Where God Lives
One of the most original and forceful English authors in the early years of the century just ended was G. K. Chesterton, whom crime fiction fans know as the creator of a wise and whimsical detective by the name of Father Brown. What they may not know is that he was a brilliant stylist who cared passionately about words and who understood how important they are in religion. Since I share his passion I once copied out a paragraph from one of his books in which two men are talking one day, and when they come to a mild disagreement one of them says pleasantly, “Well, we won’t quarrel about a word” — at which the other man, who clearly represents Chesterton himself, flares up and says: “Why on earth not? Why shouldn’t we quarrel about a word? What is the good of words if they aren’t important enough to quarrel over? Why do we choose one word more than another if there isn’t any difference between them? If you call a woman a chimpanzee instead of an angel, wouldn’t there be a quarrel about a word? If you’re not going to argue about words, what are you going to argue about? Are you going to convey your meaning to me by moving your ears? The Church and the heresies always used to fight about words, because they are the only things worth fighting about.”
No one ever used words more carefully than Chesteron so you can understand his passion about them, but the hero of the Biblical book of Job agrees with him about the importance of language: “How forceful,” he says, “are honest words!” The implication is that not all words are honest, and the fact is that they’re not, even when people have no conscious intent to deceive. We do some damage to clear thinking when we let ourselves get sloppy in the use of language. If our choice of words is careless, it means our thinking is not very precise, and since much of our conduct comes from how we think, then our conduct gets careless, too. If it’s true that “as we think in our hearts, so are we,” which is what the Bible claims, then it is also true that as we speak so do we define ourselves. Not necessarily in some heavy, obvious fashion but in lots of small ways that can add up to a clear revelation of how we think, what we’re really like.
Last Sunday we thought together for a few minutes about a single word, the word saint , and how our departure from the original sense of that word has affected our view of the religious life. I’d like to follow up that excursion into how we’ve changed some New Testament meanings by talking this morning about an example of vocabulary confusion which distorts our understanding of the word church. I can illustrate with a familiar expression all of us use constantly. It’s a warm, clear Sunday morning and someone says, “Are you playing golf today?” and you respond, “Well, maybe around noon, but I’m going to church first.”
Your friend understands what that means, that you are going to a building where others of like mind will sing and hear scriptures read and prayers spoken, along with a sermon which it’s hoped will be short if tee time is at noon. You are doing what is universally called “going to church,” and only a pedantic idiot would dream of trying to change it in favor of a more accurate expression, so my goal this morning is much less ambitious. All I hope to do is just remind you that if we were to honor New Testament usage there’d be a little hitch in our consciousness anytime we heard that phrase because in its original sense we cannot “go” to the church, we are the church.
People aren’t going to stop using this expression, so this is not a crusade — only a Sunday morning suggestion that once in a while we remember a very important idea: that wherever we are, the church is. When Paul wrote to the church in Corinth, his letter did not go to a building located at First and Main. It went to believers scattered all over that port city who were the church, whether they were at work or at home or in the theater, and the letter was read for convenience’s sake when they all came together on Sunday for worship.
And that word — worship — leads us into a moment of reflection about our misuse of still another expression. Sometimes, instead of saying we are “going to church,” as if it were something one went to instead of something one is, we say that we plan to “attend the worship service.” An interesting combination of words: worship service. Let’s think about the last one first. It doesn’t take a very keen eye to see that not much service goes on in this building on a Sunday morning. A few professionals and a few volunteers perform a service while the rest watch and listen. Those are not bad things to be doing, watching and listening, but they are not service. I hadn’t planned to say it again, but the Quaker quote from last Sunday is too perfect to miss repeating for this moment: When the worship ends, the service begins.
Church service is not what happens on Sunday morning; it’s what happens when people who are the church go somewhere and serve: paint a house, fix a faucet, drive somebody to the hospital, carry a cake where someone is grieving. And worship is not something we can attend. Worships attends us, every day, every hour. It’s an attitude, it’s the bowing down of our spirits in reverence and wonder before God’s presence everywhere. I grew up in a church that had made a list of what it called the “acts” of worship, by which it meant things like singing or praying or taking communion, but a finite list is a silly thing because if you walk through life with reverence and wonder, then how many acts will not be worship? I include helping friends and strangers, reading a book, marveling at a sunset. If we have the midn of Christ, which is what we seek more of in a gathering like this, then every one of these simple acts becomes part of our worship life, part of our total gratitude for all that blesses us.
