The following is the sermon I preached for the folks of Bethany Memorial Christian Church worshiping at Alexander Campbell's Meetinghouse in Bethany, West Virginia on August 1, 2010. Because the sermon was preached from notes, this manuscript is not exactly the words said but it is a close approximation. The texts for the sermon were Hosea 11: 1-11 and Luke 12: 13-21.
Sins in the Name of Christ
In the early 1600s, in name of the church, in Christ’s name, Friar Juan Ramirez enslaved the native people’s of the Acoma tribe in New Mexico to build a mission church on top of the mesa on which they lived. This meant the hauling of timber thirty miles in the desert and up the steep sides of the 367 foot mesa. Because there is no soil cover on the top of the mesa it also meant hauling sand, dirt, and other building supplies up to the top. Many died. Despite this, amazingly, there are still those in this tribe today who follow Christ.
In the late 20th and early 21st century the Roman Catholic Church was--and is-- involved in child abuse coverups. Children were abused and the hierarchy was more concerned with the institution’s survival than the lives ruined and forever changed. Protestants looked on smugly, with an attitude of “it couldn’t happen here.” Yet, friends this is simply not true. It can and it does. As a percentage of members, more abuse occurs in Protestant Churches than in Catholic Churches. Protestants also looked on smugly, in their denial, forgetting that we are all ONE church all the while refusing to pass and enforce strict policies to prevent the abuse because the topic makes us uncomfortable.
In the second half of the 20th century, Rev. Jim Jones, an ordained Disciples minister, led his parishioners to central America where they drank poison. No one in the church, in our own denomination, was paying attention to the pastor’s growing mental illness that led to the tragedy.
My former pastor Liz Myer-Boulton writes in Christian Century this week about a church in Chicago that was embroiled last year in a fight over maroon versus green carpet in the church parlor. On the Sunday that the congregation voted on the color, the people of Haiti, who had just endured an earthquake of epic proportions, gathered to worship outdoors to praise God. The pastor of the church called her friend, my former pastor, in the afternoon and confessed that with the crisis and angst about carpet color, she had forgotten to even lead her people in prayer for the people of Haiti.
Is it any wonder then that this past Wednesday, novelist Anne Rice “quit Christianity”? On her Facebook page, the author of vampire novels, wrote:
For those who care, and I understand if you don't: Today I quit being a Christian. I'm out. I remain committed to Christ as always but not to being "Christian" or to being part of Christianity. It's simply impossible for me to "belong" to this quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and deservedly infamous group. For ten years, I've tried. I've failed. I'm an outsider. My conscience will allow nothing else.
As I said below, I quit being a Christian. I'm out. In the name of Christ, I refuse to be anti-gay. I refuse to be anti-feminist. I refuse to be anti-artificial birth control. I refuse to be anti-Democrat. I refuse to be anti-secular humanism. I refuse to be anti-science. I refuse to be anti-life. In the name of Christ, I quit Christianity and being Christian. Amen.
Folks, the Church is in trouble. We are increasingly irrelevant to people. The ways of being church are dismissed by our young as so much baloney. Then we turn around and blame them--the victims of our failure of relevancy. We worry more about budgets than about seeing the Image of God in each and every one of our sisters and brothers.
Hosea: God is Fed Up
Not unlike now, the people of Hosea's time had fallen away from God's will. God’s people had torn themselves into two kingdoms, the northern and the southern, Judah and Israel just like we are tearing our churches apart over carpet colors. The people were worshiping Baal, a fertility god, and turning their backs on YHWH, the one God whom we worship today. God tried to get their attention over and over again but they stubbornly stayed on the wrong path.
In our passage today, God has had enough. God is irritated, aggravated, frustrated, and downright ticked off. God laments that God’s people have forgotten all God has done for them. God’s people have forgotten the story of their faith. God cries out: “My people are bent on turning away from me.” (Hosea 11: 7 NRSV)
God should DESTROY the Israelites & Judeans based on what they deserve just as God destroyed the cities of Admah and Zeboiim for their transgressions. But God is merciful to the Israelites & Judeans:
How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel? How can I make you like Admah? How can I treat you like Zeboiim? My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender. I will not execute my fierce anger; I will not again destroy Ephraim; for I am God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath. (Hosea 11: 8-9 NRSV)
The Good News
But the Good News is that even though God should destroy us based on what we deserve, just as God should’ve destroyed the people of Hosea’s time… Even though we fight about carpets instead of giving aid to those after an earthquake… Even though, we go into debt for our own well-being but we can’t afford a few pennies for a beggar on the street… Even though we allow our children to be abused rather than have our feelings hurt by requiring those who work with our youth and children to be fingerprinted… Though, we agonize about the dwindling numbers but we refuse to sing songs that appeal to the young...
Despite this, the Good News is that God sent God’s Son to us. And though Jesus suffered, was tortured, and was nailed to a cross where he died, on the third day, Jesus rose. God did this for you, for me; God did this for us! This is indeed Good News.
