Theology Sermon #9—Ps 15:1-5; Jer 7:1-10; Lk 22:24-27; Rom 12:1-10
Ted Grimsrud – Shalom Mennonite Congregation – September 9, 2007
Word association: “Church”
When I think about theology, I kind of like to think in questions. And when I think about the theology of the church, the questions come pretty quickly – especially one set of questions. The church, comforter or afflicter? The church, a place that heals or a place that hurts? The church, oppressor or liberator? The church, a blessing or a curse?
I have an answer to these questions: “Yes!” What I mean is, in my experience, the church has been both a blessing and a curse. We invest ourselves in this community, we make ourselves vulnerable to each other, we care deeply. The rewards can be great – but so too can be the disappointment and hurt. We joked ruefully in rural South Dakota of our congregation having “road kill” spread around the area.
When is the church a curse? Sometimes a relatively powerless individual or group becomes the focus of “church discipline.” This scapegoat gets the boot, and the larger group finds momentary peace. This is how I understand what happened in Virginia Conference several years ago. During a time of great anxiety, little Broad Street Mennonite Church became the focus of concern. In short order Broad Street was expelled from the conference (for the sake of the “unity of the whole,” that is, for the sake of keeping various people who were threatening to leave in the conference).
The church tends to be a curse when it places a priority on perceived purity over compassion and understanding. I mentioned our congregation in South Dakota. Kathleen learned to know an elderly man, a former member, who lived near our church. He had experienced great pain back in the 1950s when he married a woman who had been divorced. This young couple was made to feel unwelcome and removed themselves from the congregation. But our neighbor’s family had been deeply invested in this congregation, and he never felt at home in a different church. So 40 years later he remained mostly alone, his pain still very present.
Desmond Tutu, the great South African peacemaker, has lamented over the church. He points out that in just about every movement for justice and liberation over the past few centuries, the strongest opposition to change has come from the church. I just read an article about how Christians argued strenuously in favor of slavery right up until the Civil War. Even today, it is said that Sunday morning is the most segregated time during the week in our society.
The general message of the churches has been one of support for the status quo. In Great Britain, a long effort lasting much of the 19th century to do away with the death penalty came to the brink of success early in the 20th century – but then it was held up for one more entire generation. The bishops of the Church of England continued to insist that the death penalty reflected God’s will. Abolition only came when the bishops relented. Is it a coincidence that as the church has lost power in Western Europe, rejection of the death penalty has spread?
But, of course, this is only one side. The church indeed has been and continues to be a blessing as well as a curse. Many of us have found love and care in the church. I know I have. I can think back now more than 35 years when I first chose to attend church. I was stunned when I learned that people in that church had cared enough about me to be praying for my wellbeing, even when they barely knew me. The experience of genuinely being loved remains the legacy of my experience back then – an experience that decisively shaped the rest of my life.
My most meaningful moments as a pastor came in being part of the experience of community with people I likely would not have ever had occasion to learn to know otherwise. Being invited into other’s lives as they face death, bury loved ones, and struggle with loneliness and illness – and, sharing with others the joys of new life (babies, weddings, the coming to faith), these indeed constitute a blessing.
The church is also a blessing when it provides enough critical mass of clarity and faith to stand as a counterweight to our wider society’s violence and imperialism. In every class I teach at EMU, I feel a sense of gratitude to our congregations. Some at least do shape their young people to question the values of American culture.
The church is a blessing when provides an anchor to our workaday lives, a place where we come to sing and pray together, where we come to be around people whose lives inspire us to try just a bit harder to love and care for others.
Many years ago, my best friend in graduate school, who himself had a very ambiguous relationship with faith, said, “well, the church has a lot of problems, but it is the one place in our society where people gather to confess together that they do not want to be jerks. And that’s worth something.”
How do we negotiate this blessing/curse tension? I think we need to desacralize the church. Maybe we should not think of the church as something unique and special in God’s eyes, a “sacred place” akin to the Temple in the Bible. Maybe we should not think of the church as a place that exists over against the secular world. Maybe we should think of the church simply as one possible human community.
