Isaiah 42: 1-9 – Matthew 5: 3-12
Preached at the meeting of Pictou Presbytery – Jan 17, 2017
I have had some interesting encounters this month. A conference call to discuss the Justice Ministries Response to overtures on same sex marriage and the ordination of LGBTQ persons confirmed that there is real passion in the Presbyterian church for particular positions…A session meeting (last week) that revealed there are strong positions in the congregation around the nature and value of mission in the church. Conversations with some of Heather’s friends (who just dropped in to visit the dog, apparently) about the purpose of the church. And most significantly, I was the guest of the folks from the Pictou County centre for Sexual Health at a discussion group that they host for people who identify as LGBTQ and their allies.
It’s not a large group, but there too I found strongly held opinions and people passionate for justice. And it was in this group that I found the most eager audience. And guess what they wanted to know? “How do we answer those “Christians” who offer quick and decisive “evidence” from Scripture for their dismissive treatment of the people we are and the people we love?
They wanted me to help defend them from the church! We talked about the nature of certainty – the origins of Scripture – the difficulty of translation and the enormous responsibility that comes when one is offered the privilege of interpreting Scripture for others…and that’s when I had the answer to the question that plagues and puzzles us at meetings and coffee groups and at every level of church government. That question is the title of this message – “What’s wrong with the church?”
We are more than willing to ask that question – it’s a great conversation starter in our current climate – and we think we know the answers by heart; too few people – too little money – too many buildings – a culture too preoccupied with self-satisfaction…but this doesn’t address our internal problems; these are symptoms of the real disease , which is truly what ails the church of Christ…
We have forgotten our vocation – lost sight of our purpose – we have lusted after power and sought it (and failed to keep it) and so imagine that the only answer is to “make the church great again…” That’s what’s wrong.
The church – the gathered faithful – the ecclesia -the company of disciples – has had but one purpose since it first responded to God’s call. It is our task to live in faithful response to God’s ideals for justice, peace, mercy and love. The Bible gives us an overview of the best and worst of those efforts, through a variety of cultures and cultural circumstances. In triumph and (more often) through disaster, God’s people wrestle with what it means to be faithful, to be loving, to be made in God’s image. And based on my recent encounters, were still struggling with that. And what’s wrong with the church is that we continue to imagine that there is one perfectly holy and righteous way to “be church” – so we tie ourselves up in doctrinal knots – and we stage spectacular debates for no real purpose; and we vilify those who question our commitment to the message of love that lived and died and rose as an example of God’s commitment to us.
Righteousness is not ours to define – it is God’s to display. When Isaiah talks about God’s righteousness, and God’s servant, we understand those words to be applied to Jesus – but if we would call ourselves disciples of Jesus, then the words of the prophet suddenly take us as their target; we have been called in righteousness – God’s spirit is upon us – we are urged to serve in humility until justice is established – a justice and righteousness that needs no refining through our endless arguing about who is fit, or who is worthy…
What is wrong with the church? The church – so far removed from the flesh-and-blood of Jesus – has made the institution “the final word” on issues of morality and judgement – forgoing compassion and justice too often in our history – and that word does not stand close scrutiny.
The Good news is that the incarnate word – the living word – the word made flesh still speaks; sometimes through us, but more often in spite of us. The good news is that the gospel is still breathing life and light into the dead, dark corners of our lives. What’s wrong with the church is everything and nothing at all – we are human, and prone to getting it wrong, and the gospel is our redemption too. The church must remember that not only are we called to bring release to the captives and sight to the blind; but WE ARE THOSE BLIND, HOBBLED, STRUGGLING CAPTIVES.
Blessed are the poor in spirit…those who mourn…the meek – that’s us and them – there is no difference between the saviour and the saved. The church, from time to time, forgets that. God, save us from our own devices.