What is RIGHT with This Church?
What is RIGHT with This Church? by Rev. L. John Gable
September 24, 2017
I grew up in a family that loved to sing together. Many of my earliest childhood memories are of us taking Sunday afternoon car rides with my grandparents, parents and sisters, singing songs like, Shine On Harvest Moon, K-K-K-Katie, and You Are My Sunshine.
But there is one, less popular, song that we sang that has always stuck in my mind. It goes like this: “Wake me bright and early when your hair is not so curly and I’ll still be true. If I am awakened to the same old eggs and bacon, I will still be true. If I find that you’re the owner of a dirty silk kimono I will still be true, but not… to you.” I’m not even sure I know what that song means, but what I took it to mean then, and think it means still, is that it is easy to profess love when the other is looking her or his best, but not so much when they aren’t. We like the “ideal”, more than we do the “particular”, and many feel much the same about the Church. We like the “ideal” of the church in the abstract more than we do in its reality, as it really is, when “it’s hair is not so curly or its kimono is a little dirty.” Madeline Murray O’Hair famously said of the church, “The one really formidable argument against the truth of the Christian religion is the record of the Christian church”, and another critique dating back to the Middle ages was, “The Church is like Noah’s ark. If it weren’t for the storm on the outside you couldn’t stand the smell on the inside.”
It is popular to be critical of the Church, and perhaps rightly so, we have many faults. In many ways the Church is an “odd” institution. It is both earthly and eternal, human and divine, local and universal, in its nature, all of which make it susceptible to the critique, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it, that it is “easier to love your dream of community than the reality of the community you know.”
Some get frustrated with the church they experience in the particular and leave it in search of the “perfect” church. There are two problems with that. First, if you find the “perfect” church don’t join it because once you do it won’t be “perfect” any longer. And second, as Christians, as followers of Jesus, we can’t ever really leave the Church because we ARE the Church.
So, in an age when it is popular to talk about what’s WRONG with the Church, I’d like us to think today about what is RIGHT with the Church, the Church eternal, the Church universal, and on this 166th anniversary of our founding, this Church, Tabernacle, in the particular.
There is no attempt on my part for any prideful self-promotion of who we are or what we do here at Tab. There are many areas in which we are not living in to our high calling or fulfilling Christ’s great commands, but I will tell you, I am very proud, in the spiritually appropriate way of course, of the Kingdom work we do here and I love to tell Tab stories to whoever will listen, stories of the past, of things that are going on right now, and of our vision for the future. So, with as much humility as we can muster, let’s give an honest appraisal of what we are doing RIGHT, and together affirm what the Church must be and do if it is RIGHTLY to be called the Church of Jesus Christ.
For starters, the Church, any church, but let’s think specifically of Tab for now, the Church must be committed to Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord and consider Him the foundation for all that we say and do. It was founded by Him and bears His name as His Body, so in every real sense, it is His Church, not ours. The Church, in every instance, is founded on the teaching of Christ, His sacrifice of the cross, the promise of the resurrection and the empowering of the Holy Spirit. Because He is alive and active in the world, the Church also is called to be alive and active in the world as His hands and feet. If we do this, we, as the Church, despite all of our short-comings, will be in the RIGHT.
If, in our mission and ministry, we prayerfully seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit and obey its promptings, then again, we will be in the RIGHT, because the Spirit is RIGHT. We are more than a collection of like-minded people who enjoy one another’s company (at least most of the time) and have a shared vision for the well-being of our community. There are many organizations which are framed by those principles, but the Church is different. We are called and gathered and led and guided and instructed and encouraged by the very Spirit of God. And when we as pastors and elders and deacons and teachers and members trust and pray and breathe the Spirit, then we, as the Church, will be in the RIGHT. Again, I am not saying that we will always be right in our attitudes or our actions, most assuredly we will not be, but what we will be is open to the Spirit’s leading us in the RIGHT direction.
John Calvin argued that the Church is in the RIGHT when the Word of God is faithfully preached and the sacraments are rightly administered. I have every confidence that we are being faithful in this way, at least in the essentials, even as we leave room for disagreement on the non-essentials.
We are RIGHT as a Church when we are actively seeking to meet the needs of our members and non-members alike; when we are seeking to “demonstrate the Kingdom of God” as our mission statement declares; when we desire “Greater Faith, Deeper Relationships, and a Stronger Community” as we state in our recent Vision Renewal Report. The Church is intended to be “not a museum for saints, but a hospital for sinners”; a place of welcome and healing, of aid and reconciliation for all people.
