Sunday, July 30, 2017

Church--What's It All About?

(This Board shows the Pastors of the Iffley parish Church, St. Mary of the Virgin, found in Iffley Oxfordshire, England. It dates back to 1170. I saw this Board in the foyer of the Church I visited and marveled at how long that church has been serving that tiny parish. Despite the ups and downs through the years the beat still goes on in churches around the world.)

Suppose next Sunday morning a Martian landed in your front yard. She would ring your doorbell and introduce herself. And it’s about 10:30—and you don’t have time to talk. You tell her politely that you are getting ready for church and you don’t want to be late. Church? she will ask. What’s Church? And you try to answer as best you can in the few minutes you have left before you get in the car. What would you have said to this Martian standing there with a question on her face. Let me answer this question with a story.

A friend of mine was visiting a Seminary and he walked into a classroom and saw these words scribbled on a blackboard. 
We gather together: 
To tell the story…
To break the bread and take the the cup…
To bring here the things of our lives…
And to lift up our hearts in hope.” 

And that’s about the best definition of what Church is all about than I can think of. And if some Martian knocks on my door—asking this question—I hope I can remember these words. Know a better definition  of church? I don’t.

Let’s unpack those words. For that strange Martian and for us too.


We gather together to tell the story. We all know this—but the problem is that today we are not altogether sure what the story is. The Book says that the story is embedded in this word gospel. Mark when he began his book wrote: This is the gospel…the good news of Jesus Christ.  Gospel is good news. And every gospel in its own way tell about the good, good things that Jesus did when he came. 

But the problem is that somewhere along the line from then until now a lot of people are not sure about this gospel and it’s story. All my life I’ve heard it’s not always good news. And out there this morning watching TV or jogging down the road or just reading the paper—they wouldn’t be caught dead in church. Why? They heard nothing but bad news. Don’t. Must. Should. Ought. Wagging a finger in judgment. Used to be it was No drinking…dancing and smoking. Used to be No mixed bathing. Used to be White’s only. Used to be only respectable people. And out there today are a whole lot of people sleeping under bridges in old paper boxes that wouldn’t dare come into a church. Why? They wouldn’t feel welcome. They know that and we know that. Why? They think what happens here is bad news. And how wrong they all are. 

The story is about as far from those ideas as anything I know. It’s not finger-pointing judgment. It’s the reverse. It’s opening your arms wide and staying welcome. That’s the theme of the Bible from beginning to end. In Genesis The Lord God walking in Eden in the cool of the day—weeping, weeping at what Adam and Eve had done.  Or turn to the New Testament. God so loved the world. Huh? The world? Not just the Presbyterians or the Americans or the Legals or the Republicans or Democrats. Not just us white middle-class folk. But God also loved the world and that’s the story. No qualifications.

In Luke’s fourth chapter he tells us what Jesus came to do. In Jesus’ first sermon he took his text from Isaiah 61. 

“The Spirit of the Lord has anointed me 
To bring good news to the  poor 
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives 
and recovery of sight to the blind
to let the oppressed go free, 
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4. 18-19)

Remember the reception he got? People in his hometown were furious. They muttered: “This, this isn’t the story? That's crazy.” Some of them even tried to kill him. But remember his words. Good news. Not bad news. Luke 4.40 says that: “As the sun was setting, all those who had any that were sick with various diseases brought them to him; and he laid his hands on each of them and cured them.” We  come here to tell a story and it is good news for all. Not finger-pointing—but Open Arms.


I told my Martian friend that:  We gather together to break the bread and take the cup.
Photo by James Emery / flickr
Some churches take Communion every week. Some monthly or quarterly. But regardless of how often we do this—one of the centerpiece's of almost every Christian Church is a Table. 

]Almost every home has a kitchen table—here in church we have this Table. And around our kitchen tables healthy families eat together and laugh together and celebrate birthdays and so many other occasions. I was in a group one time where we had to answer the question: What is the warmest room in the house where you grew up? You knows what I said. The kitchen. That old Oak table where we gathered day after day. That was the warmest room.

And here we come back to the Table to remember. It is one of the warmest parts of this house, too. For around this Table we take the Bread—we hungry ones—and we remember that this is the Bread that came down out of heaven and that he or she that eats this bread will live forever. There is something here that, as my Mother used to say, “sticks to your innards.” So when we leave here and encounter the hard things—we remember how he broke the Bread and gave it out for the hungers and sustenance of our lives.

