In John Updike’s novels about Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, Harry, as his last name suggests, is an angst-filled man trying to escape and find meaning in life. In one scene Harry is running through a thunderstorm and he runs to the local church – he finds the doors locked and the lights out.
And clearly Updike is asking in this metaphorical way, “Does the church still have anything to say to us anymore or is the church locked and the lights out?”
Now most of the time, as you know, I am full of hope. I’m a pretty optimistic guy. But there are times, like this past week, reading the headlines about what’s going on in Cleveland and in the world, when I wonder – and maybe you do too – about what the church is saying to the craziness of the world, the craziness of our lives. A world filled with Ariel Castros, and Cliven Bundys, and Donald Sterlings. A world cleaved by partisanship, filled with folks who won’t even accept scientific facts, full of people who live in fear; a world where young people feel overwhelming pressure to get into college but have little hope of getting a job afterwards.
The New York Times commentator David Brooks wrote this week:
…people clearly feel besieged. There is the perception that life is harder.. The result is that you get a group hardened for battle, more focused on hard utilitarian things and less focused on spiritual or philosophic things; feeling emotionally vulnerable, but also filled with résumé assertiveness. The inner world wanes; professional intensity waxes.
In light of this experience, which I think is true for many of us, people are still seeking. But what are they finding? When they walk up to the front door of our church, what do they find? Are we open for business? Sometimes it makes me wonder.
And yet. And yet. We have had quite the celebrations at Forest Hill Church these past two weeks. Anne Wilson’s 25th on Friday was magnificent. This place was filled with people from all over. Two Sunday evenings ago Mother Willie Mae Wright and the Wright family singers filled this church with the strains of spiritual and gospel music.
The kingdom of God was in our midst those nights. A gentleman came up to me after Mother Wright’s program and said, “Pastor Lentz, I want to thank your church for hosting this night. Your church is helping to heal Cleveland.” Who knew?!
People caught glimpses of the kingdom: We didn’t ask anyone at the door what their politics were. We didn’t check at the door what their theology was. We asked for no club membership or ID. We didn’t care if someone was an illegal immigrant, or gay, or what race, creed or color they were. We opened the doors, overworked our custodial staff, and said “Come on in!” And it was good.
And it made me feel a bit better. I made me feel a little bit more deeply agitated, that maybe we’re catching glimpses of the kingdom, maybe we’re a kingdom people, that maybe we’re still walking along that path and aren’t giving up. Because lots of things have been going on.
Let me remind you of some of the things that have been happening around here, lest you forget.
- At last Sunday’s Adult Education class, the Rev. Jessie MacMillan, our Presbytery’s Stated Clerk, spoke about how the church must adapt to present realities.
- A Sacred Space Design Team met to imagine how this sanctuary space can become even more flexible and hospitable.
- Over 80 people met as small groups in homes for Lenten dinners – eating supper discussing a book, and becoming friends.
- Labre, our meal and fellowship program in East Cleveland, continues to grow.
- Our monthly pantry breakfast brings black and white, rich and poor, retired and unemployed together to break bread in ourFellowship Hall.
- Spiritual education continues at every level: Kerygma classes, Bible and Bagels, Pathway for the children.
It’s all good.
And it stirred me to ask: Who says there are no miracles happening in churches anymore? Who says there is no hope for the church?
For all hunger and all thirst. I don’t care if you’re the most hardened atheist. You may talk about your hunger differently. And I’m going to tip my hat to you for that – there’s no judgment here. But we are all longing for that transformative experience of home, of identity, of peace. All of us are still seeking salvation, however you want to define that.
In these six verses from Acts we have a description of the early church. Did you hear?
- They devoted themselves to the apostle’s teaching, to the breaking of bread and prayers.
- All who believed were together and had all things in common – they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.
- They spent time in the temple worshiping.
- They broke break together in their homes with glad and generous hearts.
And three things happened because of this process.
- There were wonders and signs happening.
- They received the good will of the people – meaning people were looking in and seeing what they were doing and saying, “I want to be part of that.”
- And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved. (Saved…that’s a heavy word. We’ll unpack that later in the summer. I’m going to preach a series on fundamental langauge, fundamental vocabulary, for Christians. But just for now, for this purpose, I’m going to define “saved” as people having a transformative, empowering experience of identity; the exposive power of a new affection, that you are beloved and that you are accepted – just as you are, without one plea!
You know, this is still our call. And at our best we hold ourselves accountable to these things.
But perhaps we’ve lost the expectation for the unexpected to occur. Perhaps we’re not looking for signs and wonders. Perhaps we’ve gone mute when we should be speaking out, and playing it safe when we should be bold.
William Willimon, who is Dean of the Chapel and Professor of Christian Ministry at Duke University, in his Commentary on Acts, ponders that first call of the church:
That first church was called to be a peculiar, counter culture; disruptive, and yet healing community.
Did you hear that? Peculiar. Counterculture. Disruptive, and yet healing.
And it make me think about the future of Forest Hill Church. If this church is going to continue to grow, if we want this church to be here in 20 years, then we have to get radical, get passionate, about some things:
About the living Word , the scriptures:
And no, I don’t mean mindlessly or literally. But if the mission of the church is to spread the good news – we have to know what the good news is and be able to name it, claim it, and talk about it!
We have to know the story – how God creates, redeems, liberates, restores, reclaims, reconciles all things to God’s self.
Our Bible is not a rule book, it is the faithful expression of a community that has encountered something big, the big hairy, outlandish idea that there’s a creator to this world, and that creator gives a damn, cares about you, calls us to be like God in being a creative, caring community. That’s what that Bible is about–from start to finish.
We can’t be the people of God without the word of God binding us together.
About fellowship and hospitality:
The first church was known for its radical fellowship and hospitality. If the church is going to be the “church” – the once and future church – then we cannot all look like me, or even us.
And the best definition of church I have ever heard is: “Here comes everybody!” There cannotbe us and them. Because if those doors are closed to anybody, we should just close them to everybody.
If we want to grow the church, we have to grow in radical generosity. “Everybody sold their possessions and gave to whoever was in need.” Wow. That convicts and agitates me deeply – that other’s needs come before my wants; that’s how we should be setting up our family budgets. The common good comes before my rights. I know, deep down, that I am at my best when my grasp is loosened, and when I am sacrificing my time, talent and treasures to things that really matter.
If we want to grow the church, we have to grow in radical prayer – and by prayer I mean cultivating a connection between you and God (hence the inner life that David Brooks is talking about.) It is not just asking for things, although you can do that, but rather prayer is like cultivating the ground to plant seeds. Prayer is tending the garden of your own soul. It is going deep into the mulch of your own gut. It is resting in God, it is practicing seeing all things through God, releasing to God, thanking God, asking that day by day that you might be transformed into the likeness of Christ – become more like Jesus by becoming more like yourself.
But whatever we envision God wants for the world – we must be! If we want to see the world become more peaceful, more just, more safe, more inclusive, less racist – then there is no hiding, no wrapping ourselves in the cloak of self-sufficiency, no gated communities of fear.
That’s one of the beauties of the clear windows in this sanctuary. We see the world and the world sees us and that is a good thing. Because people are looking. So I ask you this week to get into your communities and let folks know you come to Forest Hill Church. Get the good will of the people.
And then I think we have to expect more signs and wonders, practice more prayer, read the Bible more, invite everybody in, eat together more, give more away, pledge more, share your needs, your deep needs – so that we can share the wealth.
And day by day, the Lord will add to our number those who are being saved.
Do you believe that? Amen!
The once and future church – on the corner of Monticello and Lee.
Let’s do this thing!