The Living Church

October 04, 2015
Psalm 24:1-7; Revelation 7:9-17


The earth and everything on it –
The world and all who live in it –
Belong to YHWH.

As we worship together today, on World Communion Sunday, we are gathering together with people of faith around the globe to celebrate our oneness in Christ. It is a oneness of hope and a oneness of Spirit.

Today, here at Hyattsville, we are also starting a series of services that over the coming weeks will explore the theme of healing. We will look at healing through a variety of lenses and focus on areas in need of healing in our community and culture. With today being World Communion Sunday, and our celebration of the gathered body around the globe, it seemed fitting that our first area of focus be on healing and the church.

When we say the church, we can mean all sorts of different things. On World Communion Sunday we are aware of the church as a worldwide body that is made up of people from various cultures, places, beliefs and practices.

With the visit of the Pope to our country over the last couple of weeks we have been aware of the church, in particular the Catholic Church, as a powerful institution.

When we start to break the church down from the lower case c catholic church, meaning universal, to the Catholic Church with a big C, meaning institutional, we also have to start separating the church into other subcategories like Protestant, or in our worldview: Anabaptist. Those subcategories breakdown even further into denominations, conferences, and congregations – and all of that is just the structural and political side of the church. It doesn’t even begin to address what it means to be the living church: to be active participants in and witnesses to the movement of God in the world.

This living church is part of what the Revelation 7 text is referring to, starting at verse 9:

An immense crowd without number, from every nation, tribe, people and language. They stood in front of the throne and the Lamb, dressed in long white robes and holding palm branches.

And moving ahead to verse 13:

Then one of the elders asked me, “These people in white robes – who are they, and where do they come from?

I answered, “You are the one who knows.” Then the elder said to me, “These are the ones who survived the great period of testing; they have washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb and made them white. That’s why they stand before God’s throne and the One they serve day and night in the Temple;

Roughly translated from Book of Revelation visionary language into common speak: this is a gathering of people, all types of people, from all over the world, who live out life with vast diversity and yet hold something in common. This is a gathering of people who have all actively chosen, regardless of consequences, to seek and follow God with their lives.

When we look at church like this, as the act of participation in and being witnesses of God’s movement in the world, we begin to see that the living church is made up of seekers who actively explore ways of living that hold meaning, encourage wholeness, point to the goodness of God, provide support to others in need and remind us that the scope of life is beyond each of our individual experiences. We are interconnected beings who participate in the work of God, in part, by caretaking for each other.

This week I was unexpectedly reminded of that by a very short viral video of a two year old kid unenthusiastically swatting at a Spiderman shaped piñata. After gently tapping the piñata a few times, the mother graciously took the stick away from the child and the child proceeded to run up to the piñata and gently hug it in an act of remorse and apology.

I totally acknowledge that the needs that exist among us are much more complex than the simplistic care of a child for a piñata – but the child’s actions reminded me that we people contain within us, from a very early age, an awareness of our interconnection with all that is outside of ourselves – and that we carry the capacity for compassion and the ability to be caretakers.

One of the settings we have opportunity to caretake for each other is in the church. The church provides space, language and support for the ongoing journey of interacting with God. For those seekers willing to open themselves up to that journey the church becomes a space of vulnerability.

Vulnerability can open us up to deep, rich, and meaningful experiences. It is a vulnerable act to gather together to experience the joy of connection and the awe of the gift of life and to share in wonder with others. It is in vulnerability that we gather together after painful events in our lives, either personal situations or collective experiences, like another incident of senseless gun-violence in our country this week, after such events we gather to share our struggles and sorrows with each other. The church is a space were we come together bringing all the mixed up emotions that we carry within us and juggle in each moment: our joy and our pain, our excitement and our frustration, our anger and our hope. Vulnerability in this way is beautiful and life giving.

Yet vulnerability, by its very nature, also has the potential to open doors to pain, hurt and trauma. The vulnerability which makes the life of the church so beautiful and meaningful also makes it all the more damaging when there is a breach of trust or an abuse of power within the church. The same church that provides a place of healing for some creates trauma for others. The same institutions that help encourage and facilitate wholeness in living have also been complicit in perpetuating racism, supporting engines of war, child abuse, sexualized violence, the list of ways in which churches have contributed pain in the world could go on and on. When we gather together we carry with us these wounds of the church.

