This is a transcript from the February 24, 2019 sermon, so it contains the character of live, spoken communication.
I'm done with church, I'm done with churches," something I found myself saying, I'll bet you have as well. In fact, most people I know have said it at one time or another, in part because the ideal of what is being asked and what is being proposed that church should be, too often doesn't match or even come close to the reality of it. Too many times, too many times, we have said, we're done with church for all the right reasons. We're done because it is in fact, a petty and small place or it can be.
I know there are people, and I hear the stories about, "I was done with church. I don't go to church because it was too judgmental. It was too oppressive. It was always talking about money. It was always based in shame. It was deeply, deeply flawed, or the people were deeply, deeply flawed. It was too patriarchal. It was too racist. It was too irrelevant. It was too boring." All of those words have been used, if not by you, I'll bet by somebody who you know.
I'm doing a series called, The Reason to Believe, and it is, Why do I still believe in the midst of? In the first week I talked about in the midst of an era of science and reason. Jordan talked about doubts. Last week I talked in the midst of what we understand about the Bible today. This one, this one feels close to home in a whole different way. This one is where a lot of the heat comes in when people talk about their experience. We come in with high hopes, we come in with expecting certain things, and too often, too often, we are discouraged.
The soaring rhetoric is met with just some abysmal, abysmal execution. It is this idea that
God works in all of us in everything we do. Something from the Spirit can be seen in each person for the common good.
Boy, is that wonderful. Boy, do we not hit that mark too many times. There is this, part of it in terms of our own journey and what goes on and certainly for myself. I think many of us could understand that tongue and cheek sort of bumper sticker, and it's only partially tongue in cheek, you've seen it, maybe. It says, "I like Jesus. It's His fan club I'm not so sure of."
We have this ideal, we have this reality, and too many times the gap is too big and too many times we have found ourselves in the place of saying. "There's overpromising, there's underdelivering, I'm done. I'm just done." Now, that's not you this morning because you're here, but I'll bet you know some people who've said that. I'll bet there's been times you haven't been here or in another place because of that, and I want to tackle that head-on. I'm not trying to prove anything in this series.
I'm not trying to prove a point, I want to share a way of how to get through this and how why I'm still in a church and why I still think this is one of the most important things that we can be doing. It's not because there isn't all the things that I've mentioned. That's just the easy part. This week and in other weeks it's pretty simple if you just watched the headlines, not just a place of discouragement, it's a dangerous place for some people. There are people who have gone decades, decades of places where it has been a place of shame and a place of abuse and a place of non-accountability. Who would want to be a part of that?
"I'm done with church," is something that a lot of people say. I was at a conference this summer and there was a side group that would meet off to the side and it said, "Catholics with one foot out the door," and I thought, "Man oh man, you could fill the room if you just said Christians with one foot out the door." This is a non-denominational thing. There are Presbyterians with one foot out the door, Baptists, Methodists, non-denominationals. Most of the people I know feel like they've got one foot out the door in terms of, "Boy, there's some things here that I'm not sure, I'm just not sure."
We sing that wonderful song, blest be the tie that binds. Too many times that tie seems frayed, and it chafes.
Sometimes we substitute rules and regulations for the actual fellowship, and that doesn't work. Sometimes we have put boundaries of dogma and doctrine, "This is what you have to believe in order to belong here." Those can be helpful, important, but when they start to keep people away, they've missed the point.
I want to talk about the rules, the regulations, the doctrines, the dogmas, the things that get in the way, the places where you can't even ask questions, for crying out loud and be welcomed in some places. I'm done. I'm done. Have you ever heard yourself say that? I think the first time I heard myself say that, well, I think I was eight but I think that was just because I was bored out of my mind. I know, I know it was when I was 10. I had a Sunday school teacher who was terrible.
When I was older, when I could say it and actually mean it and get to have some say in it, I was in my late teens, and it was, "I'm just done. This is the most boring, irrelevant place I've ever been to. Why would I want to be a part of this? This place just plays games."
