Byron C. Bangert

First Presbyterian Church, Bloomington, Indiana

September 26, 1999

I Kings 19:1-18; Acts 2:43-47; Matthew 13:33

"What are you doing here?" This is the question God puts to Elijah--twice--in our Old Testament text. Elijah had fled from the wrath of King Ahab and, more especially, Queen Jezebel. According to the record of I Kings, "Ahab did more to provoke the anger of the LORD, the God of Israel, than had all the kings of Israel before him" [16:33]. But his wife, Jezebel, must have been an even greater holy terror! She was out to get him after his defeat and slaughter of the prophets of Baal. He had taken off for the mountains, where he was hiding out in a cave.

Now, surely God knew what Elijah was doing, hiding out in that cave on Mt. Horeb. And surely Elijah knew what he was doing, and did not need to be reminded by God. So the question God puts to Elijah seems pretty obvious to us. "What are you doing here?" means "Why are you hiding out in this place?" And the implication seems to be, "Why aren't you back where you belong?" The way the story goes, after all the commotion of the wind, the earthquake, the fire, and then the sheer silence, God gives Elijah a job to do. God commissions Elijah to return to his work as God's prophet, anointing kings and providing for the leadership of God's people, including anointing a successor to himself.

During my years in Divinity School and early in my ministry, this was a frequently cited text. It fit the spirit of the times, an activist spirit, a sense that to be called by God was to be an active servant and leader in the world. To be called by God was not to go into hiding, not to retreat to the cloister or the sanctuary, not to withdraw from the world of politics and power, but to get involved and stay involved. Being a prophet like Elijah was in some ways part of the calling of ministry. We were to speak truth to power, to pronounce divine judgment upon the corruptions of our political and social life. We were to "mix it up," so to speak, with the principalities and powers. We were to get our hands dirty, to risk opposition and rejection, to act without regard for worldly approval or acclaim. We might be a minority, a faithful remnant, but we were not alone, just as Elijah was not alone in remaining faithful to Yahweh God. But just so, we could be a positive leavening influence in society. We could, indeed we must, join in God's transformative action in the world.

This conception of God's calling is hardly so popular today. The church is much more in retreat these days. There was certainly some arrogance in what the church previously thought it could do to reform and transform the world. Today, however, there seems to be a failure of confidence, a lack of nerve. I want you to reflect with me this morning about the relationship of the church to the world, and I want to begin by going back to that question God asks Elijah. I ask you to try to hear this question as a question being put to you, not just a question being put to Elijah. And I ask you to hear it as a question about you this morning, here, in this worship service, in church.

One thing to note about this question is that it can be asked in several ways: What ARE you doing here? or, What are YOU doing here? or, What are you DOING here? or, What are you doing HERE? Is this a question about your BEING here? Or a question about what you are DOING? Or does the question seem to have to do with YOU--why YOU? Or is it a question about this place--why HERE? If trying to sort out all these questions is confusing, please bear with me. The questions are not mutually exclusive, they merge together. But they are still different ways of emphasizing the question.

The different emphases are important because people are here for different reasons. People come to church with different expectations, with different needs, seeking different things. One way to try to answer the question would be to think about different images or metaphors that have been used to think about the church. There are various metaphors in the Bible, but I want us to start with the commonplace metaphors of everyday life.

For some people the church is like a gas station. It is a place to fill up your tank, to get the energy to keep going. It is not a place to spend a lot of time in, although sometimes it's important to check under the hood, or kick the tires, make sure everything is intact and working. But mainly church is about spiritual refueling. It's a regular pit stop on the road of life.

Likewise, for some people the church is a kind of rest area. For these folks refueling may not be so important, but it is important to stretch, to unwind, to relax, to use the rest room, so that when you get back on the road you are more comfortable and alert, better focussed on what you are doing. Again, the point is that the rest area is not a destination, but a helpful and necessary stop to make in order to function better and longer when you take off down life's highway.

Then there is the hospital version of the church. For some people the church is a place to go when you are sick, sick with sin, or sick because something has gone wrong and needs to be fixed, or sick because you are hurting and suffering and in pain. If you see the church as a gas station or a rest area, you will pull in regularly, maybe every Sunday morning, even though your visits are brief. If you see the church as a hospital, you may stay longer and get more involved. But once you get to feeling better you may decide it is time to leave, hoping you will not need to come back any time soon. If you see the church as a hospital, you will be glad it is there when you need it, but you will probably not want to keep coming back for those great hospital meals.

There are many who see the church as a kind of "safe place". There are at least two different versions of this. One is the church as a refuge, a retreat from the world, a sanctuary where no harm can enter. For people who feel battered and abused by life, the church can be a very important place of emotional and spiritual and even physical protection. The church should be a place where the slings and arrows of human enmity and worldly conflict cannot reach. As a refuge or sanctuary the church is a place where you can find peace and perhaps some sense of "normalcy" in a world gone crazy and mad.

