What Is Church For?
For the last eight weeks we’ve been exploring some of what the Bible says about money. It turns out Jesus and Paul both had a lot to say about money, wealth, and poverty, and about our lifestyles, about generosity, hoarding and sharing. Hopefully it’s clear by now that their teachings aren’t just about money – it’s about our whole lives. How we live our lives as Christians.
Here are some things Jesus had to say:
And Paul gave these instructions for Christians in the early church:
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Jesus and Paul had a lot to say about money and generosity. Most of what they had to say had nothing to do with giving money to the church or synagogue. Most of it had to do with how to live one’s life; about what matters most, and what can get in the way, and how easily we can get sucked in to what the world around us declares valuable. We’ve spent the last few weeks thinking about all those things.
But today on Pledge Sunday we specifically focus on the church, and how we use our money to support its ministries. How much money will we give to support God’s work in the world through this place? How do we decide? There are a lot of factors, of course, having to do with our resources and personal financial situation, about other demands we face and priorities we choose.
But one of the most important factors is what we believe about church. Your giving probably depends a lot on what “church” means to you. I mean, what do you believe it’s here for? What’s it for? What’s it do? I mean, specifically: how does this church change your life, or the lives of others? In this complicated, confusing world of ours, what does church mean in your life?
There are as many answers to those questions as there are people in the pews. I’m lucky because I get to hear some of those answers; I get to hear what this church means to you.
One of my favorite answers comes from Amelia Anderson, in an essay she wrote for a college application. After describing a lock-in at the church, she tells of “reveling in the happiness… with friends in a place that we felt completely at ease.” She goes on,
Running around the church at midnight with my youth group is not something that I experience every week, yet there is always that sense of bliss and wellbeing. Whether being honored by the opportunity to give the sermon, discussing thoughts on scripture, laughing with friends at choir practice, or crying in my youth director’s office… I am surrounded by a congregation that knows and loves me.
I have only to think of the delightful woman who directed me in the children’s choir many years ago hugging me every time she sees me, or the friendly man who pays attention to all my soccer games and congratulates me for a win that previous week, or the elderly man who sits two pews from the back on the left side of the Sanctuary and… tells me to smile every Sunday morning, to know that the proud sandstone building that houses our church is a home, and that the community that meets there is a microcosm of what the world should be when it’s good. None of us is perfect, but what is wonderful about my church is that, in it, we are all striving toward being our best.
What does this Church mean to you?
We talk about this at Session from time to time, and I’m always moved by the answers I hear.
* A lot of it has to do with the feeling of being cared for. This is a warm, place, a church family, they say. People are genuinely interested in you as a human being. You’re welcomed as you are.
* It’s a place of learning self-acceptance, and about your call. You don’t have to be good at everything, but the gifts you have can be used in service.
* And it’s a place where you can have questions, and ask them openly; where you’ll be challenged to grow in your faith. It’s thoughtful, and discerning, but not divisive.
* It’s a place where we can have our differences. No matter whether you rooted for the Cubs or the Indians, you are part of the family. No matter who you voted for, this is your home. And with all our differences we will keep trying to understand each other, to respect each other, and most of all to love each other, knowing full well that God is not done with us yet.
* It’s a safe place, people tell me. It’s safe to be who you are here.
I’ve thought about this a lot this last week. It’s been emotional for a lot of people, intensely so for some. As pastors we heard primarily from people who are struggling – that’s what pastors do, we go where there is pain. I’ve especially heard from people who are scared. It’s more than a vague fear about the future, it’s that they don’t feel safe. Some are worried about being targets of hatred. Some are concerned about how they’ll be treated. Some wonder where they will be welcomed or shunned. They’re not sure what the future holds, and they are scared.
And as I listened to people, I found myself remembering something that happened years ago, more than twenty years ago…
It was March of 1994. I was serving as associate pastor at Central Presbyterian Church in Des Moines, and acting head-of-staff while we were between pastors. I’ll never forget the day when word came that the synagogue down the street had been defaced. Someone had painted swastikas on Temple B’Nai Jeshurun. They were our neighbors and friends.
