A Renovated Church for Unrenovated People

February 19, 2012

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We’re finally here in the promised land of the newly renovated church! Let me tell you – no one is happier than I am to be worshipping in this beautiful space, to sing in response to this magnificent organ, to preach from this substantial pulpit, and to kneel once again to receive Christ’s body and blood at our reverential altar rail. There are a zillion people to thank for our being here, people who have given time, treasure and talent. But I’ll just sum them all up by thanking God, who is the giver of all good gifts.
It seems to me God’s perfect timing that the lectionary text for this first Sunday back in the church should be “for it is not ourselves that we proclaim; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord”.  As Charlottesville’s first church, Christ Church has an illustrious history. This new chapter is the latest milestone. And yet, if it is ourselves that we proclaim here on 2cd and High Street, then we are nothing more than a tower of Babel.
     Every dollar, every ounce of energy that has gone into the building and rebuilding of this church must be in service to “proclaiming Jesus Christ as Lord.” It’s the message not the monument that ultimately matters. That’s why God upbraided Peter from the clouds when Peter wanted to build 3 monuments on the Mount of Transfiguration.
     That’s why we read in Hebrews that eventually God will remove things that can be “shaken, that is, things that have been made—in order that the things that cannot be shaken may remain.” This stone building and this gorgeous organ will one day be shaken and removed. But the message in whose service these material things were built will never be shaken, will always remain. More about that message in a minute.
     But first one more word about this newly renovated church, which, in fact, we sure hope will remain for a long time! For some, change is difficult. I totally get that. Places, especially churches, contain deep meaning and special memories: weddings, funerals, baptisms, moments of transcendental worship or quiet, restorative peace.
Our trust, however, can’t rest on a place, no matter how sacred. Our trust must rest in Jesus Christ, whom we proclaim. I’m enough of a sacramentalist to believe that where He is proclaimed does, in fact, matter. I like beauty. I really don’t want to worship in a high school gym. Sorry. But where one worships matters only penultimately. If our trust is in a place, our trust will be shaken. If our trust is in Jesus Christ, whom we proclaim, our trust will remain.
     This is why I rejoice in the imperfections of this project. Some of you have let me know about them, minus the rejoicing!  No matter how much painstaking care is taken, a project this big will inevitably have its surprises, flaws, disappointments, and weaknesses. Theologically speaking, this is a good thing. So I’m actually grateful that the church isn’t “perfect”; I’m grateful for it’s weaknesses. After all, the scripture tells us that God’s power is made perfect in weakness.
     The human desire for perfection, the desire to erase or eliminate imperfection or weakness, the desire to “proclaim ourselves” as the text today says is madness that leads to alienation that leads to death. Who really wants to be married to, or work for a perfectionist?
     Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote a trenchant short story called “The Birthmark.” Aylmer is a brilliant scientist and natural philosopher who abandons his experiments for a while to marry the beautiful Georgiana. One day, Aylmer asks his wife whether she has ever thought about removing the birthmark on her cheek – the red mark in the shape of a tiny hand. She cheerfully says no. Many people, she says, have told her the mark is a charm. But Aylmer says that because her face is almost perfect, any mark is shocking.
Aylmer obsesses about the birthmark. For him, it symbolizes mortality and sin, totally obscuring Georgiana’s beauty in his mind. He can think of nothing else. One night she reminds him of a dream he had. He spoke in his sleep, saying they must take out her heart. Aylmer remembers dreaming that he had removed the birthmark with a knife, plunging down until he had reached his wife’s heart, which he decided to cut out. Georgiana says that she will risk her life to have the birthmark erased. This thrills her husband.
Aylmer says the mark goes deep into her body, and its removal will be dangerous. In her room, Georgiana thinks about how noble it is that Aylmer refuses to love her as she is, insisting instead to create his ideal version of her. He brings her a potion that he says cannot fail.  She drinks the liquid and sleeps. Aylmer watches her with tenderness but also as if he is watching a scientific experiment unfold. Gradually the birthmark fades. Georgiana wakes, sees herself in the mirror, and tells Aylmer not to feel bad about rejecting “the best the earth could offer.” Then, of course, she dies.
     The refusal to love a person as she is and the insistence on an ideal version of another are at the heart of human sin. I think this is at the root of our family dysfunction. If we are unable to accept a person as he is, the relationship will inevitably die.
Perhaps you’ve heard the purportedly true story of the soldier returning home from Vietnam. He called his parents from San Francisco asking if he could bring a friend home with him. Yes of course, they said. “But,” the son continued, “he was hurt pretty badly ­he lost an arm and a leg. He has nowhere else to go, and I want him to come live with us.” His parents started to backtrack. They said they were sorry but someone with that kind of disability would be too much of a burden. At that point, the son hung up the phone. The parents heard nothing more from him.
A few days later, however, the San Francisco police called. Their son had died after a suicidal fall from a building. The grief-stricken parents went to identify the body of their son. They recognized him, but to their horror they also discovered something they didn’t know, their son had only one arm and one leg.
     Many of us, because we are afraid of judgment, or because we so harshly judge ourselves, attempt to mask one’s own weakness, disappointments and vulnerabilities. We wish to put forth an image of perfection. But this also inevitably leads to the death of relationships. How can you really connect with a façade?  Really… get real.
     Speaker Brene Brown says that, “vulnerability is the center of difficult experiences like fear, disappointment and shame, but it is also the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, creativity, innovation, authenticity and engagement. … As Madeleine L’Engle writes, “When we were children, we used to think that when we were grown-up we would no longer be vulnerable. But to grow up is to accept vulnerability . . . To be alive is to be vulnerable.” Conversely, as Hawthorne as illustrated in the perfectly beautiful Georgiana, to be invulnerable is to be dead.
     Thankfully, blessedly we have another message to proclaim from this new pulpit, whose floors are not yet stained because we’re running behind our perfect schedule. In this imperfect pulpit, and from this deeply imperfect preacher, “it is not ourselves that we proclaim; we proclaim Christ Jesus as Lord.”
     It’s a good thing for everybody that we get to proclaim Him, because while we were yet sinners – while we were mired in our own flaws and imperfections, Christ died for us. The only perfectly sinless human being to have ever lived, fulfilled the perfect standards of God’s Law for our sake, so that you and I would be radically accepted by God exactly as we are.
That’s good news for unrenovated people like you and me! This renovated church must be here for unrenovated people. If only renovated people came to church, well then, no one would be here! All that work for nothing!
     Maybe this proclamation of Christ Jesus might even seep into our dysfunctional lives.  Yes, it is true that we are to “hate the sin and love the sinner.” But often that is just a veiled justification for judging the sinner. Jesus did say very clearly, “judge not, lest you be judged.” As our own Abe Wilson sings on the new Sons of Bill record, “Ain’t no use in talking about the judgment day / Cause, you and me, we don’t believe in judging anyway.” In any case, the one is charge of judging is the one who said, “I did not come to condemn the world but to save the world.” And it is Him whom we proclaim.
But wait, there’s more! Even as he died for our sins, he was raised for our justification. That means that there is hope for whatever is dead – including your relationships severed and deadened by judgment. The one we proclaim is the one who takes dead things and makes them new.  Where Christ Jesus is proclaimed, there is always hope. And in Him alone our hope shall always remain.  Amen.

Bible References

  • 2 Corinthians 4:3 - 6

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