When my wife, Hayden, asked me a few days ago what I would be preaching on this morning, I told her my sermon title was "Is it Safe to Go to Church?" She responded, with typical encouragement, in words to the effect, "Sounds familiar" or "Haven't you preached on that before?"
Actually, it was 7 ½ years ago that I preached on "The Dangers of Going to Church." That sermon was a bit tongue-in-cheek. I began by pointing out the rate of fatal accidents that occur in various places--at home, in the workplace, and so on-- noting that only .001% of all fatal accidents occur in church. Church would seem like a very safe place to be! As a matter of fact, very few people die in church. On the other hand, while I have seen many people shortly before or after death, the only death I can recall actually witnessing first-hand took place in church. In any case, my sermon this morning is not meant to be tongue-in-cheek. I really want you to think with me about just how safe the church is as a place to be.
Last summer at the General Assembly meetings in Syracuse, Linda Loving, Pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Oakland, CA, preached a sermon entitled "Bird's Nest or Hornet's Nest?" In her sermon Loving told the following story:
A few weeks ago, we found a fledgling soul in our church nursery. It was a sweet-faced baby girl, who had been abruptly dropped off in the middle of worship. The mother had dashed out before any questions could be asked. Long after everyone else had gone home, the mother still had not returned. Finally and reluctantly, we called the police, believing the child to be abandoned. But the mother and the police arrived within seconds of each other, and we experienced a mix of relief, awkwardness and a measure of judgment.
"Your child is just too precious to be left somewhere without information," I scolded the mother. "She needs you to be responsible." Breathlessly and earnestly, she pleaded, "I had to go to a job interview. I just had to. I tried to think of the safest place I could leave her."
Just this month I heard that a new-born infant was left on the outside steps of the St. John Presbyterian Church in New Albany, Indiana. So far as I know, the mother has not re-appeared. She must have felt she could not take care of her baby. She must have thought that the people of the church would be sure to find her child a safe home.
These two incidents remind us of what we would like to think about the church: It is a safe place. It is a place that cares. It is a place into whose hands you can entrust your most precious loved ones. Lots of people want their children to go to church, whether or not they feel the need to go themselves. Presumably, however, church is also a place into whose hands you can entrust yourself, body, mind, and spirit. The ideal that many of us have about the church says that it is a place where you can risk being yourself. It is a place where you can afford to be vulnerable. It is a place where, like home, if you need to go there, they have to take you in. And they will take you in. And they will take good care of you. Because they are obliged to love you.
But there is a problem here. The people of the church do not always live up to the ideal. In fact, they regularly fail. Linda Loving titled her sermon "Bird's Nest or Hornet's Nest" because, as she pointed out, the church sometimes turns out to be a not-so-hospitable place, a place where you can get stung. There is no guarantee that automatically goes along with being a place called church. The life of the church continually needs to be looked after, nurtured, corrected, challenged, reformed, and renewed.
In this morning's Old Testament text from II Chronicles an otherwise unknown prophet named Azariah declares to God's people of Judah and Benjamin, and their king, Asa, that Yahweh, God, the LORD, is with them, so long as they are with Yahweh. But when they go without the true God, as they have in times past, then they get themselves in trouble. "In those times," says Azariah, "it was not safe for anyone to go out or come, for great disturbances afflicted all the inhabitants of the lands" [15:5]. Azariah apparently has in mind a particular period of great social and political turmoil and upheaval in the life of this people and their neighbors. His message, though, would seem to be a timeless one. Being part of God's people is not a safe bet unless God's people are being true to God!
The prophet Jeremiah, much better known to us, had an even more critical and challenging message to proclaim to the people of Judah. In his judgment, God's people were clearly set upon a wrong path. "Amend your ways and your doings," says Jeremiah on behalf of God, "and let me dwell with you in this place. Do not trust in these deceptive words: 'This is the temple of Yahweh (the LORD), the temple of Yahweh (the LORD), the temple of Yahweh (the LORD)'" [7:3-4].
To update Jeremiah, we must at least hear his words as a warning to the Church. We must not say to ourselves, "This is a church! a church! a church! Bad things cannot happen here! We are safe! God will protect us and preserve us and keep us from all evil." In Jeremiah's view there is no automatic safety in declaring ourselves to be people of God, or inhabitants of God's house. It all depends on "our ways and our doings". If we truly act justly with one another, if we do not oppress those who are outsiders or who lack the resources to look after themselves, if we do not shed innocent blood or go after other gods, then the true God will dwell with us. Otherwise it shall be to no avail that we belong to the temple, or that we go to church.