Religious leaders in Des Moines quickly organized a prayer service to be held in our church. Hundreds of people of all faiths came; religious leaders read from their scriptures, and we prayed and sang together, “expressing anguish and outrage.” Then we marched in silence from our church to the Temple. The synagogue members welcomed us with tears and open arms, and a spread of hospitality you would not believe.
We were being church. We needed our brothers and sisters to know they were safe. They needed to know we had their backs. And we did.
I learned a lot from that experience. But I learned even more about what it means to be people of faith from the synagogue, and their Rabbi, Steven Fink. The police were all over this case, and caught the criminals: an 18-year-old male skinhead and his 17-year-old girlfriend. But instead of throwing the book at them, the prosecutors came to the synagogue with a question: “Would the congregants be willing to meet with the perpetrators to describe the impact of the damage they had wrought,” and help determine a proper penalty?
The immediate answer was no: this was just too painful and frightening. Some thought it would downplay how serious this was and “result in a… slap on the wrist.” But others saw the potential for healing, and eventually they said yes.
Here’s how a rabbi describes it:
The two delinquents faced the rabbi, three temple leaders, an Israeli military officer and two Holocaust survivors who had been so traumatized by the desecration that they had gone into hiding. Tears, fears and anger filled the room. The suffering the vandals had inflicted was palpable—the survivors recounted old memories of childhood nights in the camps, revealing the fortitude it took to make a new life and raise a family, amidst scars and nightmares.
The perpetrators were haunted by their past, too. The 18-year-old boy, who looked twelve, had been taunted throughout childhood about a hearing impairment and speech deficit. He’d been physically and emotionally abused until he ran away from home, and found refuge and strength with the Aryan Nation and its ideology of hate. The attack on the synagogue, an attempt to prove his masculinity and loyalty, was his first “public action.” His aimless, insecure girlfriend had gone along for “something to do,” hoping to please him.
As they told their stories… the rift between people from distinctly different backgrounds ever so slightly started to narrow. Some congregants, arms crossed, remained ready to “throw the book” at the vandals. But some saw them as lost, abused and frightened children, who would surely become hardcore neo-Nazis in jail. One of the Holocaust survivors asked the young man what he wanted from the temple members. He asked for forgiveness.
The congregation created a plan for restitution. The two young adults would perform 100 hours of service at the synagogue, and spend 100 hours with Rabbi Fink to learn about Judaism. They would finish their GEDs and get their High School diplomas. They would “get job training and psychological assessments. The young man would remove the Nazi tattoos on his arms. The congregation helped him find a hearing specialist.” If they finished these requirements in “six months, Rabbi Fink would recommend that the felony charges be dropped.”
The couple worked hard to build trust and fulfill their promises. They gained confidence from physical work with the synagogue custodian and study with the rabbi. They repudiated their former views as they came to know the congregants. They passed their high school equivalency exams and found work. They invited the rabbi and custodian to their wedding. Reflecting their own journey toward wholeness, the congregation carefully selected a wedding gift for the couple.
Years later, when Rabbi Fink spoke to police and restorative justice practitioners about coming to know these two young people, he could barely hold back his tears. i
They are my model for what it means to be the people of God.
What does it mean to be church? I go back to what Amelia wrote in her essay for college:
The church has welcomed me and enfolded me into its heart…. Church has taught me to question, but with deep thought; to lead, but with humility and awareness; and to sing, not only when I’m happy, but also when singing is what leads to my happiness.
It’s not about having a great music program, though we do. It’s about what the music does to our souls, how it brings us to God’s presence, and how the Spirit restores us.
It’s not about having great children’s ministry, though we do. It’s about helping our children become followers of Jesus, to live with compassion and courage and wisdom.
It’s not even about being a welcoming congregation, though we are, and must be. It’s about becoming the body of Christ. A place where the broken are made whole. A place where those who are alone, find belonging. A place where justice and mercy come together.
A place to find life that really is life.
May it be so.
Rev. Karen Chakoian
i Rabbi Patricia Karlin-Neumann, sermon preached at Stanford University Memorial Church, October 13, 2013/9 Cheshvan 5774. http://web.stanford.edu/group/religiouslife/cgi-bin/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2010/04/20131013_University-Public-Worship_sermon.pdf