Saturday, August 23, 2008

15 Pentecost


August 24, 2008
St. Mark’s Lutheran Church/St Stephen’s Episcopal Church
Fargo

Matthew 16.13-20


Last Sunday, I preached at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Grand Forks. I began my sermon doing something I had never done in the pulpit before. I began my sermon with a confession. This week, I find myself doing the same thing. I must be a “confessional” state of mind lately. Now I know some of you are, at this moment, shifting uncomfortably in your pews as you wonder what it could possibly be that I am going to confess to you. Well, what I’m going to confess is something most people can’t imagine hearing from a person dressed in a dog collar and the robes of the Church.

But, the fact is (here’s my humble confession to you): I have always had a love-hate relationship with the Church. By Church here, I mean Church with a capital “C”. I am speaking about the organized Church. And “hate” might be a bit too harsh to describe what I feel. But the fact remains, I have had an emotional relationship with the Church that is see-sawing at best. Probably most of us here would say we have felt the same way about the Church at times. There are days when we all groan when we see or hear other Christians get up and speak on behalf of the rest of us. There are days when we are embarrassed by what some Christians say or do on behalf of Christianity. There are days when we get frustrated when we hear clergy or other authorities pronounce decrees that, in no way, reflect our own particular views or beliefs. And there are times when we get downright mad at the hypocrisy, the homophobia, the misogyny, the ambivalence, the silence in the face of oppression and evil and war, the downright meanness of the Church sometimes. In the face of all of these shortcomings of the Church, we often feel helpless, listless, angry, and disgusted. And sometimes we might even find ourselves admiring those people who aren’t Christian, who aren’t a part of the Church or those Christians who have simply fled the Church.

My best friend from high school (who is still my best friend) is a militant atheist. He has an almost angry ambivalence to the church and the concept of God. He wasn’t always that way. When I first met him, his mother was a member of the First Assemblies of God. By the time I got to know him, he had long ago stopped attending church. He often used to tell me the story of how, when he was a young boy, his mother would drop him off at the church for Sunday School. He would then run right through the church, out the back door and run several blocks through fields back to his home. He says that it was on that run away from the church that he became an atheist. What he was running away from was the close-mindedness, the fundamentalism, the—for him—scary Pentecostal displays of speaking in tongues, dancing in the aisles, waving hands in the air and literal interpretations of scripture.

I think many of us have felt like that ourselves when it comes to Church. There have been times when we’ve all wanted to just run away from Church and everything we find there. And that’s all right. I personally think that’s a somewhat healthy way of looking at the Church. Because we have to remind ourselves of one thing. What my friend was running away from and what we are tempted to run away from is not God, although my friend hasn’t quite come to the point yet in his own life. What we are running away from is a human-run, human-led organization. We are running away from a celestially planned treasure that has been run (and often mis-run) throughout two thousand years by human beings.

In today’s Gospel, we find this wonderful interchange between Jesus and Peter. Peter, when asked who he thinks Jesus is replies, “”You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God!” Jesus responds to this confession of faith with surprise. He responds by saying, “I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.”

Now, depending on who you are, depending on your own personal spiritual leanings, this reading could take on many meanings. If you’re more Catholic minded—and especially if you’re more Roman Catholic minded—it certainly does seem that Jesus is establishing the Church on the Rock of Peter. For those who are more Protestant or Reformed minded—it could be said that the Church is being established not on Peter himself, but on Peter’s confession of faith. Either way, Jesus is commending the Church to Peter and his other followers. And this is important, especially when we examine who Peter is.

Jesus commends his Church to one of the most impetuous, impulsive, stubborn, cowardly human beings he could find. Peter, as we all know, is not, on first glance, a real wonderful example for us of what it means to be a follower of Christ. He is the one who walks on water and then loses heart, grows frightened and ends up sinking into that water. He’s the one who, when Jesus needs him the most, runs off and denies him three times, and even then cannot bring himself to come near Jesus as he hangs dying on the cross.

But Peter is maybe a better example of what followers of Jesus truly are than we care to admit. Yes, he is a weak, impetuous, cowardly, impulsive human. But who among us isn’t? Who among us isn’t finding someone very much like Peter staring back at us from our own mirrors?

