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Speaking of the Church

May 2, 2021 Series: Identifying the Church

Topic: On the Church Passage: Isaiah 43:1–7

*Please note: this manuscript is unedited and uncorrected; please be charitable!*

The imagination has sometimes been viewed with some skepticism by various writers and thinkers. But I love the imagination and I talk about it a lot—the way we imagine things, the way we construct them and hold them in our minds, how we recall a thing to mind—this is all the work of an imagination. How we plan for the future, imagine outcomes and all of that work is imagination. I admit there is danger in the imagination, it turns to fantasy, to future-tripping, to escaping things. But there's danger in lots of good and wonderful things so I'm not going to let that stop me.

I want us to start to imagine what the church is. We're trying to "plant a church," as they say, so it seemed to me a good idea for us to think together about what it is we're planting, what we're trying to build or grow.

And I don't want this to be a romantic or pie-in-the-sky concern. In the days after George Floyd's murder a black Anglican pastor and theologian over in Chicago wrote an essay where he remarked:

There is no other world to talk about Jesus than a world in which black men have their necks stepped on for nine minutes. (Esau McCaulley)

It stood out to me, not only for the obvious sense of this pastor feeling himself a part of that awful moment seen by so many, but because he's right. And that's true of the church too: there is no other world for us to imagine the church, what it is and what we are about as the church, than a world in which that man had his life taken in cruetly and injustice.

Let's make it stronger, though: there is no other world to talk about the church than a world in which the church has played a complicit, and sometimes an active role in all kinds of wrongs. From the abuse scandals that continue to rock our current moment, back to the crusades; from slavery and racism, to greed and corruption. Read through the history of the world and the church is always embroiled in these kinds of things. It would be great if we could just say something like, "that's not the real church." But we can't get out of it that easily.

When the prisoner abuse scandals broke out at Abu G'raib some years ago, American soldiers doing grotesque things to their prisoners, then-president George W. Bush's response was: "That's not the America I know." Besides being false (it's a lot of the America I know), it pushes away the problem and pretends we don't need to own anything. We can't do that and be honest.

Now, I know it's odd to start my first sermon for our new church by dragging up the dirty laundry of the church, the things that make all of us heavy-hearted. But two things drive me this way: first, we are going to say together that we believe in the "holy catholic church" (catholic there is just the Latin word for global or universal). I want us to be able to say it in good conscience.

Second, and the main thing: I don't want us ever to pretend anything—pretend things are always great with ourselves or with the church at large. We sometimes put forward a view of ourselves or the world that insists, "I don't really need grace." But the church, like me and you, needs grace.

Grace can only cover what is real or true. A part of what is true is that the church has done innumerable wonderful things: all the first hospitals and most of them ever since are from the church; care for orphans; for refugees; for the poor; a place for worship (which is a good thing). That not to mention the small things that fill our lives. So part of what is true is that the church has done a lot of good; AND part of what is true is that a lot of evil has been done in the church, and by the church.

This morning we are going to put in place just one piece of imagining the church, but it is the main piece:

When we speak of the church we must start by speaking of God. 

It's easy for any of us, whether we grew up in the church or not, to imagine the church as one among other social institutions: school are supposed to serve a community's learning; clinics serve a community's health; and churches serve a community's need for spiritual things (whatever that might mean).

So when someone asks, "what is the church?", we start to talk about all kinds of things that the church does: the church is a group of people who gather for worship and service. And that makes our bad history look bad, but we can talk about how maybe it all evens out (maybe). 

Or we take a kind of church-as-historical-society approach. Some of you may have read that quirky novel by Susanna Clarke, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, about a couple of magicians in Victorian-era England. She talks at the outset of a group of gentlemen who gather to talk about the history of magic, how there was a time when magic was perhaps real. They gather to give learned papers and have learned discussions on that history, and the texts about that history (whether real or imagined). But, of course, magic itself—its practice or actual reality—was low brow, not a thing gentlemen discussed.

I read it and imagined myself at some of the academic biblical studies conferences I go to—and couldn't help but wonder if she's been to some of them. We sometimes think of the church as that group that started to believe in Jesus after he rose from the dead, and they grew and expanded and the church's history can be seen in all of its works and deeds.

But none of these get at what the church is, because to speak about the church we must first speak about God.

Glance back at our reading from Isaiah 43. Isaiah was a prophet in ancient Israel, living sometime in the 700s B.C. (so older than most people here). He was a marvelous preacher and poet, and this part of the Bible is a kind of edited collection of much of his writing or poetic preaching.

Prophets preached in the name of God, as one through whom God speaks. We have jumped into the middle of sermon for its climax, what we missed is all the dirty laundry of the church to whom he's preaching. It had given itself over to worship of idols; to greed; to lying; to various economic practices and systems where those in power oppressed so that they could gain more power, and used others for their own purposes. That was the church in that day: greedy, powerful, abusive, and discouraging to anyone who actually loved justice and loved God.

And God does not turn a blind eye, ignoring the church's failing. He scatters his people, the image of a city struck by fire where everyone runs out any way that they can. And then for no reason whatsoever we have our current statements. What in this text makes the people who they are? To talk about the people of God, the church, is to talk about God:

But now thus says the Lord,

he who created you... you formed you...

I have redeemed you; I have called you by name; you are mine.

The whole of the passage has to do with their identity, who they are, which does not stand on all the things they are meant to be and do in the world; it has entirely to do with what God has done.

"I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior."

To speak of the "holy catholic church" comes from within this reality: God as the Holy One who saves his people.

Holiness is a very church-y word, I know; and might have a bad flavor in some of our mouths. Sometimes it's used to mean something like morally pure. But that's not what we mean when we say it. Holiness is not a moral quality, not a set a practices. It's short-hand for a thing that comes into contact with God and his activity.

