By Paul Koch –
This is the time of the year when I attend a few conferences. I go to the Symposium at the Seminary in St. Louis and then our District Pastor’s Conference. These are opportunities for me to continue to grow, to be challenged and stretched as a theologian and pastor. It is a time to reconnect with old colleagues and make new friends. I enjoy going and am truly thankful that I can make these trips, but I have begun to notice something interesting about pastor’s conferences. Now, gathering with a large group of pastors is always a strange thing to begin with; we are sort of odd people. But I have noticed that a conference catering to this odd group turns into a showcase for the perceived problems in the church.
If you pay attention to the various topics that are presented, you get a good sense of what others think are the critical problems facing the church in our day. So they are speaking to offer solutions to these problems. It could be intergenerational ministry, telling God’s whole story, the intersection of Science and the Church, the church’s role in the face of suffering, and on the list goes. So each conference, desiring to be relevant, presents what is perceived to be the most pressing problem facing the church. But here’s the strange thing, we don’t even agree on what that is. I actually got a presenter quite upset with me during this last conference because I disagreed with his assessment of the problem.
Don’t think that stops anyone from pressing on. Oh no, just because we don’t agree on the central problems doesn’t mean we don’t go ahead and offer our solutions anyway. So in the end, people are answering questions only one select section of the group is even asking, and the other questions aren’t being addressed at all. And these are all pastors who are part of the same confession, all part of the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod. Even here, we can’t be united on what is wrong. But we keep going because we are ever hopeful, ever desiring, always longing for something more than this disjointed fellowship that appears at the conference.
Perhaps, in a way, these gatherings give us a quite clear picture of what is happening in the churches; perhaps their disunity is more telling than we first think. For as we all gather in church and you sit in your usual spots, you too have a sense that something is not quite right, and that something is a bit off in the church. The church is called the household of faith in Scripture, it is supposed to be a body where each member has his or her place. The church is a family, the very brothers and sisters of Christ himself and yet, at times, it feels very, very different from that. In fact, quite easily the church can become a place of exclusion and subgroups; people can just talk with those they are comfortable with and more or less ignore others. The church thrives on being a place where we are overcautious of those who propose to do things differently than we’ve done them I the past; quite often new ideas, and the new people who champion them, are silenced and even driven away.
These rifts within the body of Christ can be small and no more than just uncomfortable situations or at times they can be downright damaging to the body. In fact, people can be so hurt that they will leave altogether. I remember having a conversation with a young mother at my previous congregation. She had been a member of the church and had left before I had been their pastor and upon hearing of my arrival eventually came in to talk. She had left because she had two young children and her husband being a submariner was often gone at sea. She struggled to just make it through a service but the church made it even worse. The other members would often give those disapproving looks as they acted up and whispered things under their breath, but no one would slide over and help her out in the pew. When she went up to the pastor one day in tears after a particularly difficult service he simply said that she should just spend her time it he cry room instead. That way she wouldn’t be embarrassed and the other members wouldn’t be distracted. And that was the last Sunday she was in church.
Now it doesn’t even matter if that pastor was right or wrong. It doesn’t matter if the other members said anything or not. All that actually mattered was that they failed to treat her like a sister. She was treated like an outcast, an outcast right in the middle of the family of God. See, Scripture does not describe the church like a country club, where the members have privileges and can ostracize those they feel uncomfortable around. The church is not called to be a place of ranking and hierarchy where people need to get in line or get to the back. It is not a place where you are promised to be rewarded for your hard work, where you will be praised more than others. It is a place where the mighty are brought low and the humble are lifted up, a place where those in greatest need are the most important members, it is a family.
St. Paul puts it this way, he says,
“I urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit – just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call – one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Eph. 4:1-6).
He doesn’t say you need to become the body of Christ, he doesn’t say you need to reorganize so that you are a family bound in the unity of the Spirit. No, he says that you already are. You are already these things. This life together is part of the life you are given in gifts of Christ.
Remember the Wizard of Oz? All Dorothy wanted to do was to get home. In fact, her whole trek along the yellow brick road was premised on this desire: first to the Wizard, then to get the wicked witch’s broom stick, and back to the Emerald City. The big surprise in the end is that she had the power to go home all the time, right there in her ruby slippers. And so, Paul reminds us today that we don’t need something new to be the faithful Church. We don’t need something more to be the Household of Faith or the Family of God. We are already it; we are created and preserved by the free gift of grace in Christ alone. All we need to do is click our heels together.
Well, perhaps it’s not that easy. But Paul is calling us to be what Christ has declared us to be. The Law trapped you in your sin, making it impossible for you to be perfect and be the faithful children God demanded that you be. So He sent His Son, pure and spotless to become that sin for you. He bears your very sins upon His shoulders to feel the pains you earned in His own flesh. And in His death, He paid the price. But in His resurrection, in His life he calls you to a new life in him. He declares you to be free, free to life in his love and mercy, free from the Law to love and forgive as you have been forgiven.
I want you today to take a good hard look at the gathering of God’s children, wherever you are. Maybe you have grandchildren but they live far away or have grown beyond the age of simple spoiling. Well I tell you, you have grandchildren right here where you worship, and they need your love and your spoiling and your kind forgiveness. Perhaps you’ve lost a parent and miss those calm words of wisdom from someone who loves you. Why, there are parents all around us: those whose stories can inspire and guide and comfort us. Perhaps as you’ve grown, your brothers or sisters have moved away and you long for those times of just fun and nonsense. Look right here at your brothers and sisters; they need you as much as you need them.
We are called into this life together. We are bound to it in the gift of baptism, and we need each other. Don’t just move on like every other day; take a moment today to love each other, to forgive each other, to be what Christ has already declared us to be: a family.