“This Is the Church”
Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron
Park Avenue Congregational Church, UCC
September 10, 2017
Isaiah 43:1, 5-10
But now thus says the Lord,
the One who created you, O Jacob,
the who formed you, O Israel:
“Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.
Do not fear, for I am with you;
I will bring your offspring from the east,
and from the west I will gather you;
I will say to the north, ‘Give them up’,
and to the south, ‘Do not withhold;
bring my sons from far away
and my daughters from the end of the earth—
everyone who is called by my name,
whom I created for my glory,
whom I formed and made.’
Bring forth the people who are blind, yet have eyes,
who are deaf, yet have ears!
Let all the nations gather together,
and let the peoples assemble.
Who among them declared this,
and foretold to us the former things?
Let them bring their witnesses to justify them,
and let them hear and say, ‘It is true.’
You are my witnesses,” says the Lord,
“and my servant whom I have chosen,
so that you may know and believe me
and understand that I am God.
Before me no god was formed,
nor shall there be any after me.”
Matthew 18:15-17, 19-20
‘If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax-collector. Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.’
What does church mean to you?
When we look through the Bible and through history, there are just as many definitions of church as you all just gave – and more! There’s the local church, like PACC; the church universal which means all followers of Jesus everywhere; and the church stretching all the way back in time to the very first believers. There are house churches and cathedrals and the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster – which is a whole ‘nother conversation.
So what, exactly, is church?
Well, let’s start with what exactly church isn’t. You probably remember the childhood rhyme, “This is the church, this is the steeple, open the doors and see all the people…”? Except church isn’t a building – or not primarily a building. It is the people who are the church. Each one of you – of us – makes up the church.
Because the church is made up of people, it also isn’t a place free of conflict, as our Gospel passage clearly acknowledges. We bring different opinions and experiences to the pew – personality quirks and deeply human flaws that can cause tension and disagreement. If we expect the church and its people to never let us down – or expect ourselves to always be in the right – we’ll be disappointed.
Church also isn’t a retreat from the world. We may come to church to feel spiritually refreshed and fortified for the week ahead, but if church encourages us to put blinders on and ignore what’s going on around us, it’s missing a fundamental piece of the puzzle. Just look at all the prophets in the Hebrew Bible and New Testament who on God’s behalf shake their fists at the religious institutions ignoring the realities of war and injustice and poverty.
Church also isn’t a club where we can belong if we dress the right way or have the right connections. Neither is it a place where we pay tithes in exchange for having a venue to get married or host a party. Unfortunately, in my time as a minister I’ve seen all of those misconceptions of church earnestly embraced.
No, at its most simple, church is what Jesus said to cap off his discourse formt his morning’s passage: Where two or three of you are gathered in my name, I will be there among you.
So church is a gathering of people, even just 2 or 3, that invites God’s presence. Congratulations, we’ve met the quorum – this is officially church!
This “where 2 or 3 are gathered” statement may sound quaint, even saccharine – Jesus assuring us that no matter how small a gathering of believers, he will be there, sustaining them in their mustard-seed faith.
But in Jesus’ day, this declaration was a radical challenge to the religious establishment. In the Judaism of the time, the quorum, called a minyan, was at least 10 and perhaps as many as 12. 10 to 12 men were needed to hold a valid prayer service, or as the sages put it, “for the Spirit of God to descend.”
This was already revolutionary – to say that God’s spirit could be present somewhere outside the Holy of Holies in the Temple in Jerusalem – but Jesus went even further by lowering the minimum to two – a number that meant God’s spirit could be present anywhere, that church could happen anywhere – as long as just two people were together.
This new minyan was a signal that church was to be less about restrictions and requirements and more about relationship.
It’s also a reminder that church isn’t something we can do on our own; that in fact we can truly grow spiritually only in community.
There are some great stories about the desert mothers and fathers, those ancient hermits who went off into the wilderness to live and pray by themselves so they could focus in on the holy. They tell of being reluctantly dragged back into communal life because they realized they could only get so far on their spiritual path when no one was bothering them with questions, pushing their buttons, inconveniencing them with needs and worries – in other words, when no one was forcing them to be human.
So church is being together.
Another radical aspect of Jesus announcing that he will be with us whenever we are gathered together? The ancient minyan required that the 10-12 people involved be men, and that none of them be egregious sinners. Yet when Jesus said “where two are three are gathered, I am there with you,” he was speaking to his followers – a group that included men and women, as well as tax collectors who were considered big-time sinners for defrauding the people in collaboration with the idolatrous Roman government.
Jesus’ transmutation of the religious mores of the time resonates far beyond the ancient synagogue. On hearing these words, we, too, should realize that church is meant to explode our ideas of who belongs, who gets in, who is considered worthy enough or morally righteous enough to participate.
So church is anywhere we gather together in the presence of God, and especially when we do so in an unexpectedly inclusive way. What else is church?
In Isaiah’s vision from this morning’s Hebrew scripture reading, God’s people are called together from the east and west, the north and south, gathered in by a God who loves them and calls them by name.
I chose this passage because today is, of course, Re-Gathering Sunday, when we celebrate returning from our various summer adventures to a joyous reunion with our church family.
Yet to the Israelite people scattered by exile, this picture of a God who would go to the ends of the earth to reclaim them must have been heart-rendingly poignant. It echoes through the millennia to today, as we watch friends and strangers reeling from Hurricane Harvey or riding out of Hurricane Irma, unsure what will be left of their homes if and when they return. I’m sure it must resonate as well for the so-called Dreamers – those young adults who were illegally brought into this country as children, who know no other country as home and who now face a terrifyingly uncertain future.
