Sermon: A lover’s quarrel with the church

butterfly_greenEighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

September 27, 2015

Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29
Psalm 19:7–14
James 5:13–20
Mark 9:38–50

The poet Robert Frost requested this inscription on his tombstone: “I had a lover’s quarrel with the world.” I can easily imagine a variation of it on my own grave some day: “I had a lover’s quarrel with the church.”

Last week Vicki Olson and Kia Conrad and I were among 1,000 people who attended a conference in Minneapolis called “Why Christian?” The speakers were from different places geographically, denominationally, theologically, and emotionally, but all wrestled with the question “Why am I Christian?” and shared with us the fruits of their struggle. It was glorious to be among so many honest, wounded, faithful people who–often against their better judgment—claim no better or higher identity than belonging to Jesus Christ, whatever that means. Add to that the fact that a Roman Catholic pope, a spiritual descendant of one Martin Luther claimed was the Anti-Christ, is touring our country right now, speaking of God in a way that deeply moves me and many who would not consider themselves Catholic and maybe not even Christian.

Both events remind again that I am part of a great cloud of witnesses throughout time and space who rest in the grace and dignity of being God’s beloved. Right now millions of Christians we may never meet are sharing communion, just as we will do shortly, and right now, Jesus’ disciples are singing God’s praise in Russian, Swahili, Tagalog, Arabic, Spanish, and Chinese. Right now they are taking a piece of bread, or a wafer/tortilla/rice cake and hearing again that it is—and they are—the body of Christ. They sip grape juice, rich port, or Manischevitz, and taste the blood of Christ given for them. We are mysteriously, inexplicably one in our baptisms, whether they happened in a creek, a marble font, or a glass swimming tank. We became part of a worldwide web long before there was a worldwide web. It is awe-inspiring and life-giving. I love the church.

But it is also true that the church has caused enormous pain. I’m not just talking about the Crusades or the Inquisition, though surely them too. I’m thinking of all the people who have been wounded by pastors and parishioners, who heard that they could not come near God’s heart because of their sexuality or their politics, who were told to submit to abuse, who were told that slavery is Biblical, or any number of other cruel things that have been done in God’s name. 1 I am sure I’m not the only one embarrassed and horrified by what are often called “Christian values.” I often apologize for what people who call themselves Christians teach or do. On a personal level, I can truly say that no other group of people has caused me to doubt in God’s goodness more or inflicted more pain in my life than the church. Some days I simply cannot feel grateful for the diversity of the family of God. I want others to worship and pray and think as I do. I’m with George Bernard Shaw, who said, “It is much easier to love people in general than to love people in specific.”

Sometimes this feeling escalates into serious violence done in God’s name. Sometimes more harm than good comes out of being people with strong spiritual convictions. I want to say our intentions are good. I think most people of any faith—Christian or otherwise—believe that are doing their very best to abide by and teach God’s way as they know it. This is admirable. But the truth is, none of us can grasp the mystery of God. Does it help or hurt to know that God is bigger than anything we can imagine, since it results in conflict among faith communities that has been going on since thousands of years before Jesus was born?

We hear about it in today’s reading from Numbers. Moses has been leading God’s people out of slavery and marching everyone toward the Promised Land, but that mission is taking a lot longer than anyone expected. Everyone is tired and cranky. Moses has been trying to do everything himself and is completely exhausted. Wisely, he takes his problem to God, who suggests Moses set up a church council. Pick 70 elders to help you out, God advises. There is a special service for the 70 to be blessed and appropriately installed according to synod guidelines and bylaws and procedures (or their Hebrew equivalent.)

Meanwhile, as this official service is going on, two guys who were NOT with the 70 start preaching on the fringes of the community! The audacity! Neither Eldad nor Medad had been to seminary. They hadn’t been ordained or elected or in any way chosen to speak to the congregation about God’s dreams! They have no business telling others what they hear God saying! Similarly, in today’s reading from Mark, the disciples come across someone unknown to them, not part of their inner circle, doing miracles in Jesus’ name. They are outraged. Remember the argument they were having in last week’s Gospel lesson about which of them was the greatest? They suffered the indignity of Jesus telling them that none of them were, and suggesting that they get in touch with their humble and childlike selves. Now they are again confronted with competition for being Jesus’ favorite! How dare this person do wonders in Christ’s name!

These 12 expected to be the privileged ones, the ones who would be known for doing wonders! How dare this guy try to do it without knowing the secret handshake or the proper liturgical words! Jesus’ chosen ones were not comfortable expanding their circle to include people they had not selected or desired. It is easier to say, “Love your neighbor” than it is to actually do it, especially if your neighbor is stealing your thunder. It is so much easier to love people in general than it is to love people in specific.

In both the Old and New Testament readings today, the “true believers” are reminded that there may, in fact, be more than one road to the Truth. There may be sisters and brothers who are alongside them on the journey that they know nothing of, and wouldn’t have chosen if they HAD known. There are other believers who may not do it quite the same way, abide by the same rules, or travel by the same routes, who are, nevertheless, pointing toward the Kingdom of God.

Neither Jesus nor Moses seems troubled by unexpected voices coming from people they had not appointed were spreading the good news. Moses says, “Would that all of God’s people were prophets!” and Jesus adds, “Whoever is not against us is for us.” They simply rejoice that the good news was being spread! Can we join them? Can we pray with Moses, “Would that all of God’s people were prophets!” even if they are different from us?

I am not saying that we shouldn’t be Christians, or even Lutherans. I think our faith identity and way of understanding theology is a tremendous gift. However, our Bible readings today make it clear that we are to proceed with humility. We may not have discovered all that there is to know about communicating with or about God. Perhaps there are things we could learn from those who prophesy on the margins, whose names may not even be known to us. Perhaps there are blessings to receive from those we might not automatically choose to call sister 3 or brother.

Trinity might have to learn new ways of doing things, expanding our circle, allowing other voices to point us toward God. The Holy Spirit blows where She will and appoints whom She wishes, whether or not everyone approves or understands. Remember that Eldad and Medad didn’t walk the orthodox way, and they were still doing God’s work. The unnamed man in the Gospel wasn’t one of the twelve, but he grasped enough of Jesus’ message to apply it for the common good in his own way. Whether or not we like this idea, God’s message will be proclaimed with or without us. That is both exhilarating and scary.

So how are we to be God’s family, if we never know who has the truth or how it might be proclaimed? Acknowledging our shared humanity is a good start. James has some practical suggestions in his letter. He urges Christians to pray for one another, to confess our shortcomings to one another. He tells us to acknowledge our need for healing, and to seek out others who need a support and guidance. Bring it all into the presence of God, he says.

When we are vulnerable with one another, humble about our own limitations, and open to God working in unconventional ways through mysterious people, holiness creeps in. That is when the Church is at its best. It may always be a challenge to be the Church, to love one another in general and in specific, but God doesn’t stop calling us to acknowledge our shared humanity with the whole world, and our collective need for God’s grace. One of God’s gifts to us is that there is no corner of the earth where we could go that we would not find God there waiting for us, no place so desperate that we wouldn’t feel God’s gracious welcome extended by others, whether or not we understand. Sometimes love is as simple as offering one another a cold cup of water, and trusting God to do the rest. Amen.

~Pastor Susan Schneider

About Trinity Lutheran Church

A congregation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) located in Madison, Wisconsin.
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