, any church, is to begin to see the reality of this great blessing of God.
This reality is easily obscured though, isn’t it? There are many enemies of this truth. Sitting in yet another committee meeting it’s hard to believe that the church – at that moment – has anything at all to do with God’s plan to restore the cosmos. Singing yet another sappy praise chorus it’s hard to believe that the church – at that moment – is joining its voices with angels, archangels, and all the company of heaven who forever sing God’s praise. Listening to one more uninspired, psycho-babble sermon it’s hard to believe – at that moment – that the church has been given the Gospel, the good news, the word of life for all the world. Sitting in a living room sanctuary, singing, praying, gathering around Word and Table it’s hard to believe – at that moment – that the church, as Thomas Merton insists, holds the universe together by our presence and our prayers. It’s hard to believe that it all matters. It’s hard to believe that it makes any difference. But it does. May God open our eyes to see that it does, to see that nothing is more important than the church – this church, any church – gathered in praise and prayer, gathered around Word and Table, and then temporarily scattered into the world to love and serve the Lord in the Spirit of the risen Christ. Christ died for the church. Christ rose for the church. Christ lives in the church. The church is God’s plan, from the foundations of the world, for the redemption of the world through Christ Jesus, and we are part of that. Let’s see … sleep in or rescue the world? That’s the choice on Sunday morning.
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix opened this Wednesday (11 July 2007). I’m sure thousands stood in line for hours to be among the first to vicariously engage in this fictional battle of good versus evil, longing to be part of the DA, Dumbledore’s Army, fighting to save the wizarding world from the Dark Lord. Why all the interest? Why all the excitement? People want to project themselves into the grand story of Harry and Voldemort, to enter a world where the struggle between good and evil is clear and important, to engage in significance beyond themselves, to feel that it is possible – no matter that you are a minor character – to make a difference in the fate of the world. How hard do we have to be smacked on the head to get it? Harry Potter, Dumbledore’s Army, the Dark Lord, the story itself – all real. It’s the church, this church, any church. It’s our grand story – the story of creation, fallen and scarred by evil, struggling against the power of evil through the redemptive work of a savior, heading inexorably toward new creation – it our grand story retold compellingly as myth. And we are there, not as minor characters, but as heirs of God, strong in the power of his might and equipped for the battle.
[Finally] be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. Put on the whole armour of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places (Eph 6:10-12, NRSV).
These are St. Paul’s words to the church, but, with a few minor changes, can’t you just hear Harry Potter saying them to the DA – to that small but committed band of friends – of spiritual brothers and sisters – who will change their world? So thousands wait anxiously, stand in long lines, and pay exorbitant ticket prices just to live in this myth for two hours – and then sleep in next Sunday morning when given the chance to live in the reality to which the myth only points. Not that I blame them, really. They’ve likely never rightly heard the story, likely never been recruited for God’s great adventure, likely never seen the church for what it is, likely never been driven to their knees in prayers of thanksgiving for that great gift of grace that is the church, this church, any church. Maybe we should rent a theater on Sunday morning, distribute free tickets to Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, and at the end of the movie break out the bread and wine and say, “Now, here’s the real adventure. And you can be part of it.” Maybe we should have J. K. Rowling translate the Bible into a novel – she needs a new project, after all. I don’t know. But this I do know: Paul was overwhelmingly thankful for the church, immeasurably grateful for the opportunity to pour himself out on behalf of the church – even the church at Colossae, even a church he had never seen. For he knew the church, this church, any church, to be God’s plan from the foundations of the world, for the redemption of the world through Christ Jesus our Lord.
And so, Paul, confined in prison, prays for this church he has never seen.
For this reason, since the day we heard [of your faith and love], we have not ceased praying for you and asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so that you may lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, as you bear fruit in every good work and as you grow in the knowledge of God. May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light. He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins (Col 1:9-14, NRSV).
Paul’s letter to Colossae is largely about identity. These new Colossian Christians have not yet sufficiently grasped who they are in Christ and who Christ is for them and for the world. So, the basis of Paul’s prayer is their Christian identity: You – the church – are those whom the Father has rescued from the power of darkness and transferred into the kingdom of his beloved Son where we have redemption and forgiveness. That’s who you are and everything else flows from this new identity. Now you may, you must, grow in the knowledge of God’s will and lead worthy lives. Now you may, you must, grow in wisdom and understanding and bear fruit. Now you may, you must, be strengthened by His power to endure every challenge to your new identity. Now you may, you must, give thanks and share in the inheritance of the saints in light. Identity and mission are the two uplifted hands of Paul’s prayer for the church, this church, any church.
Well, there’s an old adage in preaching: never preach about people not coming to church to those people who are sitting in the pews. That makes perfect sense. But it is important – I think it’s essential – that we all be reminded from time to time, why we come to church and who we are as church. We come because the church, this church, any church, is an act of God, an in-breaking of the kingdom, a sacrament of new creation – all grace, all gift, all love. We come because the church, this church, any church, is God’s plan, from the foundations of the world, for the redemption of the world through Christ Jesus, and we are part of that. We come because the church, this church, any church is a place of redemption and forgiveness, a place of light amidst the darkness of this fallen world – a place where we hear and learn and live our true identity in God’s great adventure of cosmic redemption and recreation. We come because the opportunity to be and to do church – is an incomprehensible blessing beyond compare.
In 1935 the German Lutheran pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer received a call from the Confessing Church – that church which refused to bow before Hitler and which spoke openly against him – a call to lead an illegal, underground seminary. Despite the danger he accepted and moved to Finkenwald, where he lived in Christian community for three years until the seminary was discovered and closed by the Gestapo. Bonhoeffer’s book Life Together came from that experience. It is a prayer of thanksgiving for the church. He writes:
It is easily forgotten that the fellowship of Christian brethren is a gift of grace, a gift of the Kingdom of God that any day may be taken from us, that the time that still separates us from utter loneliness may be brief indeed. Therefore, let him who until now has had the privilege of living a common Christian life with other Christians praise God’s grace from the bottom of his heart. Let him thank God on his knees and declare: It is grace, nothing but grace, that we are allowed to live in community with Christian brethren.
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