Sermons

They seem to be the centerpiece of the worship service at church, no matter how long they are or what they’re called: sermons, teachings, messages, homilies.

I’m not sure they should be, but they kind of are by default for almost a couple thousand years now.

I would vote for the eucharist, the Lord’s supper, to take that honor and let Him host and be the center of worship, honor and praise.

But, hey, nobody asked me.

So we surround the sermon with all our other acts of worship (singing, prayers, reading of scripture, etc.), and — like I said — it becomes the centerpiece of the table we surround by default.

And what do we hear?

I attended church from before the time I could think or speak until just a couple of years ago. I think I can fairly say I’ve heard about every kind of sermon imaginable, from the very best to the very worst.

I learned a lot, I’m sure; and some of what I learned, I had to later unlearn — because what I heard was not valid, or helpful, or sometimes just wasn’t true. Occasionally it didn’t even conform to what scripture said, and even rarely contradicted and defied it.

But looking back, I think the very best sermons I heard gave me insight into the life, teachings, example and nature of Jesus of Nazareth.

They conveyed His humanity and divinity, His winsome appeal, His unflagging love for all, and His refusal to judge people while being unflinchingly judgmental about how to speak, act and relate to others in a world that God made and God cares about and God watches over all the time.

Sermons like that made me crave that nature and yearn for that living grace; they challenged me to imitate it in what I do and say with the goal of making it my nature.

I genuinely don’t know how you can preach a gospel sermon without talking about Jesus; He is the very best of all the good news in scripture. I tried preaching for several years, but it is not my gift. When I did preach, I genuinely tried to draw my listeners to the grace of Christ.

To the cross, yes, sometimes; even to the empty tomb. But, you see, that’s what the Lord’s table is for; that’s largely His story to tell in His inimitable way — by living it to death and then living it forever.

I can’t do better than that.

And you see, if that were all there is to His story, we would miss out on the part that makes it whole and full and complete: the incredible life of love and compassion that He lived. That, as much as anything else, is what proves He was/is/will always be the Son of God.

God could have raised anyone from the dead — it’s not like He’d never done it before! But who else but His very own Son could have lived such an exemplary life, seen and communicated the loving grace of heaven so clearly, had the unalterable faith to let mankind do its worst and still speak words of forgiveness?

Sermons come and go. A million every Sunday, maybe, all around the world.

But they are only heard by the people who listen to them; and if those people don’t leave that church inspired to live what they’ve heard, then only words have been spoken. Not The Word, the living Logos, the meaning of what God spoke into existence, the why of being, the purpose of living, the joy of loving, the embodiment of grace.

Well, I’ve rattled on here long enough. If I could live like that, I could still try preaching. But I know there is no credibility in what you say if you don’t practice what you preach.

So I’ve chosen to leave that to others of better qualifications, and just do my best to live up to some poor semblance of the One that I most admire.

They say that’s a sermon too.

Being Church

I get to this time of year, and I still can’t help but remember Angi’s last two weeks.

How brave she was. How much she endured. How quickly her faculties slipped away. How many people loved her.

Nine years ago.

I don’t want to forget. Ever. Not even if the last of my faculties slip away from me in the closing days of my life.

But I may not get that choice.

I also remember how those who loved us clustered around us — locally and virtually — and hoped/prayed for us and ministered to us. People who shared our faith. People who held other faiths. People who held no faith at all, except perhaps in other people.

They were our collective church.

And, ironically, in recent years that common desire of all those dear folks has contributed to the decline in my faith in church.

I’ve come to the conclusion that meeting as church and observing the sacraments and repeating the good words for an hour or three together one day a week has no value at all if we are not serving in the world the entire 24/7. None.

Yes, oddly enough I still have faith in the God who could have answered thousands of prayers and could have come through for Angi but didn’t. I don’t know His business, or how things work in eternity or what’s ultimately good as compared to what I want now. I know she didn’t suffer as long as she could have. I know that we all die; even His Son. I know that Angi was ready because she lived the life of the One she believed in, and served and loved others, often in selfless ways that humbled me.

It isn’t the Father, Son or Spirit I have trouble believing in.

It’s us folks who go to church, but aren’t the church any more or better than folks who don’t believe, but still live out a faith in others with love and compassion and grace.

So who’s lost and who’s not in this scenario? I’m glad I don’t have to sort it out, because I’m not qualified to judge. Just love.

Just love.

I haven’t been to church in a year now. That’s not an indictment of anyone there; they are among the most wonderful and dearly-loved people in the world. They are my family, fellow believers and siblings in Christ. But I have to recognize that they are not the only ones who are children of God, dearly loved by Him.