Is it safe to go to church? It depends on what the life of the church is like! Is it a place where people deal honestly, fairly, and justly with one another, or not? Is it a place where people are loyal to God and to the values of the community as a whole, or not? Is it a place where people practice hospitality, or not? Consider this matter of hospitality, for example. It is such an important theme in both the Old and the New Testaments. It has to do with how we treat the stranger, the alien, the one who is different, or the one who stands in special need. I have yet to see a church that is not hospitable to some people in some ways, but inhospitable to other people in other ways. Hospital to the person of another color or racial or ethnic identity, but not hospitable to the person of another sexual orientation. Hospital to the person of a different social or economic status, but not hospitable to the person who holds different beliefs. Hospitable to the person who is afflicted with one kind of disease or disability, but not hospitable to those whose afflictions are of some other kind. Hospitable to families with children, but not hospitable to the old, or the single, or the young. Hospitable to those who share different backgrounds but similar ideas, but not hospitable to those who share different ideas but similar backgrounds--or the other way around.
What I am suggesting is that most churches, including this one, are not hospitable to everybody. We all seem to have our limits, not necessarily intentionally, but in actuality. Our church brochure used to be printed with large letters on the front, "First Presbyterian Church has a place for you." It was probably true for most people, but it has not been true for all. This church is not a safe place for all to come. No, it is not likely we would throw anybody out. No, the ceiling or the roof won't cave in if certain people come. But not everyone will find a ready welcome, a sincerity and depth of hospitality.
I am not suggesting that we should try to be all things to all people. It is impossible to make everybody who walks through our doors feel welcome. After all, we are Presbyterians, so folks who do not much care for order may feel a bit out of place. We are Christians, so folks who have no special regard for Jesus Christ may not find any lasting connection here. We are more liberal than not in our understanding of our faith, so that those who insist on a literal interpretation of scripture or a doctrinal basis for faith will not find this a congenial home. But I am suggesting that we try to be more conscious about the barriers we sometimes put in people's ways, and more intentional in trying to overcome the lack of hospitality we sometimes show. An interviewer once asked Mother Teresa, "What's the biggest problem in the world today?" Without hesitation, she answered, "The biggest problem in the world today is that we draw the circle of our family too small. We need to draw it larger every day" [related by Roy Lloyd on PresbyNet, 9-11-97].
Some of you, I have noticed, move around quite a bit where you sit on Sunday morning. It makes it harder for me to keep track of your attendance, but it gives you the opportunity to extend a warm greeting to people you might not otherwise meet. Take that a step further, and invite those who are visitors to join you in the social hall after worship. Make a conscious effort to get acquainted with someone during social hour that you do not know. When you come to a church pot-luck, pick out a table where you will be eating with strangers, and not just best friends. We need to draw the circle of our family larger every day. It is not safe to go to church, if church is not a place where strangers and people who are different meet and eat together.
Fred Craddock, who teaches preaching, tells the story of a visit to a church in a tiny isolated Appalachian community--one of the lost places in this world from which few folks born to it are able to escape, and to which even fewer choose to come to live. Fred says that the fellow hired as the guest preacher for the week had noticed on his brief visit to the community that there were marriages and couplings going on between folks quite closely related to one another, and decided to preach the Sunday sermon using the Bible to shout down such goings-on. He went on for some time about the proper boundaries for marriage and the wrath of God directed toward sexual sinners. Somewhere in what was surely planned as the middle of this sermon, two deacons silently marched to the pulpit and took hold of the startled clergyman by the armpits, and without ceremony dragged him--still spouting fire and brimstone--down the aisle and out the church doors.
Despite this sudden turn of events, the service just shifted gears. Someone got up and read another scripture, and someone else commenced a prayer of praise to God. Fred turned to his host and asked what was going on--to which he received the reply that it wasn't important, they'd just "bumped the preacher."
"I'm not sure I understand," said Fred. "Come on, Craddock," his friend answered with distaste. "Everybody knows God just ain't like that!" [cited by John Kelso, "Jesus Seminar," PresbyNet, 3-9-98].
That is what it comes down to, I think. Whether or not the church is the kind of place that shows us what God is like. Or what Jesus is like. According to Luke, Jesus was on his final journey to Jerusalem when he received word that there were certain people out to get him, agents of Herod the king. Insisting that he has a mission to fulfill, Jesus responds with this familiar lament: "Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!" [13:34]. Here is Jesus, wanting to play mother-hen to the people of Judah, but those in power seem bent on destroying him instead. Jerusalem, under such conditions, is not a safe place. And those who would make it a safe place--a place of haven, of comfort and protection and nurture--are targeted for destruction.