When I first felt called to Tab, now nearly a decade ago, I was most impressed and inspired by the “two-legged” approach to the Gospel which this church has historically taken: an evangelical witness from the pulpit and active social engagement in the community. That combination is surprisingly rare in the Church today; a church typically has a bias toward one or the other, but Tab has a 166 year history of being committed to both. We moved from our first location near the Circle all the way out to 11th and Meridian because there were too many churches in a concentrated area downtown; then in 1921 we moved all the way out here to 34th and Central because there weren’t enough churches in this growing area on the out-skirts of the city and no one was offering Christian education classes to the children of this neighborhood. The story is told that our very first year we had 100 kids in Sunday school, our second year 1100. Tab moved to the Mapleton- Fall Creek neighborhood to help meet a need and we have stayed because we believe there are needs which still exist. When we drafted our Vision Renewal statement we started with the shared agreement that we weren’t going to leave 34th and Central. We still believe now, even as we did in 1921, that God has called us to this place and that we have a work of ministry to do in His name right here.
Wherever I go in this city, and my guess you are able to say the same, whenever I am identified as being from Tab, someone has a Tab story to tell. Most often it has to do with the recreation program which we have been running since 1924 or our outreach in to the community through the Open Door soup kitchen, the creation of the Raphael Health Center, the Neighborhood Christian Legal Clinic, the Unleavened Bread Café, the Oaks Academy and the list goes on. Our desire for 166 years has been to be the hands and feet of Christ in this community and we’ve got our fingerprints/His fingerprints everywhere. If one mark of the Church is caring for the needs of our members and community, then we are in the RIGHT.
And one final mark I’d add is that a Church is in the RIGHT when it actively seeks justice and peace and reconciliation. The third leg of our Vision Renewal statement defines A Stronger Community in this way: “Tab will work in partnership with its neighbors to strengthen the Mapleton-Fall Creek community, advocate for justice and promote God’s shalom for all people.” Admittedly there is much work that needs to be done in these areas of our life together, as well as in this neighborhood and community. There is much work that must be done to promote economic and educational justice, and racial reconciliation. There are still far too many hungry children in our community who do not live in safe homes or walk on safe streets, and we have a part to play in meeting those needs, not for our neighbors, but with our neighbors. A Church is in the RIGHT when it seeks “a redeemed soul, in a redeemed body, in a redeemed community.”
Our Scripture lesson this morning, in many ways summarizes the entire Gospel message, when it says, “And this is God’s commandment, that we should believe in the name of His Son Jesus Christ, and love one another, just as He has commanded us.” (I John 3:23)
There is one statement in the Vision Renewal Report that both challenges and inspires me as we now enter our 167th year of ministry together. I quote: “As much as we see this as a statement of vision, we see it as a challenge to the people of Tab – A challenge to accept that the legacy we have built is a foundation on which to build again, not a place to rest; a challenge to push into new territories, not simply defend what we have; a challenge to never grow complacent in our work, faith or love of one another, but, rather, to strive always to go further and deeper; in short, we see it as a challenge to grow beyond what we are and to become something greater for the Kingdom of God.”
I know of an English professor who will fill, even a paper he has given an A to, with red lined edits, because he believes that “No paper is too good not to be made better” and I believe the same about the Church in general and Tab in the specific.
In recent months my wife Kristin has unintentionally overheard two different conversations in which the conversants were talking about the Church. The first was in a coffee shop and a woman at a table next to hers was ranting and raving to her table mates about her church, specifically being critical of her pastor. As she talked about the incident, or the perceived affront she had received, her voice got louder and louder, and her gestures bigger and bigger, despite the attempts of her friends to calm her down or change the subject. It was awkward for Kris, not only because as a pastor’s wife she wanted to defend in whatever way she could the action or inaction of this woman’s pastor; but more than that, she wanted to speak up for the Church. She wanted to find a way to say to this woman, in private, that what she was doing was not healthy or helpful, for her or for her church or for the Church. She wanted to say to her, “If I wasn’t a Christian or if I was looking for a church home, I would never attend your church, simply because of what you have said about it and your pastor.” Unfortunately, the opportunity to say those things to her was never given.
The second conversation she unintentionally overheard was in a restaurant and the people she overheard talking just happened to be talking about Tab. That was another awkward position to be in, as you can imagine. “Oh no, where is this conversation going?” But as she listened, they were talking about the good things that were happening: about the tutoring program and Fresh Stop, the stadium project and the new gym floor, the new small group they had joined and how much they were enjoying it and the new people they were meeting. They could have been talking about any church that day, they just happened to be talking about Tab, and they were talking about what was RIGHT with the Church.
I wonder with you, what if someone just happened to overhear you talking about the Church, what would they hear you say? Would they hear you talk about all that is WRONG with the Church, all of her faults and foibles, or about something that is RIGHT? By listening to you talk would they be drawn in or pushed away?
Admittedly, there is much about the Church in the particular that is NOT RIGHT, so let us together commit to doing all that we can to make it better, RIGHTER; but let us also never lose our love for the Church in its “ideal,” much less the church with the dirty silk kimono, the Church Christ came to call in to service for a world He came to save.