July 14 2019
Some years ago I was playing golf with a friend, a lapsed Catholic who didn’t even attend at Easter and Christmas. “Why don’t you go to church, Bill?” I asked.
He pointed out to the 15th hole, stretching out before us on a crystal clear July afternoon, and said, “This is my church.”
The New Testament and the framers of the Apostle’s Creed would balk at that nonsense. You don’t get your Christianity on a golf course, although I think it’s possible to lose your Christianity on a golf course. It reminds me of the pastor who was playing with a couple of his parishioners, and he missed a two foot putt, and said, “Would some lay person here say something appropriate for this occasion.”
To be a Christian is to be in the church, to be part of some Christian community. The first thing people did in the New Testament after they found saving faith in Christ was to be baptized and become part of a Christian fellowship.
Do you remember Dwight L. Moody’s illustration about the importance of being a vital part of the church? Moody and another man were standing in front of a fire warming themselves. The man said to Moody that he thought that it was possible to live a Christian life and practice Christian values without being a church member. Moody reached into the fire, pulled a single burning coal from the mass, and pushed it off to the side of the fire place. While the other coals blazed, the solitary coal cooled and died.
So when we confess that we believe in the Holy, Catholic Church we are saying that we must be part of our church, that the matter of whether we are hot or cold for Christ rests upon being involved in church.
I would like to expand on this thought with three points:
1. The local church is the place where our brokenness can become transformed into wholeness.
2. The church is the place where broken people mend one another.
3. The church is the place where we minister to a broken world.
I. The local church is a place where our crookedness is made straight and our rough places a plain. It is God’s workshop where God sands down our rough edges.
Carlyle Marney, who graced the pulpit of the Myers Park Baptist Church in Charlotte, NC, during my college years once passed on this unforgettable line, “In the army of the Lord, all are wounded.” I think that’s undeniable. All of us carry some sort of burden, are inflicted with a wound that is either still oozing or in the process of
A friend of mine had to resign from an organization where he was the CEO. He’s a capable, energetic man who has had 28 years of uninterrupted success. But he transferred to Oregon and ran into an tough economy. He resigned before the board of directors asked him to leave. He took four months off. He went through career assessment. Now he’s working again, helping companies with outplacement with employees who must be terminated.
Over a cup of coffee he said to me, “The last month before my resignation was hell on earth. I don’t think anyone but my wife knew how badly I was hurting. I put on a big, smiling front. And now that I’m meeting people like me–in their middle years–and doing career assessment, I realize that four out of five are hurting just as I was hurting. They worry about job security. Or, if they have a job, they hate it and wonder if they can ever find satisfying, challenging work. They worry about their identity. They worry about their sexuality. As they are getting older they suddenly realize that the train they are on is losing speed, and they are already two or three stations behind schedule.
And so we come here each week with fears which gnaw underneath a confident facade. We come here each week with hopes that will never be realized. We come here to get strength just to get through the next seven days. We come here because we do want to meet the healing, restoring, victorious Christ, the Christ who is the ally of all that leads to our wholeness and the adversary of all that shatters us.
The piano teacher, someone quipped, came once a week to close the awful gap between little Elizabeth and Chopin. Isn’t that why we come to church, why we need the church, to close the gap between what we are and what Christ wants to make us.
II. Moving on to another aspect of the church, the church is the place where wounded people mend one another. A joy shared is a joy doubled; a grief shared is a grief halved.
Most of us know the first verse of the hymn, “Blest be the Tie that Binds.” The third verse is less familiar:
We bear each other’s woes
Our mutual burdens bear
And often for each other flows
The sympathizing tear
In 1971 I moved to Philadelphia and became pastor of a church just north of the city limits. Our Clerk of Session there was a man by the name of Al Maul. He was a man old enough to be my father. We were polar opposites. When he would say stop, I would say go; when he would say yes, I would say no. I was young, impetuous, and aggressive. Al was older, careful, and conservative. I was determined to come in and shape and shake that church up. I’m sure Al Maul, who had seen a succession of young ministers come and go over the years must have said to himself, “This, too, shall pass.”
Yet, in all of this I respected Al Maul, for he was a good man, and he loved the church and loved our Lord.
In January, 1975, my father had a massive coronary and died before he could get help. He was 53 years old, and up until the last day of his life, had been in good health. On the Sunday I returned to Philadelphia after the funeral service, I stood in line shaking hands with the people. When Al Maul came through he gripped my hand with both of his hands. He looked at me. There were tears streaming down his cheeks. He said nothing. He didn’t have to.
And over the months that followed, the care and the concern of those people at the Melrose Carmel Presbyterian Church helped thin out my sorrow, and helped me recover from grief. Now the Melrose Carmel Presbyterian Church will never be counted as a great congregation in our denomination. It is too small in membership and budget, and too isolated in location. But it will always be great to me, and I think it will always be great in God’s eyes because that is a church that knows that it needs to minister to its minister, that it is a church where caring is more than a word.
The local church is where we learn how to become available to one another, and to bind up each other’s wounds.
III. Third and finally, the local church is the place where we gather to heal the wounds of the world. Our caring doesn’t stop with one another. Our caring extends to those families at our border who want desperately, legally or illegally, to get into this country.
On our river cruise several weeks ago we visited Mauthausen Concentration Camp, 12 miles east of Linz Austria. Mauthausen when it was built in 1938 was a work camp. There was a quarry nearby and prisoners from many different countries were forceably taken from their home to work the quarry. Over the next seven years the population grew and by the spring of 1945 125,000 to 300,000 died at Mauthausen and surrouding camps. Some died of disease, some died because they were shot by the Nazi guards for not doing their duty. Most were gassed. We walked through the gas chambers, and viewed the crematorium.
It was unspeakably hard to visit Mauthausen and hear from our guide how human beings can treat one another. In our group no one spoke for over an hour. We had a recent high school graduate with us. She fell into Barbara’s arms, weeping.
Mauthausen came to mind this week when I learned that the Trump Administration today will begin arresting at least 2,000 immigrant families eligible for deportation. They will be taken from their homes and placed in detention centers. Will children once again be separated from their parents? I don’t know.
What I do know is that this is not right. What I do know is that we should care, each of us, care. What I do know is that we should inform ourselves on immigration issues, that we should write our elected representatives with our concerns. As Jesus said, “When you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you did it unto me.”
I recognize that as a church we can’t save the whole world. I have a friend who sold his business and he and his wife traveled to Guatamala to work full-time helping Indian people in the mountains of Guatamala become literate. He said to me, “All we can do in this life is to grab hold of the near edge of a great problem We are not many in this little church. We are not mighty. But what we can do we should do, and what we aim for, we can begin