The Good News is that we serve a merciful and abundantly loving God. A God who instead of giving the Israelites and Judeans what they deserve, mercifully invited them back. And instead of giving us what we deserve, God mercifully sent Jesus who teaches us. And now, after the resurrection, the Holy Spirit remains to guide us if we but listen.
Being “Rich Toward God”
In our Luke passage for today, Jesus tells the story about the man who is so focused on himself… Jesus tells the parable of the man who is so focused on his own stuff and his own control that he plots to build new barns to hold his wealth so that he can live in comfort. Like the wealthy man, sometimes we, too, build barns or throw things in the attic rather than share it with our sisters and brothers.
We store up material possessions as if they can give us security. We hold back our love as if it is a fossil fuel, afraid to show ourselves to others. We hold back our time pretending we can somehow squeeze more hours into a day. We pretend that we own time forgetting that every moment is a gift from God. And we hang on to our hurts and pains, afraid that we won’t have anything at all without at least our bad stuff. We’re so afraid to be hurt again.
But at the end of the parable Jesus reminds us that after the rich fool boasts that he has, “‘ample goods laid up for many years; [so that he can] relax, eat, drink, [and] be merry.' But God said to him, "You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God." (Luke 12: 19b-21 NRSV)
So, instead of filling our attic with things for our future, for our own comfort… So, instead of filling our attic with things we fear to show, instead of holding back the Image of God within ourselves, if we are truly God’s people on earth we must be “rich toward God.”
Being “rich toward God” goes for us as individuals but it also goes for us as church. When we respond to God’s merciful and extravagant love, we let go of the stuff in the attic. When we’re “rich toward God,” we don’t have to argue about carpeting. We can let go of agonizing about what the beggar is going to do with the five we give him. (That is between he and God.) When we’re “rich toward God,” we don’t have to anxiously worry about the budget when we are focused on doing God’s will.
There was a church that was near closing their doors on the west coast. They had less than twenty folks worshipping on a Sunday. The Holy Spirit used a tragedy that had been thrust upon them as an opportunity for this church to do ministry. A homeless man was murdered. The people in this church responded to the active Holy Spirit who used this tragedy to reinvigorate them. The people in this church reached out to the family of the murder victim. They reached out to the family of the murderer. Instead of holding back their limited resources of time and money, instead of keeping it in the attic for themselves, they shared what they had with a hurting community. As a result, the church grew through ministry WITH the homeless folk in their city.
People at the Missiongathering Church in San Diego, a church that is doing a new church in a new way, were distraught after the repeal of Proposition 8 and marriage rights for their friends and neighbors. They were especially upset about how Christians had venomously worked in the repeal movement and hurt GLBTQ people. This was not the Christ they served. The Holy Spirit guided them to place a billboard up in town that read,
Missiongathering Church is sorry for the narrow minded, judgmental, deceptive, manipulative actions of those who took away the rights and equality of so many in the name of God. Our hearts are with you. Christianity for all.
The result is a growing vibrant church where I had the opportunity to worship in June. Let me assure you that the Holy Spirit’s presence was palpable. Christ was truly present in this church.
Still, reaching out to the other, doesn’t mean the Holy Spirit is guiding us to care for only some of God’s people. Reaching out to young folks doesn’t mean forgetting older folks. At the Ohio Presbyterian Retirement System, with a dozen sites, believes that no matter where you are at on life’s journey, God has a way for you to serve. A spiritual life committee of residents,staff, and community people at each site works to support people’s growth in service in God’s world regardless of their age or infirmities they might have.
Being Christ’s Church
Being church doesn’t mean just what we do within the walls of our buildings. Being church is what we as followers of Christ do every day and moment of our lives. We don’t have to argue about carpet, or enslave people, literally or metaphorically, to build monuments for institutions. We can be Christ’s body today. In this moment.
This week you will be Christ’s church when, one of you, despite your own stress, despite your busyness, listens to a co-worker who needs to talk. This week you will be Christ’s church when one of you, smiles at the cashier at Kroger and asks about her day. You’ll be Christ’s church when you walk away from church gossip and when you make a contribution to Week of Compassion for disaster relief. And you will be Christ’s church when one--or more of you--invite someone, someone who is very different from you, to this very church. And when you do these things and many other little things, you are being church. You are being Christ’s body on earth.
In our Hosea passage today, God was angry and hurt that God’s children had forgotten all that God had done for them. They had lost sight of God’s will for their lives. In Jesus’ parable this week, the rich fool was rich toward himself, forgetting to be “rich toward God.” And the Good News is that even though we don’t deserve it, God’s love is extravagant. God sent Jesus, who suffered, died on the cross, and rose on the third day. And when he ascended, the Holy Spirit remained to guide us, to teach us what Jesus did not. We don’t have to do it alone. We have the Spirit and one another
Pray, listen, act. Strive for God’s kingdom. Amen.