I’m just not comfortable being in church and saying and doing the right things there, knowing that I’m not saying and doing and being what I should when I am not there. It’s an indictment of me.

But it’s also a deeply profound questioning of how we do things as church. How our time and resources are spent. Whether worship is for God or us. Whether service is for others or ourselves. Whether we need to spend on big buildings for 1-3 hours a week, or homes for the homeless and meals for the hungry and clothes for the shivering. Whether we need to spend for staff, lighting, projections, music in order to worship … or live out our worthship in service to others and reflecting God’s grace.

I think He’s big enough for me to be able to ask where He was when Angi needed Him.

I also think He has every right to ask me where I was when one of my neighbors needed me.

So, at least for now, I have pretty much lost my religion.

But I still have my faith.

Except, maybe, some of my faith in myself.

I am apostate

Bless me, Father, for I have sinned.

Or at least abstained from gathering with the saints.

It has been six months, two weeks and two days since I have been to church.

I have forsaken the assembly.

Well, not totally. I still pray for my church family. I still pray for people who are not in my church family, but who feel like family. Surely they need Your help as much.

You see, that’s where I’m having this problem. I haven’t lost faith in You, Father; nor your Son; nor your Holy Spirit. I’ve lost faith in your church. The Bride of Christ. At least, I’ve lost faith in the way we’ve conducted ourselves.

As if we’re just married one or two hours of one day every week.

But that’s not all, either. I also feel like when we gathered to worship, it’s all about us. The songs we like to sing. The scriptures we like to read. The prayers we like to repeat. The sermons we like to hear. The gifts we like to put in the collection plate. The potlucks and activities we like to participate in. All in the building we like to have around us with the pews we like to sit in.

I’m just not at all sure that’s what You meant by “church” or “assembly.” I’m not convinced You intended for it to happen once or twice a week, every week, with the same rituals played out over and over with the same words spoken and sung and prayed. I’m not positive that the gifts we give should be largely funding a building and its expenses or even a ministry staff. I’m not certain any of that equates to worship.

Because it feels like, if that’s what worship is, we can only do it then and there and when we’re all together, and I don’t find that to be the case in scripture.

And I have to wonder if the time of worship in a specific place at a specific time with everyone gathered was supposed to end when the temple in Jerusalem was destroyed just as Jesus of Nazareth, your Son, predicted. That worship was to be constant, and prayer was to be constant, and singing was to be constant in our hearts — whether we’re alone or together in our homes or a borrowed place or on a seashore or a mountainside or a plain or wherever.

I get the picture that our gifts should be blessing the hungry and sick and poor and homeless. That there wouldn’t be as many of them and the destitution wouldn’t be so extreme if we weren’t spending our gifts otherwise. Mostly on ourselves.

I’m just not comfortable with the way we’ve been conducting ourselves as your family and the Bride of your Son.

I don’t preach anymore because it feels that my life should be the sermon seen and heard by those who aren’t familiar with You, or have had an awful experience with people like me who preached You but didn’t live You or love like You or bless others like You do.

I can’t see myself doing it the old way anymore. I’m spending more time, I think, with people who don’t really know You; people who feel like family whom You would love to hear calling you “Father,” and trying to drop hints to them that they’re loved and You’re listening and that You care.

I feel more at home among my fellow sinners, Father; You know I do.

And I don’t even know whether to be sorry about that.

I know that your family still gathering will be fine without me there. They don’t need to see my doubt and hear my lack of faith in church as they love it. I still love them, and I miss them, and I just can’t be there for them the way I used to be any longer. It’s not their fault or your fault or anyone’s fault, as near as I can tell — not even mine.

I’m just different in my doubt now.

I still believe in them, too; and that they will do much good and their hearts will worship You and people will be blessed.

That’s what I needed to confess. I will never forget what your Son said or did or gave for us, nor cease to be grateful for it, nor will I ever give up on church altogether.

I’m just with a different church now. The one that doesn’t really know You yet. The one willing to shake any preconception of the way church is or must be in order for You to be pleased and worshiped.

I want to hang with them, and be less of myself and more like You. Loving. Accepting. Gracious. Forgiving. The nonconformist who fishes for men and shepherds people and shares meals and tries to help heal brokenness.

That’s my confession, Father. I may be totally wrong and off-base, and if so, I’m doubly triply sorry. But I can’t believe in church as church is done right now, and I have to try something else.

Lord, help my unbelief.