Wednesday, October 14, 2009

What is a church, O God, that you are mindful of it?

Lots to think about this morning. We had a vestry meeting last night at which we began to talk about, pray about and deal with some remarkable and challenging aspects of what it means to be "church" here in Matawan...and now as I sit here with the morning light shining in through my office window, I realize that some of the bigger questions that have yet to be asked or answered by the faithful of this (and I see now, every) generation center around the question of just what Church will be for us. We have received this experience from our parents, physical and spiritual. We are charged as stewards of the Church in our day, and when the time comes we are to hand it off to the rising generations. That is the Church through time, and if I were to linger there for a while, it creates a wonderful, comforting and romantic image of a way of life descending from one generation to another, a great progcession of something that is bigger than all of us. Really, one could almost say that the Church is the human way of walking with God through eternity while we are still yet in this mortal coil. Lovely.

And perhaps TOO romantic. Church isn't just the people of God handing traditions and practices down through the ages. It is also a human construct in response to God loving us, and in our frank, imperfect, flawed way of being we too often get hung up, caught and tangled up with things that simply are not of God, and yet come along for the ride as we struggle to be Church in the here and now.

So, what binds us? What frees us? What makes us "Church" and what undoes that fellowship? I could make a long list of the good and the bad, but at the root of it all, I am beginning to see, is a confusion...a substitution, if you will, of that which we intend/understand versus what God would have us see and do.

First and foremost: Let me ask you a question. If I say "Church," what do you see in your mind's eye? A great stone building with a steeple/tower? Do you hear the carillon chiming? Perhaps, in this autumnal season, you see a white clapboard church nestled on a New England hillside? I guess it all depends on what sort of place you grew up attending, or the place you discover as an adult, that feels and looks most like church to you.

Still, we are taking about a building. That's what got me thinking. Church, the word, is a noun that describes the gathering of people for a purpose. The greek word, ekklesia,is literally "assembly." Like that old nursery rhyme where we use hand motions to depict the image...."Here is the church, here is the steeple, open the doors....here are all the people!" Church is people gathered in the name of Christ. That can be anywhere...and it should be anywhere. It can, and does, happen in basilicas and cathedrals, in little country chapels and old colonial halls. It can happen in a restaurants back banquet hall, or in the local Elks lodge. It can happen in a theater or in a parking lot. One of the most beautifully "constructed" churches I have ever attended in my life was in Guatemala. They had two walls and a small house on the property they used for a worship and gathering place. For shelter, they stretched a tarp over the place where they had an altar. As an offering of hospitality for our group's visit, they had-by hand-laid down gravel and pine boughs for a new floor to the lot. What made it church? Loving, giving, welcoming people gathered in the name of Christ.

Buildings aren't bad, but the moment we make them more important-or the narratives of the past they can too often bind us to in the present-then they become something that binds us to them...and we lose the strength to be attentive first and foremost to God active in our community. I have seen parish after parish bind themselves to buildings, to stories, to memories that instead of linking them actively to service and ministry in God, instead takes them out of that fellowship. There have bee property chairs who avoid attending services because they know someone will come up to them, even if they are praying, to complain about a leaking faucet, a blown fuse or a dripping toilet. I have seen priests wander through the halls of the parish they serve muttering, "Buildings, buildings, I hate the buildings" because they spend more time worrying about the oil and electric services than they have time for leading people in ministries to serve the poor, the sick and the needy.

Beauty aside...has a stained glass window or a stone arch ever saved a human soul? They may offer a portal to reflection and meditation...but it is God who saves. That God is active and present in the midst of the people...and I ams sure wants us to fill those empty halls with song, prayers of praise and active service to each other and the world.

But it is not about bricks and boards. When it becomes that...then it is time to reassess our priorities and focus on the true foundation line of what it means to be church. It is the willingness to see the Church as people gathered in spirit and in service, finding union in a Baptismal Covenant that builds us up into a communion that transcends time and space.

One metaphor for talkin about getting back into being a church of people instead of buildings for me rises from a conversation I had recently about what we do with the world God has given us-and that we have seceded from as we submerge ourselves in our modern, consumer-centered culture:

Look down at your feet. Are you wearing a pair of socks? Where did they come from? Most likely, they are store-bought. Perhaps in a pack of six or twelve? Most of us live that life. But, there are some who take the effort to knit them from scratch. I have a friend who taught me how to do just that. They are not easy to make. You knit them in the round, engage in some tricky decreasing stitches to make the gusset, work magic as you turn the heel and then form the instep and finally close the toe. Or, you can knit them us from the toe instead. That is just a basic sock. I still have to learn patterns, cables, what-have-you. Learn that, and congratulations. You have made a sock. Now make one more, identical to the first.

Believe me, I have learned to respect the sock. I have also learned what a gift it is to have the resources and teachers around me so that I can learn how to take on this previously under-appreciated aspect of my life. It makes sense to me now to take the effort to darn a hole in a sock...before I just threw them out. They were disposable.

Now, however, I see that simple sock as a sign of community. I can live by simply taking, or I can resolve to commit myself first and foremost to be a co-creating steward of the remarkable world we live in. Too much of my life is something I just assume will be there when I wake up in the morning. I expect to see clean water coming from the tap. I expect electricity to illumine my house with light. In the summer, I enjoy the "right" to cool air from the a/c and in winter hot air from the furnace. But, all of these expectations ride on others doing their work of creative and communal stewardship first...and yet I don't note their gift on my behalf too often by half!

Really being Church means committing to a life of grace and faith in community. Archbishop Desmond Tutu defines that for us in the West by using a word from his birth-tonuge, ubuntu. It means, broadly translated, that I am because we are. Church is because we are willing to show up, express common faith in God and then resolve to act in Christ. Now. Here, and everywhere we might gather. By God's grace, I pray that vision of Church will stand up to the trials we face...as our buildings inevitably crumble and as our memories of halcyon days fade.....

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