(Incidentally, the English word church derives from the Greek kyriakos – belonging to the Lord.) So church is where we are welcomed home by God, a God to whom we belong and who will never forsake us, no matter what happens to us or how the world treats us.
And handily, church is also a place where we can respond to the uncertainty of world events and the desolation of natural disasters through our prayers, with our resources, and through our actions.
One of my most profound experiences of church didn’t take place in a proper church at all. After college I served as a volunteer coordinator with Back Bay Mission, a UCC community ministry in Biloxi, MS.
My job was to provide logistical support and hospitality for volunteer work crews from UCC congregations all over the country who had come to the Gulf Coast to rebuild after Hurricane Katrina. Luckily for me, part of my duties involved hosting a shrimp boil at the end of each week to celebrate the volunteers’ hard work under the hot Mississippi sun. As we peeled and ate buckletloads of shrimp cooked with Zatarain’s, volunteers would reflect back on their experience: their shock at visiting clients in mold-infested FEMA trailers, the humility they felt at being so generously welcomed and fed by those who had so little, the unexpected discovery of talents for tiling or patching sheetrock. Most hadn’t attended church the previous Sunday in order to travel to Back Bay. Yet all had felt God’s presence moving amongst them as, outside of any sanctuary, they prayed and ate and worked together – as they churched – in Jesus’ name.
So church is where we respond to the hurts of the world and where we learn to serve others and be transformed in the process.
Ekklesia, the Greek word for church used in today’s scripture passage, translates as “to call out from.” Through church, God calls us out from our ordinary routines and asks us to follow, to engage in something fresh. Such calls are not always as literal as being asked to serve on a mission trip; but they are often just as disorienting – like the call to worship God with a few others gathered in someone’s home instead of in a lofty temple accessible only to the high priest. Or the call from today’s Gospel reading to respond to conflict, not with lawsuits but with creative, community-based justice. Or the call from the same passage that, when someone is stubbornly refusing to address conflict within the church, we should treat them as a Gentile or a tax collector – initially that sounds like we should reject them, but Jesus, against all odds, welcomed these outcasts and even called as his followers.
So church is where we are called out from comfort to follow a new, sometimes challenging way in Jesus. And it’s a place where we are formed in uniquely spiritual ways as we pursue this peculiar path together.
Because prepositions in ancient Greek often have more than one meaning, ekklEsia can also mean “to call out towards” – to call not just from something but to something. Through church God calls us toward mission, to collectively care for those at the margins of society, to stand for justice, to speak the truth we’ve experienced together of how God is still speaking, still moving us towards a more compassionate and just and peaceable world.
So church is where we catch a vision of God’s kindom, and where we respond to the call to help create that kindom. And as we talked about a few weeks ago, in Paul’s letter to the young church in Rome, church is where people discover and claim their ministries – where we learn to care for one another and the world through the gifts and talents God has given us.
What else is church? As Isaiah said this morning, it’s where we bear witness to ancient records of God’s goodness in the lives of God’s people and where we share experiences of God’s goodness in our lives, witnessing to God’s never-ending work to bring forth life and light.
And do you remember the description of church from the beginning of Acts that we read every Pentecost when we celebrate the birth of the church? It describes church as a place where members fellowshipped and worshiped together, where they gave of their resources as any had need, where God added to their numbers as the Spirit moved among them. I was reminded this week of that passage as PACC members reported in after having delivered a homemade meal or having visited someone in need of a boost, and as money you all have given to the deacons fund was used to provide shelter and fill empty stomachs. Church is community, a place where we form vital relationships, where we share what we have, where we can be healed and restored, where we care for one another with joy and compassion, and where we grow as we welcome those looking to join in this life-giving work.
Church is also where we celebrate the sacraments of baptism and communion – where we come together to partake of rites and rituals that draw us deeper into the heart of God and closer to one another. It’s a place we find spiritual refreshment and come face to face with the mystery of God’s presence here amongst us. It’s where we simultaneously recognize our own shortcomings and the wondrous truth that we are claimed as part of God’s family, as beloved followers of Jesus, just as we are. It’s where we find joy in God’s wildly loving embrace and where we learn, week after week, season after season, to share that embrace with others.
In a non-exhaustive list, then: church is God’s presence among us, togetherness, home, belonging, discipleship, mission, justice, service, ministry, community, witness, transformation, renewal, and mystery. It’s a call to question and to follow in a new way. It’s a place where we are challenged even as we are comforted. What an incredibly rich, resilient, living entity to be a part of, far more than the most state-of-the-art worship space or the grandest cathedral!
And yet, we have confronted news this week of continued devastation from Hurricanes Harvey and Irma (and potentially Jose and Katia), news of the earthquake in Mexico, of the uncertain fate of Dreamers, of the looming threat of wildfires in the Pacific Northwest and North Korean nuclear tests – I have to admit that I wondered what this community, or any community, could do in the face of such destruction and despair.
And as I met and talked with and prayed for PACC members and friends this week who face indefinite hospitalizations, the death of loved ones, chronic illness and more, I wondered how the things we would say and do here today could respond to our heartache and impatience and uncertainty.
But then I look out at you all and am reminded that even though we speak words and enact rituals during worship, the church is not merely words or rituals but rather people – people infused with the power of God’s spirit among us.
And so as God calls this vibrant and loving community back together, I want you to turn and look at your neighbor, preferably someone you didn’t come here with. I want you to look into that person’s eyes and tell yourself that this person, plus you, is church, and that because of this person and the dozens more all around you, we are able to feel God’s presence here, with us in disaster and uncertainty and celebration and hope. And through that presence, through this community, we are called and empowered to be a light in the lives of our friends and our neighbors and even complete strangers.
This is the Church.
Thanks be to God.