WHAT IS RIGHT ABOUT THE CHURCH?
A Pastoral Message for the People of St. John’s Baptist Church of Charlotte, NC,
by The Rev. Dennis Foust, PhD, Senior Minister, on August 28, 2022
Scripture: Gospel of John 17:14-21
If you read books on the subject of leadership, you may be aware of Max Dupree. He was the CEO of Herman Miller Company. His book, Leadership is an Art has sold more than a million copies. In 1994, I participated in a week-long conference with him. We convened to explore how churches can connect the Sunday experience with the Monday through Saturday lives of members equipping them to serve in the community. We discussed the role of the pastor as a leader and the scriptural idea that every follower of Jesus is a Minister in Daily Life. Max Dupree cited an oft-quoted statement in one of his books: “The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality.”
THE REALITY I DEFINE FOR YOU TODAY IS THIS: THERE IS NO SUBSTITUTE FOR THE CHURCH WHEN WE ARE INVOLVED IN DOING GOD’S WORK.
During the summer of 2010, it was my opportunity to travel for three months across our nation. My sabbatical allowed me to crisscross more than 30,000 miles of this country visiting 25 cities from Boston to Honolulu and from Seattle to Miami. My work identified how churches are doing God’s work in each city. Diversity was glaringly evident as churches desired to be relevant in this fast-paced changing 21st century. Yet, it was also clear of how there is so much right about the Church. In fact, I came away from that summer more convinced than ever that the identity and message of God’s Church, when it is truly living out the ministry of Jesus, is as relevant in our time – and as needed – as ever before in human history. Although we have government services, non-profit organizations, endowments, and institutions doing good work, there is no substitute group doing God’s work in the world the way it is done by healthy and vitalized local churches.
THAT IS REALITY!
Last Sunday, my sermon defined part of this reality as I presented how and why the church must change. In this sermon, I define another aspect of this reality as I respond to the question, ‘What is Right About the Church?’ What facets of the Church should never change?
Today, I present two facts about the Church that are so RIGHT, we must always prioritize them.
But, here are ten other factors that must always be right about St. John’s Baptist Church.
- We are a covenant community investing our energies and resources in being a servant people.
- We express our worship to The Living God through diverse expressions of faith.
- We nurture one another to relate with God by living as disciples (obedient learners) of Jesus Christ.
- We are an intergenerational and relationship-oriented community of faith.
- We both value meaningful traditions and embrace creative new ideas.
- We use our facilities as ministry resources and practice faithful financial stewardship.
- We focus on both the vertical and horizontal dimensions of active faith.
- We partner with others to accomplish what we cannot do by ourselves.
- We provide many pathways for people to be involved in God’s compassionate peace and justice.
- We practice personal, church, and religious freedom as entrusted to us by our Baptist forebearers.
One of the most important passages in the Bible’s record of Jesus is his intercessory prayer for his followers prior to his arrest. In this prayer, we find two essential ingredients in what makes the Church healthy and vital. When the Church values these two priorities, we show the world what is right about the Church.
Jesus begins by naming a primary reality about us that we often forget – or refuse to consider.
Jesus says that you and I do not belong to this world – we belong to God.
In Jesus’ prayer, he says, “They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world.”
In fact, he repeats it.
Although we are in the world, we are not of the world.
ONE REALITY WE MUST ALWAYS PRIORITIZE IS THAT WE ARE OUTSIDERS.
The day the Church becomes popular in this world is the day we cease to be the Church!
I have always found it interesting that both the ministry of Jesus and the life of his spiritual movement, which came to be called the Church, began with danger signs flashing red.
Jesus’ ministry started with a death threat in his hometown. In Luke 4, you see a snapshot of how Jesus’ home congregation rejected him. They tried to throw him off a cliff because he described God’s reality to them and it didn’t agree with their perspective.
Here, in John 17, we eavesdrop on Jesus’ prayer as he asks God to protect us from the evil one.
Jesus did not ask for us to be taken out of this world. Jesus knew that if we follow him in continuing the work of God’s compassion and describe God’s reality, evil will oppose us.
Friends, the prevailing problem, throughout the history of the Church, has been preventing the Church from trying to become like the world. In every situation where the Church substitutes the world’s use of power for God’s love, evil wins. Evil has often coopted the Church for ungodly purposes. One current example is Christian nationalism. Theologian Jurgen Moltmann calls this a ‘chameleon theology’ when the Church blends into the culture of society. Paul warned the church in Rome to “not be conformed to this world.”