The church is a human structure. As such it is one of the Powers; as such it is one of the fallen Powers – capable of good, certainly. But the church, like all human structures, like all fallen Powers, can too easily become an idol. The church can seek to take God’s place in our lives The church, like many other human structures, can become an absolute that needs to be defended – even with violence if necessary.
If we desacralize the church, if we no longer look at it as sacred, if we no longer blind ourselves to its tendency to become an idol – will there be any reason to want to “redeem” it nonetheless? Is there any reason to bother with the church if it is simply a human structure?
Well, yes….One kind of reason for bothering with the church is a “mundane” or everyday reason. Even if the church is not sacred, it still serves the life-enhancing role that any authentic human community does. A second kind of reason is a “Christian” reason. If we do theology as if Jesus matters – if we do ecclesiology (the doctrine of the church) as if Jesus matters, we will have reasons to bother with the church.
What about the mundane rationale? Human beings are, by nature, “pack animals.” We need other human beings in order to be human. We may see this need clearly in a negative sense when we look at how it is exploited by oppressors.
The most powerful weapon prisons have to control prisoners is solitary confinement. Hundreds of years ago, in their desire to make prisons more humane, Quaker reformers argued for solitary confinement to take the place of beatings. If prisoners are isolated, the argument went, they’ll search their souls and seek to change. Well, what happened instead is that solitary confinement drove prisoners insane. And, bingo, tragically, pacifist Quakers gave prisons a powerful weapon for violence.
We are learning of the careful research into torture methods that our government has sponsored. These methods include intense efforts to disorient and isolate detainees. Such trauma triggers detainees’ need for human contact. When the need is strong enough, detainees reach out to their torturers since they are so desperate to connect with humans. Then the torturers have them where they want them.
Of course this is terribly upsetting – but I see a silver lining. These occasions of the cost of isolation underscore just how important human community is. The positive side, the joy we receive from friendship, underscores just how central community is to being whole human beings. And the church is one place where we can find such community. Probably all of us, if we were to list the moments in our lives when we have experienced genuine joy include times with friends, maybe even friends in church.
Church communities also at times have been crucial to wider social movements – think of the role of the Catholic Church in Poland in resisting communism and the role of the black church in the American South during the civil rights movement. So, one set of reasons to bother with church might well be simply our human need for community.
But I also want to insist on a set of reasons that are Christian. Remember months ago, I defined theology reflection on our hierarchy of values. I proposed that our “god” is seen in what we value the most. I then proposed that Christian theology emerges when we see Jesus’ own values as the basis for ours. Doing theology as if Jesus matters is to seek to have our hierarchy of values to fit with Jesus’ values.
To think of the church as if Jesus matters is to say that the church is faithful when it self-consciously furthers Jesus’ way – through its teaching and preaching, through its worship and communal prayer, through its practices and projects.
We should bother with the church as Christians because it can be, it should be, it must be (if it is to be faithful), a place where people work together to embody, to make real and concrete, the basic message of Jesus: Love God and neighbor. And as pack animals, we need other people to help us do this.
Our four scripture texts for this morning can help us think about why to bother – or maybe I should say, how to bother with the church.
Psalm 15 emphasizes that living justly and compassionately is the pre-requisite for abiding in God’s presence and among God’s people. The identity of the community imagined by the Psalms centers on people in this community living here and now in ways that foster life and resist evil.
Jeremiah 7 denies that ritual acts and public worship are in and of themselves of value to God. When they co-exist with easily accepted injustice, ritual acts and worship are acts of rebellion against God. When the church places a higher priority on status and comfort than on caring for vulnerable people, than on rejecting violence, than on serving as a house of prayer for all nations – it is tending toward idolatry.
Luke 22 establishes the political style that must characterize Jesus’ followers – not power-over, not claiming to be benefactor while actually practicing domination, not seeking status and to be served. The political style of Jesus is a politics of service, a politics of simplicity, a politics of authentic humility and equality of status.
And Romans 12 points to the faith community as a counter culture that thinks differently. This counter culture makes Jesus’ priorities its priorities in contrast to the priorities of the domination system.
The church is worth bothering with insofar as it understands its existence as a way to help its people to embody these attributes. The church is not an end in itself. It serves the true ends: love of God and neighbor. To such service is where ecclesiology as if Jesus matters leads us. So be it.