Show of hands: How many of you have ever thought about giving up on church? If you’re awake, if you know even a little of the history of the Christian church, if you’ve been hurt by church, thinking about giving up on it makes sense.
If you haven’t already thought about giving up on church, today’s passage might make you start thinking about it.
Do you think I have come to bring peace to Earth? Jesus asked his disciples. If I’d been there, I probably would have said, “Yes, Jesus! Yes, you have come to Earth to bring peace! The angels sang it when you were born! Peace on Earth, goodwill to all!” At which point, Jesus would have said, “And the survey said: Angch! Try again.”
Do you think that I have come to bring peace to Earth?, Jesus says. No, I tell you, but rather division! Then he lists all the family relationships that will be fractured because of him.
I don’t know. There’s enough division in the world already, don’t you think? If following Jesus is only going to create more divisions, why do it? If the church is just as fractured as the rest of the world, why participate?
I struggled with this text all my life…until I read one scholar’s take on it. She said the passage is descriptive, not prescriptive, which means Jesus isn’t prescribing what his followers should do, aka, create divisions. Rather, he’s describing what happens when people follow him.
If we follow Jesus, if we seek to create God’s kindom, it’s going to upset the societal and religious structures already in place. People who benefit from the current structures aren’t going to be happy with anything that threatens the status quo. If we follow Jesus, and try to create God’s kindom, there’s no way around it–divisions will be created.
I suspect most of us are here at UCT because we’ve experienced the divisions Jesus describes. Following Jesus by simply being who God created us to be? Following Jesus by supporting others in being who God created them to be? How many of us have experienced divisions in our churches, in our families because we followed Jesus in simply being ourselves or accepted others for being themselves?
Yesterday was my 4-month anniversary as your pastor. One of the joys of being your pastor is getting to know you better. Learning your stories is a true gift.
Today, I’d like to share with you a little of my story. Some of it you might have heard before; other parts might be new. I share these particular parts of my story because they describe why I have chosen to follow Jesus in the work of pastoring. You see, I too have seriously considered giving up on church. At least twice.
The first time I thought about giving up on church was my first year of grad school. Just a couple months after escaping the Baptist battles at my seminary, one sunny fall day I found myself standing under the chapel on the Emory University campus. Deeply wounded by my experiences of church to that point, I had become dangerously disillusioned.
As I stood there, I thought: “You don’t have to do this. You don’t have to stay in church. You don’t even have to remain Christian. You can leave. Do something else entirely. Why stay?” I stood there thinking for a long while.
Then, as he is wont to do, Jesus came to mind. I thought about all the things Jesus said, everything he did. I thought about how he spent time hanging out with the hurting people of the world, the outcasts, the oppressed, the abused. And I thought of how he helped those people to see and experience the deep, abiding, non-judgmental love of God.
That’s the moment, I decided that if a community tried to follow Jesus–they didn’t even have to succeed–If a community just tried to follow Jesus: it would change the world. Standing there under the chapel, I committed myself to leading a community that would try—just try—to follow Jesus. After four months with you all, I think I’ve found that community.
The second time I seriously considered giving up on church was a crisp November morning in 1999 at the Civic Center in Macon, Georgia. I was newly ordained and serving as Associate Minister at Virginia-Highland Baptist Church in Atlanta.
Virginia-Highland already had left the Southern Baptists. We were affiliated with the progressive Alliance of Baptists, but we still maintained our connection with the Georgia Baptist Convention. That connection was important to us.
Some months before the November meeting in Macon, the GBC noted its concern about Virginia-Highland and Oakhurst Baptist Church in Decatur welcoming people of all sexual orientations. To their credit, the Convention did offer some listening sessions. (My favorite line from one of those sessions was an older straight woman in our church who said, “If someone tells us they’re a woman, we treat them like a woman!” End of story.)
Sadly, the listening sessions didn’t change any minds. A vote to disfellowship Virginia-Highland and Oakhurst was planned for the GBC meeting in November.
As we entered the arena, I saw above us the sign for the Macon hockey team that played in the arena. Y’all, I’m not lying about this. This is the God’s honest truth. The name of the Macon hockey team is Macon Whoopee. Seeing that sign added to the absurdity of the day.
So there we were in the Macon Civic Center with 2,000 delegates of the Georgia Baptist Convention, listening to people speak to the issue of whether or not our two churches should be disfellowshipped.
The pastors of our two churches spoke, as did two supporters. The speakers who got the crowd riled, the ones who elicited whoops and hollers and applause and foot-stomping were the ones who called homosexuality an abomination. That’s the only time in my life I’ve had 2,000 people cheering against me and people I cared for. I was terrified. We all were.
That negative encounter with so-called Christians almost did it for me. If this is what Christianity is all about, I thought. Forget it. Just forget it.
But then I remembered the faces of our church members in Macon…the way they winced every time the word “abomination” spewed from another speaker’s mouth.
And I remembered another church member’s face, the person who, after hearing a sermon I’d preached on the good news that God’s love is for everyone–which seemed pretty everybody’s-heard-that to me…Even so, that person looked me in the eye and said: “Thank you.” When I remembered that man’s “thank you”…when I saw how devastated my friends were that morning in Macon, that’s when I knew that–despite its flaws–I couldn’t leave the church.
Because, yes. The church is deeply flawed. There are too many parts of the body of Christ who beat up on the fragile, the vulnerable, and the different. Christendom today is, indeed, both divided and divisive.
Despite its flaws, though, I still believe that the church is the best means we have of sharing the Good news that God’s love is for everyone. All of us can cite examples, personal experiences with churches that have gone bad–or worse yet, churches that have gone boring–but what might happen if church went right? What might happen if we took the Gospel message seriously, this good news that God’s love REALLY is for everyone, the good news that God really does hope for everyone’s wholeness? What might happen if we tried to live that message in even more radical ways?
Oh, man! Can you imagine if the church were “clicking on all cylinders?” What might happen to this world if the entire body of Christ lived the good news of God’s love for every person? What might happen to this church and to the community around us if we got even more intentional about sharing the good news of God’s love? Just think what we could do! Think of all the people whose lives would change– people whose lives–and I don’t think this is overstating it–people whose lives would be saved–because they experienced God’s love in this place, among these people.
Don’t you know that that’s why we’re here? We’re here to live God’s love and share it with others so that their lives can change…
so that the spiritually hungry might be fed
so that the wounded might be healed,
so that the grieving might find comfort
so that the lonely might find friendship,
so that the weary might find rest
so that the outcast might find acceptance,
so that we all might experience God’s love
and in that love discover our own worth,
our own dignity,
our own preciousness in God’s sight.
What we’re doing here is holy work! As so many of us already have learned, engaging in God’s holy work can create divisions between us and others. But, as your presence here today proclaims, we can’t let the threat of divisions stop us. The work we are doing is too important. The world needs us too much to let up now. So let us continue, let us continue, let us continue to follow Jesus. Or at least to try.
In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness. Amen.