Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Why are we in church?

This sermon was given on Sunday, 20 October 2013, at the Episcopal Chaplaincy at Harvard, by Emily Garcia, the Kellogg Fellow. The readings for the day on which the sermon is based can be found here.

As many of you already know, I teach Sunday school at an Episcopal church in Charlestown. My little kids always ask a lot of good questions. A few weeks ago I was fielding questions on the story of Creation. We had just dealt with the problem of frogs, who are both swimming and walking creatures and were therefore possibly created over the course of two days—when a spunky three-year-old raised her hand. “Miss Emily, I have a question toooo!” Fidgeting in her seat she said, “Well—why—why are we here?” Fearing I might have a big existential question on my hands, I clarified: “. . . In church?”  “Yes!” she said. “Why do we do this?”

That’s a good question! Why are we in church? Why do we come to church?
Why do YOU come to church? I come to church because I work here, but I’m sure there are other reasons too.

Sitting there on my kindergarten carpet square, I fumbled through my options, calculating how long it would take to explain the word “sanctification” to a three-year-old. In the end, as usual, I returned to my Evangelical childhood for the best answer. I told my student: “I think we come to church because we need to know who God is, and we need to know what to say about it.”

We need to know who God is. And we need to know what to say.

There are many good reasons why we come to church; they change week to week or season to season in our lives. But I do think these are two of the simplest and most constant reasons, repeated in the Scriptures and in almost every liturgy in the Book of Common Prayer. We need to know who God is, and we need to know what to say.

Maybe I shouldn’t say “knowing God”—that makes it seem like a discrete piece of information. Better to say, “coming to know God,” or “seeing what God reveals of God’s self to us,” or “re-learning and re-learning and re-learning who God is.” In the same way that we grow out of our five-year-old understanding of the world into a more complex twenty-year-old and sixty-year-old understanding of the world, so our understanding of God changes as we grow.

And maybe I shouldn’t say that WE have to learn who God is, as if God were simply an object of our attention, like the meter in a sonnet or a type of amoeba. We know who God is not by studying him, but by wrestling with him—and God wrestles back. God is constantly at work in us, providing us with many, often difficult—often awkward, often uncomfortable—opportunities to know him. Some of these leave us wounded. But these are places where we can learn who God is.

Scholar and commentator Gerhard von Rad [in his Biblical Interpretation in Preaching] says that although this story of Jacob has “narrative elements of great antiquity,” probably part of a local cultic tradition, in its place in the book of Genesis and the story of Jacob, it is actually a story about Israel’s and our relationship to God. He says, “She [Israel] has set forth her relationship to God in the picture of that nocturnal struggle with the God who feigns a frightful mien yet promises an ultimate bestowal of blessing. In the vessel of that [more ancient] story, Israel is letting us see something of her experience with God, an actual experience of her being guided by him.” Genesis explains the name “Israel” as a name for a person who has striven with God and prevailed, but actually the etymology of “Israel” breaks into the phrase “GOD strives.” We strive, God strive with us. This is how we know him.

We wrestle with God in prayer, too, like the widow in Luke’s parable. The unjust judge couldn’t stand being bothered by this persistent widow, full of moxie, but I think God rejoices in persistence. Luke says the parable is about praying always, and not losing heart. Surely this is another way that we come to know God, from constant conversation with him.

We need to know who God is, and we learn from wrestling, we learn from prayer, and we learn from the holy mystery of Communion at the altar, and from the mystery of communion with each other, God revealing himself in our discussions, disagreements, differing experiences. Being a Christian alone isn’t FULLY being a Christian, as we need to whole body of Christ to help us learn who God is.

So we come to Church because we need to know who God is.

And we need to know what to say. Knowing God and being silent is not an option, as we hear in this letter to Timothy, as well as throughout our own Book of Common Prayer.

In today’s Collect, we prayed, “God, please preserve the works of your mercy, SO THAT we can persevere with steadfast faith in the confession of your Name.” The letter to Timothy says that all Scripture is inspired and is therefore useful—for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.” In case Timothy didn’t get it, Paul made it simple: Proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching.” In our confession of sin we ask God to forgive us “so that we may delight in your will, and walk in your ways—to the glory of your name.” In the collect for Purity, which we hear every Sunday, we ask God to cleanse the thoughts of our hearts, so that we “may worthily magnify your holy Name.” The older definition of “magnify” means to extol, to lift up, to bring respect or esteem to something. But I also like the more modern literal meaning—“magnify” like a magnifying glass. To magnify God’s holy Name makes me think that I should look at it very closely, that I should make it so big as to be comprehensible to me and others.

So: Confession of God’s name, training in righteousness, proclaim the message in favorable and unfavorable times, be patient in teaching, glorify God’s name, magnify God’s holy name. It sounds like we’re supposed to DO something with this knowledge of God that we’ve got! We need to know who God is, and then, we need to know what to say.

Don’t worry, I’m not gonna preach about converting all the heathen, or starting our own angry talk show about what God wants for America. I don’t find either of those options to be at all necessary or at all compelling.

But I do think we are supposed to magnify God’s holy name. I do believe that through Scripture and the community of the church, “every person who belongs to God can be proficient, and equipped for every good work.” 

This is necessary for the world because there are people who are in despair and need to know that there can be hope and meaning in life; there are people who are hurt and need to know that God loves them, that we love them; there are people who are vulnerable and need to be taken care of; there are people who need to be rebuked, for their cruel or harmful behavior; there are those who simply need to be encouraged in the hard work they do in the world. People need to know God’s Holy Name, because God’s Holy Name is Love.

And praise God, there are many ways to show the world who God is. I happen to be one of those people who likes to talk about God all the time, but this is just one way. We can speak God’s name over and over again throughout the day without ever saying it aloud. 
When we gently, tactfully defend someone who’s being gossiped about.
When we play devil’s advocate to a potentially harmful philosophy or viewpoint.
When we give to the homeless, the hungry, or to anyone in need.
When we mention that we go to Church—and that we like it.
When we bow in our heads in a short silent prayer before we eat in a public place.
When we show ourselves to be competent intelligent academics and then casually mention that we’re also Christians.
When we tell a friend that we’ll be praying for them.
When we have a respectful, curious, attentive conversation about religion with anyone, regardless of what they do or do not believe.
When we are loving, joyful, patient, kind, good, faithful, gentle, or self-controlled—when we show these fruits of the Spirit, we are magnifying God’s Holy Name.

Because the “glory of God’s name” is not the institution of the church (although that’s pretty cool)—the glory of God’s name is love. All kinds of love and compassion manifested in all different kinds of ways, inside and outside the Church.

This is why we come to Church. We need to know who God is, and we need to know what to say.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this graceful and clear approach to a key question. Especially grateful for your integration of the texts, the Jacob story, and the Prayer Book. This was a blessing.