Another version of the church as a "safe place" has a more positive side. Church can be a place to try out things you dare not try out in the world. It is a place to take chances, to experiment, to practice, knowing you will sometimes fail. In practical terms, it may be a place to allow yourself to be more vulnerable, more open, or more honest than seems possible at work or at home. It may be a place to stand up in front of people to speak, or to try your hand in the kitchen, or to lead a discussion, without fear that someone will laugh at you or put you down if things do not go well. Often churches are not very good at this--they can be even more cruel than the world at large--but when churches are living up to their calling, they give people space and time, freedom and encouragement, to practice becoming more completely themselves.

Related to this idea of the church as a safe place is the idea of the church as a seminary. We usually think of a seminary as a place for the educational preparation of ministers, but it has a more basic meaning as a place of nurture and training. I would like to think that the church can be a school for Christians, a place to learn and practice what it means to be disciples. You might even think of the church community as a place where Christians receive their apprenticeship so that they can be Christians in the world. I know that many people first developed their abilities to speak in public, to sing, to play, to organize, to lead, to preside, to cooperate, to discuss, to negotiate, and to appreciate other people and points of view through their participation in the church. I hope it is also possible for people to experience and learn how to be more compassionate, just, honest, loving, patient, kind, generous, thoughtful, and courageous--and thus to be better disciples of Jesus--through their participation in the life of the church as well.

Well, this list of various images of the church is hardly complete. I hope it goes to show, however, that the church does not exist as simply an end in itself. It is, at its best, a place to "be," a safe place, a place of refuge and recovery, a place of rest and renewal, but always for the sake of something more. The church exists in order to enable us to live more fully, more richly, more faithfully, in keeping with the possibilities and the promise that God has given us. So the church is not just a place to come to. As Garrison Keillor has put it, "You can become a Christian by going to church about as easily as you can become a car by sleeping in a garage." Something else has got to happen here, if going to church is going to matter.

Noted preacher Barbara Brown Taylor, who recently left the parish ministry in order to teach at Piedmont College in Georgia, puts it pointedly when she says:

My secret fear about churchgoing is that it works like a vaccine: a couple of drops under the tongue each week and pretty soon we are immune to the whole thing. The God-beseeching language requires no extraordinary effort. The summoning of the Holy Spirit expects no untoward response. Even the sacrament, when it comes, taste more like breakfast than sacrifice. In most churches, it is possible to take part in all of this while engaged in active enmity with the pastor, other members of the community, or the world at large. . . There is more to worshiping God than just showing up." ["Leaving the church," THE CHRISTIAN CENTURY, June 16-23, 1999, p. 655].

This is not exactly a sermon about being a Christian, however. This is just a sermon about the relationship between the church and the world. It seems like there has to be some connection--what happens here should affect what happens elsewhere. But it also seems like there needs to be some difference--church is not just another way of getting people together to do the same sorts of things they would do anywhere else.

If we look at the Bible, we can find a number of different ways of understanding the relationship between God's people and the world. The Elijah story reminds us of the tension between our loyalties to God and our loyalties to the principalities and powers that be. These may come in conflict. This conflict may require the church to separate itself from the world in certain ways. At the same time we may be called to get involved. We may be called to speak words of judgment and take actions of political significance in obedience to God's Word.

Our text from Acts in the New Testament portrays another way of relating tot he world. The earliest Christian community is reported to have gathered together, worshiped daily together, shared all possessions in common, perhaps even lived together in what we would call a communal existence. Rather than dispersing its members throughout society, this earliest community is described as adding to their numbers daily. They were bringing new people in, growing by multiplying, making their presence known and felt by being a visible alternative to the society at large. It does not appear that this communal Christianity lasted very long, but it must have served a very important role in the beginning.

Throughout Christian history there have been other sorts of patterns or ways of being the church. Sometimes the church has tried to separate itself strictly from the world, in the effort to keep itself pure from society's contaminations. Sometimes the church has tried to dominate and impose its rule on a whole society. More often the church has simply collaborated with the ruling political powers, gaining support from the state by its establishment, and giving legitimacy to the state by its priestly blessing.

We Presbyterians stand in the Reformed tradition of Christianity, which has come to understand the relationship of the church to the world in particular terms as well. In our Book of Order, early in the first chapter, there is something called the six "Great Ends of the Church." These are the purposes for which the church exists. The sixth, and most comprehensive of these, is "the exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven to the world." I think that means that in our manner of life and work together we are to be like the kingdom of heaven. And visibly so--so that the world may see. In the Lord's Prayer every Sunday we say, "Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven." This is what we pray for every Sunday, if not every day: "the exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven to the world." And we say that it is the church's calling to be the place where that happens.