We need not turn to the world to find our identity or our message. We are not of this world.
We proclaim & embody the Good News of God in a bad news world.
We proclaim & embody compassion in a world that celebrates cruelty and fosters animosity. We proclaim & embody inclusive acceptance in a world that affirms alienation & segregation.
We proclaim and embody gracious mercy in a world that rewards crudeness and selfishness.
Beloved, the Church is always right when we are distinctly NOT of this world.
So, how are we to live IN this world without becoming OF it? Jesus asks God to “Sanctify them in the truth…” The word, ‘truth,’ means ‘reality.’
God’s reality is the truth. God’s truth is the only reality.
To be sanctified means to be set apart as people who pursue a godly life.
This ‘godly’ life is a sacrificial servant life. This is revealed to us by Jesus.
Jesus prayed, “As you have sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world.”
Just as Jesus was sent to present God’s reality in this world, so are we.
Just as Jesus entered the world to reconcile and build peace, so are we sent into the world.
Our vocation – our calling – is to be set apart as people who continue the ministry of Christ.
Indeed, we are called the Body of Christ in today’s world because this is our life together.
If Jesus was hated for embodying God’s love, why should we expect the world to like us?
Will Willimon has said it well: “The ultimate evidence for the Resurrection is the existence of something so unlikely and inexplicable as the church. One cannot explain the birth or the impact of the church in any other way except as the resurrected Body of Christ.”
So, first, when we live in a way that proclaims we are in the world but not of it, we bear witness to Jesus’ relationship with God and embody what is right about the Church.
A SECOND REALITY WE MUST ALWAYS PRIORITIZE IS SPIRITUAL UNITY.
Jesus prayed that all of us who have committed our lives to God as followers of Jesus beginning with those first disciples would be ONE in relationship and mission. Just as Jesus and the God to whom he prayed were ONE, he prayed that our spiritual unity would be in equal measure.
Jesus prayed for us to be one so our witness in the world would be effective.
This unity with God shows up when we accomplish God’s work together. As each person carries their part of our ministries, we accomplish amazing outcomes. This morning, Sally Young brought to us this year’s Church Leadership Report. If you have already said, ‘yes,’ thank you. If you have not yet volunteered or responded with your ‘yes,’ to service, please do so very soon. We do not need anyone to do everything; we do need everyone to do something.
Eight years ago, I told this story to our deacons one evening. Then, five years ago, I told this story on a Sunday morning. Although you may remember hearing the story, it won’t hurt you to hear it again. This is a true story. You can look it up on YouTube.
In 1988. Herman Ostry and his family lived in the small town of Bruno, Nebraska. They had a barn that needed to be moved to higher ground and out of a flood zone. After obtaining quotes from various companies, the family agreed they could not afford to have the barn moved with power equipment. So, Herman thought up another idea and asked their neighbors to pitch in. The barn weighed 6,640 pounds.
Herman reasoned that if a large group of people would band together to physically pick up the barn to move it, the weight each person would have to carry would be manageable. He figured out that the steel grid needed to stabilize the barn and give people handholds would add an additional 3,100 pounds, making the total weight just under 7,000 pounds. By his calculations, if 350 people pitched in to pick up the barn and move it, each person would only need to carry between 20 and 55 pounds depending upon where they were positioned. The town of Bruno embraced the idea and included the unconventional barn “raising” into their centennial celebration. On the day of the move, more than 4,000 spectators turned out to watch the event. News crews came from Lincoln and Omaha to film the spectacle. They all watched as 344 volunteers stepped up to help 6 members of the Ostry family do the job. It took less than thirty minutes to move the barn to its new foundation on higher ground. The barn movers later reported how good it felt to accomplish the work together.
We embody what is right about the Church when we unite and partner with God to participate in building a better world. On Wednesday, October 26th, we will convene the first, ‘Building a Better World’ event. I am initiating this effort because I hear people say, “yes, I know we must do better and I care, but I don’t know what I can do to help.” Whether the need is racism, hunger, immigrants and refugees, homelessness, poverty, etc., I hear you and other voices saying, “I want to build a better world but I’m not sure how to help.”
St. John’s, you are part of a movement of God that began with the surprise of resurrection. And you continue to be surprised by the God who sanctifies you for service and unites you for witness. That is what’s right with the Church! Beloved, this is reality –
THERE IS NO SUBSTITUTE FOR THE CHURCH WHEN WE ARE INVOLVED IN DOING GOD’S WORK!
Amen and AMEN!