Some of these church wounds are collective – as an institution, MCUSA is just scratching the surface of dealing with the wounds left in the church by the sexual abuse perpetrated by John Howard Yoder and others.  Congregations hold institutional collective wounds as well – much like, though we don’t like to frame ourselves as victims, HMC does carry remnants of wounds from our 10 years of discipline under Allegheny Mennonite Conference. Other collective wounds are experienced by groups of people within or outside the institution who have been wounded by the church – this is the wounding that occurs through church acts of racism, sexism, homophobia, interfaith hostility, and theological idolatry, just to name a few. And then there are the wounds of the church inflicted on individuals either by the gathered body or by other individuals within the church. We share the stories of some of these wounds with each other and others we carry in silence.

How can an institution that is supposed to help facilitate wholeness in living be a place of so much hurt? What does it mean to think of that same institution as a place of healing? What does healing even mean and what does it look like?

Healing means and looks like many different things because the wounds in need of healing that we carry come from so many different sources. I won’t even begin to suggest that there is a simple path to a cure-all healing available to each of us, but I can share with you a story that highlights how a small piece of healing of a large wound still under repair happened in my own life.

The wound I am referring to is my own relationship with the Mennonite Church in light of my sexual orientation and gender identity. Without getting bogged down in details, let me say that growing up queer in the Mennonite Church can be a painful experience. Let me also say that sticking with the Mennonite Church and finding communities that accept and celebrate the fullness of who I am has been a delightful experience. It was on the path of celebration that I experienced a moment of healing, right here in this church.

Last week, for the time of confession, Kathleen had the congregation read this statement of faith and hope [#711 in the Hymnal Worship Book]:

We believe that God is at work in our world,
turning hopeless and evil situations into good.
We believe that goodness and justice and love will triumph in the end
and that tyranny and oppression cannot last forever.
One day all tears will be wiped away;
The lamb will lie down with the lion,
And justice will roll down like a mighty stream.
True peace and true reconciliation are not only desired,
They are assured and guaranteed in Christ.
This is our faith, this is our hope.

I wasn’t in the sanctuary during the reading of this last week because I was downstairs getting set up for children’s church, but in the midst of final preparations, over the loudspeaker I heard the line “true peace and true reconciliation are not only desired, they are assured and guaranteed in Christ.” And upon hearing those words I was momentarily transported back to Sunday morning, February 10, 2013 which was another Sunday that we spoke that confession during worship here.

Before you become too in awe of my memory let me say that no, I do not remember everything we do during worship every Sunday here at HMC, but I do remember that Sunday in particular for two reasons. First because it was the service in which Becky and I shared our second set of wedding vows with each other in our lives, only that time around it was legal. Second, I remember that Sunday vividly because I experienced a glimpse of the true peace, true reconciliation, and freedom from oppression that we were futuristically dreaming of as we spoke the words of the confession during that service.

You see, after growing up in the midst of an institutional church that wasn’t ready to affirm or celebrate who I knew myself created to be, there I was sitting in a branch of that same institution, surrounded by family and friends present in that moment to explicitly affirm and celebrate who I am and particularly who I am in relationship with the person who is my life partner. For a split second, I was sitting in the realized kindom of God, a kindom where true peace and reconciliation – where healing was a reality, not just for me, but for everyone. And I was sitting in that holy space here on earth, in the midst of this congregation as you created space to let goodness and justice and love triumph.

The momentary foretaste of that hoped for reality was stunningly beautiful. And while I know both the statement of confession and the Revelation text today speak of every tear being wiped away – it was with great joy that healing tears fell from my eyes that day.

I went home from church that day and typed up that statement and hung it on the fridge, where it still hangs today as a reminder of that moment and as encouragement. Because healing isn’t a once and done event, it is a living process, a journey that we do not have to take alone. For as the Psalmist reminds us, we are never alone: the earth and everything on it, the world and all who live in it belong to God.

Our wounds are many. Our need of healing is deep. As seekers of the living church, we journey together participating in and actively witnessing the movements of God in the world; movements that assuredly shepherd us toward healing springs of living waters.