Last week, I wrote about why I have decided to stay with the church. It was in response to the numerous reports out there about the number of people leaving the church and the reasons they are making that decision. I ended that article by stating that even though I have decided to stay with the church, I have not given the church my heart. That is, I have not given it my deepest commitment. I also said that this week I would explain what I meant by that. Since it might seem strange to some that a congregational pastor would say “I haven’t given my heart to the church,” I thought I should offer an explanation. The following is a sermon that I have preached a couple of times over the years. The scripture text for the sermon is Revelation 21:10; 22-22:5. The verse of focus is 21:5; “I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb.”
“Don’t Give Your Heart to the Church”
However one experiences something depends a great deal on the perspective one has during that experience. In baseball, the pitcher and the catcher and the batter are all part of the same event, but because of their particular perspectives their experiences are different. The infielders and outfielders, the coaches and fans are, likewise, all part of the same event but their experiences all come from their own perspective. Umpires are part of the same event as well, and most people think umpires always have the wrong perspective.
Over the last twenty-five years the perspective from which I have participated in the life of the church has been that of a pastor. On forty-eight out of fifty-two Sunday mornings I find myself standing in a pulpit instead of sitting in a pew. And in regard to the life of the church the perspective of the pulpit has both advantages and disadvantages. The church has been the source of some of the most beautiful things I have ever seen in life. I can’t begin to tell you the number of people I’ve visited over the years, people who are in the midst of a major crisis – an illness, a death, a personal struggle, but what they have testified to the love and support of the church. So often, wherever I go to offer pastoral care, I am able to follow the footsteps of Christians who have already been there – sending a card, writing a note, bringing food, sending flowers. Folks, don’t ever say, “Well all I can do is . . . ” – for the things you may think are so little, so inconsequential are the very acts of care that keep many hearts going. I know. I have been there. They’ve shown me the cards, told me you came by to visit, said there was so much food they didn’t know what to do with it all. I’ve often heard these words, “I didn’t know so many people cared.” There are times when from my perspective the church is beautiful and it bears witness so well to the God of love and care that we believe in.
The church has also provided me, just to be honest with you, a continually flowing river of laughter. Just like in a lot of your families when you get together and tell stories on each other and start laughing until your sides hurt, I sometimes get to laughing so hard at the things that happen in church that I have trouble breathing. I’ll never forget the Sunday I was preaching, when in the middle of the sermon I heard a loud thud. A woman in church had fallen asleep while I was preaching, slumped forward and smacked her head on the pew in front of her. She shook my hand on the way out of the church that morning and as I noticed the red mark across her forehead she said, “Mark that was one of the best sermons you preached in a long time.”
Beauty and laughter, I have seen them both from the pastoral perspective in the church. Yet, sadly, I see all too often from this perspective ugliness and bitterness as well. I’ve seen Christian folk treat one another in some of the most cruel and spiteful ways imaginable. I’ve seen people grab for power in the church, often because they couldn’t get power anywhere else, and once they have power run over everyone else. I’ve also had people in the church who when they didn’t get their way on a matter come in and tell me that they would do whatever it took to get their way and that it included “gettin’ rid of the current pastor (me).” I had a colleague who once wrote in a letter:
It is sometimes ridiculous to take the church seriously as an adult institution. Does everyone come to church to be coddled? If they don’t agree with what the church is doing they resort to blackmail by saying they will just quit giving. And how immature some people are, expecting that pastor to show up on their doorstep and take their side every time there is even the slightest hint of conflict.
I sometimes laugh at what the people are missing in church, because if I don’t, I’ll spend all my time crying.
And, of course, it’s not just conflicts at the local level that are troublesome. The church is fragmented in so many different ways. I once served a church in which there were five different congregations located within a block of each other, all of us seeking to do our own thing. All of us struggling to maintain our building and run our programs. Think about what a witness if could have been if those five congregations became one – working together as one body, instead of each of us limping along. Could you imagine trying to preside over a meeting that brought those congregations together? Jesus prayed that all who believe might be one even as he and his Father are one, but we are so far from that.
Then there are the times when segments of the church have simply opposed the movement of God’s Spirit and the Gospel’s call for justice. The Civil Rights movement in America was at the same time perhaps the American church’s finest hour and saddest witness. The Christian spiritual strength of many was what undergirded the Civil Rights movement and I am proud that that movement was led by a man who first and foremost considered himself a preacher. But at the same time there were white congregations in the south and the north, in the east and the west, who were taking votes that said they as a congregation would not integrate, black people would not be welcome to worship the God who made us all.
And history has shown us as well that a contributing factor to the Jewish Holocaust of WWII was Christian anti-Semitism. And while our Jewish brothers and sisters and their children were being murdered, too much of the church remained silent. In recent years, several denominations have been issuing apologies to the Jewish people for the failures that led to the death of so many.
