I went to a really, really hippie college. There were people living in the forested part of the college’s property; sometimes I’d find their tents tucked away into odd places when I went for walks. Recycling and protests and petitions were all the rage. People complained about having to put their shoes back on to enter the dining room; pretty much anywhere else, no matter where it was or what time of year it was, there was someone going barefoot.
Part of this incredibly hippie culture meant that we were always talking about the failings of the government or the college or the church or any other institution you can think of. When the church came up, we talked about the Crusades, the Inquisition, the religious wars of the 16th century and beyond, the ruthless destruction of native culture around the world–all in the name of Christianity.
It was one of the reasons I was so hesitant to come to seminary. Did I really want to join in this historical parade of terrible behavior? And as you may have noticed, at Earlham we talked only of Christian history–we didn’t even touch on the sexual abuse scandals, on financial scandals. Most of the people disparaging the church weren’t Christian, so they wouldn’t even have known to despair, too, at how fiercely churches and denominations will defend “their” territory, or how we handle conflicts–because I think we can all agree, whatever we think as individuals about abortion or same sex marriage or the Middle East or communion or whatever other issue, that we Christians treat each other terribly when we disagree about them. We shout and threaten each other with hell and/or an angry Jesus. And that doesn’t even take into account each individual church, where, as we all know, sometimes we despise the pastor or that one person, and we shout at each other and gossip about each other, and we kick people out for disagreeing or acting differently than us.
Not always. I know now it’s not always true of us as a church. Sometimes we give each other rides and show up at funerals. Sometimes we fill the streets in support of the local synagogue after its members were shot and killed. Sometimes we come together and worship, from different churches and races and denominations and even religions. Sometimes we send cards and volunteer and pray for one another.
But we have such high expectations for our Church and our churches–it is meant to represent God, to be a place where we come to meet Jesus and be bathed in the Holy Spirit. We want our churches to be perfect as God is perfect, forgetting that the only perfect one at church is God, and the rest of us are just as imperfect as you are, and doing the best we can and stumbling our way through our mistakes.
The church is no more perfect than you or I.
That is worth remembering, on this Reformation Sunday. It is easy to look back at the church of Luther’s time and see all of its problems, the gaping holes where it was doing everything the opposite of how they should have. It is especially easy as Protestants, i.e. as those who left that church. Sometimes it is harder to see those problems in our own church. We see only beloved traditions and memories and a system we are intimately familiar with. We see that we do it better than those people. Sometimes it’s easier to see those problems today, to be fair; sometimes they loom large, impossibly large, as we try to follow God and feel the church trailing along behind, holding us back with every ounce of its strength.
Like each of us, the church is not perfect. No matter how we strive, it will never be perfect in our lifetimes, will not be perfect until Christ comes again and makes all things new. There will always be sins hidden in the church, just as they are in us.
But that does not excuse us from our responsibility to the church. That does not excuse us from seeing the church clearly, in all its failings and successes, and to root out its sin wherever possible.
As Jesus said: “Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.” (John 8:34) Sin wraps us tightly in its tendrils, until we see no way out and no other way of doing life. It’s just how it’s always been and always will be, we’re sure. No matter what we may want, we follow the path of sin. And yet Jesus promises, “The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever. So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.” (John 8:35-36)
Jesus does not leave us alone to fight with our sin. Instead He frees us and does what we cannot do on our own. Jesus fights our sin for us, lets us see light and breathe fresh air again, until we can see clearly at last, understand ourselves and our sin and begin to glimpse who God is–for “the truth will make you free.” And the same is true of the church. God does not abandon it to fight alone, to try to wrangle sin with paperwork and committees and our human-ness–no, God fills the church with the Holy Spirit, and fights the church’s sin same as ours.
Part of that fight is seeing clearly–is seeing our sin and repenting of it, and not just our individual sins but also our sins as the church. Especially today, it’s hard to ignore the ways the church has fought so hard to keep others out, to create divisions and lies that protects us and keeps others out. I was preaching just a moment ago from John 8, our gospel reading today–and yet yesterday’s shooter took something very different from the same chapter, writing, “jews are the children of satan.” and citing John 8:44. What a terrible lie. What a horrific reading of Scripture, when Jesus is fighting in John 8 not with Jews writ large but with specific leaders who were vehemently against how Jesus disrupted the status quo. Jesus the Jew did not hate Jews. What a complete, willful misunderstanding, when the entire Old Testament tells the story of God’s love and care for the Jewish people, as God stood by them through thick and thin, protected them and guided them.
But the church has not been innocent in all this: throughout history in Europe the church has viewed Jews as dangerous Others, driving them off or segregating them or torturing them into Christianity or death. Luther wrote horrific things, like that God would be pleased with Christians who destroyed synagogues and Torah scrolls.
I’m not trying to wallow in the terrible, to see only the awful history. I just think we can’t ignore it. We can’t pretend it never happened, that the church has never done terrible things and that we aren’t taking part in terrible things today. We can’t move forward without seeing clearly the truth.
The church still needs reformation today, still needs to be made new by Jesus and have so, so much healed. There are so many divisions we’ve created, people who we think don’t worship correctly or believe correctly–whether they’re in the church across the street or they have different beliefs about the social issue of the day. There are so many people that the church is blind to, so many structures we’ve created that have stiffened into rigidity.
I pray for God’s continued reformation, continued recreation–of us and our church and the entire Church. I pray for God’s peace and for God’s healing.