What Good is Church?
Rev. Bruce Roller
"I was walking across a bridge one day, and I saw a man standing on the edge, about to jump off. So I ran over and said 'Stop! Don't do it!' 'Why shouldn't I?' he said. I said, 'Well, there's so much to live for!' He said, 'Like what?' I said, 'Well...are you religious or atheist?' He said, 'Religious.' I said, 'Me, too! Are you Christian or Buddhist?' He said, 'Christian.' I said, 'Me too! Are you Catholic or Protestant?' He said, 'Protestant.' I said, 'Me too! Are you Episcopalian or Baptist?' He said, 'Baptist!' I said, 'Wow! Me too! Are you Baptist church of god or Baptist church of the lord?' He said, 'Baptist church of god!' I said, 'Me too! Are you original Baptist church of god, or are you reformed Baptist church of god?' He said, 'Reformed Baptist church of god!' I said, 'Me too! Are you reformed Baptist church of god, reformation of 1879, or reformed Baptist church of god, reformation of 1915?' He said, 'Reformed Baptist church of god, reformation of 1915!' I said, 'Die, heretic scum,' and pushed him off." ~ Emo Phillips
Sometimes we identify TOO closely with our particular dogma or doctrine and consider the unorthodox uncivilized and unsalvageable. We don't need to read too closely into history to remember stories of the holocaust or the Spanish Inquisition, of the Crusades and other genocidal atrocities formulated in the name of God and the church. There is a narrow, deep pit between faithfulness and fanaticism.
A matter of perspective
My informal random survey of my friends on Facebook and Twitter revealed what I hypothesized that it would. When I asked the question that is the title of this sermon, I received wide-ranging responses. From this one: "Religion is like a blind man in a dark room trying to catch a black cat that isn't really there, all the while shouting 'I've got it; I've got it." To, "My week wouldn't be right without it." My realization is that the answer to "what good is church?" is a matter of perspective.
Who worshipped right?
The Gospel reading of Martha and Mary underscores this reality about church - about relating to the Power that is greater than we. In our story, both Martha and Mary set about welcoming Jesus into their home. Martha, in the more traditional hospitable role for Jewish women in Israel in those days, was the hub of the household. It was she who kept everything well-oiled and running smoothly. Martha welcomed Jesus by serving him, by preparing her home, by cooking and scuttling about with her apron on and her hands coated with flour.
On the other hand Mary welcomed Jesus in her own way: sitting, meditating, listening with rapt attention to what the teacher said. Which of them had the right approach to worship?
Being the servant
Martha was convinced that our love is shown by our service, that feeding and clothing the hungry and cold were gifts better than meditation. Wasn't that what the early church especially emphasized? The evangelist we know as Matthew wrote that this was the judgment that God made of all the people in the world. The crux of Jesus' message, as Matthew understood it, was that our doing service, relieving oppression, supplying needs for other human beings was the mark of our dedication to the spirit of Jesus. Those who exhibited such marks of compassion were accepted; those who turned an apathetic eye and ear and hand away from those who needed them found themselves in the deepest despair of all. Later the apostle James in Jerusalem would teach that "true religion and pure before God is this: to visit the widows and orphans in their need, and to stay undefiled by the world's carelessness of one another."
Surely Martha's service was appreciated. When you are tired and hungry, hot and thirsty, which would be better for you, a brand new red-letter edition leather-bound Bible or a hot meal, cold water and being tucked into a clean comfortable bed? "How dare you," James of Jerusalem thundered, "say to someone who is hungry and cold, 'Be warm and well-fed?'" "I'll pray for you," is not the answer Jesus would have given to the 5,000 hungry men (and additional women and children) who heard him preach. He would not send them away to feed themselves, but would find a way to provide for them for their need...that day. Jesus never sounds like your stereotypical capitalist.
So Martha was right, yes? Convinced of this, she spoke to Jesus, "Don't you think it is terrible for Mary to leave me alone to serve? Tell her that she should come and help me."
It's all good!
Jesus' reply was astonishing for the time, maybe for all time. Jesus said, "This is the part that Mary has chosen. It is good. It will not be taken from her." This is not to imply that Martha was wrong, only that Mary was right. If Mary had asked Jesus the same type of question about her sister, "Lord, isn't it terrible that Martha is all caught up in the tasks and the trivial like preparing food for you and your entourage. Command her to come and sit here with me and pay attention to what you are teaching." Jesus' answer in my imagination would have been the same. "Martha has chosen what is best for her and it will not be taken away."
This church thing-this God thing-is not a competition. It is never really about right and wrong so much as about opening our minds to another's perspective, about opening our hearts to another...and to all the "others." Perhaps if we would ever accomplish that, we might begin to see God. If each of us is willing to accept the otherness of others and to see that this is only another part of us and of God, all wars would cease, all bitterness and rage would dissipate like dew in the morning sun; for who can fight with themselves?
Being a mystic/seeker/learner
While Martha heard all the things Jesus and the other Jewish prophets had to say about serving in the world, Mary heard, "Come to me all you who work and are heavily burdened and I will give you rest and peace for your innermost being."
Mary heard, "The one who lives fully now and delights in my goodness will never die but will have the life-force, the energy, in them that continues forever." It's all a matter of perspective.
