I Love The Church
“Christ loved the church,” the great apostle wrote to us long ago. Christ loved the church and gave himself for the Church. Christ loved the Church and set a pattern for us today. And I want to speak on this topic today and do so in a confessional way.
Yes, God so loved the world, red and yellow, black and white; and Jew and Christian and Muslim; and rich and poor, Democrat and Republican, educated and not. God loves everyone the same. This is the great teaching of all religions, especially our own. When I assert with Paul the Apostle that Christ loved the Church, I do not mean to imply that Jesus Christ our Lord loved ONLY the Church. One of the wonderful features of our gospel narratives is the compassion, the empathy, the affection, and the love Jesus had for all people.
Do you remember this episode in the Jesus story? Mark tells it in his gospel in what we call chapter 10. “As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before Jesus and said, ‘Good teacher, what must I do to have eternal life?’ To which Jesus replied, ‘Why do you call me good. Only God is good.’ Then the man declared, ‘Teacher, all of the commandments I have kept since I was a boy.’ Jesus looked at him and loved him.”
Isn’t that a terrific statement?
Jesus looked at him and loved him.
There is no indication that this man ever became a disciple of Jesus, was ever baptized, was ever a part of what Paul called the church. Nevertheless, Jesus looked at him and loved him.
It was not just that man, was it? It was every person, don’t you think? Jesus loved the rabbis in the temple with whom he disputed. Jesus loved the fishermen of Galilee whom he called to follow him. Jesus loved the crazy man who lived among the tombs. Jesus loved the woman who reached out and touched the hem of his garment. Jesus loved Zacchaeus and said to him, “Come down out of that tree, I want to go to your house today.”
Jesus loved the woman who broke the alabaster jar of ointment and anointed his feet. Jesus loved the disciple who betrayed him for 30 pieces of silver. Jesus loved Pilate who found no fault in Jesus and would not condemn him. Jesus loved both the thieves who hung on the crosses beside him. Jesus loved the women who came to the tomb early in the morning before it was yet light.
Jesus loves you and me, in all our frailties and failures, in all our intelligence and ignorance, in all our willingness and in all our stubbornness. Today, Jesus loves you and me and calls us to love God, to love one another, and to love the Church.
Today, I want to talk about what it means to love the Church.
This is the Church.
Right here, at 1201Oakland Street in Hendersonville, North Carolina. This is the Church Christ loved, and this is the Church I love.
I didn’t used to love it, I confess. My first date with the church was almost three years ago. There was no pastor, no permanent pastor, that is; only an interim. The last permanent pastor left here in a cloud of unlove, as best I can tell. And that left a sad spirit in the Church, so sad that some people took their Bible and walked, determined to find a Church with fewer irritating people and more perfect people. I think they are still looking.
The Sunday morning worship services in those days were all online, on Zoom. How many of you remember that? Not many. There were not many on those Zoom gatherings, and it was an awkward way to worship and fellowship. Then the interim pastor got irritated at somebody or something—I don’t know any more details—and he quit, abruptly. So, Gail called me and asked me to preach. I became the Sunday Preacher.
I was wary of getting too deep into this Church. I did not want to be the Interim Pastor, let alone the Pastor. Sunday Preacher was a fine title for me, and I did that for seven months. We went steady, we might say, for seven months. Some of you are going steady with this Church now, aren’t you? Week by week you sign up for another date, but you are not sure that this relationship is going to last, right?
It is easy to get cross ways with a Church. Because the Church is full of people just like you, with their own ideas and personalities, with their own irritating preferences and agitating voices. The Church is full of people who have ideas about how things are to be done and what things are to be sung or taught and promoted. That is the problem with Church, isn’t it? If only everybody would like what I like and say what I say and, well, agree with me! Then, Church would be great, right?
Like these pews. They are all messed up, aren’t they? Somebody came in here with a Phillips head screwdriver, a hand full of 2x4s, and a crazy idea. Instead of looking like a proper sanctuary, with everybody facing the front and being quiet while the pastor preached his sermon, here we are looking at each other, and people looking at us. Instead of looking at the back of people’s heads, we are looking at people straight in the eye. How is that a way to have church?
You can tell us what you think of this experiment if you please. In fact, we are distributing sheets today and we have posted the same form online, connected to the website and also to the newsletter. Tell us what you think about this rearranged sanctuary—does it help or hurt, will it work or not, it is a change full of possibilities or a disaster? And tell us what you think needs to be done on this church campus: repairs and improvements, art and inspiration, color and change and anything else that comes to mind. We are going to do some stuff around here, to make this a safer place, a most hospitable and accessible place, and a place more inviting to you and me and people whose names we do not yet know.
