Wednesday, March 18, 2009

THE SERMON OF THE NURSERY (a.k.a What I didn’t get to say Sunday) Dialogue Column 3.17.09

I wrote this for The Dialogue, the newsletter of First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in St. Joseph, MO. Often, I'll post here on the blog my columns for the weekly newsletter. I mention it just so that folks who read the snail-mail version can skip this post if they've already read it.

My sermon wasn’t really a sermon on Sunday or even a homily; it was too short for either. I kept things short, because we spent time in worship Sunday doing the important work of rededicating our church nursery and thanking the many church members who have given their time, talents and money to make it into a warm and beautiful place for our children. The real sermon Sunday was the “sermon of the nursery.” There is a valuable lesson for us all in how our church came together to accomplish this project. When the idea of redecorating our nursery came up, as a parent of a toddler, I knew firsthand that the work was long overdue, but I fully expected the idea to be batted around for a long time before any actual work got done. Boy was I wrong! Thanks to the leadership of Julia Black, the cooperation of the Property Committee and the hard work of a lot of members, we have new carpet, new plaster, new paint, new toys, new furniture and a beautiful new mural—all in record time

The effort put into our new nursery is especially blessed, because it was not prepared as showpiece; it is meant to be used by young children, so that their earliest memories of church will be ones of fun and welcome. First Christian Church needs to absorb this lesson. Recently, the Administrative Board approved going forward with a new boiler system—both of our aged boilers departed to heating system heaven this winter. It is a project that comes with a hefty price tag. Soon the Property Committee will bring to the board proposals on our tile roof and masonry work around the church. These overdue projects also cost some serious money. We are presented with the choices of making these necessary and costly repairs; letting the building fall down around us or moving to another place. The second choice is a non-option. The third choice was decided decades ago when the church chose to remain downtown rather than move out east. That leaves choice number one. If we are to make this investment in our building, then I ask the church to remember the lesson of the nursery—our building is meant to be used for ministry not preserved as a museum piece.
My sermon text for Sunday was John’s account of Jesus driving the vendors and moneychangers out of the Jerusalem temple. Much ink has been spilt debating Jesus’ motive for doing so. Many scholars point the finger at the merchants who were making a business out of worship and may have even cheated the faithful, but there is much evidence that they may have been doing nothing more than enabling the worship of God to happen. Money needed to be changed from coins with graven images on them to ones that didn’t break one of the Ten Commandments. Animals were needed for sacrifice and pilgrims couldn’t be expected to bring livestock on long distances. So why did Jesus run them out? I prefer to think that Jesus confronted the system of worship practiced in his day, because the pious religious folks failed to notice that God was doing a new thing through Jesus Christ. Jesus’ actions in the temple were a wake up call to religious people who had taken their focus off of the God they were supposed to be worshipping and put their focus on the busyness of worship itself.

The lesson from Jesus’ “cleansing” of the temple resonates to all people of faith in our time and every time. You can get so busy about the business of church that you forget what the church is for. One of the easiest ways this can happen is when a church comes to believe it is a church just because it has a building called a church. A church is a community of people not a building! Here at First Christian, we can do the right thing of investing in our building for the wrong reasons. If our investment in the building is not matched by a determination to intentionally use this building for the worship of God and ministry to people in need, then it becomes like a nursery built for show rather than for children to play in.
Again and again, I have seen churches fight over building repairs and remodeling while they have given little, if any, passion and energy (much less money) towards ministering to the community around them. I have known churches who spent vast sums of money on a building that sits empty 90% of the time, when the space inside it could be offered to community groups or used to help others in need. In such cases, the church building itself becomes an idol—an object of worship—rather than what it should be: not an end in itself, but rather a means to an end—a means of worshipping God and serving others. If you don’t believe me, just drive around St. Joseph and notice all the closed church buildings. They are gravestones for communities that failed to understand they were more than a building. As we go forward together as a church, let us continue to do for our entire building what we have just done for our nursery.
Grace and Peace,

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