Oh Church, You Have a Problem…

29 His disciples said, “Ah, now you are speaking plainly and not using figurative speech! 30 Now we know that you know all things and do not need anyone to question you; this is why we believe that you came from God.” 31 Jesus answered them, “Do you now believe? 32 Behold, the hour is coming, indeed it has come, when you will be scattered, each to his own home, and will leave me alone. Yet I am not alone, for the Father is with me. 33 I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” (John 16:29-33 ESV)

It’s last Monday morning (08 June, to be precise), and it’s a little before eight. I’m sitting on the front steps of St. Lawrence Catholic Church here in the Price Hill neighborhood of Cincinnati, waiting for the church to open.

Waiting for mass. Because I need mass. I need this worship to survive right now.

It’s a quiet, beautiful morning, and the church is locked. Mass is at 8:30, and I’m content to sit and watch the world go by, say some silent prayers, while I wait. This is not a beautiful neighborhood, but it’s just early enough in the morning that few are yet stirring and in the semi-silence of a Monday morning, it has a calm and even glorious feel to it.

God is in this place.

I don’t know how long I sit there, 15 minutes maybe. I turn around at the sound of a door unlocking. It’s clearly the parish priest — black clergy shirt, black pants, black sport coat — and he’s somewhat shocked to see me sitting there. He looks at me — tee shirt and shorts, my face covered in several days of stubble — and he gets a sour look on his face, as if he’s about to shoo me away.

“This is a church, no loitering here, now go before I have to call the authorities!” That’s what it looked like he was about to say.

But in that moment before he could say anything, I asked him: “Is it time for mass yet?”

His expression changed. He seemed stunned, and somewhat confused, by the question.

“You’re early,” he said, turning back into the church and letting go of the door so it could close behind him.

Oh church, I’m trying to remember the last time you actually welcomed me. I’m trying to remember the last time a priest or a pastor asked me my name, said “thank you for coming,” much less asked me anything about my life. (The answer would be Mark Olsen, now currently the pastor at Shepherd of the Hills in Haymarket, Virginia. If you live in NoVA, you should worship there. Or at Peace Lutheran in Alexandria, Virginia. And … that was about 10 years ago. UPDATE: Nope, it was Pastor Maxine Washington at Bethel Evangelical in Chicago, and Bruce Bennett at the same church. Six years ago.)

And I’m trying to remember the last time you actually, seriously, intentionally asked me what my gifts were (rather than just shoving a piece of paper in my face), how I wanted to or could participate in the life of the community, expressed surprise and joy at what I bring to you. (I might still be in the ELCA if a certain Chicago bishop had followed up his “I can’t in good conscience present you to a congregation as a pastor” with a “but you do have gifts for ministry, and we’d like to help you find out where and how to use those gifts” — something I’m told he’s actually said to someone else about me.)

But no, church, you’ve done none of these things in the last two years. All the places I have been, all the different ways we’ve worshiped, all the Latin chanted and refrains of “Lord, I love you!” sung. Occasionally, other worshipers have said hello. A timid, perfunctory, hello. One born of proximity, because I’m impossible NOT to see when I’m sitting close. And when Jesus’s command to “pass the peace” is repeated. But all the contacts, all the greetings, all the “tell me about yourself,” those have been mine. Me, reaching out to you.

And you… well, you’ve been uninterested in reaching back.

I know, I know, church, you’ve told me in no uncertain terms the problem is mine. I’m too weird, too disreputable, too much of a misfit and a sinner, that’s it’s impossible for you to take me or anything about me all that seriously. You’ve been clear and emphatic about that. And you know, maybe you’re right.

But you, church, also have a problem. Because, you see, I’ve met Jesus. I wrote a book about that! (I know, that’s also one of my problems, because people in this day and age don’t meet Jesus. It’s just not done.) Because being told by Jesus on 9/11 that “My love is all that matters” changed my life utterly, because Jesus met me in the marketplace and said “follow me,” I am willing to work around or even hack through your inattentiveness and indifference. Because I know what lies at the center. “On the night in which he was betrayed… Do this in remembrance of me.” Even if you aren’t clear about that anymore.

(And you aren’t.)

But you know what, church? The gospels don’t just talk about calling disciples. They also describe the huge crowds who followed Jesus around, clamoring to touch him, to be healed, to be made whole, to have their demons cast out. They wandered out into the wilderness to hear him speak, just to even get a sight of him. People carried friends, sent servants to appeal to him, even begged for crumbs from his table. They knew the redeeming work of God when they saw it.

And they saw it in Jesus.

Now among those who went up to worship at the feast were some Greeks. So these came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and asked him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” (John 12:20-21 ESV)

You, church, don’t need to worry about me. You didn’t call me to follow and you didn’t make me a disciple, so you can’t undo that. You can ignore me and abuse me to your heart’s content (though I would take it as a kindness if you’d stop), and I will still be there. Because for me, it’s not about you. I see past you. I see through you. To the chalice and the loaf on table of the Lord.