But you know the pews and the paint are not the Church. You may love the paint and you may love your pew, however it is facing, but the paint and the pews are not the Church. You are the Church, you and the person sitting next to you and across from you and behind you. We together are the Church, people whom God loves and for whom Jesus died, and in whom the spirit of the Living God dwells. We are the Church.
You know that, don’t you?
There are four concentric circles of this Church that we love. First, there are those who frequent this sanctuary, people like you. We come and shake hands and sing and pray and sit and listen and give and take and shake hands again as we leave. There are about 30 of us in this part of the Church. This is an important part of the Church we love, but it is not all of us.
Second, there is the congregation that gathers in the Providence House each week to cook and serve the meals, distribute the food and drink, and clean it all up; and most of that congregation are those who come to eat, and drink, and talk, and pick up a sweater or socks and a packet for personal hygiene. Those who eat, like those who serve, are part of our Church.. On most Lord’s Day, there are more Church people in the Providence House than in this sanctuary.
Third, there is our broadcast congregation. Every week, we welcome you to our fellowship, to our worship, to our mission to be the people of God. Some of you are former members, now scattered around, like Jim and Anne Green, now in Savannah. Some of you on the broadcast today as current Providence people on the road somewhere, like Hunter in Japan, and Lisa in Raleigh, and Phil and Glenda in Florida. Some of you are long time friends of mine now tuning in every week, like Jean in Lexington, and Betty in Florida, and Marshall in New Hampshire. And some of you are homebound people, like Frances Albertson, now 102 years old. We have scheduled an in-home Christmas sing-a-long for December 19th at 11 o’clock and we will take our traveling choir to her home and do Christmas right.
Finally, there is our newsletter congregation. Do you know half of the people who open and read our newsletter never or rarely enter the sanctuary? Yes, indeed, and we hear from them now and then. They, also, are part of our congregation. They read what we write and follow what we do and pray for what we plan.
This is our Church. Christ loves this Church. Christ died for this Church. We have this Church. Do you love this Church?
Christ loves the Church in spite of its faults and failures, and they are many. Sometimes, we think of the Church as God’s agent in the world, God’s way of bringing love, and kindness, and joy to the world; and often that is right. But just as often, we are in the way of what God wants for the world. We in the Church are a barrier, a roadblock, a handicap. We are so tied to our own ways we cannot be God’s agent in the world. We are so prejudiced we cannot see what God sees and love what God loves.
This happens too often.
In happened in my Church once. I was not the pastor but a member. I attended, and supported the pastor, and gave my tithes and offerings. And then I quit. I walked away. In fact, I wrote an article titled “I’m Taking a Walk.” That is the title of a song by John Prine, you know. I used it to express my disgust at the way the Church was trying to run off the preacher. He took a public stand following the murder of Ahmaud Arbery. That happened in our county in Georgia. Three white men cornered and killed a black man. My pastor called me and said, “The ministers of the county are meeting at the courthouse. Want to go?” I said yes and went. A picture of our group, including him and me, was broadcast around the world. It displeased some in the Church. Too political they said. Then he preached a sermon that irritated them even more. They met with him and said, “We will give you three months to leave.”
It was an opportunity for stand for justice, to combat racism, to be together black and white. But the church caved. The pastor left and landed in a better place. But I walked away. And I have wondered: did I love the Church enough? Or did I cut my losses and run?
It is not easy to stay with the one you love. There are many reasons and justifications for leaving, for cutting ties and taking off, for washing hands and moving on. And sometimes it is the right thing to do, sometimes it is the only thing to do.
But God never gives up on us: as individuals, as the Church. God sent Jesus to launch the Church, to die for the Church, to love the Church. Today, as never before, the world needs the Church. It is not just you and me that need the Church: the world around us needs the Church. The people of the world need the ministry and generosity of the Church. The people of the world need the joy and hope of the Church. The people of the world need the kindness and welcome of the Church. The people of the world need the safety of the Church, a place where we can practice listening and learning, fairness and friendship, hospitality and healing. These are gifts from God to the world, and we, the Church, are just the people to make it happen.
I love the Church. I love this Church. After seven months of Sunday Preacher, I became the Interim Pastor. After 12 months of that dating arrangement, I decided to get married. Ten months ago, I became the pastor. I love this Church. I am glad to be your pastor. I am glad to be a member of the Church. I invite you to do the same.