Why Do Church?

Pentecost Sunday A-23

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

I went into Ace Hardware yesterday mostly to put a stop to the dashboard light screaming, “Replace Remote Battery Now.”  I’ve been there many times. This time felt different. This time, I was wearing my collar.  When I asked the clerk to help unlock the battery case, I noticed they kept looking down as if they couldn’t look me in the eye.  Of course, there could be a million reasons, but immediately, I could think of 1,997—the number of children across all dioceses in Illinois sexually abused by Catholic priests since 1950—exactly 1,894 more children than the 103 that were previously disclosed.

It’s sickening.  It is bad enough by itself, yet we know it’s only the tip of an iceberg of historical abuses of the church we could name of native peoples, and people of color, women, LGBTQ, and trans-folks.  The church has been complicit in crusades, colonial expansion, countless wars, and ecological ruin.  It raises the question, ‘why church?’  I mean, why do church at all?

It’s the same question I asked myself 30 years ago when I decided to become a pastor.  This is the question we must continually keep in front of ourselves. Given all the hazards and potential pitfalls of organized religion, how can we answer for the church’s failures?  How do we realistically live out our mission and vision to be a source of healing, hope, salvation, and grace in a hurting world when, so often, the church has been the source of that hurting?

Today, on this Feast of Pentecost, we celebrate the outpouring of the Holy Spirit and the ingathering of the church. Violent wind, tongues of fire, and rivers of living water—these things inspire both fascination and dread.  Yet each reflects God’s presence and power in scripture. The arrival of Pentecost startled the first disciples and stirred them to action. Pentecost rang for them like an alarm clock. Time to go, time to leave the comfort of that upper room, time to head out into the streets, time to proclaim throughout the world the gospel of Jesus Christ. We are not only made by God, but we are also made of God, and that God is love. (Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love, 1998, p. 129).

This past week, from Sunday night to late Friday, Sam, Leah, and I put another 2,000 miles on the car.  We headed south to Nashville, Birmingham, Montgomery, Selma, Clarksdale, and Memphis to retrace the history of the civil rights movement, to listen to live music, and sample some BBQ. We had a lot of fun, and, at times, we were also moved to tears.

From slavery to Jim Crow, to Mass Incarceration, the struggle for justice and equality for black folks has been and continues to be a long and bloody struggle.  Their bravery, sacrifice, and determination together with white allies and other people of color, is an inspiring testament to the truth that all people are created equal and endowed by their Creator with the inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. This is the very same radical gift and claim of the first Pentecost.  And a second discovery of Pentecost is like it. Trusting, body and soul, in the power of love can change the world.

To integrate lunch counters and buses, and to obtain the right to vote, people of faith and no faith trained and drilled on how to meet violence and hatred with creative love for their enemies. Some did this merely because the tactic seemed to work. Others did it because they had trust in their leaders.  People like Dr. King and the late U.S. Representative John Lewis, did it because they believed that this is who God is.  God poured out, and continues to pour out, a spirit of love upon all flesh.

And great God almighty!  The Spirit of Love became in them like a mighty wind just as it did for the first disciples. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and rested upon each of them as they marched, were beaten, fire hosed, humiliated, jailed, shot down and blown up. They showed us what doing church looks like, what it is for, and how it wields power to overcome the power of evil. Have faith and believe in the reality of love –not just for yourself, not just for this congregation, not just for people of a certain color or particular orientation, but for all people—for all life, human and non-human—then we will find the courage and strength that propelled the first Christians, that enlivened the freedom riders of the civil rights movement, and which stands ready to move the church today.

The Greek word for church is ecclesia –it means literally “the called out.”  To be in the church is to be called out and set apart from the world.  The gift of spirit and flame is the divine spark hidden within each of you. This same Spirit calls us together and empowers us to serve.  It can feel like a paradox.  We are always just ourselves—but awakening to who we are in Christ carries with it a startling power to renew human lives, our church, and our community.

The first community of Jesus-people were not large in number.  The Book of Acts tells us there were just 122 people in all. They were not learned.  For the most part, they were not wealthy.  Even St. Paul, who’s letters comprise most of the New Testament, said of himself that he was not a good public speaker. Yet, faith in the power of love transformed them. They were no longer simply a rag-tag group of believers, but a catalyzed community, a single body enlivened by the Spirit to continue the work of Christ.

Thirty years ago, it was this power and potential of what the church can be that inspired me.  The great discovery and gift of Pentecost was that the Way of Christ and his cross bestowed an indelible dignity, worthiness, beauty, and power upon the first followers which they did not know they could possess.  This same Spirit calls and equips us now to answer for the church that has failed, and for the healing of all the suffering world.

With your own unique mix of skills, talents, and opportunities each of us is called and equipped to serve the God of love in daily life. Together we stand against poverty, injustice, and desecration of the environment.  Together, water, wine, bread, and the Word equip us to become a better friend, parent, spouse, neighbor, worker, and citizen. All these involve the creative art of loving our neighbor as ourselves.  There is not necessarily anything very glamorous about this. Yet, this is how and why you and I are called to do church.  This is why the angels in heaven give thanks and sing. Creator Spirit, heavenly dove, descend upon us now and let your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.