Dust Up: The Challenge of Church
I was talking to a colleague this past week about bringing in new members and it prompted them to tell me a funny story about how one of their newest members found their church.
Now I’m going to change some of the details to protect the innocent here, but let’s just say this new member is also new in town and has recently joined the local gym. While getting ready in the locker room, she overheard some folks complaining about their new pastor.
Now normally, if I heard folks complaining about their pastor, I’d probably go out of my way to avoid their church. Who needs more drama, right? But in this case, the more these folks complained about their church the more she thought to herself, I have to check this place out.
As it turns out, the ladies in the locker room were unhappy because of how “in your face” the pastor was when it came to being inclusive.
“We were already an open and affirming church before they came,” said one, “I don’t see why the pastor needs to remind us that everyone is welcome no matter who they love every Sunday.”
“And then there’s the inclusive language,” said another. “We all know God isn’t really a man, but calling God “mother” just sounds wrong.”
“And what’s wrong with just saying ‘brothers and sisters’? Do we really need to add siblings?” added the third. “It’s all just gotten so political. I don’t want to hear about white supremacy or gun control or immigration on a Sunday. I think it’s better to leave that stuff out so we can just focus on God.”
“I was in your pew the very next Sunday,” said this new member. “And when you said, ‘whoever you are, whomever you love, wherever you find yourself on your journey of faith, you are welcome here,' I knew it was true.”
But I’m also here because I do care about all the “political stuff.” My faith compels me to care and I want to be part of a community of faithful people who will work with me to make the world a better place.”
I’m glad my colleague has her support, because that kind of church - a church that strives to be inclusive and justice seeking, a church that is unafraid to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted - can be hard to sustain. We should know.
If you’ve been around here for awhile then you know, intimately, that we all have our blindspots, no matter how woke we might be. We all have our limits, no matter how generous or loving we’d like to think that we are.
We all have a somebody or a something that we don’t want to deal with and if you’re in a church like my colleague’s or a church like this one, I can promise you that there will be days when you don’t want to be part of your church at all, because this kind of church will make you deal…and that is hard.
I mean inclusivity sounds really good, and it is, until someone shows up that you just can’t stand. Working for justice sounds really good, and it is, until you get out there and realize just how long the arc actually is and how slowly it bends.
Maintaining communities like ours is good work, but it is also slow, patient, challenging work; challenging on the whole but also challenging on a personal level for each and every one of us who calls a church like this home.
So challenging, that I actually have some sympathy for those women in the locker room.
Honestly, I think we all have days when it would be nice to simply go to church and leave the troubles of the world behind. Days when we’d like to just come here and enjoy a little music, listen to a sermon that makes us feel better about ourselves, enjoy a cup of coffee with a person just like ourselves, and call it a day.
Enough with this quixotic quest to bring heaven to earth. Enough with the questions and the ambiguity and the diversity of thought and circumstance, the risk of trying to form relationships with people you disagree with or who are so different from you that you risk unintentionally offending them just by being yourself. Gosh, it’s hard.
Sometimes I miss being part of church that already had it all figured out for us.
Sometimes I miss being part of a church that had Jesus all figured out such that all we had to do, if we wanted to be good Christians, was affirm that we believed the things about Jesus that they told us to believe about Jesus.
Because as long as we all believed the same thing then we didn’t have to worry so much about everything else. We could get on with our lives knowing that at least we were saved because nothing was more important than that.
And it kept everyone in line, more or less, because as long as believing the same thing was the main thing, all the other things that might cause division could be indefinitely left on the back burner.
But I don’t think that’s the kind of church Jesus came to establish. At least that’s not the kind of church I see being established here in chapter 1 of Mark. And make no mistake, this little house in Capernaum is actually a church by the time Jesus is done working there.
I know it isn’t to begin with. When Jesus arrives it is simply a house like every other house on the block. Peter and Andrew live there with Peter’s mother-in law.
Were there other people in the house? Wives or children? We don’t know. All we know is that Peter has a mother-in-law and she is sick in bed with a fever. So sick that Peter and Andrew tell Jesus about her condition “at once.”
Now, this story could have gone one of two ways. Hearing that Peter’s mother-in-law is sick in bed with a fever, the men could have gone elsewhere. Actually, hearing that Peter’s mother-in-law is sick in bed with a fever, the men probably should have gone elsewhere.
I mean she’s unclean because she’s sick, she’s contagious because she has a fever, and she’s a she because she’s a mother-in-law. All good reasons for Jesus, a young rabbi fresh off his successful debut at the local synagogue, to keep his distance from this house.