We also take the Cup from this Table. And we remember on our better days that he said that the blood of Jesus Christ cleanseth us from all our sins. So this is a forgiving table. And we remember that here the burdens of our lives can be lifted and we start all over again.  No wonder after we confess our sins here we give everyone what we call the assurance of pardon. “As far as the east is from the west so far has God removed our transgressions from us.” (Ps. 103.12) So this is a remembering place. And we come back to the Table again and again just like we sit down at our tables at home. 


Is that all? The Martian said. Not quite I told her. We come here to deal with the things of
our lives. I think it means that we don’t leave the heavy things we carry outside the door. It’s a thin faith that thinks we can only deal with the happy things here. And some churches today are making a cottage industry out of smile, smile, smile.And do we smile here? And we do celebrate our victories? Of course.  But we also bring with us whatever it is that hurts and pinches and keeps us awake at night. Remember the old gospel song: “Take your burden to the Lord and leave it there.”

Once at a Communion service, I asked the congregation to put down down what burdens they had and what they would like God to help them with. And they came to the Table bringing their little lists and left them in an offering plate before they took the Bread and the Cup. They were all anonymous—but these are some of the things they had written.

“God have mercy on me, my sins are too many.”
“There are betrayals every day of my life, but especially, I am aware of those that affect my family and my God—betrayals of envy and impatience.”
“Impatience—inability to cope with different situations.”
“In family relationships and service to mankind, I have been lacking and weak.”
“I have not cared enough for those in need around me. I have remained too caught up in my own personal affairs.”
“I have trouble believing the God is a functional force in the universe ands in the resurrection of Christ.”
“The feeling that is must work to earn the love of others.”
“I have scorned a friend this past week to my shame.”
“For the lack of faith in time of trial and troubles.” 
My downfall—anger, anxiety.”
“Egocentricity and lust.”
“Holding a grudge and remaining bitter.”
“I have not always told the truth.”

Here in this quiet place we can bring the things of our lives knowing that God hears and God listens and God forgives. And knowing this—we know that none of us have room for self- righteousness. We are all the same sinners in need of heaven’s mercy and help.


I could tell my Martian friend was getting figidity. And so I told her: just one last thing. We
come here to lift up our hearts in hope. Hope, she said? What’s that? I told her it might be the most special word we need today. We watch TV, read the papers, listen to all the noise around us and it’s easy to lose hope. My sister-in-law says: “We’re going out just in time.” And there are days when we all feel like that. Hope-less.

Washington in a mess. We wonder about places like Iraq and Afghanistan and North Korea and Russia. We read about immigrants that are too scared to send their kids to school these days. One Muslim man told me that his wife would not go the the Mall by herself. She wears a scarf around her head. She is afraid. But we all have personal troubles. Health issues. Worries about family members. Or my friend who told me the other day his fourteen year old grandson took his life. He told me it happened months ago and is still hurts so bad. 

This was the kind of world that Jesus came into. And what did he do in that troubled time of slavery and poverty and early death and crucifixions and mean Rome breathing down their necks and Caesar stalking around like Jesus Christ.  

Paul wrote some of his most powerful words to the shabbiest church he knew. They were fussing among themselves. They were engaged in all sorts of hanky pankey. Word came that Paul, in prison could be killed by Rome and they said, “See…See—how can we go on.” And this Apostle who had been through it all wrote these words to them: ”Therefore, since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart.” A few sentences later he tells them why. “But we have this treasure in clay pots, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.” He did not gild the lily. This is how he continued: “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed…” and then just a paragraph later he says it over again:”So we do not lose heart.” The word is hope.

And so for two thousand years I told my Martian friend the church has kept going. Good days and terrible times. Plagues and tears and personal battles and fights in churches and ins and outs and ups and downs. Yet they kept going—and so must we.

For this Jesus who came and still stretches out his nailed-scarred hands and does what he has always done. He brings good news to the poor. He proclaims release to the captives. He recovers sight to the blind…and he lets the oppressed go free…and whatever year it is—whatever is going on—this, he says,  is the year of the Lord’s flavor.

And so somehow in the middle of all their madness and ours—we can find just enough hope to go on. And this is why we have a church…and this is why we keep coming back year after year—decade after decade—generation after generation. 

We meet God here and somehow, like all those others, we find this is enough.

(This sermon was preached at the Pendleton Presbyterian Church, Pendleton SC, July 30, 2017)

--Roger Lovette /

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