The experience of my home church, which on one hand was a wonderful and nurturing and foundational place for me, and on the other hand, part of that foundation was to see what happened when racism isn't addressed, when we want to push it under the carpet, when we don't want to talk about anything tough. These wonderful, caring people, suddenly it becomes toxic. Suddenly, it becomes dangerous. Who needs that? A place that's small-minded and makes me more fearful than when I started.
I found myself saying that many times, even in the idea of going into ministry again, I've shared and I won't go into the long story, but the short story. Ministry was nothing that I was ever looking to get into, it was the last thing, partly because of the experience of my home church. I only backed into it. The first church I served in Los Angeles was a big church and had a lot of great things going for it. At the same time, it just about killed people. They were busy, always busy, and they were always stretched too thin and it had a mean spirit about it underneath the surface.
It had people who were loving and caring and wonderful, and then it just had this fear and this ego. It was a lot about pushing programs around, and there wasn't a whole lot of stuff that gets to the soul. I remember after being there for eight years, I was about as thin and I was about as burnt out as I could get. I more than once wanted to walk across to the high school and just teach there and say, "This is what I want to do. This is where I connect. Let me do something useful. I'm done."
Anybody feel done because you've just been burned out? Burned up? Bored? Any of those? I get it. We all get it, we all get it when people say, "I don't know why I would go to church." It wasn't until I got up to this little tiny church up in Central Washington which was a solo pastor church about as far away from Metropolitan LA and a multi-staff church as you can get. Yet it was there that I point to, not because the church was particularly wonderful, but because it was a church that had gotten some things figured out. I said, "That's where I began to fall in love with what the local church could be."
Again, it played all the stereotypes of small churches. You know what those stereotypes are? Yes, that was them, including that there were people with a small number of people, there's a few people who just run everything. There was one woman named Shirley, and her name isn't Shirley, don't worry, who ran a lot of things and ran right over people and it was tough. Finally, it was less than being a year there and I had to sit down with Shirley and just say, "You got to stop, you are just running over people. You're rude. You're doing those things."
I didn't know if I was even going to survive Shirley on this one. I remember telling somebody who had become a friend in the church and his name was Frank, his name was not Frank and I said, "Wow." He said, "How's your day going?" Well, I said, "Man, I just had to sit down with Shirley. Boy, that was tough. Now, Frank and Shirley are both in their 70s. Frank says, "I went to third grade with Shirley. She was a pain in the butt back then too."
Here's what's important. They were still in the same church. They were in the same small group, they were in the same choir, they served on boards together, they were friends. There was no pretense about either one of them being particularly wonderful. There was no spiritualizing. "This person's a pill, this person is a pain," and you know what? We love anyway. It was that, "Love anyway," is, "We're going to do life anyway. We're there for each other anyway," that began to turn it for me.
This is a different place, this is where you get to be who you are, and we hope more. Even if you aren't, we're here for you. We're here for you. That this is a place that isn't just about rules and regulation, this is a place that where love is. This is about taking care of the things that're getting in the way. Do we get on each other's nerves? Yes, but we're here for each other anyway because somehow that's what a church can be, should be.
Just finished a class on Bonhoeffer with a wonderful group of people on Wednesday night and Thursday, and one of the concepts that rang true for me was, he says, "You know what gets in the way of church? The idea of community." When I first read that, I thought, "That's crazy. That's what you should be talking about." He said, "No. We all have this idea of what community or church should be, and it's that ideal that kills it every time. It's the ideal of a community and what you think it should be and how people are supposed to act and then you have what is and then you begin to criticize and you become judgmental. Then you begin to resent. You resent God, you resent the others, you resent the whole thing. The best thing you can do is stop talking about community and just love the person who's in front of you. Just love the person who's in front of you. Just be responsible to the needs that are there. If you do that, community will take care of itself."