You might know the story of Moses and the burning bush, an old story of when Moses (the first and greates prophet) was called by God. He sees this bush that is burning and yet not consumed. Curious, of course, he walks up to it and God says to him that the ground, the dirt his sandals are touching, was holy. Now, it's not that the dirt had lived a morally stainless life; it did not gain holiness by its own acting. But God came, and a patch of dirt and a bush—which just a moment before was utterly ordinary—was now holy. 

To speak of something as holy is not to speak of its own actions; but to say that it has been brought into a sphere, a place, a circle where God is present and active. When we say that we believe in a "holy" church, that is not a declaration of the church's actions or life. It is a declaration that the church is a thing that comes into contact with God.

An old German catechism for children, trying to help us understand that line from the Creed—"I believe in the holy catholic church"—explains it this way:

I believe that from the beginning to the end of the world, and from among the whole human race [that's the "catholic" part], the Son of God, by his Spirit and his Word, gathers, protects, and preserves for himself [a people]...

I love the present tense in all that. Not that God started an institution that has been going on, sometimes more and sometimes less well, for a long time. But God is always at work gathering, protecting, preserving a people for himself. It's the image of a mother hen, as we see it so clearly stated in our reading from Luke. The hen reaching out her wings to pull her chicks into her for their safety and good. God reaches out and actively grabbing us and bringing us to himself, and so to one another.

The church is nothing more (but nothing less) than the community of those God gathers to live together under his wings. The church is holy because it is created, formed, redeemed, called by God. She lives with the promise of God's protection: passing through the fire and water, yes, but doing so knowing that when the water comes up to our necks, we face it as those under his wing.

But what if the people gathered there don't deserve to be there? That is where we started: the church that so often does not deserve the name. But that was true in Isaiah's day; it was true of Jerusalem when Jesus speaks of longing to gather them. More than that: who does deserve to be gathered to live under God's wing?

This is why we cannot give an answer like, "they aren't the true church." Maybe that will prove true in the end. But what if I have caused evil and suffering? What if I betrayed and hurt those closest to me? What if I have known a sense of shame that I used to work very hard to keep anyone else from seeing? What if I am sometimes proud, vain, greedy. I talked to a young man not long ago who expressed, puzzling at himself, how often he manipulates people; without even thinking about it. How much harm does that do? We excuse ourselves, but what if there is no excuse for us—and we know in our truest moments that there isn't.

What if the church as God's people is a community that, of themselves, tended towards loving themselves at the expense of others?

Well, that would make sense wouldn't it. They are not constituted, made into the church by virtue of themselves anyway. We might wish the church looked more like the God who gathers them, and he does call them into that. But their failing (our failings) are simply a matter then of failing to be who the church is. God gathers people like us to himself in spite of ourselves. 

What if God looked on a world that was given over to sin and death and sorrow, and in love began to reach out and gather all who would come—stained as they were with sin and death and sorrow? What if those were the ones he longed to gather, and give them a name they didn't deserve—even a name that they betrayed sometimes: "my sons and my daughters."

That's what he calls them here in our reading. He trades the wealth of the nations: Egypt, Cush and Seba—the rich lands along the Nile river, and all the people of the empire (it's the image of prisoners of war; they waged ware against God but he would give them all up to get back his own people). And that staggering claim:

Because you are precious in my eyes, and honored, and I love you.

WE get to be included into that; we get to be honored, precious—the company of those redeemed in spite of themselves. A motley crew, perhaps, but what else is it going to be if they let me in.

So we are trying to grow into being a church and we want to call people into it. We do; we want to grow, to flourish. We want to worship, to enjoy life together, to support one another; we want to serve our community, foster justice and peace. We'll fail all those things sometimes, and I hope succeed sometimes too.

But here is the main payoff for our work: we can relax a little bit; we can rest. It's easy to imagine our little church, starting to peep its head out of the ground this morning—and be consumed with getting the forms right; all the right practices; get our techniques, systems of greeting, of admin, of following up, of small groups, of community engagement, of preaching, of singing and music, of being authentic and on and on—and if we get all these things right, then we can call ourselves a proper church.

That way of thinking will crush us. It's too much. More than that, it would make us the hero, as if we "gather, protect, and preserve" a people for God. As if it were a glory to be tucked under our wings; God help that poor soul. 

In that imagination, WE become the thing people see when they join us. And what we want them to see is Christ—God giving himself, even his own life, to those who are gathered under his wings. It's part of our glory that we are messy bunch: some wise, some fools; some healthy; some weak; old or young. We are gathered from the addicts, the liars, the work-will-save-me, the desperate, the lonely, the needy; those who have had abortions; those who have known jail; even—worse than any of these—from among the proud. 

And we are gathered under the wings of God so that we can find life and peace; so that grace, which does not apply itself to what is false, can make us whole again. Of course the church is a mess—look at the people God, in undeserved love, calls into it!

My seminary preaching professor told the story once about a preacher (I think it was himself, but he never said) who was once at another church as a visiting preacher. As he spoke a woman was obviously struck with guilt and shame at something that was happening in the service. Maybe  He talked to her after and asked if she knew forgiveness. She put her head down, the posture of shame, and said: "I'm not worthy."

"It's not a question of whether you are worthy, but whether you are welcome." (Bryan Chapell)

As a church of God, we are inviting people into a place where they are welcome in spite of themselves. Where God longs to gather all who would come, to find safety and peace. To speak of the church we must first speak of God; and that's our glory.

More in Identifying the Church

October 3, 2021

A Feasting Community

September 5, 2021

The Community of the Washed

August 1, 2021

The Fullness of the Church