This past week I read that two former moderators of the Presbyterian Church, John Buchanan and Robert Bohl, have received over 900 letters--they were described as "hate mail"--expressing opposition to them for the organizational leadership and support they have given on behalf of proposed Amendment A to the Presbyterian Book of Order. Amendment A is the amendment that would have replaced last year's Amendment B with wording less legalistic and not specifically focussed on sexual behavior as a basis for exclusion from ordained church office. Amendment A would have made the Presbyterian Church a tiny bit safer place for gay and lesbian persons and many others than it has become under Amendment B. Sadly, Amendment A has already gone down to defeat. Sadly, many of its supporters have had their motives publicly impugned. Not all supporters of Amendment A have been charitable in their regard for those who have supported Amendment B--but Buchanan and Bohl, and the Covenant Network that they have organized, have been models of reasonableness and moderation, refraining from personal attacks. On the other hand, much of the organized and public opposition to Amendment A has been of a very different sort. Everybody ought to know that when it comes to hate letters and deception and distortion, God just ain't like that.
The conflict and debate that have taken place over Amendments B and A in the Presbyterian Church have made it only too clear that there are there are too many places where there are too many ways in which it is not safe to be a Presbyterian these days. It is probably always the case that those in the minority feel themselves to be discounted, pushed to the margins, denied the opportunity to implement their ideas, because the tide flows in another direction. There will always be those who feel under-represented in the actions of any organization, including the church. The situation in the Presbyterian Church today, however, is not just an unfavorable tide. There is a meanness of spirit abroad. Deliberate attempts are being made to remove some persons from ministry, as well as to exclude others from ever being ordained. There are views and beliefs it is not safe to hold, practices it is not safe to admit, too many people it is not safe to trust. The influence of the Presbyterian Layman and various organizations with similar views runs much too wide and deep. As in the day spoken of by Azariah, "it is not safe for anyone to go out or come, for great disturbances afflict all the inhabitants of the land."
Is it safe to go to First Presbyterian Church, Bloomington? For many, yes, but not for as many as should be. Before we can make this congregation a safer place for others, however, we need to address our own needs for safety, and the ways we go about trying to secure them. It will be very hard to offer others a safe place if we do not feel safe ourselves. For that to happen requires a growing sensitivity in relationships. You cannot expect the church to be a safe place for you, unless you are prepared to help make it a safe place for your neighbor. That means that the church can never be a place where you can simply be yourself. You cannot simply be yourself, because you must also always be for the other.
When I was first engaged in Clinical Pastoral Education I was stationed on a medical floor in a major university hospital. Many of the patients on that floor were seriously ill, and a number would not long survive. My task was to relate to them as a chaplain, but also as a real person, a human being, some one who was not just playing a role. At first I found an enormous tension between the role I was trying to play and the person I felt myself to be. I did not just want to assume a chaplain's role, and bury my own identity, hiding myself from view. But I also realized that I could not simply "be myself" if I was going to be sensitive and helpful to the people I would be seeing. Having been around too many clergy who seemed disingenuous, I wanted to be genuine and spontaneous, not calculating or phony, but I quickly discovered that if I acted and spoke too spontaneously I ended up saying things that might not be the best or most helpful things to say. Like the time I came upon a resting patient and made some remark that suggested he looked like he was dead. I had to learn not simply to be myself, but to be myself in very particular relationships of responsibility and sensitivity toward others.
One version of the church as a safe place goes like this: All you people are Christians, therefore, you have to put up with me, just as I am! The ideal of the church as a safe place is not this self-centered notion that in this place we all simply get to be ourselves. The reality of human relationships is that we cannot simply be ourselves, expecting others to make allowances for us, counting on them to be forgiving and accepting and hospitable, without taking any responsibility for our relationships with them. A high level of sensitivity and acceptance toward each other is required of us even as we try to be honest and open and genuine in our dealings with one another. The safety that we seek from others in the church is the same safety that we must be prepared to provide. So we are not free to subject one another to all our whims and wishes
We should resolve to put up with others as we would have them put up with us. We should seek to be sensitive to others as we would have them be sensitive to us. We should endeavor to welcome others as we would have them welcome us. We should accord acceptance to others as we would have them accord acceptance to us. We should strive to make this place safe for others as we would have them make it safe for us.
If Christians would only follow the Golden Rule, our churches would be far safer places than they are today. AMEN.