My love of wonder and awe and majesty in worship started early – not in my dad’s church, but at Central United Methodist Church in Richmond, Indiana. Central was sort of “Episcopal light.” There was impressive stained glass and grand processions, acolytes and one of the largest pipe organs in the state.
The senior minister, Dr. Holmes, gave soaring, inspirational sermons that lasted exactly 15 minutes. In fact, everything was perfectly timed at Central. The 11 am worship ended promptly at noon… week after week. At Central, everything was done with taste and decency, and you could count on it.
But one summer Sunday, during the sermon, a homeless woman in a sundress and snow boots walked down the side aisle and took a seat right in front of the pulpit. After listening for a few minutes, she began to lift her hands in the air. People noticed, but no one said a word. And Dr. Holmes kept right on preaching. A few minutes later, this woman stood to her feet, made her way to the center aisle and mounted the stairs to the altar. And Dr. Holmes kept right on preaching. Then the woman knelt in front of the cross and once again lifted her hands high in the air. And then she began to bow, over and over again in front of the cross. And Dr. Holmes kept right on preaching. And when she was done worshipping, she stood up, lifted her head rather regally, and walked out of the church via the center aisle. And Dr. Holmes kept right on preaching.
For a long time, as I retold this story, that woman was the punch line; she was the comic relief. But I have lived long enough and worked in the church long enough that now I wonder if maybe the congregation and poor Dr. Holmes were the comic relief. We were the ones who pretended like nothing was happening. We were the ones who very politely ignored her, forgetting that the book of Hebrews says: “Do not neglect hospitality, for through it some have unknowingly entertained angels.” Was she an angel? Angel simply means messenger? Was she trying to tell us something? And what was it we could not learn from her because we were too busy being respectable?
That’s what lots of churches are, you know, imminently respectable places, repositories for art and music and history; outposts of a gentler time; reminders of a world of order and decorum. Angels are welcome as long as they stay in the stained glass or hold up the corners of the room and look respectable.
In the verses that precede the Gospel reading of the day, we are told that Jesus entered the Temple in Jerusalem, and seeing the moneychangers taking advantage of the poor, he acted in a most unseemly way. He threw a fit. Jesus knocked their tables over and destroyed merchandise and scared them off with a whip. Then heavenly chaos broke loose. The sick were healed and little children started a spontaneous parade singing “Hosanna to the Son of David!” It was not what one expected to see in that very grand House of God.
The next day Jesus returned to the Temple, but this time those charged with maintaining proper decorum were waiting for him. “By what authority are you doing these things and who gave you this authority?” It was a legitimate question. These were trained religious professionals who orchestrated the worship of God and kept the civic order. And Jesus? Well, Jesus was a nobody. And what had happened the day before was beyond the pale. So when they confronted him, they were just doing their duty – something most of us still think of as a good thing. The problem was their duty and their respectability had come to define their religion. It was all very beautiful, but it lacked compassion and spontaneity and joy.
“By whose authority are you doing these things?” they demanded. To which Jesus said, “I’ll answer your question if you answer mine. Was John’s baptism from God or not?” And that was a loaded question. The masses loved the populist John the Baptist. If these religious authorities answered that John was from God, then they stood condemned for not following God. But if they said he was not from God, then they risked the wrath of the people. And so, in an answer worthy of any Washington politician, they said: “We’ll have to get back to you on that.” And Jesus replied, “Then I won’t answer your question either.” And then he told a story.
A man had two sons. He went to the first one and asked him to go work in the vineyard. “No way old man”, the son said. “I’ve got better things to do.” But later he felt bad and decided to go to work. The father also went to the second son and asked him to go work in the vineyard, and unlike the first son, he gave an imminently respectable answer: “I go, sir.” But the day was too beautiful to work and he decided to go to the beach instead. “So”, Jesus asked, “which of the two sons did the will of their father?” “The first one, the one who actually did what he was asked to do” the religious leaders answered. Well that was the right answer but that answer was not a reflection of the way they lived. And Jesus replied, “IRS agents and sex workers will get into the kingdom of God before any of you.” Ouch…
In his wonderful book The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus, the late Peter Gomes of the Harvard Divinity School, details how the institution of the church has taken the revolutionary message of Jesus and turned it into a support system for the status quo. Gomes argues that Jesus and the early Christians could have never imagined a time in which Christianity would become the dominant culture. But because this happened, Gomes says, churches desperately need a fresh understanding of the radical nature of what Jesus said. The problem is that our institutional respectability very often gets in the way of the Holy Spirit.
Jesus stood in that most respectable place and declared that those charged with hearing the Still–Speaking God were not really listening. They had become so encumbered by the outward trappings of religion that they had forgotten its purpose: to give joy and hope and meaning to the people of the earth. And so god sidestepped them. God will sidestep any institution that gets in the way. And that includes the church.
God’s joyful will for this world is like a river. If we stand in its way, if we cling to the past to the detriment of people made in God’s image, if we choose respectability over the movement of the Spirit, then that same Spirit will find other channels to flow through. Church history is littered with stories of once bold congregations who chose their traditions and respectability over passion and challenge and change. And so, the Spirit moved beyond them. But church history has other stories as well – stories of congregations who decided that nothing was more important than the message of grace. And they jettisoned beloved rituals and traditions and ways of being church so that they could be ready for the new thing that God is always doing.
In these weeks and months to come, as you contemplate all that the future could be in this space, with new leadership and new ideas, don’t let fear make you cling too closely to “way things have always been.” Instead, figure out how to jump in the Spirit’s stream with both feet and enjoy the ride.