So, from my vantage point as a pastor, a preacher, and a student of the Christian faith, I see the beauty, I experience the laughter, and I wince at our sin. And with all that I have experienced and from the perspective that I have experienced it, I have to be honest with you. As much as I love the church, and even though I plan to serve in it until the day I die, just to be honest with you, I have not given my heart to the church.
Now that may sound like a strange thing for a pastor to say, “I have not given my heart to the church,” but I believe that if I am going to be faithful and honest as a pastor I have to say that and even more. I have to say to you, “Please, don’t give your heart to the church.” You see, I think we should save our heart for that which is Ultimate, for that in which beauty reaches its holiest heights and in which hate and ugliness do not reside at all. And the church isn’t the Ultimate.
The text for this sermon is from the book of Revelation. John is getting a picture of what the final consummation will be like. The day when God will redeem all of heaven and earth. And in this final consummation, John bears witness to the Ultimate. He says, “I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God Almighty.” The temple represented the faith of the Jewish people. They believed it held God’s very presence. Remember one of the charges against Jesus was that he said he would destroy the temple, the very thing that represented their faith. But here is John, saying there would come a time when there would be no temple – “for the temple will be the Lord God Almighty.”
The Ultimate is not the temple. The Ultimate is not the church. The Ultimate is God. The church isn’t the Ultimate, the church bears witness to the One who is the Ultimate, the One who is not only light, but the Source of all light. The church tells God’s story which goes from eternity to eternity and of which we are only a part. We tell of God’s purpose for all of creation to know holiness and righteousness, to walk in fellowship with the Divine.
To give our heart to the One who is the Ultimate is to give our heart to the One who welcomes all who wish to come, while the church argues too often about who is welcome. To give our heart to the Ultimate One is to give our heart to the one in whom all racial and ethnic and cultural barriers are broken down. To give our heart to the One who is Ultimate is to give our heart to the One in whom no evil dwells, the One in whom evil is out of place. Though the church has great beauty at times, the church has also been the harbinger of things that are less than beautiful, prejudice, denial of truth, deceit, abuse of power – sometimes these evils creep into holy places. But they do not creep into the One who is holy.
If you give your heart to the church, thinking that the church is the-all-in-all, the Ultimate – you will be disappointed. And if we, as the church, ask people to give us their heart we will be leading them in the wrong direction. What we need to invite people to do is to give their heart, the deepest part of them, to God, the God we know most fully in Jesus. There is nothing more vital to accomplish the mission God has given us – which is to bear witness to the ways of heaven, the way of blessing and life – than for us to have hearts not devoted to ourselves but to the One who is the Ultimate Source of all that is and ever will be.
About John’s words in Revelation, the theologian Karl Barth wrote, “Nothing is more finally significant than the church’s complete absence. No place of worship, no temple, no synagogue or church building is needed any longer – because there is God.” God is the Ultimate and it is to God that I encourage all of you to give your heart.
Hearts that are committed first to God will help keep the church on the right track, for when we are tempted to keep everything just the way it is because that’s what makes us comfortable – we will remember the God who makes all things new. We will remember the God who pokes and prods and disrupts, moving us ever onward from living in comfortable complacency toward a fuller expression of justice and righteousness.
Hearts that are committed first to God will help keep the church on track, because when we think being a Christian is all about filling a pew, saying a prayer, and dropping something in the offering plate with an attitude of moral superiority toward those who aren’t there, we will remember that through the prophets God said there is nothing more important than justice, mercy and humility. We remember the God who said to the religious folk of that day, if you are worried about the outward appearance you better stop concentrating on the outside and let love fill your insides or you will be in trouble. We should always remember that Jesus was indeed particular about who he hung around with. He always made certain he was surrounded by sinners in need of love.
Hearts that are committed first to God will help keep the church on track and we desperately need that, because it’s so easy for us to get off track. And it is those hearts committed first to God that will help us to get straightened out if we dare to listen.
Most of us are aware that commitment to the church as we have known it is in significant decline. The present generation does not have the same level of commitment to that church that many of us do. There is much grief attached to this decline, and sometimes a finger of blame is pointed. It is said that something is wrong with the present generation and their level of commitment. But I will not say that.
The changing focus of commitment may well be a blessing from God, in that God is reminding us that the church is not the Ultimate, and surely then no form or structure that the church has taken over the last 2,000 years is the Ultimate. We are being reminded that our work is not to get people to give their heart to the church, our work is to invite people to give their heart to God.
From my perspective as a leader in the church, the church at times can be beautiful and the church can be a source of great joy, but it can also be a place that has lost its way. The only true way I feel that I can be a leader in the church, is to not give it my heart. I am trying hard to give my heart to God. That’s where I encourage you to give yours. Amen
A version of this sermon was published in “Keeping the Faith: Best Indiana Sermons” by Guild Press, 2003.
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