What is the work of the church? There was a time when works of charity - like helping needy people with money, food, and clothing; missions of assistance to places near and far; going out on occasion to work on low-income housing or volunteer at food pantries - was what it meant to do the work of the church. And "church," it wasn't a movement but a mighty brick and mortar refuge, where we hired a minister and staff, raised money and built and maintained a physical space where people came on Sunday's to sing, pray, study, give money, and share a little fellowship. Add to this a few special seasonal events like yesterday's cookie sale, a youth trip or retreat, a celebration or two, and this was the church.
Of course those things have value. But time passes and the demands on people's lives evolve, and as church avoided the daily needs of its people (the polis; where we get the root of the word political) church also became less and less vital to people's lives. There was a time where giving thanks to God for our good fortune, and sharing a bit of our abundance with less the fortunate was enough as the work of the church. But as American greed has increased and the buffer of middle-class living has become threatened, the definition of "needy" is no longer somewhere out there, but all around us right here. The church is no longer made up of fortunate people of abundance. The church today are needy people struggling to keep a job, a roof over their own heads, and food on their own tables. Yet, church still shy's away from standing in the muck with the people.
Jesus asks us, "Are you being my church today? How does your church square with my Good News?" And if the Good News isn't being proclaimed by what we do and say, how will we challenge ourselves to ensure it does?
John the Baptizer courageously proclaimed the coming day of God on earth. "Prepare," he cried out. But John doesn't just speak about the past, he's talking to us right now. John critically examined the church in his time and found it woefully out of step with the Holy. The leaders of the people had made deals with foreign oppressors and gotten too big for its britches. The wealth of the state was concentrated in Jerusalem in the palace and at the "big steeple" church called The Temple. In order to matter, you needed to travel to the city and pay homage to the power of men. Over time as the state and church got bigger and stronger, rather than share with everyone, the elites kept their wealth for themselves and their own class.
John's was a ministry to the margins not the powerful. Rather than pay homage to Jerusalem, he dared call people to the wilderness. In the ancient world the Holy wasn't found where the power of men rests, but in the wild places where God's Genesis creates a new thing from nothing. Unlike the worldly, John was wild and unpredictable. His focus wasn't on his needs but on repentance. Repentance from the disregard for the needs of others and healing from the social-sins of men. John proclaimed Isaiah's promise, "The ideal leader was coming. Get ready!" Think of John as the Bernie Sanders of his generation. He preached the need to reverse the greed and enrichment of the few and share the wealth of the nation with the many. John made ordinary people feel like they mattered. His message called forth a return to the faith. He broke with the Temple cult and puppet rulers declaring God's stand for the common good.
At first the fat cats in Jerusalem ignored him, calling him "a dreamer" and "crazy." Yet, God proves over and over what power there was in "crazy dreamers." As the people went to John in larger and larger numbers, the powers got nervous. When the elites of the Temple church themselves traveled to see what this wild man was all about, John wasn't a polite host. "You collection of snakes!" he yelled. "Who warned you to flee from your lairs and seek refuge in God's family? If you really want to join in, show a little repentance and humility. And don't tell me you're the official clergy and are owed respect. God can duplicate guys like you from these rocks!"
In truth there really isn't a standard definition for the work of the church. The Christmas story witnesses to a God who requires our attention and readiness for whatever's needed in every time and place. And we'll know it's Good News if it calls for generous hearts and open minds. Above all, as Isaiah tells us, true leadership finds its source from a "spirit of wisdom and understanding, a spirit of counsel and might, a spirit of knowledge and... delight in the awesome presence of God with us."
John the Baptizer stood his ground against excess and wanton disregard for human life. Isaiah called out the leadership of his day, secular and religious, and said, "You'll be punished for your sins, ...and you'll learn the hard way to lead as God intended...You shall judge not by your human senses and human thinking, but with a sense of God thinking. You shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the little ones of the earth."
As in the time of John and Isaiah, and today with the likes of Donald John Trump, touching the lives of people, ensuring kindness, and caring compassion is almost unpatriotic. We're taught it's a dog-eat-dog world, and the big dog's always wins. Yet prophets still cry from our wilderness. Lake Edge, we're on the edge of a new era in the work of the church. Today, our work must counter the isolation and fear around us, building the largest possible community of connection. In the face of distrust, become allies and friends to school children and parents, neighbors to every shade and ethnicity. Welcome the stranger, and the poor, and the lowly ones. Share our lives and our resources to the fullest extent possible, so all may know a mighty God lives here. The more lives we touch, the more those lives will touch us, and "there will be no hate or fear anywhere" on this holy hill on Buckeye Road.
The work of the church is the work of building up. The work of the church is to reach beyond the comfortable, normal, and easy, and to make miracles happen. Our national church believes, and I do too, that perhaps we were created for just a moment as this.
In January you'll be asked to come together with our church and neighborhood partners in a ministry of compassion and care to public school children. It's the work of the church and each of us must do our part.