Ash Wednesday + February 10, 2016
From dust you came, and to dust you shall return. - Genesis 3:19
Come and follow me. - Matthew 4:19
“How many do you worship?” The question is strange. It comes from a man in a suit that screams “business” and the tired eyes of a salesman with just a little too much “success”—tired eyes but super excited eye brows, smile, evangelical fervor. I imagine this is a kind of “temptation in the wilderness” moment. It is Lent.
I want to say, that on my best days, I try to worship God. Other days, it’s mainly myself, my fears, my resentments—those things that I fixate on and dedicate my energy toward, those things which keep me from living into God’s love—love of neighbor in compassion and charity, love of neighbors in solidarity, in the struggle for a world liberated and just.
We all know that love, in the Bible, is the form of incense most preferable to God’s nostrils (Isaiah 1:13). After all, God is love (1 John 4:7). So if we really wish to honor God, says the Prophet in Isaiah 1:17, we are to “learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.
“How many do you worship?”
The temptation is to respond with that sermonette, leaving me feeling self-righteous and superior.
Of course, this guy means church attendance. And, really, deep down, sure: I wish we “worshipped more,” or had more “butts in pews,” as Tom and Marge used to say and smile. But for me, the abrasive rub in this man’s question is in the unspoken sentiment. Underneath the question he seems to be emoting the great American mantra, “more is better,” and therefore asking simultaneously, not just “how many,” but “how good is your church?”
It’s sort of an alienating question. I feel pulled into some sort of contest that I never entered, or into a game whose rules I find disturbing at best.
Yes, I like when the church is packed. It feels good. It gives me a good church-high for the next couple of days. It’s great. And I am glad our church is growing!
However, if pews are filled and we haven’t been transformed, touched, moved to love—if we have not been activated by the grace of God to do works of charity and liberation in the world, it may be that we are nothing but a clanging gong, just a noisy cymbal (1 Corinthians 13:1), still falling short of the prophetic provocation to act in love. For the only faith “that matters, is faith that is active through love (Galatians 5:6).” Love… Activation… Faith…
There are closed churches all over the Southside of Chicago. I’ve recently seen in India ancient church buildings now empty, except for their use as museums, historical records of what was.
From dust we came, to dust we shall return.
But Love is eternal. The Spirit endures. The “same Spirit that raised Christ from the dead dwells in you (Romans 8:11)”
As we think this Lent about what it means to be a Servant Church, a church of disciples, a church that heeds Christ’s command to follow in the footsteps of God’s liberative love, perhaps the question to ask is not “how may do you worship?” (Because: to dust we shall return). Rather, perhaps the question is “How do you love?” or “How do you live in such a way that the desire to love and to serve flows through your community, a community of disciples, into the world, transforming the disciples and everyone they encounter? How do you serve? Who do you serve? How does it work?
“How do you love?”
Let us ask this, not with judgement, to assess who is “better” or who is not so great, but so that we might learn from one another, build one another up, and be channels of God’s liberating love as it flows into a thirsty world.