Church buildings are no good
So it is with the church. What good is it? The building is not the church; church buildings are no good. Most of the time they are too big, too expensive, too revered, and too empty to be efficient. Church buildings are social adaptations that many faith traditions have made. The more ornate, intricately appointed, gilded and silvered and bedecked, the less practical, useful and needed they are.
Generally the trappings and traditions of the church add no real value to spirituality. Why does the preacher swelter and sweat in vestments of some kind or, according to differing tradition, froth and sway in white shirt and tie? Does this make her message more inspired? Does this make the doctrines and dogmas any more credible? Stained glass windows are marvels of human creativity and being colored by them moves us in inexplicable ways-whether we believe their content or not. Tables and chalices and paraments are lovely, but not lively.
And what of our main symbols? What is relevant for today? What makes sense in Grand Rapids, MI, on Sunday, July 21, 2013? Bread and wine for thousands of years has represented something - blessing and bounty, freedom and continuity to the Jews; and body and blood to most Christians. I admit that communion for me is sacred. It is right up there with the coffee hour for high points in the worship. It is not the broken physical body of Jesus that I venerate though in this traditional symbol, however. It is community, ekklesia (the called out), humanity that I celebrate. I am moved by our eating symbolically of the same loaf-rich and poor, gay and straight and lesbian and transgender, old and young, lonely and popular. I have a lump in my throat and a strange warmth in my chest when I see people streaming down the aisles to partake of healing that they may go out into the world to heal. As the bread is made of many grains and carefully processed to become one loaf, I see the oneness of all humanity, indeed of all creatures, and I feel a special bond that allows me to immerse my spirit into the beings of all of you and (in my imagination) all those in the world-that we may all be one as the One is united in and with and through each of us.
The Old Rugged Cross
Sometime we may speak more comprehensively of the cross, how an implement of execution becomes the centerpiece of a religion that lost its greatest example and teacher to the same evil torture and death device. Why do we wear it around our necks and let it adorn our buildings and dominate our religious thinking? Why do we compose and sing hymns of praise about it, even to it, "The Old Rugged Cross"? I will tell you briefly that I do not venerate the cross, but the spirit of the one who transformed an instrument of death into life-a very human being, who in all his frailty influenced people who talked to people who served people who listened to people who became healers-wounded, broken, human healers in a world of turmoil and pain, laughter and sorrow, misery and exultation. Talk about putting a spin on things! If another human being like me can make glory from and in an electric chair or a noose or a cross, I have hope that my own weakness and the impotence of those like me can be similarly transformed to bring life, peace and rightness to a world mired in its own folly and power.
A Dream of Beloved Community, the
City of God
What good is the church? The church is only good for me as long as we continually interpret our old symbols and create new ones to tell the old, old story of weakness converted into strength by the combined efforts of those who have little power alone. Transforming apathy into action, lies into life, a glimmer of faith into towering hope for a new world that will explode our old ideas of earth and heaven, tarnish streets of gold and dry up rivers of crystal. This is my dream. This is the vision that slaves and handmaidens, young and old, faithful and faithless sometimes dare to dream; and a few fleetingly hope to help to build-a city of God, a beloved community where all truly are accepted, welcomed and included. Once in a while, I glimpse this possibility in a church somewhere at the crossroads of Love and Liberty.
Most of my Facebook friends described the church as both sanctuary and service training center; a place where community, social commitment and inspiring tradition come together to hold us, heal us, and help us to help. Some saw it as the place where we concoct our stone soup, each of us bringing our little light, our kind thoughts, our dedication to service, our peace of mind and, mixing them all together, adding the fire of inspiration, we gather to pray (to nurture one another and put our faith in a power bigger than each of us individually) and then we scatter to serve, knowing that we are not alone in our good intentions or in our failures or our repentance and forgiveness and new hope for a world that shines brighter than a thousand suns.
What good is the church?
One little boy, asked by his Sunday School teacher, "Do you know why you should be quiet in church?" answered with a query, "Because everyone is sleeping?"
An objective seeker remarked, "I considered atheism, but it didn't have enough holidays."
Edward Arlington Robinson wrote, "The world is not a prison house but a kind of spiritual kindergarten where millions of bewildered infants are trying to spell God with the wrong blocks."
"In church, sacred music would make
believers of us all," wrote Mignon
McLaughlin in The Neurotic's Notebook, "but preachers can be counted on to restore the balance."
It's all a matter of perspective.
What's Good for YOU?
For some the soaring sounds of the organ or the primitive rhythms of drums bring their inner self rising, bubbling, bursting to the front. Others agree with Ralph Waldo Emerson, "I like the silent church before the service begins, better than any preaching." Some meditate with eyes closed; others murmur in strange or archaic syllables, some sing with hands lifted and some pray with fists clenched by their sides. Who is right?
Like Mary and Martha the answer is, "If you have chosen what is good for you, for now, it will not be taken from you."
What is church good for? Sanctuary, community, learning and teaching, hugs and laughter and tears and provision of inspiration and hope in a world that may not always abound with those gifts. What is church good for? Maybe, if you find the right one at the right time for you. Maybe...maybe...church is good...for you. May it be so. Amen.