Back for a moment to the word service . If you listen to the way people often talk about joining a church, you find that a surprising amount of that talk revolves around what they hope to get rather than whast they hope to give. The question, implicit or explicit, is not usually, “How can I serve?” but “How will I be served? What does this church have to offer me and my children?” These are not wicked questions, it’s just that sometimes they seem to be the only questions. I have actually had people say to me, “I’ll join the church if you won’t ask me to do anything.” Sometimes, of course, that only means, “I don’t want to make announcements or serve on a Board,’ but sometimes it really does mean that church is primarily a spectator sport.
I’ve wondered at times if there might not be an analogy between church and a pro football game. On the field a handful of players who struggle up and down across the white lines until their uniforms are sweaty and stained, sometimes even a little bloody if the game is intense. Up in the stands, outnumbering the players about 3000 to 1 are the spectators, who make remarks about how well or how poorly the players perform, and whether the coach should be fired for not winning more games — all part of the fun of watching. What if the announcer were suddenly touched with madness and invited everybody to come down and take part in the game? No, these are people who have chosen to watch, not work. They hold a ticket, they have a right to boo or applaud, but try to get them on the field, tell them they have to play or leave, and they’ll take their blankets and thermos bottles and head for home. And they’re right, because they are acting ina ccord with the logic of pro football. No one in his or her right mind would come out of the stands and get into that. But our logic about church is as wrong as our logic about pro football is right: we were never intended to be only spectators at a weekly performance and to suppose that this is what it means to be the church.
The logic of Christianity is that having been the church all week, wherever we were, and having worshipped God all week in what we do, we meet on Sunday to inspire each other for the next week of work and worship. We have enlisted in a crusade against cruelties and injustice and deception, a crusade where the wars are fought on weekdays, on the street, in hospitals, in our own hearts — everywhere! — to that coming to be with the rest of the church is like R&R for a soldier: a chance to regroup, to heal the wounds and share the small victories, something nobody wants to miss. Something even bad weather doesn’t keep you away, just as it doesn’t for a ball game if you love sports, so if I find myself feeling like a martyr when I give up an hour on Sunday, I’m not a bad person — I’m just a million light years removed from the passion and excitement of those people who first made up the church. The last thing in the world that would have occurred to these people was that it might be a sacrifice to meet with their fellow crusaders on the Lord’s Day. They hadn’t developed enough to pay a musician or a pulpit minister to perform for them, but if they had it would have been only because they needed, as we do, an hour of inspiration, a recharging of our batteries, before we go back out to be the church for the next six days.
We were described once, we who are the church, as leaven or yeast, and the point of the comparison was that we are supposed to be some kind of saving or redeeming force in the world. If we are, it happens when we touch the lump of dough we are supposed to leaven, whether it be a person or a system — when we make contact and go actively to work on that shapeless mass. The bread’s already in the oven here….we fulfill our mission to be leaven somewhere else, nt in this room. It would be a pretty silly thing to get a whole roomful of yeast cakes together to enjoy one another’s company and suppose that this is what Christ had in mind to be our real purpose. To change the metaphor, as he did himself on another occasion, we are meant to be the salt of the earth — to keep things from rotting, to keep greed from running amok and ruining lives, to keep the peace, to preserve the beauty of the earth, to sting a little when we land on the open sore of some ugly or selfish things.
But to do it, we have to get out of the shaker, which is how I would describe a church building, and be poured out where the preservation and the flavor are needed. To think we were simply meant to come here once a week, into this lovely white saltshaker, and be grains of nice clean salt toughing other grains of nice clean salt is to misunderstand totally what Jesus had in mind. An alien visiting from another planet could be excused for thinking that churches often concentrate more on socializing, on repeating comforting thoughts, on pure entertainment, even, for an hour each week, and then forgetting through all the other days that there is a difference between us and peoiple we know who make no claim at all to be the church.
If there isn’t any difference, then we are not the church, which means that if the world is to be rebuked for selfishness and cheating, for deliberate lies and ugly racism and the sale of justice to the highest bidders, the rebuke will have to come from somebody else. I happen to be proud of this church because I know the good things you do after you leave this hour of re-dedication. Christianity is what happens when salt pours out of the shaker, not what happens when the grains huddle together, and church is what we are, not what we go to.
One last reassurance about my mental condition. I’m not crazy enough to think I’m really going to change the way we speak, so go ahead and talk about going to church, like everybody else, but in the back of your mind, please say to yourself once in a while: “I am the church. Wherever I go, whatever I do, the church is present.” Surely I don’t have to tell you how keeping that in mind could affect how you respond to the pressures and temptations of the weekday world. If you are like me, you forget it all too often, only to realize, when you remember, how much better you feel about yourself. The word for today? Try it!
As the church leaves the room this morning, gracious Lord, for
all the places where it will serve, we ask your blessing upon it that
it may create a kingdom of heaven in His name who has called us
to ambassadors of that kingdom. Amen.