But most Reformed Christians have come to the conclusion that that's not really good enough. Jesus' prayer does not say, "Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, in church as it is in heaven." It is a prayer for all the earth to become the manifestation of God's rule and will. And so we understand that our role is to be a vessel, or an instrument, of God's action in the world. At most we may hope to be a model to the world of how the whole world is meant to be.

This brings me to Jesus' parable, which is our text from Matthew's Gospel this morning. What is the kingdom of heaven like? Jesus says that it "is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened." Three measures is a lot of flour, about 50 pounds, enough for a hundred loaves of bread. The yeast is small; the flour is large. If the yeast is to do its work, it must be mixed in thoroughly with the flour. When that happens all of the flour is transformed. That's how it is with the kingdom.

Thinking about our life in the church, thinking about our life in this church, it seems to me we need to keep this image before us. We are part of a world that needs to be leavened. That world needs to be permeated with the Gospel of God's love and care. It needs to be infiltrated by the yeast that can transform it into bread, into a manifestation of God's rule and will on earth. The church does not exist for its own sake, and it does not exist to be the whole world. So it must exist for the sake of the world. And that world is one that God wants to be permeated and transformed by the yeast of divine purpose and power.

Being on sabbatical for four months gave me time to think and feel about some things from a distance, with the perspective of someone who was not caught up in the daily demands of church life. One of my conclusions is that it ought to be more fun to come to church. Maybe for you coming to church is already all the fun you can handle. Or maybe you don't think coming to church should be fun. Maybe you feel guilty when you are having too much fun. So let me try to explain what I mean about church being fun.

What I see is too many people feeling they have to work too hard to make the church go. What I see is too many people spending too much time at church. What I see is people on session and on committees getting burned out or frustrated or discouraged by the burdens of their tasks. Of course, I also see a lot of people who are not very involved and who do not experience church in this way at all. I do not have a plan to remedy all of this, but I want to ask each and every one of you to think about whether you are spending too much time thinking about the church and doing things for the church, or whether you are spending too little time doing these things. There are some balances that I think we need to restore. We need more people doing less--that is, more people involved in significant ways, but not having as much to do as some people are now having to do. There is a rule of thumb that in the church, as in most other organizations, 20% of the people do 80% of the work. Wouldn't it be wonderful if 20% of the people were doing 20% of the work, not 80%! And if 50% were doing 50%, and 80% doing 80%! We need everybody doing their part, and nobody thinking or feeling they have to do it all.

To put it another way, this church does not exist for itself. If you are spending most of your time thinking about the church, and doing things for the church, God loves you, and a lot of the rest of us love you, but you may be living a misspent life! You should be thinking about the world. You should be thinking about your work, your family, your neighbors, your community, the political and social health of the nation, the environment and its possibilities for sustaining life, the world of nature, this planet earth, the universe and everything in it. And then, and perhaps only then, you should be thinking about the church, and how the church needs to be, and what the church needs to do, and what the church does not need to be or do, in order to help you and the rest of us to love and care for the world.

The church is not here to replace the world. It is not here to hide from the world. It is not here to dominate the world. And it is not here simply to bless the world. Maybe we are here to be a kind of prototype, a model, an exhibition of what God intends for the world. If that is so, then it is very important that the church be a place where people can learn how to be more faithful, more effective, more caring, more capable, more compassionate human beings. Then it is very important that everybody who belongs to the church be enough of a part of what's going on for their lives to be nurtured, their minds informed, their hearts inspired, their spirits filled, in order to live in the world in a positively meaningful way. People who are sick need to be healed, people who are tired need rest, people who are running out of gas need refueling, people who are trying to change and grow need guidance and training and practice. Everybody needs a safe place, a place where, whether you have to go there or not, they want to take you in. What are you doing here? I hope it has something to do with these things.

But . . . but surely we are also here to participate in God's transforming action in the world. We are here to receive the energy, the grace, the spiritual resources, the instruction, the courage, or whatever else we need in order to go out into the world. We are here to be prepared--to make ourselves more available to God, and to one another, more serviceable, more fully engaged in what the whole of our existence is all about. Maybe we are to be some of the yeast. It's a sure thing that we are not all of the flour. The whole, in which we are invited to be engaged, is God's creating, redeeming, transforming action in the world. If that is not what we are doing here, and seeking to find ways to be doing in the world, then we need to get our act together. "If we want to be the church," says Barbara Brown Taylor, "we will get out of the house, joining that far-flung bunch of people who are helping God heal the world" [ibid.]. AMEN.