Keep in mind that Jesus has cast out a demon, but he hasn’t healed anyone yet. Peter and Andrew don’t know he can do that. So I’m pretty sure they are telling Jesus that Peter’s mother-in-law is in there with a fever, so he won’t go in.
But Jesus not only comes into the house, he rushes to her side. Jesus takes her by the hand and raises her up - literally “resurrects” her - and she is healed…healed of her fever so completely that she can now turn around and serve everyone else.
All of which sounds lovely, if not a little sexist in its implications - except for the fact that the word Mark chooses to describe what Peter’s mother-in-law does right after she is healed is, diakonos. Does that word sound familiar to anyone – diakonos? It’s where we get the word deacon. The Latin equivalent, interestingly enough, would be minister.
Peter’s mother-in-law is literally raised up by Jesus to minister amongst these men. We don’t even know her name, but if you ask me, she is the first minister in the gospel of Mark. Which is cool because, as I said before, she was a she. And where does she do this ministering? She does this right in her own home.
Friends, where were the first Christian churches located? That’s right, the first Christians met in people’s homes. The first churches were house churches. That is why I think you can make a very strong case that this house is the first manifestation of the church on earth, presided over by an un-named but clearly female minister whom Jesus raised up to serve in this way.
But wait, there’s more! That word diakonos has another meaning. It can literally mean, “to kick up dust.” Matthew Meyer Bolton, writing for Salt Project, says that she is healed for “an active, practical, on-the-move, change the world sort of (service). In short, she is lifted up …for ministry, to kick up some dust and get some things done.”
It is no surprise then, that her ministrations don’t end with Jesus and Andrew and Peter, but extend immediately into an act of radical hospitality. As the sun sets, they welcome everyone in “the whole city,” to come and be healed by Jesus.
I think it is worth noting here that the word hospitality has the same root as the word hospital. Their radical welcome doesn’t just make her home into the first church. It makes her home into the first hospital.
Was this wise? Was this safe? Was this easy? No. I imagine this radical act of welcome and service would have caused a dust up indeed. But was it good and right? Certainly, because, you see all those people in need of healing - “those people” – please understand that “those people” had no where else to go.
They would have been turned away from the synagogue had they tried to go there that morning. They would not have been allowed in to worship because they were sick, possibly contagious, and therefore unclean.
Nor were there any urgent care facilities or emergency rooms in the first century.
If you needed a doctor you needed to pay for one to come to your house. These poor people had nowhere to go and no way of paying for the care they needed.
They don’t just need spiritual care and restoration, they need physical care and rehabilitation.
This isn’t just a spiritual issue it’s a justice issue. They need to be cared for in body and soul and they found all that they needed in that little house.
They found all that they needed in that very first church. In the home of Peter’s mother-in law, all are made welcome that all might be made well. All are made welcome that all might be changed and transformed, forgiven and restored. And when I say all, I mean all.
The interesting thing about the latin word hospe from whence we get words like hospitality and hospital is that a hospe can mean both guest and host. Perhaps because you can’t have one without the other. You can’t become one without someone else becoming the other.
It turns out that welcoming all and caring for all, demands our all. It transforms us. We can’t do it without being fundamentally changed and change, even when it is good and right, is hard, uncomfortable, destabilizing work. There has got to be an easier way, and there is, I’m just not sure it’s what we should look for in a church.
Friends, if Mark is to be believed, I think a radical welcome coupled with concern for both the souls and the bodies of our neighbors, is a hallmark of the church Jesus came to establish. We need both love and justice. We need a gracious hospitality that welcome everyone in such that we can raise each other up to go out and make this world a better place.
Which is not to say that churches like ours have a corner on Jesus. You’ll notice that Jesus doesn’t stay put in this church or any other.
Remember that image from a few week’s ago when we talked about Jesus as the tabernacle? Jesus is always on the move. Jesus couldn’t be contained by them any more than Jesus can be contained by us. No church has a corner on Jesus or knows all there is to know about Jesus.
But I do believe that when we welcome all in his name, when we lift one another up, minister as we are able, and empower each other to become ministers as well, that Jesus is present with us.
It’s not easy. Frankly it’s hard and unsettling work. It unsettles the dust in this world and the dust in our hearts. People will complain within our church and without. It will get uncomfortable.
But maybe that’s how you’ll know it’s really church.
Maybe that’s how you’ll know it’s really working.
Maybe that’s how you’ll know you’re right where you’re supposed to be whether you really want to be here or not.