So, Now What Should We Do?

Posted by secondchurch on June - 21 - 2019

Early in May, the American Christian Church learned the sad news that Rachel Held Evans had died at the age of 37.  It is from one of her several books the quote on the front of our bulletins is taken.  “Imagine if every church became a place where everyone is safe, but no one is comfortable. Imagine if every church became a place where we told one another the truth. We might just create sanctuary.”  (Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church)

I have never been an evangelical Christian and I rarely read evangelical works, so though I had heard of her, I wasn’t as familiar with her work as I have become since her death. The New York Times wrote of her that she “gave voice to a generation of wandering evangelicals wrestling with their faith.  She was known to challenge traditional — and largely male and conservative — authority structures. She would spar with evangelical men on Twitter, debating them on everything from human sexuality to politics to biblical inerrancy.  In 2015, in a column in the Washington Post, which called her ‘the most polarizing woman in evangelicalism,’ Ms. Evans wrote: ‘When I left church at age 29, full of doubt and disillusionment, I wasn’t looking for a better-produced Christianity. I was looking for a truer Christianity, a more authentic Christianity.’” (The New York Times, Elizabeth Dias and Sam Roberts, May 4, 2019)

In 2014 Rachel Held Evans took the leap out of evangelicalism and into the Episcopal Church, but she never stopped writing about her faith, critiquing, in a most engaging way, the narrow aisles down which American Christianity tends to drive people.  Listen to just a few of her observations:

One of the most destructive mistakes we Christians make is to prioritize shared beliefs over shared relationship, which is deeply ironic considering we worship a God who would rather die than lose relationship with us.

 But if the world is watching, we might as well tell the truth. And the truth is, the church doesn’t offer a cure. It doesn’t offer a quick fix. The church offers death and resurrection. The church offers the messy, inconvenient, gut-wrenching, never-ending work of healing and reconciliation.

 I have come to regard with some suspicion those who claim that the Bible never troubles them. I can only assume this means they haven’t actually read it.

 I can’t be a Christian on my own. I need a community. I need the church.

The story from Acts tells us the disciples were all gathered for the Feast of Weeks, a Jewish festival held fifty days after Passover.  Jesus’ disciples were beginning to organize themselves and others into what was called the Way – trying to persuade fellow Jews to commit their lives to their resurrected Christ.  It was a feast day, a gathering of religious people, something like a church fair with a really good dinner on top of it.  But something happened that seemed to those who witnessed it, either a miracle or just some drunk men acting strange.  A strong wind blew and flames of fire descended. People began speaking in languages no one could understand. Peter grabbed that moment to preach, to interpret the strange signs of the Spirit and to capture the authority of the Old Testament prophet Joel.

For many years after that wild day, critics of the early church founders attributed the wild event to fatigue or too much wine or evangelistic hallucinations.  A few credited the Holy Spirit but most thought it was just another trick to win converts – give people a wild show and maybe they’ll join up. The reaction to that wild event reminds me of another Rachel Held Evans quote: “We millennials have been advertised to our entire lives, and we can tell when somebody is just trying to sell us something. I think church is the last place I want to go to be sold another product.” 

Now we read the story every year on this Pentecost Sunday, and trace the lines of our Christian story back to that crazy day when the Spirit of God visited the disciples and gave them a dream of a community of believers that would become disciples of Jesus, that would invite others to become disciples as well, and that would have as its purpose and mission to change the world by changing human hearts. 

It’s difficult to know just how to interpret the story, what meaning there is in the wild tale of an experience that has such an out-of-control edge to it.  Was it a tornado?  Were they drunk?  And if it was a sign of the Holy Spirit, it certainly isn’t the soothing, gentle version of the Spirit I grew up with in Sunday School.  I’m trying to imagine a church picnic like the one we’re going to have next Sunday –  tables just being set up and food coming out of coolers and paper bags, camp chairs here and there, a volleyball net raised, paper cups full of lemonade and kids wandering to the edge of the pool to stick their toes into the water.  And a huge wind starts to whip up and the Deacons are all hither and yon, yelling at the tops of their lungs in different languages – not words of warning to get under the shelter or for the children to come away from the water but crazy words about the Spirit coming down.  I’m pretty sure, unlike Peter, I would not have seen that as the most opportune moment to preach.

Some people think the Church is a place for free counseling.  Others think it is a place where deluded people gather to reinforce one another’s delusions.  Some think it is a small business.  Others think it is a charitable organization. Still others imagine the church to be the Bermuda Triangle of greed.  Some people think the Church exists to take care of the neediest of our society so that the government doesn’t have to do it.  Others think the Church should stick to praying for the sick and afflicted and never question why the sick and afflicted are wandering the streets with open sores and untreated mental illness.  Some people think the Church produces a set of rules for living that most of us safely ignore.  Some people think the Church glorifies cannibalism every time we serve Communion.  Others think we’re silly but relatively harmless in our rituals.  Some think the Church is responsible for just about every restrictive, repressed and reprehensible thought ever thunk.  Some think the Church should stay out of the marriage business, justice work, the immigration debate, the repeal of the Second Amendment, all politics, for that matter, education, the public square, matters of national security, and the sorry state of the world in general.  “Stick to preachin’ and prayin’ pastor” would be the rallying cry of those, inside and outside the institutional church who think Christianity has no business dealing with the issues that confront us from noon on Sunday ‘til 9 am the next Sunday.

Then there’s that whole family dynamic, the Church being likened to an extended family that gathers for a reunion every week.  There’s that crazy uncle, and that bossy aunt.  There are the out-of-control but still adorable kids and the cynical teens.  And there are the matriarchs and the patriarchs, the grumps, the manipulators, the soft bosomed grandmothers and the twinkly grandfathers.  And there are the hard-workers, the complainers, the triangulators, the kitchen ladies, the authorities, and the parking lot sheriffs.

And then there’s the human need dynamic.  There are people with cancer, with aging parents, and troubled kids.  There are depressed people and angry people and petty people and hurt people.  There are people whose marriages are in trouble, people barely hanging on to their jobs, people on the verge of bankruptcy.  There are people who are having affairs, people who cheat on their taxes, people who hit their intimate partners, people whose drinking is out of control, people who are so stressed out, they have ulcers and migraines.  There are people who are insecure, lonely, and so tired of it all they can scarcely think at all.  There are people who should change jobs or who are about to be fired.  There are people who listen to the news and hate the world, and people who are stuck in daily routines of such monotony, they gossip like crazy just to feel alive.

The Church isn’t a lot of things.  And the Church is a lot of things.  It’s bad and good, magnificent and mundane.  It’s full of people who make mistakes, who trip over our egos, claim expertise in things about which we know very little, and feign busy-ness when it comes to needing volunteers. 

But, the church is the only institution I know whose sole purpose it is to relentlessly invite people who want to be better than we now are, and who want the world to be a better place for everyone, and who think that maybe Jesus offers something to help that happen.  Allow me one more Rachel Held Evans quote:  “The church is God saying: ‘I’m throwing a banquet, and all these mismatched, messed-up people are invited. Here, have some wine.” Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church

We see visions and dream dreams.  That’s why we come to church.  It’s why we put up with one another.  We need God’s Spirit, however wild it appears, and the world needs us.  Happy Pentecost to us all.  Amen.

Carla J. Bailey

Acts 2:1-21

June 9, 2019 – Pentecost Sunday

 

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