There is this ideal of what should be and we have this idea of what should be which keeps us from doing what we need to be doing right here and right now. We offer our gifts we offer our weakness, we offer them altogether. This last concept that he talked about that I thought was so powerful that the church exists as the fellowship of the cross. What he meant by that was this, most churches you come in, "How you doing, great? How well are you known?" "Well, I am the chair of this committee. I'm an elder, I'm a deacon, I've been in this small group. I've been part of this church for 20 years. I give. I am a part of that. I do these things. I'm in good standing. I do all these things that make me look like I'm okay. I have accomplished something."
There's nothing wrong with that except this, that means we're always meeting up here and we're never meeting right down here. We're never meeting in the place where, "You know what? I need to be here because I'm broken." My life doesn't make sense. There's a big gap between who I want to be and who I really am. If I can't come in and be honest about that, then it's just pretense. Then we're just fooling each other. Now we are just playing games with each other. If I can't come in and say, "I'm a person who stands at the bottom of this cross because I need it. I'm broken. I'm sinful, I'm needy," there that's a leveling place for all of us.
The 12-step program understood this. It was developed about the same time that Bonhoeffer was doing what he was doing and at the base of the 12-step movement is always life became unmanageable for me. There was something that just overwhelmed. I couldn't take it. It was always starting with, "Hi, I'm Russell. I'm an alcoholic. Hi, I'm Russell. I'm a shopaholic. Hi, I'm Russ. I'm--," you fill in all the blanks, but you start there. You don't start with your accomplishments, you start always with your needs in a church it's all, "Hi, I'm Russ. I'm a sinner"
Not in a worm, not in somebody who's terrible and this-- No, I'm someone who's broken and needy. If we can start there, we can stay there, we have a chance of this being a place that's redemptive and beginning to fulfill some of the things that we had hoped for when we first walked into the room.
GK Chesterton was asked one time by one of the London papers at the turn of the century said, "We're going to ask for essays from people, what is wrong with this world? What's the problem of this world?" GK Chesterton the prolific writer, dashed off and sent it right back and immediately when they opened the letter, the simple answer was two words, "I am what's wrong with the world. My ego, my pride, my brokenness, me, I'm what's wrong with the world."
At the base that seems to me of some of the things that I would have to say that I'm most discouraged about the church. What's wrong with the church? I also have to if I come as part of the Fellowship of the cross, I have to be able to say what's wrong. Me and what's wrong with it. I'm too judgmental. I'm too cynical. There's too many things that I have said that have hurt. There's too many things that have gone unsaid that could have been there, that would have helped. There's too many things I could have done and I didn't do. There's to me things I did and I shouldn't have. The list goes on.
If we don't start there, then we substitute rules, we substitute regulations, we substitute dogma, we substitute programs, we substitute you name it. We never get to the real stuff of why we're here in the first place.
One of the things that people don't like is when sermons go way long. I have cut this one a bit in the midst of the first service and so where I want to start is this, if you read David Brooks at all, this is a week you will especially want to pay attention to his article in the last couple of weeks about weavers is profound. I haven't found anything that talked about the need of this society and so, so well put as this one. If you don't you might want to pick it up. We'll try to provide the link for that.
He talks about the epidemic. The epidemic that he sees everywhere of isolation and fragmentation and everywhere he goes and talks about it people come up with their stories. Stories about suicide, stories about addiction, stories about loneliness, stories about disconnection and it's getting bigger and bigger and bigger and bigger. We have to do better. We have to do better as a church because the need is bigger. He talks about this.
Can anybody see where the church being the church that it's called to be might fit perfectly into the great need, the aching need of our world today? We need to do better. I would say this that I am done with the church. I found myself saying that again and again and again, but what keeps coming back is somehow God doesn't seem to be.
God seems to still keep bringing the church back together. It's not that it's perfect, it's not that it's good. In fact, it's terrible sometimes and it's very discouraging, but it's that the problems of the church are not the last word. Those become the occasion for solution and the failures and the betrayals, that's not the end of the church. That's really just the beginning because we bring all of that stuff in the door with us. What we bring in is just like everywhere else. It's just that it has a possibility of a different outcome.
