The first church I served was surrounded by cornfields. It's biggest employers were a high school and two prisons. Most of the prison population was Black or Hispanic. The village was mostly white folks. Outside the prison, there were hardly any good paying jobs. A history of distrust and fear seeped into the community. Before I arrived little had been done to unite neighbor to neighbor. In contrast, my home church in Buffalo focused on their neighborhood, the struggles of neighbors, and on what Jesus had to say to all of them every day. It was an Open & Affirming church, not because it was trendy, but in response to the need. They started an after-school arts program, a peace camp, and organized neighbors to stand up to greedy landlords tearing their community apart. Today, my former home church is a multi-cultural ministry with a Spanish speaking, openly gay pastor. God's alive, directing them to respond to what's around them.
In contrast, the good people of my first pulpit had become a religious social club. Ask a member what their church did, and you'd hear all about the election day roast pork and sauerkraut supper. Which would be fine if that supper actually "fed" a defined ministry, and not just a building and a budget. But St. Paul's was an old line rural church, and this Pork'n Kraut church had lost the "way" of Jesus Christ and with it why the church still mattered.
In chapter five of his book, "Beyond Resistance," John Dorhauer talks about authority; what it means to be the church and how and why these things still matter. Dorhauer believes a clear sense of ministry is a center-piece to define a healthy and vital church. Authority in a ministry oriented church is far different than the way power's handled in the general society. First, the Church as Jesus envisioned it isn't responsible to its membership base. You heard me. Church is responsible not to its membership, but to its mission and ministry. Dorhauer says without a clear sense of ministry, Church stops being church. Without constant renewal of the "why" of our church, we cease to be relevant in people's lives. We cease to be the Church.
Jesus authorizes; calls a flawed group of powerless people together to find a new sense of collective power. It's the same today. In the Gospel Jesus is followed from village to village by a ragtag group of nobodies; the rabble of the ancient world. They draw close because they're powerless, and in Jesus they see a chance to grab some power. Jesus knows this. He also knows that any congregation can get so wrapped up in their internal power struggles, they forget their reason for being. Like the prophets before him, Jesus attacked a system who's authority is used to blame, shame, disregard, and exploit. Jesus' "church," his social order, doesn't just turn the tables. It calls for a completely new way. No longer will the well-born and well-to-do rule over the poor and weak. Not just a new pecking order; Jesus calls for the end of all pecking orders. He authorizes his church around an equal distribution of authority and power. Jesus calls men and women to lead as he himself led; meeting the most pressing needs of their day and to do so with everyone working together for the betterment of all.
For Dorhauer church authority isn't about role reversals; trading "their' power for "our" power. To be the church means embracing radical change. He says, "Jesus changed a church whose upper management, was so (in love with) its (own) power and the prestige it afforded them, (they had) lost sight of its core (reason for being)." When Jesus stops in front of the tax-man Zacchaeus he's saying this church/his church isn't simply about putting the poor in charge. When Jesus says to Zacchaeus, "Come down (from your tree). I mean to stay at your house this day" he's telling his followers, "Just because you've been kicked around (by the likes of this guy) doesn't mean it's your turn to do the kicking."
Zacchaeus recognizes the change. After all, as a Roman tax collector he not only took money the average person couldn't afford, he also took extra for himself. Zacchaeus makes an oath (a sacred promise); which in those days meant something. He swears to no longer cheat anyone. More than that, he'll pay back extra to anyone he's cheated. Such transformation's at the heart of Jesus' church. Jesus' doesn't just empower one group, he lifts up everyone; even enemies. Dorhauer tells us, God authorizes church calling and empowering pastors and everyday members not to get so lost in their buildings and budgets they lose the call to engage in mission that transforms everyone it touches.
Which brings us to what sets Church apart from charitable clubs, and causes...faith; a belief in something greater than ourselves and our own abilities.
In the Hebrew Testament at first Habakkuk sounds like he's whining about all the unaddressed injustice and terror. But a closer look tells a different story. After laying out his complaint Habakkuk says, "I will stand at my watchpost, and station myself on the rampart; I will keep watch to see what God will say to me and what I will be instructed to do." Habakkuk isn't just another in a long line of bellyachers who too often populate the church. Habakkuk knows God. He's experienced the Holy in his life. As a result, he can speak openly and cry out to God in his distress. Such a complaint isn't faithless. Far from it. On our bad days we can all lose a sense of God with us. But because we've known God on our best days, we the faithful can remain steadfast, like Habakkuk, awaiting a word from the Holy One. Habakkuk knows God and believes the intervention of the Holy will come if he's faithful. To make sure he doesn't miss a word of consolation, Habakkuk takes his place on the highest point of the city. Like a sentinel, he stands at his post ready to receive orders no matter how long it takes. Habakkuk doesn't demand, he prays; he speaks passionately and personally because he trusts God will respond and renew his spirit, as well as the spirits of all the people.
Dorhauer's message mirrors our Scripture. No longer do we scrape and scratch so our little group can get "power over" some real or perceived other. If we accept God's authority in our lives we'll learn how to share "power with." Young men and women today who claim a spiritual center, but reject church as they've experienced it still stand watch for authentic community. Today's seekers search for what the ancient church wanted, a generation sharing the load and building a just and equitable society. This is the authority Jesus came to call "the church." Not power over, but power with.