First Lesson: Genesis 1:26-31
Second Lesson: John 8:1-11
Message: "If the Church Were Christian, ”
(it would focus more on affirming our potential than condemning our brokenness.)
Imagine for a moment that instead of this hot, summer day, it is a cool, crisp autumn afternoon. You look out on your front lawn and there they are again! A mess of leaves from your neighbor’s tree. You have not one tree on your property, and it annoys you that for your yard to look good and to protect your grass you must rake your neighbor’s leaves. You speak to your neighbor. Shouldn’t he be willing to take care of the leaves from his tree? But he declines. The law says that they are on your property, so they are your responsibility. That’s the setting of a wonderful story, “The Jefferson Street Leaf Wars” from Philip Gulley’s book Front Porch Tales.1 The author is a Quaker pastor, with a knack for story-telling, who lives and ministers in a small Midwestern town. The woman in this story actually comes out in the middle of the night to gather the leaves and dump them over the fence back onto her neighbor’s lawn, so that his leaves will once again be his responsibility. People are funny, and Gulley has a gift for writing about human nature. I have two or three of Gulley’s books of stories, and I have waited for him to write more. So I was intrigued when I saw a new title by this author: If the Church Were Christian. Those of you who remember your high school English grammar will recognize the “conditional” in that title. Grammatically the use of the word “were” instead of “was” implies that the Church is not Christian. Well, ouch!
I got the book and started reading the introduction.
Keep in mind I like this author. I’ve appreciated his observations on human nature for years. But his introduction contained one “ouch” after another. In it Gulley points out that there are approximately “39,000 Christian denominations, each of which has a slightly different take on the priorities of Jesus. All denominations, whether liberal or conservative, share the conviction that they most faithfully follow Jesus.” Gulley goes on to say that when he became a Quaker he sincerely believed Jesus had been raised in an early version of a Quaker meeting house. While he downplays the importance of theology, he uplifts the idea of – oh, my goodness – actually following Christ’s teachings. “If the church claims Jesus as its founder, it should at least share his values,” says Gulley. “The question for Christians is whether the church reflects the priorities of Jesus.”
Now I like studying theology, and engaging in theological debate, so I found much of what Gulley wrote in the introduction and his first chapter challenging. I could enjoy debating some of his theological conclusions. But he won me over with the title of chapter two: “If the Church were Christian, affirming our potential would be more important than condemning our brokenness.
I have never been able forget Philip Yancey writing about a woman who came to him with a whole host of troubles and problems, some of which she had brought on herself. When he asked her if she might not find help in the church the woman exclaimed, “Church! They would only make me feel worse.” Double ouch!
How has the Church moved from a people who listened with rapt attention to the Rabbi who taught that “God so loved the world. . .” and that our first commandments are to love God and neighbor. How did the Church move from being a people who heard him say that we are the salt of the earth and that God knows us intimately – so intimately in fact that he even knows the number of hairs on our heads? How did the Church move from being a people who heard with joy the story of the father welcoming home his prodigal son to a people who insist that we are right and they are wrong . . . whoever “we” and “they” are.
Some of us have watched with dismay, and some have watched with joy changes taking place in our denomination. General Assembly recently concluded its biennial meeting in Philadelphia. In two years GA will meet again – this time in Detroit. Some of you are aware that when GA met in 2010 there were sweeping changes to the Book of Order, and a hotly contested, frequently challenged statement on ordination standards – for elders, deacons and ministers of word and sacrament was removed. 2 You may have seen headlines that the PCUSA is now constitutionally permitted to ordain gays and lesbians. You may have heard that because of these changes there are churches leaving the denomination, and that is true across the country. One of the Grand Rapids PCUSA churches has left. Others are considering it. Some of you are glad to see them go. Others weep at the loss. Many pastors I know are examining their commitment to the denomination and praying about how to lead their congregations. Let me be clear: While I believe we cannot prevent those who wish to go from leaving, and can only be gracious in wishing them well in their faith journey, I do not think leaving the denomination is the right response to our differences.
This year’s General Assembly stopped short of redefining marriage as between two people instead of being between a man and a woman.
Some of you are horrified. Others are overjoyed. Some Presbyterians are convinced that the denomination is in self-destruct mode and others are satisfied that finally we are on a path to full inclusiveness.
If Philip Gulley is right, if the Church were Christian it would affirm our potential more than dwelling on our brokenness, then we can find some insight for our church and our denomination in today’s reading from John.
A woman has been brought to Jesus by the teachers of the Law and the Pharisees. She is accused of adultery. First of all, recognize this as a set-up. Only the woman has been brought, not the man. John points out that the synagogue officials were trying to trap Jesus. They say the Law requires she be stoned to death and ask Jesus what he would do. If he follows the Law he will affirm the death sentence. If he shows the love and compassion he has been teaching and sets her free, he will be guilty of breaking the Law.