If there wasn't a church, God would create one. If there wasn't some place, God would pull people together for the sole purpose of that. Being that kind of healing presence in this world. It's an invitation to jump in because there should be a place like that, shouldn't there? Shouldn't there be a place where all people and their dignity is emphasized and it's championed? Shouldn't it be a place where children can come and it's safe and it's vital and that they can learn about and be surrounded in a community of people of all ages?
Shouldn't it be a place where Boy Scouts and youth and different things come together and we champion those things because they're good and we need those kind of places? Shouldn't there be a place where you can come and you bring your music and you bring your prayers and you bring your gifts and you put them all together for something larger than just the sum of the parts that something is larger with the whole of it? Shouldn't there be a place that encourages and meets people in their place of grief? Shouldn't there be a place where there is in my brokenness and my absolute failures that I don't get kicked out, I get cared for, I get loved? Shouldn't there be a place of reconciliation? Don't we need a place like that? Wouldn't that be amazing?
Isn't that what we're being called to? Just maybe our dissatisfaction is part of the key. I have come to believe in one of our core values is about holy discontent that the discontent that we feel sometimes is part of what God uses. Part of it is and the fact that there is something and says, "We got to do better." That's holy discontent. We have to do better. We have to find a better way to care for people. We have to find a better way to love people. We have to find-- it's that discontent is at the core of what the Spirit is doing. Rather than driving us out the door, I have learned more and more to listen to it so that it begins to drive us to a better answer.
To be honest, I've had also to learn that maybe that discontent is telling me something about myself. That I need a place that challenges me, that frustrates me, that does all of that. What I mean by that is this, is that there is a part in us that doesn't often get challenged anymore. Do you realize that this hour of worship is one of the few hours that wasn't curated to your particular tastes? That if you go on the internet there will be ads that are curated just to the things that you have been interested in.
That when you listen to your music and your Pandora or your Spotify or whatever station it is music curated specifically to the things that you already like. That when you read the newspapers there will be papers and stories that have been designed for you. When you watch the news, there's news programs that are curated to the kind of news you like to hear, the way you like to hear it. There are channels that are curated just to what you already think. Everywhere you go, there is food that has been designed just for your particular tongue. There are things that are designed-- this is one of the few places where it's wide open that's not curated for you.
My guess is this morning you've already heard music that you go, "I didn't really like that" or I've heard prayers, "I didn't care for that prayer. Why they do that? Why do we have an organ? Why do we have drums? Why do we put prayers on the screen? Why do we have silence? Why do we have sermons like this?" Can I just say maybe that's part of the solution itself? Is to be in a place that stretches us and invites us to a larger platform and be a part of a larger palette because maybe that's how we get to go forward with all the people who are different.
Somebody had given me last week about what the church is and she says, "Church isn't the place to find people of like mind." The church is a place to put belief into practice, finding consistent opportunities to serve our fellow earthly sojourners and learn to love more and more fully and that means we have to put up with the dissonance of one another's lives and of our own. "I don't go to church." This article said, "I don't go to church to be with people who are just like me. That's dangerous and that is boring."
Can you imagine, besides all it does is it just pushes more into the isolation, more into the fragmentation. No, we need a place. We need a place. I need a place that challenges, that stretches me. I'll bet you do too. I would invite you. I would invite you as we go from here to listen to the dissonance in our lives. Listen to the places that say, "This bugs me." Listen to that.
Now, it may be that there is something that needs to be made better and we should do that. We should. Then there's the part that says, "Maybe there's a part in me that needs to be made better and maybe it's inviting me to spread out and to see differently and to participate differently." Because in the end, it's about what God is doing, that God works in all of us in everything we do.
Something from the spirit can be seen in each person, each person for the common good. That's what we're called to. It has to do with this project that Jesus started. It has to do with that project that Jesus is still doing in our midst. It has to do with what is yet to be done. If you want to be a part of that I would invite you to stand with me. Let's close in this song that the church has used over the years to gather itself to call itself to higher places, into deeper places and to be more truly followers of Jesus.