Everyone is looking for the perfect church. I know because I did so for a lot of years. After I became a Christian in college I also became a church dater. I was willing to attend anywhere I was invited, especially since I didn’t have a car at the time. I got baptized in the Conservative Baptist Church, I experienced the gifts of the Holy Spirit at the Foursquare Church. I went with friends to Presbyterian and Lutheran and Catholic churches. When I was involved in campus ministry I spent time in lots of African American churches where I saw people slain in the Spirit and I even did 5 years in Kent at a conservative Grace Brethren Church where they forbid musical instruments in their worship service and didn’t allow women to speak in church. Every one of these churches had something to recommend them, usually the people. But none of them was perfect.
Sometimes we look for the perfect church in our memory, comparing every other congregation to the one that we loved when we were younger. Some folks I know have given up on attending a local congregation in favor of TV worship services which can be enjoyed from the comfort of home without having to deal with all the real and imperfect people in the building. And others have found their idea of the perfect church in Scripture, particularly in the records of the very earliest followers of Jesus in the Acts of the Apostles.
Don’t you love what was described in today’s first reading? “Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul. With power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them.” Of course I left some of the text out. As my husband says, “Everyone always talks about the signs and wonders in the gospel and asks why such miraculous things don’t happen today, but no one ever talks about the sign and wonder of those who ‘claimed no private ownership of any possessions or those who owned lands or houses who sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.’” That’s a model of a perfect church that only a few try to put into action today!
The problem with finding the perfect church is that churches are always made up of us imperfect people. The very first gathering together behind closed doors happened shortly after the resurrection. The word was getting out that something astonishing had happened with the body of Jesus and that some of his closest disciples including many of the women had actually seen Jesus in the flesh. They all gathered a week later in fear and grief and wonder at the news. Present was Peter who had recently denied even knowing Jesus three times. Thomas who had started leaving the area came back but he was full of doubt and the need for anything this strange to be proved to him personally.
The brothers James and John who had so often jockeyed for position in the imaginary hierarchy of the followers of Jesus were there. None of them fully understood Jesus’ promise about the resurrection. None of them had much confidence in the continuation of his message and ministry now that he was gone. They weren’t brave or influential or particularly brilliant or even very loving to one another. No one would have chosen that particular group to be the basis for a future global religious movement. No sensible church planter would have collected this bunch to invest in to transform the world. They seemed weak and foolish with absolutely no plan or leadership going forward.
When Jesus steps into their midst he addresses first their fears and confusion. He breaths peace and speaks peace and brings peace to their troubled hearts. He centers them by his very voice and presence and they return to their best selves, to who he knows them to be, to whom they are called to be. And when he has their attention and their minds can begin to take in whatever he will offer them, he does something so strange and wonderful that it takes my breath away.
Instead of teaching about God’s power to raise the dead or reminding them of all he had told them about this moment or commissioning them to get out there and carry on with the mission, he spreads out his hands, he lifts up his tunic and he shows them the very visible wounds of his crucifixion. This is not the Christ of the transfiguration or the Son of Man coming on the clouds or the mighty voice from heaven commanding them to listen and obey. This is Jesus, the crucified whose strength is make perfect in weakness, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, who humbled himself unto death so that God might exalt him.
The model he offers for the community who will become the Church, the Body of Christ, is his own flesh wounded and given for them. The risen Christ bears the marks of his suffering. And those who follow him, including you and I will always bear the marks of our failures and weakness and foolishness. We will never be the perfect disciples all shined and polished and certain and well behaved. We will always be a cast of characters for whom Christ was willing to give his everything and in whom he continues to live out his ministry of healing and forgiving and loving the world.
We’re a small band of faithful followers and quirky characters here at St. Luke’s but we’re part of a huge body of believers all over the world. During Holy Week we decided to take our offering and give it to a very special part of Christ’s body in Aberdeen, Washington. The ministry is called Chaplains on the Harbor and it’s led by a phenomenal young priest named Sarah Monroe. They have developed a very close relationship with those who live in tents along the river in that town. Over Holy Week the City threatened to evict everyone and wouldn’t provide a place for them to go. Sarah and folks there got the word out. They testified and organized and used social media.
Even Bishop Rickel came there on Maundy Thursday and urged all of us to pray for them and to get involved. I can’t tell you how amazed and gratified I am to report that not only have we been praying but we will be sending a very generous donation to them this week. We’re not a big or successful or showy congregation but God is using St. Luke’s to make a difference in the lives of the folks in Aberdeen. Thank you.
I love that we’re giving away money when we’re not always sure how we’ll pay all of our expenses. And yet there is something that has been happening here that only happens when we expose our own wounds and trust in the power of the resurrected one to provide for us peace and faith and life in Jesus name.
The last Sunday before I started as your Priest-in-charge, I had been asked to serve as the supply priest at one of the church’s I worked with in California. It was a pleasure to be with those dear people one last time. Their church is in the heart of Napa wine country in the chic town of St. Helena. They have about 300 members, many of whom have a great deal of wealth. They completed a 15 million dollar remodel of the entire church a few years ago and they already burned the mortgage. It is a remarkably blessed place. It can be very intimidating to be amongst such polished and successful people.
But they are among some of the most generous and faithful Christians I know. They have a group of praying people who minister to anyone who is in need. My final Sunday there, they wanted to know what I was going to be doing in Washington so I told them what I knew about St. Luke’s and what I hoped for and what made me fearful. They sat me down in the middle of the congregation, laid their hands on me and prayed for me and prayed for you. It was powerful. But it didn’t end there. They continue to pray and ask how things are going. And they started sending checks. In fact on that Sunday, they pressed checks into my hand and asked for the address of the church. Over the past month the generosity of the members of this congregation, the generosity of our diocese who provides two substantial grants to us and the generosity of the good people at Grace Church in St. Helena have helped us to meet the needs we have here.
Is the Diocese of Olympia a perfect church? No. Is Grace, St. Helena a perfect church? No. Is St. Luke’s, Ballard a perfect church? No. But we all serve a risen Savior who is able to work in and through us beyond what we can ask or imagine. We are Easter people who step out from behind closed doors, whose fear is replaced by God’s peace and who continue the life of the risen Christ wherever we are sent.
Alleluia, Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed, Alleluia!
The Reverend Canon Britt Olson