The Perfect Church
(January, 2003 POL)
Topic: Church, Installation Sunday
One of the most engaging movies I have seen in a long time is “The Perfect Storm”. It is about a 72 foot swordfish boat, The Andrea Gail, that set out from Gloucester, Massachusetts on the morning of October 23, 1991 in search of big fish. Five days later three massive storm systems collide in the North Atlantic, Hurricane Grace coming from Bermuda, a Great Lakes storm system moving East, and a Canadian cold front moving South, creating waves of up to 100 feet, and turning a powerful storm into a disastrous storm, into what meteorologists call “a perfect storm.” The Andrea Gail is caught in the middle of it. The last words from the ship are those of Captain Billy Tyne, “She’s coming on boys, and she’s coming on strong.”
I had a similar though much reduced experience many years ago when I was still a college student. I went to Hawaii with my parents where my dad was attending a printing and office supplies convention. While there we took a tour boat out to see the Pearl Harbor Memorial, a very moving experience. Down in the water we saw the sunken battle ship U.S.S. Arizona which became a watery tomb for the men caught onboard that infamous day of December 7, 1941.
As we were returning on the boat the waves of the Pacific began to rise. Rain showered down upon us. We were seated in rows out on the bow of the boat, and nearly everyone naturally rushed for cover in the cabin. But, bold venturous explorer that I was in my youth, I went all the way up to the tip of the bow and “Titanic” style, stood grasping the sides of the rail as the boat lurched up and down crashing through the rolling waves. It was a particularly vivid moment as I sensed I was fully alive, fully experiencing all the journey across the waters had to offer.
I felt a bit in common with the famed 19th century naturalist John Muir, who explored much of the Pacific Northwest. Once in 1874 Muir was caught in a fierce storm in the Sierra Mountains. He had just gone to visit a friend in a cabin, snugly set in a valley of those mountains. When the storm moved in Muir was not to be found in the safe tightly caulked cabin. He had instead gone out of the cabin into the storm, climbed a high ridge, and scaled a giant Douglas fir tree from which he could best experience the kaleidoscopic sound, scent and motion of the storm.1
Why raise such storm-tossed images when thinking today of the church? Well because like the perfect storm, the perfect church is not all neatly fixed, flawlessly decorated magnificently complemented by the perfect choir and perfect ushers, perfect ministers and perfect officers. You already realize in one sense, there is no perfect church because there are no perfect people. Whatever perfection a church approaches comes as we learn to rock and reel and navigate through the ups and downs of our imperfect lives learning upon our perfect Lord.
What makes a church perfect is imperfect people like you and me caring enough about God and each other, and bringing enough of our real, broken, imperfect lives to the Lord who can take them and make us new. Jesus Christ, who turned water into wine, can turn imperfect people like you and me into new people. He can create the perfect, or the real, church.
I absolutely love how John’s gospel begins. As Jesus is initiating his ministry, having called the first disciples and invited them, “follow me”2, the very next thing they all do is show up at a wedding. It is in Cana of Galilee, a few miles from his home town of Nazareth. It is a festive gathering. But a simple catering problem arises. They run out of wine. Pushed by his mother, and apparently irritated by her insistence, Jesus yet acts and offers an utterly extravagant gesture. He turns water into wine. Not just a little wine. Those six ceremonial stone jars held all together about 180 gallons of the finest wine. It is a gesture of extravagant joy.
It is, moreover, a gesture that contravenes the catering practices of the day which dictate that the good wine be served first and the cheap stuff later. Beyond the light-hearted festive enjoyment the miracle brings, it also attests to Jesus’ true nature. “Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.”3
Arising out of this marvelous story, (and supported by that Old Testament image in Isaiah of marriage, Israel returned from exile, no longer desolate but married, together with that great list from the early Church at Corinth about the life-giving gifts of the Spirit,) are three attributes about what the perfect church is like. I would like to share them with you this morning.
I. The Perfect Church Celebrates Extravagantly
What John is showing us in this first miracle of his Gospel, is not that Jesus would have been a good wine-maker. Nor is it a justification for overindulging. Though I fear tea-teetotalers and those who try to develop obscure arguments for showing how the wine Jesus drank was non-alcoholic will have a hard time with this text.
What John is showing us is the extravagance of life Jesus embodied and embraced. “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” Jesus said.4 A wedding surely symbolizes a high moment of joy and delight. It is an occasion filled with solemn promises and with an abundance of human happiness. Jesus only heightens the happiness by his gracious act. And the fine wine overflows.
At Cana Jesus models extending extravagant hospitality. Too often I think church gatherings are characterized by minimal attitudes rather than maximal attitudes. And let’s be honest, too often people stay away from churches like this because they have some incorrect stereotypes about the institutional church being a place where they would not be welcomed because their life is, well, a bit messed up. They may have a memory where some church treated them in a harsh judgmental manner. Frederick Nietzsche, the atheist philosopher, instructed us well when he said, of Christians, “I would believe in their salvation if they looked a little more like people who have been saved.”5 Friends, the world outside needs an extravagant sign from us to overcome those negative tapes.
