Guiding question: What makes something holy? Where do you experience holiness? Where do you most profoundly experience the Church?
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Let me ask you: how would you define holy?
I think this is a really hard question. I’ve tried to define it, in various settings, but I’ve never been entirely satisfied with the result. So, when I was putting together this October series focusing on a different Reformation theme each week leading up to the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, and I decided that today’s theme would be, “Church is Messy and Holy,” I really had to think about it. Does anyone want to take a stab at it? What makes something “holy”?
Okay, well then I’m going to put that part on hold for now, and focus instead of the first part of today’s theme: the Church is Messy. This is a reality of which we are all too familiar, even as we might try to deny it. I haven’t been a pastor for very long yet, but I’ll tell you, every time any conflict arises, or someone acts in a way someone else doesn’t like, I hear the same refrain: “Shouldn’t people who claim to be Christians act better than this?” It’s also a refrain I hear frequently from people outside the church, as a reason for them not to be involved: “Christians are hypocrites,” they say. “They claim to be all about love, but instead, they are mean and judgmental.”
People both in and out of the Church, it seems, have an expectation that when you are a part of the Church of Christ, you should have it together, be loving and kind, and never make a mistake.
It’s not a realistic expectation. God’s people were never perfect. Just look at today’s story from Exodus. This is a part of the 40 years in the wilderness narrative, which is characterized by God’s chosen people relentlessly grumbling and complaining, blaming Moses for their woes, and not appreciating the many ways that God provides. (I mean really, water out of a rock? That’s pretty cool!) But isn’t that just how people are, whether believers or not? We complain, we blame, we don’t examine our own hearts, we don’t take the time to be grateful, we miss God’s gracious love in our lives.
You could fast forward a few thousand years and see more of human nature in our Gospel reading: two men try to take a higher position than their cohorts, believing themselves to be better or more important. Don’t we always want to get ahead? My friends, all of this – the complaining, the blaming, the self-centeredness, the overlooking of God’s grace – all of it is human nature, and no church membership will take that away. And so, the Church, like all human institutions, is messy.
The Church is also messy because it is made up of people who are so different from each other. Often we lift up these differences as “gifts” – we all have different gifts to offer, and each of those gifts contributes to the body of Christ, like Paul writes in today’s lesson from Corinthians. It’s a lovely way to see it, and I believe it is true… but we also know that differences can be a real challenge. We have different life experiences, political persuasions, values, ages, incomes, needs – and all these differences can be the cause of any number of issues that arise between us. And yet, we still come here and join together as one Church. And sometimes, issues do indeed arise. And so, the Church is messy. In fact, sometimes, the Church – and the people in it – is more than messy. Sometimes, it is broken.
But this is where that second part comes back in: the Church is messy, but the Church is also holy. Or as Luther would say it, we are all sinners, but at the same time, we are also saints. So let me ask you again: having spent some time thinking about how messy the Church is, how would you define the Church also as holy?
Here’s an illustration: if you are on social media, you may have noticed that people don’t tend to post pictures of their worst moments, unless it is for comic effect. You would never publicly post about a fight you had with your spouse, or about your child’s bad day at school, or your financial problems. Instead, we post about the best moments, trying to give the world a sense not of our brokenness, but of our wholeness, right? Well, turns out, not always. There are some who push against this norm, and instead try to reframe the perceived imperfections of their lives. Like, posting a picture of their living room cluttered with toys and unfolded laundry, and the family sitting together and smiling on the couch with the caption, “Perfection.”
Perfection? I don’t know about that. That’s not typically how I describe my living room, anyway! But, I might call that holy. Because I think that holiness is when, into the brokenness of human life, there is also an in-breaking of love, and compassion, and bonding, and connection. It is when, even in places you might not think to look, God is present. And that is also something that happens – you guessed it – in the Church.
You come to worship hopeless and dejected, but in the scripture that day you hear a word of hope. The sermon seems to have been written just for you, providing the salve you needed.
Your friend is very sick, and feeling scared and losing hope that she will ever recover. You visit her, lift her spirits, and you hold hands and you pray together. As you finish the prayer, you see tears forming in your friend’s eyes, and you know that some level of healing has occurred.
You watch the news in horror as you see places in this country devastated by hurricanes. You come together with fellow believers and put aside all your differences to work together to fill flood cleanup buckets and hygiene kits to help those in need.
You limp forward to the altar – your bad hip is acting up again – and someone comes to hold your hand so you don’t fall. Side-by-side you receive the bread of life and the wine of salvation.
You have behaved in a way of which you are not proud. You felt you were doing or saying the right thing at the time, but have come to realize your words and actions caused pain, not good. You come to worship and hear those words, “Your sins are forgiven in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.” You are restored.
All of these instances are holy. And each of them are what the Church is really about: it is about seeing and experiencing, in the midst of the inevitable messiness and brokenness of life, that God is indeed there, offering hope, forgiveness, healing, and life.
Luther defines the Church as the place where the gospel is purely preached. The gospel is this: that you, in all your brokenness and messiness, are loved, forgiven, restored, and valued by a God who gave everything for your sake. I can certainly preach that message from the pulpit, and try to. But I think there is more to the Church than that. There is this wonderful quote attributed to St. Francis of Assisi. He says, “Preach the gospel at all times. When necessary, use words.” You see, preaching the gospel is not just something that happens in 10-12 minutes on a Sunday morning. The real preaching of the gospel happens in the movement of the Sprit in the believer’s heart, and the actions that spring out of that movement. The real preaching happens when we see what Jesus tells his disciples in today’s Gospel reading: “whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant,” he says, “and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve.” The real preaching happens when you fill those flood buckets this afternoon, or scrape paint off of a handicapped woman’s house, or when you pray with a friend in need, or when you put your own needs and well-being aside for the sake of someone less fortunate than you. That is the Church. That is the gospel being purely preached to the world. That is the oh-so-messy and broken, and yet still so holy, Church.
Let us pray… Lord Christ, we give you thanks for the messiness of your Church, that it gives us a place to practice preaching and living out your gospel. And we give thanks for the holiness of your Church, that it is a place where we can come again and again to hear your life-giving word, receive the sacraments, and learn to live a life of servanthood. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.