All too often accusations are made that have an agenda that differs from the obvious issue. These men aren’t really interested in having the woman stoned. They are interested in making Jesus look bad.
So what does he do? He sits and writes with his finger in the sand. Wouldn’t we like to know what he wrote? Perhaps it was nothing more than a doodle, a moment to let him think of a solution. Perhaps his intent was to bring down the tension and emotions. When he spoke, Jesus said, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” And again he stoops down and writes on the ground some more. By the time he looks up again, everyone has left, starting with the older ones. Maybe being older they had had more opportunities to commit sins of their own. Perhaps, being older, they had greater maturity to recognize their own culpability. That every last one of them left without lobbing even one stone reminds me of Paul’s statement that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”
Imagine yourself as part of the crowd that day. Do you believe you would have been able to cast a stone at the woman? I know I couldn’t.
If you are looking for a church with a perfect pastor, you need to keep looking. And if you find a church with a pastor who claims he or she is perfect – keep looking. If you are looking for a church with perfect people – keep looking. And if you find a church whose people profess perfection – keep looking. If you are looking for a denomination that is perfect – keep looking. And if you examine all 390,000 denominations and find one that maintains that they are perfect – keep looking.
This denomination is not perfect. This church is not perfect and this pastor is not perfect. But here is one of our great strengths: We are very diverse, both as a church and as a denomination. Sometimes I have noted that is also a weakness for us, but the good news is that we welcome conservatives and liberals. We welcome imperfect people and have even ordained quite a few. We have potential because we engage in conversation and debate, and as one of you frequently reminds me, we cling to the affirmation that God alone is Lord of the conscience. And I will add that people of good conscience sometimes disagree. Will we ever achieve consensus on ordination and marriage issues? I doubt it. If we ever did, I suspect we’d find something else to argue. As long as the Church includes people, there will be issues on which we will ultimately have to agree to disagree, without either side throwing stones at the other.
We are a people who are learning that many issues are not a matter of “either/or” but of “both/and,” . . . even when the two sides seem incompatible. As we learn to recognize the potential in our diversity, rather dwelling on our brokenness, pointing fingers and throwing stones, we can focus on following Jesus’ teachings. Here’s a challenge for you: Pick an issue that is important to you – church, politics, personal. For the next three days set aside your position on that issue, and whichever side you are on, take note of the opposition’s winning strong points. Learn to be a both/and participant in life.
Where are you in this narrative from John’s gospel? If you are a very religious person - you are in the story. If you are an extremely non-religious person - you are in the story. If you are a conservative that thinks that sin should be dealt with in a tough way- there is something here for you to learn. If you are a liberal, who thinks that sin should be dealt with in a tolerant way - there is something here for you to learn.
When Jesus looked up and spoke to the woman, he did not say, “Go and do whatever feels good to you.” He said, “Go, and sin no more.” That’s a both/and solution to the Pharisee’s set-up.
This story doesn’t tell us that sin doesn’t matter. It does tell us that focusing on the sin of others when we have plenty of our own to deal with is not our job. He gave the woman an opportunity to start over. He saw potential in her to do better. He did the same for Zachheus and Peter. God is always offering us opportunities to do better. Jesus could have condemned her, but what good would come of that? Instead of becoming a lifeless body, the woman now had a chance to have a good life. Jesus could have condemned Zachheus, but then he would not likely have paid people back what he had stolen from them. Jesus could have thrown Peter out of the discipleship group for publicly denying that he even knew Jesus, but how would Peter then have responded to the call, “feed my sheep.” ??
Psychologists tell us that it takes 11 positives to overcome the power of one negative. Challenge number two for this week: Find eleven ways to affirm the potential of someone or some group of whom you’ve been critical recently.
The Genesis account establishes that we are created in the image of God. That’s pretty wonderful. Let’s affirm that. Jesus tells us over and over that God loves us. That is good news. We are the Church and we profess that we are followers of Jesus Christ. Therefore let us follow Jesus’ example by demonstrating that affirming our potential is more important that condemning our brokenness.
1 "The Jefferson Street Leaf War" is actually from Michael Lindvall's The Good News from North Haven, another collection of wonderful stories about human nature. Not having access to the books at the time I was preparing this message, I confused Gulley's book, Front Porch Tales with Lindvall's book. Both are great collections of stories, and the point that I have had an eye out for more from Gully still holds. Gully is a Quaker Pastor. Lindvall is a Presbyterian pastor.
2 My friend and colleague, Pastor Dan Anderson (Spring Lake PC) addressed the issue in a way I found helpful and part of this sermon was inspired by his message. To hear Pastor Dan’s remarks on gay ordination go online to http://www.slpc.org/broadcasts/Thoughts%20about%20Openly%20Gay%20Ordinations%20by%20Rev%20Dan%20MP3.mp3