An important question for us to tackle every now and then: why are you here?
People come to church, I’ve noticed over the years, for all kinds of reasons.
Some come to church to find meaning, some come for community, and some come for reasons they can’t put their fingers on. Speaking more of the general church population of the US than of present company, most come (I think) out of habit. One of the things that makes you special as a congregation is that I don’t get the sense that most of you come here out of obligation or habit. You like being here and you like each other. It’s weird. And awesome.
Many people come to church, too, for comfort, but if that’s you, I apologize that the first thing you saw when you looked at your bulletin this morning was the world on fire. You might think I’ve been reading the news too much, and that such an image is a little on the nose.
Though I’d tell you that if you don’t feel that way about the world these days, and maybe for all of our entire lifetimes, you don’t listen to the news enough.
The truth is that the world has kind of been on fire since before we were all born. Yes, even you.
The world has kind of been on fire since before Jesus was born. The stakes have always been high, and talking about the state of the world has never been comfortable. Talking about Jesus has never really been comfortable either, when you get right down to it, which makes it all the more surprising that folks come to church for comfort.
In case you haven’t thought about it today, let me remind you: God broke into human history in the form of a controversial rabbi in an occupied and historically contested and unstable land.
C. S. Lewis turned atheist at age 15, but later, he intentionally came back to the church.
Of our faith, Lewis wrote in a very English fashion: “I didn’t go to religion to make me happy, I always knew a bottle of port will do that. If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.”
Don’t get me wrong. My ability to hold myself together when I look at the state of the world is and always has been some at times vague belief that God’s got all of this, and that Christ holds all things together, and that someday even the worst and ugliest injustices that we’ve witnessed in all of human history shall somehow, somehow, be made right, that someday there’ll be a new heaven and a new earth, and that God’s home will be among mortals, and that every tear will be wiped away.
If you come to church for comfort, I’m not scolding you. In fact, I have a stated policy of never scolding other adults.
But, I mean: what thing that you love makes you happy all the time?
Football season is coming up soon. Need I say more.
Church is no different, and with quotes like this from Jesus, it’s no wonder that church isn’t more of a challenge than anything else that we love: “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided…”
Challenging? Yes. Comforting? No.
One term that I’ve learned in recent years is “spiritual bypassing,” which is when someone raises a valid disagreement and we don’t deal with it, but instead talk about how Jesus was always nice and wanted us all to get along.
I guess no one ever asked the money changers or religious leaders or even Jesus’ disciples about this, and listening to him today, I wonder where we get the whole thing from. Truth be told, it’s a little dishonest.
Further, what Jesus is saying here, quite frankly, reminds me of our national and our world today, namely: “…division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two…”
If that sounds like Thanksgiving dinner to you, then you’re like most Americans today.
We mourn and lament our divisions, and we swear that the world is on fire because we can’t seem to have real conversations anymore. But I want to posit this morning that we were never really good at having real conversations in the first place. Our current times of division are just revealing what was already there.
The truth is that we as a church and we as a nation have already been through division, and stress, and disagreements. We’ve all already done this before. The world has pretty much always been on fire.
One of my favorite things about you, Our Savior’s, is that you have been through conflict and decided it wasn’t the end of the world. If anything, it’s brought you closer to one another. That’s not to say that anything was easy — it has been painful as anything — but it hasn’t killed us yet. And that means something.
What we can do is to show our community that division isn’t the end of the world. We can have hard conversations about real things. But only if those conversations are rooted in the Gospel. Let me explain.
There’s a temptation to either bypass our sharp disagreements about real things or to drive out anyone who disagrees and then make social justice our Gospel. Neither works, church. Neither works.
Here is what does work, I think: I’ll explain it by way of camp.
This past week, you all lent me out for the second and last time this year to Camp Calumet, our synod’s outdoor ministry. I’m always grateful to go, because personally, I believe that it’s like a continuing education event, but better, and free: I learn new things, I refresh my soul (even as my body is exhausted), and I always, always leave a better pastor than I was when I arrived.