And the thing we always have to remember is that, for all the bad things the Church has been blamed for—and there are a lot of them—there are also so many wonderful and beautiful things about the Church that always, always, always outweigh the bad. Obviously most everyone here this morning must feel that same way as well. If you didn’t, you wouldn’t be here this morning. Most of us are able to recognize that the Church is not perfect. And I think that, when Jesus commended his Church to people like Peter, he knew that, as long as we were here, struggling on this “side of the veil,” so to speak, it would never be perfect. But that, even despite its imperfection, we still struggle on.

So, yes, I do have a love-hate relationship with the Church. But, I also have a love-hate relationship with my family as well. I love my family. I love my parents, I love my aunts and uncles (sometimes). But they all drive me crazy at times as well. That’s what families do.

I also have a love-hate relationships with my friends as well. I love them no matter what, but sometimes they embarrass me, they know me too well, they challenge me when I don’t want to be challenged and, if we fight, they know exactly what to say or do to hurt me deeply. And vice versa.

And that’s the way we can look at the Church as well. I love the Church and I love the people who are in the Church with me, even the ones who drive me crazy. I am here in the Church because I really want to be in the Church. I am here because the Church is my home. It is my family. It is made up of my friends and Christ’s friends.

I am here because I—imperfect, impetuous human being that I am—am part of the Church as well I am here because I love my fellow Christians, and I don’t just mean that I love Desmond Tutu and all those Christians who are easy to love. I am here because I love even those many outspoken Christians who bombard us on a regular basis with their rhetoric and views that fly in the face of everything many of us hold sacred and dear, even though they drive me crazy and frustrate me and sometimes make me want to leave the Church at times. I am here because I also love the hypocrites and the backbiters and gossipers. I love them because, let’s face it, sometimes we are those same people. Someone we are the ones who drive people from the Church as well. And sometimes we ourselves drive our own selves away from Church.

But as long as we’re here, as long as we believe in the renewal that comes again and again in recognizing and confessing our shortcomings and in professing and believing in our Baptismal Covenant and what it means to be a baptized Christian, then we know it’s not all a loss. As long as I know that I am struggling and working not to be the hypocrite or the backbiter or the gossiper, then it’s going to be all right. As long as I struggle to not be the person who drives people from the Church, but works again and again in my life to be the person who welcomes everyone—no matter who they are and where they stand on the issues—into this Church, then I’m doing all right. As long as I struggle to love those people who do not want me to be in the Church, who speak out to keep people like me out of the Church and, in the face of that attempt at rejection, I am still able to love them, then this is going to be the place for me.

And just as importantly as loving them, I will remind myself that if the Church is truly open to all, then I too will fight to make sure that it is open even to those people who don’t want me in the Church. Because the Church Jesus founded was a Church founded solidly on love. The Church’s foundation is the fact that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God and the message of the Son of the Living God, the Messiah—the bringer of freedom and peace—to us is that we must love God and love each other as we love ourselves.

Whenever we see the Church becoming less than it should, we find it breaking down in these areas. When we love God to the exclusion of loving each other and ourselves, it becomes uneven and unsteady. It becomes an essentially loveless place. And when we love ourselves more than we love each other and God, it becomes a temple to the idol of ourselves. And when we love each other more than we love God and ourselves, it simply becomes a happy clappy commune of cheap love. But the Church that is firmly founded on the Messiah, the Son of the Living God and on the work of him to this world—when it founded deeply on that balanced love of God, of each other and ourselves—then it truly becomes the Church Christ founded.

If we are the Church truly built on a love like that then, without doubt, the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.

And as long as I’m here, and you’re here, we are going to make the Church a better place. It will be a place where people like my atheist friend will be forced to reconsider his view of the Church. He will be forced, as he has been over the twenty some years he’s known me, to realize not all Christians are like the ones he ran away from as a boy and is continuing to run away from. We need to be those kind of Christians. We need to be the Church from which no one wants to run away.

So, be the Church you want the Church to be—because that is the Church that Jesus founded. Be the Church that Christ commended to that imperfect human being, Peter. In those moments when you find yourself hating the Church, don’t let hate win out. Let love—that perfect, flawless love that Jesus preached and practiced—eventually win out.

We are the Church. We are the Church to those people in our lives. We are the Church to everyone we encounter. We are the reflection of the Church to the people we serve alongside. Be so, and if you are, you will find yourself in the midst of that wonderful vision Jesus imagined for his Church. And it will truly be an incredible place—it will be the Kingdom of God in our midst.

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