I preached this sermon on June 21, 2020 for the online services at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary text cited is Matthew 10:24-39.
What does it mean to be the church in a time such as this? At this turning point in our national life, when old values, old practices, old ways of being are called into question, when the mythic landscape of American history is being challenged and reordered by pandemics, protests, and political turmoil, when certainties are few and far between, here and now we are urgently led to revisit this question: what does it mean to be the church? Who are we Christians in this fraught moment: this moment of lament, this moment of reckoning with the unjust systems we have built and sustained, this moment of questioning the bedtime stories with which we have comforted ourselves about blessing and destiny and progress?
What is the church now when the wind comes howling in through the open window, when the doors to the building are locked and the bottom drops out and we are falling, falling down into the gloom of an unknown tomorrow? What are we then? Who are we then?
For so much of our nation’s history, to be part of the church has been a designation of institutional membership, a cultural practice encoded in spiritual language handed down from generation to generation; an elegant packaging of some laudable core values, and a safe, enclosed space in which to work out the meaning of life according to those values. In this understanding of church as institution, which patterns itself according to the societal contexts in which it operates—the world outside the walls—there are usually a number of factions, organized along political, liturgical, or ideological spectrums, and whoever dominates in numbers or funding tends to dictate what we stand for and the ways in which we do so. It’s not that we ignore the gospel in this mode of church; it’s simply that the “good news” we share often sounds like the good news we want to hear, or more specifically, the good news that the powerful want to hear.
For many, being church in this way feels very navigable—it maps rather neatly onto the rest of our lives, it absorbs the language of the zeitgeist like a sponge, such that the progressive and the conservative, whatever those labels happen to mean in a given moment, have equal opportunity to bedeck themselves in Scripture and silk vestments, to continue their eternal struggle via the proxy wars of theology and church politics.
This is not a new thing, and perhaps, for much of our history, this mode of being the church felt sufficient for the majority of people. Since the peace of Constantine in the 4th century, when Christianity became legalized in the Roman Empire and later adopted as the religion of that Empire, there has been little distinction between the idealized values of citizenship and the core teachings of the sacred in dominant Western culture—especially for those of us who enjoyed the privileges and powers that such citizenship affords. The easy mix of civic and ecclesial agendas was simply a given. Church was, in effect, where you learned how to be a good and loyal participant in the realm, to support its structures, to promote the peace of the established order.
But established orders tend to fall apart eventually. Structures give way under their own weight. And what is the church, then? Who are we, then?
Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel:
Do not think that I have come
to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace,
but a sword. (Matthew 10:34)
Jesus’ words today remind us that there is another choice when it comes to understanding the meaning of the church—a choice that is unsettling, a bit scary even—one that looks nothing like the established order in which we are tempted to become comfortably numb. He describes the cost of following him in the starkest of terms—it is to give up family bonds, it is to give up one’s safety, to give up one’s own life, even, in order to find and participate in whatever strange, magnetic sweetness he seems to carry within himself. This is not a metaphorical invitation. It is quite serious.
To be church in this way—to relinquish, to descend, to die—has little to do with the striving and the strategies that characterize so much of public life in the West. It is, instead, an intentional upending, a deconstruction of those values, especially whenver they deny life and dignity to the least among us. For, as Mary proclaims, He has lifted up the lowly and the rich he has sent away empty.
To be the church that responds to Jesus’ invitation is to search for the cracks in the veneer of decadence, to find them and to tear them open, to name what is rotten underneath and, crucially, inescapably, not simply to name and to criticize, but to cast ourselves, with equal measure of grief and hope, down into the rottenness, down to the places where we do not want to go, down to where we will finally see what is true, what endures, what refuses to die, even there. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Here and now, in our present turmoil, some of that work has been done for us. The veneer is already cracked. Some of the rottenness is already exposed. But we still have to choose whether we will get down there and look at it. We still have to choose whether we will do something about it. Nobody will force us to, not even God; and the urge to look away, to go back to the old mode of being, will continue to be powerful. But what we decide will determine what sort of church we are part of. Are we an insitution of the present order, subject to the whims of history, or are we a community of disciples, of learners, of passionate lovers of God, seeking Holy Wisdom into the uncomfortable places she calls us?
Most days, I doubt that I have the strength and the courage to choose this latter vision. Most days, I just want to roll over and go back to sleep. It would be so much nicer to stay on the surface of my Christian identity, to let church function as an ornament, as a daydream where we talk about forgiveness and love in hazy terms without ever submitting to the fierce demands that such things actually require.
But then, always, there is Jesus, with his unsettling words and his compelling gaze that cuts through me like a sword. I see him looking back at me from the cross, forgiving my weakness, unimaginably patient with my fear. I see him in the faces of my homeless neighbors, my black and brown neighbors, my lgbtq neighbors, my conservative neighbors, my liberal neighbors, my neighbors of every background and belief, and I hear his voice:
Follow me. Follow me wherever it might take you. Follow me out past the church you thought you knew, out beyond a brittle, compromised peace, follow me out past certainty and cynicism, follow me into the heart of the world’s sorrows and see what lies on the other side of fear and lamentation. I promise you, everything real, everything joyful, everything good, is there. I am there.
If we listen to Jesus, if we really listen to him, what other choice can we make?