Here’s what happened this week at Camp Calumet that made me a better pastor for South Hadley: observing the final performance for Calumet’s music camp. Music camp happens every last week of camp, and it culminates in a concert at the end, which then leads into closing ceremonies for the summer, which of course include fire.
When I walked into the music camp concert, I was prepared to give a super brief talk at said campfire about how they can carry the experience forward. As the music camp performance went on, my talk changed and got much, much shorter.
Here’s what I saw: I saw little kids and college students and adults and everyone in between performing beautiful music together, which is what I expected. Here’s what I didn’t expect: otherwise shy kids stepping up to the microphone and BELTING at the top of their lungs, on key, beautifully, to raucous applause.
Those kids were brave. They were brave because they knew that everyone in that room loved them.
Was every kid the next Taylor Swift or Shawn Mendes? Goodness no, and thank goodness. We need those kids to become doctors and contractors and teachers maybe even a pastor or two. Not every performance was perfect, of course. Some of the kids had a bit of trouble staying on rhythm. The first time it happened, I started to shift uncomfortably in my seat when I heard a snapping sound rising from the next row in the audience. Then it grew louder until it filled the room. The congregation was tapping out the beat, helping get the kid back on track, in the most supportive way possible.
Sure, they could’ve not had a music concert at all, and no kid would’ve had to risk embarrassment. But what actually happened was so much richer.
It made me think of division and peace and spiritual bypassing. We may think we’re helping by stifling hard conversations. We may think we’re helping by hearing someone say something harmful and not saying anything back. We may think the alternative is to pretend like disagreements don’t exist and keep the peace that way. We could pretend that the rhythm of a song is a thing that can change and smile politely when someone gets it wrong. But that just makes everyone uncomfortable.
Jesus says, “You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?”
We know how to interpret the rhythms of the earth and sky and seasons. We should learn to keep the beat of truth, too. Everyone can’t be right all the time. Sometimes we have to clap together to keep each other on the beat. And sometimes that’ll be weird and hard and uncomfortable at first. No one ever said that church is always comfortable, especially when it feels like the world’s on fire. It’s not niceness or even peace that drives the church; it’s love.
Love speaks up when something isn’t right, in our church or in our world, and sometimes that’s incredibly hard and awkward at first.
Love keeps the beat.
But just like the beat, love is for everyone, not a select few who manage to get it right naturally.
So this is what I told the kids at the campfire and this is how I’ll end my time with you today: people come alive at Camp Calumet and in good churches like this one because they know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that everyone in that room loves them no matter what. Everyone is embraced for who God made them to be. Whether you’ve been there for thirty years or whether you just arrived today, you will be greeted with a warm welcome as if you’ve been a regular for years. When people say they feel the Holy Spirit in that place, the prevailing feeling they’re usually describing is love: they feel loved. They can be themselves, in all of their beautiful weirdness. They can be themselves; they don’t have to be perfect or right all the time. And that kind of love is infectious. It quickly moves beyond the boundary lines of the property and out into the world.
Because people who know they are loved are better, kinder humans. They’re themselves. They are funnier, they are happier, and they are braver. They don’t feel like they have to be perfect because they know they‘re much better off just feeling like themselves. It’s much easier to admit your flaws when you feel secure.
And this is the gist of the last thing I told them, and this is the gist of what I want you to know: you are loved, just as you are. You don’t always have to be right. You don’t have to be perfect. We’ll help you keep the beat.
You are loved. And people who know that they are loved can do anything.
This whole church thing won’t always be easy, and it won’t always feel good. We must always be willing to say to each other “You aren’t always right, but you are always loved.”
The world is on fire, which means we need you to be your bravest, most beloved self.
So may we promise this one thing: the stakes are high, and the world is on fire. Given that, church can’t always make us feel comfortable, but it can always make us feel loved. So it should be. Amen.