I feel the breeze of the Holy Spirit on my skin.

(Now, in the scheme of things, I also know that my fate is irrelevant. Whether I am ever welcome anywhere, ever preach another sermon, sing another song, write another book, or preside at the Lord’s supper — it doesn’t matter.)

But you need to ask yourself something, church. You need to ask yourself, “Where are the crowds?” Where are the God-hungry people in a God-starved world clamoring and racing to see and touch and meet Jesus? How are you doing the work Jesus did — healing, casting out demons, making the broken whole, forgiving sins, reaching out to the lost, and proclaiming the kingdom of God — that will begin to satisfy that hunger to see God’s work in the world? How are you doing that? Do you even know anymore how to do that?

I don’t think you do, church. At least not in the West. Maybe in the rest of the world — in Africa, in Asia, in Latin America — but you don’t know how to do that here. I don’t think you believe any of these things Jesus did are real anymore. Not really. You’ve convinced yourself all he did were metaphors. You don’t see healing, just health care. You don’t see a kingdom, just a society in need of better governance. You don’t see sin, and therefore, you see nothing to forgive.

And what of those who do not possess my courage and my calling, those to whom you are as indifferent or even as unwelcoming? Those who, in curiosity and despite it all, have managed to see something of the amazing work of God in you, and you drive them away because they are inconvenient or unseemly? Well … what millstone is great enough to hang around your neck?

So, you cannot show — you cannot be — what you yourself cannot see.

Small wonder there are no crowds.

I don’t know what to tell you about your lack of faith, church. I guess this is what comes from centuries of reliance upon power to get your way. But I do have a piece of advice.

Quit saying “All are welcome.” You don’t really mean it. It’s not a quite a lie, but it’s clearly not the truth. All are not welcome. You’ve made that clear, and not just with me. The church is a club — the club of the righteous, the club of the virtuous, the club of the well-behaved and well-connected and rightly guided. I get it. It may make you feel good about yourself to say “all are welcome,” but when push comes to shove, you are unable — or unwilling — to live that out.

But note, the world sees how you live, sees the dark and empty space between what you say and how you act. And increasingly, the world is also saying, “all are welcome.” And while the world doesn’t mean it either (it never has), it is at least doing a better job than you are, church.

So, just stop it.

I told you, church, I won’t give up on you. Because as awful as you are to me, as unwelcoming and indifferent as you have been, you are still the body of Christ in the world. And I know something you have forgotten — Jesus really did die and he really did rise from the dead. (I met him, remember?) It was no mere metaphor. He lives, he reigns, and he sits at the right hand of the Father. He healed the sick and cast out demons and raised the dead to life and proclaimed the forgiveness of God and the coming of a kingdom that will have no end. You taught me these things, church, which means that somewhere, you still believe in the shadow of their possibility.

But until you live, church, like people who really believe that resurrection beats death (I know it’s hard; my wife and I exist on a sharp, ragged edge right now without job or home or even sometimes hope), that God really does forgive sins, then you will walk into the world and hear only a stunning silence.

And you will have no one to feed.

I want to help you live, church. While Jesus called me, you formed me and trained me. You taught me almost all I know. A lot of it wasn’t on purpose, yes, but that’s the Holy Spirit for you! (She’s amazing, isn’t she?) But to live, first you must stop being afraid of dying. And you, church, are afraid. You are afraid of loss, of poverty, of becoming irrelevant and unimportant and ignored. I know that fear. I feel it too. You must die, church, and you are still too afraid. You are fighting and struggling and trying everything to hang on to life. To avoid death.

You still do not really believe. You do not really, truly trust God. Not yet.

Yes church, you have a problem. But remember — Jesus called you, gathered you, formed you, breathed you into existence. You belong to him. Just as I do. You have been redeemed. You have been forgiven. (And I know, church, you have a problem with forgiveness.) And you have been raised from the dead. So live.

Live like you have already died.

3 thoughts on “Oh Church, You Have a Problem…

  1. “How are you doing the work Jesus did — healing, casting out demons, making the broken whole, forgiving sins, reaching out to the lost, and proclaiming the kingdom of God — that will begin to satisfy that hunger to see God’s work in the world?” Arrrgh, me matey! You know one pastor who is trying to respond to the pain of this world in a relevant way… And your pain too. May we both “rise again” to the challenge.

  2. Boy howdy do I resonate with what you’ve written, although am probably too broken to have anything to offer the Church in the form of ministry anymore. I pray that you find a place of welcome. I think it happens sometimes. Your writing is a form of ministry to me and I am grateful for it.

  3. Pingback: A Beautiful Night – Charles H. Featherstone

Leave a Reply