Finding Jesus in a Flawed Church

SEVENTEENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

Jeremiah 11:18-20

Psalm 54

James 3:13 — 4:3, 7-8a

Mark 9:30-37

Prayer of the Day: O God, our teacher and guide, you draw us to yourself and welcome us as beloved children. Help us to lay aside all envy and selfish ambition, that we may walk in your ways of wisdom and understanding as servants of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“Then [Jesus] came to Capernaum [with his disciples]; and when he was in the house he asked them, ‘What were you arguing about on the way?’ But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest.” Mark 9:33-34.

A young pastor found himself on his knees late at night after a particularly contentious church council meeting. “Good God!” he cried out, “I can’t possibly be a minister to this church. Nobody cares about the good news of the gospel. All they seem to care about is the budget and who controls where the money is spent and who has the final say on what happens everywhere from the altar to the furnace room! These people have no idea what it means to be the church and I don’t think they even care!”

Suddenly, the young pastor looked up and saw Jesus sitting in a chair in front of his desk. He was startled at first, but Jesus’ disarming smile soon dispelled his terror. “I’ve been listening to your prayers, son,” said Jesus. “Let me assure you, I know exactly how you feel. My first congregation was literally the death of me. I had a council president who promised to stand by me come hell or high water. But when the going got tough, he didn’t want to know me. My closest workers were constantly quarrelling over “who was the greatest.” I had a church treasurer who embezzled church funds and he had the nerve to turn me into the authorities! As for the rest of the congregation, they deserted me and left me alone to be hung out to dry-and that’s no metaphor. But enough about me. You were telling me about the problems in your congregation.”

At my daughter Emily’s ordination, I told her, along with a whole congregation of worshipers and well wishers, that there are just two requirements for being a successful pastor. First you have to believe in Jesus. Second, you have to love the church. Everything else you can fake. The second point is often the stumbling block. Of course, everyone loves the idea of church-that warm and inviting place where all are welcome, no one is judged and there is no favoritism. It is the real church we find hard to love. And this is so not only for pastors with unrealistic expectations for congregational life, but also for individuals seeking in the church the wonderful, accepting family none of us ever had. What we find when we walk in the door are people who are passive-aggressive, manipulative, power hungry and emotionally wounded in ways that make them unappealing candidates for friendship. They are people who compete with one another for power, prestige and control-much like Jesus’ twelve disciples.

Of course, that is only half the story and not even the better half. The church is also populated with the folks that are regularly found working at the local food pantry, picking up trash at the town playground with other volunteers and donating their services for the biannual blood donation drive. They show up with a casserole, a hug and a kind word where families experience a death, accident or severe illness. These folks are the first to pull out their checkbooks when natural disasters occur here or abroad. When the church basement floods, they are always there bailing away. Their small acts of kindness-a hand squeeze for the downcast fellow in the pew, a smile for the pensive teenager standing awkwardly in the corner of the parish hall, a gentle injection of calming humor into a tense and combative argument-have a transformational power out of all proportion to their seeming insignificance. These folks carry far more than their share in supporting their church and their community without getting any recognition for it, but you never hear them complain. They are what Jesus would call “the salt of the earth.”

That brings me to something said by Chaplain Peter, the teacher, pastor and prison chaplain who preached at my ordination. “Peter,” he said, “you will meet in your congregation some of the kindest, most selfless and most faithful people you will ever know. And you will also meet people who are more cruel, manipulative and toxic than you thought possible. And here’s the hardest thing. Often they will be the same people.” Chaplin Peter got that right. I learned that lesson the day it came to light that a talented youth worker and father of three, who had had such a positive influence on so many kids, was cheating on his wife with a married woman in the congregation.

I learned that lesson again when a homeless family with two small children in tow showed up at the church looking for grocery money. I had nothing left in my discretionary fund and only ten dollars in my wallet to offer. That’s when Brent, who had been painting the parish hall restrooms, walked into the narthex as the family was leaving. Brent was an old Norwegian carpenter who weathered the Great Depression without any help from anyone. He made no secret of his contempt for “welfare bums living off our tax dollars.” I was pretty sure he overheard everything that transpired between me and that family. I fully expected a lecture on the folly of giving “handouts” to people too lazy to work. I was wrong. There was a tear running down Brent’s cheek and he had three twenties in his hand. “You can’t feed a family on ten dollars anymore!” he said. “Hurry up and give ‘em this before they go.”

Martin Luther was fond of reminding us that believers are at the same time saints and sinners. Though we frequently fail to live up to the standards of love we profess, we sometimes find ourselves being better than we-and everyone else-thought possible. Nobody understood that better than Saint Paul, who could say to the dysfunctional church in Corinth, “Now you are the body of Christ.” I Corinthians 12:27. Not “you should be the body of Christ” or “if you ever manage to get your act together you might be the body of Christ,” but you are the body of Christ. The apostle goes on to encourage the Corinthian Church to live into what it truly is. That, I think, is the aim of all ministry within the church, namely, reminding us that we have been bought with a price, that we are better than what we have allowed ourselves to become and that God has important work for us to do. The resurrected Christ sought out the very disciples who had failed him so miserably and placed in their trembling hands the task of announcing the good news of reconciliation and peace to the world. Ours is the God of the second chance; the God who sees far more in us than we dare to see in ourselves.    

Prayer at the Closing of a Church

Good and gracious God,

this church-like our town-

is all used up.

There’s not enough of us

to keep the doors open.

So this little church

will join the row

of locked doors

and boarded up windows

that now line this street.

We didn’t do much

that is outstanding

over the last century.

There were no martyrs

among us, no heroes

of faith who gave all

for the sake of the gospel.

But we had Martha Bertrand

who taught Sunday school

for fifty years plus.

Her classes didn’t produce

Pastors or missionaries.

But she kissed away

a lot of bruises,

bandaged a lot of skinned knees

and once spent the whole

night with a former pupil,

by then a college freshman,

who arrived at her house

at some ungodly hour

looking desperately

for a reason not to end his life.

He didn’t.

We had several pastors,

None of them orators,

None of them church builders

None of them well known

figures in the community.

But they were there

when a loved one died,

when a family was in crisis,

when anyone was at wit’s end

and had nowhere else to turn.

They baptized, married and

buried us with love

and the same old shopworn

but still comforting scriptures,

hymns and words of consolation.

We didn’t do much

to end the scourges

of hunger and homelessness

in our community.

But we took our turn

housing the homeless

each month in our basement,

giving them a home cooked meal

shared with us around a table,

because these people

deserved more than

a roof over their head.

They deserved a home

and we tried to give them

as much a home

as we could provide

in a church basement.

We cared for Arnie,

a schizophrenic kid

with a criminal record,

who never darkened the door

of the sanctuary

but showed up for every potluck.

When he stole Mrs. Higgins’ purse

we didn’t call the cops.

The pastor just paid a visit

to his group home

and asked him to return it-

Which he did, asking with tears

that we forgive him.

We did.

We loved each other

As best we could-

Which often wasn’t very good.

We lived for Jesus, or tried.

But too often, his image was lost

in our concerns over finances,

the right way to worship,

fixing the boiler,

painting the restrooms

and in fights over who controls what.

But sometimes, we got Jesus right.

Sometimes, we met the challenge.

Sometimes we found ourselves

being better than we thought

we could be.

When that happened,

it was beautiful.

So as we retire

this old clay vessel,

we offer up these moments

as our final sacrifice of praise

in hopes that they have moved

the world just a little closer

to the day when your kingdom comes

and your will is done

on earth as it is in heaven.

Anonymous   

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