What’s A Church For?

John said to Jesus, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.:  But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to say a bad word about me.  Whoever is not against us is for us.  For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cold cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.    

“For everyone will be salted with fire.  Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it?  Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with each other.”  Mark 9:38-41; 49-50.

Download or listen to podcast K Karpen Sermon 9-30-2012.

Yesterday, a few of us from the church headed out to Queens for the Annual World Maker Faire.  The Maker Faire is an odd assemblage of all kinds of odd people doing all kinds of odd things for all kinds of odd reasons or no reason at all.  I was explaining all that to someone recently and she said, “That sounds kind of like a church.”

What is a church?  A colleague of mine once asked that question during the children’s message and got this answer from an 8 year old: “The church is the gathered assembly of believers in Jesus.”

I would say that that precocious kid had it absolutely right, and who cares.  Because the question that matters, the question I want us to think about today, is What’s a church for?  Why bother?  Why have a church?  What’s a church for?

Jesus gives some insight into that question in today’s Gospel passage when he tells his disciples, “Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with each other.  For everyone will be salted with fire.”

Salt and fire in the ancient world were the only way of keeping things from going bad.  If you slaughtered an animal, you needed to cook it or salt it if you didn’t want the meat to spoil right away, especially in the climate of the near east.  And people believed that if meat started to turn rotten, a little salt could draw out the poison in it and keep it fresh.

We think of salt as a mixed blessing, but in the days of Jesus it preserved food and saved lives.  Jesus is telling his friends and followers, be good to yourselves so you can be useful to others; stay fresh, and hold onto life.    Stay fresh yourselves, so you can breathe freshness into the lives around you.

I could talk all day about what’s a church for.  But I watched some of the food arriving for today’s lunch, so I’ll keep things relatively brief, and relatively simple.

The church is a place to make Community, Hospitality and Witness.

Community first. What’s it mean to say a church is to create community? What does that really mean?

At this Maker’s Faire there was a booth with two mechanical bulls.  And if you signed enough waivers, they let you ride on one of them.  This is not the sort of thing I have ever, ever wanted to do.  But my children goaded me into it, and the next thing I knew I was sitting on one of them, spinning around & around.  Jeff Neiblum was sitting on the other one.  The next thing I knew after that, I was sprawled on the ground.  Jeff was still sitting on the other one.

As I was lying there on the ground, temporarily unable to move I had a moment to think. And I thought, Well, life does this.  Life does to us all the time.  And it does it to people we know, people we care about.  It throws us around, it leaves us sprawled on the ground.

The church can be a place of refuge, a place of community, a place to feel connected to other lives.  A place to know that your life matters to those other lives. And it matters to God.  A place to help pick yourself up.

People at school, people at work, people on the street, they don’t necessarily have your best interest at heart.  But if we do it right, if we build the kind of community the church can be, if we build the kind of salty, fiery community Jesus has in mind, this can be a place of refuge and renewal when life throws us off the bull and onto the ground.

When it’s doing what it’s supposed to be doing, and being what it’s supposed to be being, the church builds a community where we can support each other in our faith and our lives, a kind of foundation sketched out in that great hymn written by a 18th century hymnwriter we know only as ‘K’:

How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord, is laid for your faith in his excellent word.

What more can he say than to you he has said, to you who for refuge to Jesus have fled?

 

Two things about creating community.  You can’t make community by yourself.  I can’t make community by myself.  We can’t make community without everyone.  It’s not a coincidence that Jesus says, Everyone will be salted with fire.  It takes everyone to be community, it just does.  It takes everyone to be a church.

And the second thing is, making community isn’t something you do and it’s done.  A community is like a living, breathing, growing organism.  People come and people go.  New people arrive every week, thank God.  And people move to Wales or Wyoming or Westchester or wherever.

So our community here isn’t the same one that came together last year at homecoming, nor should it be.  And it’s not the same community that was here last week.  Nor should it be.  God keeps bringing new gifts, like the five who formally joined  our community today.

So the church is here to make Community.

 

The church is also here to make a place of hospitality.

I remember four years ago on Election Day, when four or five thousand people came to the church to cast their ballots and found big urns of coffee, platters of muffins and hundreds of cookies greeting them as they waited on long, long lines to vote.  Everyone was so confused.  And so many people asked us, How much does it cost?  Where do we pay?

But you had just decided that that was an appropriate  and friendly way to welcome people here who’d maybe never been in here before, and maybe wouldn’t be again for another four years.  Making a little hospitality.

But hopefully you can come here any day of the week and find that same sort of thing going on.  People who come for the Food Pantry find coffee and pastries to perk them up while they’re waiting for one of the social work counselors to help them.  That’s just hospitality.  That’s just what we do to try to make people feel like they’re home in this our home.  That’s just what we should be doing.  Making Hospitality.

Because our friends and neighbors are going through rough times as well.  Challenging times.  By being there, offering what we can, we can make a huge difference in helping people stay afloat. As the hymn says,

When through the deep waters I call thee to go, the rivers of woe shall not thee overflow;

 for I will be with thee, thy troubles to bless, and sanctify to thee thy deepest distress.

 

And Witness. The church is also here to make a witness.

Everything we do as a church, as a community of Christ, should say a little something about who we are and whose we are. We are here to be a witness to faith and to make a witness of that faith.

And we join in that witness with people who don’t look like us, don’t think like us, and maybe don’t vote like us.

I love the story of John coming to Jesus and saying, “Teacher!  We saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us, he was not one of us, he was not like us!

A colleague of mine from South Carolina sent a note yesterday about a funeral he had attended for a gay African-American serviceman in his hometown.  And when he got there, there were all these white, leather-clad biker dudes on Harleys.  And he asked somebody, What?  Who?

And he was told, They’re from the Patriot Guard.  They show up whenever members of Fred Phelps’ crew threaten to picket a funeral.  They just hang out outside, and if Fred’s people get noisy, they sing songs or they decide it’s time to rev those engines a little…

So there they were.  All these somewhat unsavory bikers protecting the grieving family of this gay black servicemember.

Whoever is not against us is for us.  We’ve all go our way of witnessing.  Of witnessing to the truth that God is for everyone and with everyone.  Even with members of Westview Baptist, for that matter.

Or, as they hymn goes,

Fear not, I am with thee, O be not dismayed, for I am thy God and will still give thee aid,

I’ll strengthen and help thee & cause thee to stand upheld by my righteous omnipotent hand.

 

What’s a church?  It’s the gathered assembly of believers in Jesus.  It’s also an odd assemblage of all kinds of odd people doing all kinds of odd things for all kinds of reasons or no reason at all.  A great Maker Faire of people:  Making peace, making justice, making a slightly better world:

Making community in the middle of lives that sometimes leave us tumbled around and sprawled on the ground.

Making hospitality in a world that yearns for a cold cup of water or a hot cup of coffee.

Making a witness to the one who in the words of that hymn tells us:

The soul that on Jesus still leans for repose, I will not, I will not desert to its foes;         

 that soul, though all hell should endeavor to shake, I’ll never, no never, no never forsake!