I believe it is time for us to celebrate extravagantly and extend real heart-felt hospitality. Oh, we do a mean pot-luck, but lets ask ourselves, how are we on the great banquet? Do outsiders really feel welcomed and wanted when they come here? Do our worship and our work, as well as our meals and our receptions, say this particular gathering is a time of great significance and delight because of the surpassing worth of the Lord we serve? Or do they say, you know, this is not really very important. Church is no big deal. We’re not feeling very good about ourselves. And therefore we are not going to pay much attention to how we worship or how we welcome.
Some of you were present at my service of installation eight years ago. Today actually marks eight years to the very day since I preached my first sermon in this great pulpit. The installation service you all put on was one fantastic extravagant celebration. We worshiped exuberantly. The music was magnificent, the messages inspiring. I’ll bet it is not often that visiting ministers are treated to the huge boiled shrimp you put out for them that night. Then, after the service we went downstairs and were treated to the alluring music of Ernie Small’s Blues Band. True, conversations were difficult. But what a moment of celebration for this Church! We were showing the Bowling Green community and the Presbytery of Western Kentucky that church can be fun and enthusiastic and celebration. The perfect church celebrates extravagantly.
II. The Perfect Church Is Full of Imperfect People Who Serve Extravagantly
But let’s not stop with partying. At the marriage celebration Jesus is being called into action to begin his serving. His mother is utterly confident of his abilities. And serve he does, the finest wine. We all have a need to serve. To reach out and make a difference in someone’s life. Our Presbyterian Book of Order says poignantly – we undertake this mission even at the risk of losing our lives.
This Church of which we are a part is a serving Church. With all the pressures on our lives, hectic schedules. job and school deadlines, we yet long to be part of something significant, something that will outlast us. So we seek ways to serve. As an organization we have selected some 26 missions that we support with our pledge dollars. Dollars which you actually over-subscribed last year giving 8 1/2% more than you pledged – 712,424 given, with 656,533 pledged. So every bill and outreach mission was paid what we pledged and then some. In addition we are building a school in the mountains of Haiti. We have sent a mission team to Mexico. We built another Habitat for Humanity House. Our youth are preparing to return to the Dominican Republic. Why do we do these things? Because we have a need to serve in the manner of our Master who came not to be served but to serve.
Tomorrow we remember the life of a great American, a black preacher in whom the struggle for civil rights by blacks in this country crystalized. Martin Luther King, Jr. is remembered as a man who made a difference. Shortly before his tragic death in Memphis, he was reflecting with a friend about his funeral. He had an ominous sense that he would not live much longer. And he said,
“Tell them not to mention that I have a Nobel Peace Prize… I’d like somebody to mention that day that Martin Luther King, Jr. tried to give his life serving others… I’d like somebody to say that day that Martin Luther King, Jr… tried to love somebody… I want you to be able to say on that day that I did try to feed the hungry. And I want you to be able to say on that day that I did try in my life to clothe those who were naked… and visit those in prison. I want you to say on that day that I tried to love and serve humanity. I won’t have any money to leave behind. I won’t have the fine and luxurious things of life to leave behind. But I just want to leave behind a committed life.”
Don’t you want to do that? We all have a need to serve. I believe we as a Church need to step up to a new level of enabling one another to serve. Not simply installing these officers today and trusting that they, together with our fine staff will serve. Rather leaders are called to enable all to serve. And in serving we will discover significance. We will leave behind a committed life.
III. The Perfect Church Is Full of Imperfect People Who Seek God Extravagantly
All this extravagant celebrating and serving finally leads me to say, The perfect church is full of imperfect people who seek God extravagantly. This is why we are here. We are on a spiritual quest. Friends this old church has been doing Christ’s work in Bowling Green since 1819, not simply to be another club that parties or another service group that does good. We have been doing these things because they express our search for God. All human beings have a need for God, for a personal relationship with God. Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, came down from heaven to live among us and show us how. The Holy Spirit lifts us up to heaven and engrafts us into the risen Christ. These are the two hands God the Father uses to embrace us, Christ coming down to meet us, the Spirit lifting us to where God the Father is.
The Perfect Church appears when these three attributes converge: extravagant celebration, extravagant service. and extravagant seeking after God. Sometimes Country Music, with its honesty about the storms of life, says it best. Like these words by Trisha Yearwood.
“Everything in moderation.
That’s the way it’s always been.
Never gotten out of control,
Never hangin’ it out,
Always reelin’ it in.
I’ve had enough of playin’ it safe,
Somebody draw the line
So I can blow right past.
I need to rock the boat,
I need to speak my mind.
Just this once let it all unwind.
I’ve got to set this spirit free
That’s hiding here inside.
I feel like a bird in a cage,
It’s time for me to fly.
I believe it is time for this great church to fly, and manifest Christ’s glory. Ordination-Installation Day is all about giving hands and feet to our beliefs so we can get into action extravagantly. Riding out every storm that comes, and equipping God’s people to do God’s work, beginning right here and going to the ends of the earth.
1. Eugene H. Peterson in his forward to Philip Yancey’s Church: Why Bother?, p.7.
2. Jn. 1;43.
3. Jn. 2:11.
4. Jn. 10:10.
5. Frederick Nietzsche, quoted in Yancey, ibid., p.20.