Micah 6: 6-16
1 Corinthians 12: 27-13: 13
From the looks of it, The Community Church of Joy in Glendale, Arizona was a great success. Construction was everywhere on the church’s 187 acre campus, and there were 12,000 names on the membership roles. There were professional musicians, who delivered what people called “upbeat music”, square dancing classes, weekly group trips to favorite restaurants and game playing nights. But the Rev. Walter Kallestad was having difficulty sleeping. While discipleship calls Christians to take up their crosses and care for the most vulnerable, Kallestad reached the disturbing conclusion that his congregation was not interested in engaging with God, but were looking for relief, entertainment and inspiration. While the church, he thought, had become a formidable institution, it was not following Christ, and so one Sunday morning he
stood before his congregation and confessed that under his leadership the church had become a dispenser of goods and services. And so, he said, things would have to change. And change they did. The professional musicians were suddenly gone, because, he said, they had no real interest in the faith. No more group trips to restaurants or game nights or any of the other frills. One out of every three members and half the staff immediately left the church in protest. Soon others would follow, when they recognized the minister meant what he said. “Faith is costly; if you’re a spectator and a consumer here,” he said, “then you are living a lie and you are ignoring what Christ commands you to do.” The church has still not recovered even one quarter of its former membership, but at least some people learned that faith is not a commodity and that the church is not primarily about making its members feel comfortable or satisfied.
Because we live in a consumerist society, people have learned to approach everything as consumers---including religion and education. But unlike commercial enterprises, the church does not exist to satisfy the wants of customers. In fact, its call is to transform what their so called “customers” want; in other words, diminishing selfish and primitive desires and moving its members to desire what is truly good and worthy of human desire. The church’s business is character formation or transformation on the deepest levels---to become conformed to the image of God in Jesus Christ.
In former times the business of the church was understood to be about “saving souls.” Though many of us do not embrace the old images of keeping souls out of a devouring pit of fire, we certainly should believe that the church is still in the business of salvation. And at least part of what that word means is to be constantly in the process of being saved; that is, having our desires transformed, learning, in other words, to desire what God in Jesus Christ would have us desire.
For what we desire says a great deal about our character, about the kind of people we are and want to become. When my husband began his career as a professor in a medical school 30 years ago, the most competitive residency was orthopedics, but now it is dermatology. And do you know why, because it’s a lucrative specialty with defined hours. Money, ease and comfort are what many desire. Professors at universities and colleges sometimes lament what they see as the brain drain to Wall Street. While decades ago, the so called best and brightest went into medicine, scientific research, law and teaching, now many head off to Wall Street, where some figure out how to do all kinds of complicated financial manipulations that escape the attention of the less clever. One of my husband’s colleagues, who formerly worked on Wall Street, before going into molecular biology, told him, “It is scary how smart some of these people are. But they too often use their intelligence for the wrong things.”
Who or what helps us to use our intelligence for the right things? The public schools have all but given up on character formation and the church is not far behind. If the church makes its priorities what the culture deems worthy, what are we? Who are we? Why do we need to exist? The temptation is to surrender the distinct religious identity by merging into the larger cultural identity. Micah told his people that they had become a vassal state of the Assyrian Empire, because they had pursued the wrong desires. You have been greedy, he said. You have cheated the poor by using scales that do not properly weigh the grain. Your wealth rests on violence. Lies and deceit dominate the public square. You know, Micah said, what your call is: do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God.
And Paul told the Christians of Corinth that their differing gifts should be used in an excellent way. Let love be your guide. These well known verses on love, too often, in my opinion, read at weddings, are not about romantic love. The love here is agape, which can be translated as charity. This is care and concern for the other, including the enemy. This love is not about liking or approval, but it is about deep caring, desiring for the other true fullness of life. Paul wrote these words in the context of church. This is his vision of what the church should be and become: a community whose members have had their desires transformed and changed. When your desire is changed, your view of yourself and the other and the world changes. You do not see as the culture sees.
Do you think, for example, that St. Francis or Mother Theresa saw the leper or criminal or the drug addict or the illegal migrant as less than they, lacking the image and likeness of God? Would they have poured contempt upon these people, because they fail to do what our common morality dictates? No, because their vision had been transformed by the gospel, and so they saw differently, dimly to be sure, because no human being can see the fullness. No institution, church or state, can make the new creation. Only God can do that, but in the meantime the church is called to be witness to God’s new creation. How? By doing justice, loving mercy and walking humbly with God. And though we cannot do that perfectly, we can open our eyes and recognize when justice is NOT done, when mercy is denied and when arrogance rules the day. And then we raise our voices and our prayers in the hope that God’s will indeed one day overcome the world’s will and make all life new.
About Our Pastor:
I am very happy to be here at the First Church of Christ, Congregational in Unionville, CT. I arrived here in July, 2017, and have been warmly received. This is a wonderful church community. I have been an ordained minister for over three decades now, and I consider it a great privilege and challenge to be called to serve. Before coming to Unionville I served churches on Long Island, Middletown, CT and then ten years in New Haven, Center Church on the Green. My home is in Middletown, where I live with my husband, Donald Oliver, who is a professor of molecular biology at Wesleyan University. We have four grown children, two boys and two girls and three granddaughters, the youngest born on October 3, 2017!