When Paul writes the letter that we heard a small section of this morning, he and the Corinthian church have already been through a lot together. Paul has visited Corinth twice, and, despite our biblical numbering, this is in fact the fourth letter that he has written to their community. During all that time, the Corinthians have inspired Paul; and they have disappointed him; and, at one point, they have deeply and personally injured him.
In other words, the Corinthian church seems not so different than churches we may know. They go through periods of health and periods of difficulty. They have both wonderful and sometimes conflicted relationships with their leaders. Their ministry together achieves beautiful things, but mistakes are also made, and feelings get hurt. Right here in the bible, we see an example of just how human a church can be.
But despite all of that flawed humanness, despite all of the complicated history between them, Paul still has something amazing to say about this community. You, he tells them, you are a letter written with the Spirit of the living God on the tablets of human hearts. God has given us the ability to be ministers of a new covenant. And so, let us act with great boldness. Despite everything that has happened, Paul still believes that the Corinthian Church has been empowered by God to carry out Christ’s work of love. Because of what God has done, great things are still possible. Because of what God has done, what God is doing, great things are called for.
Today, we, like Paul, have plenty of reasons to give up hope on the church. There are plenty of stories of failures of leadership in the news; whether it’s megachurch pastor Mark Driscoll’s offensive remarks and financial wrongdoing; or heartbreaking sagas of hushed-up sexual abuse. Then there is the widespread collapse of the church as a dominant social institution, the shrinking and dying of congregations and religious organizations. There are our own experiences of being let down, frustrated, tired out, uninvited, or hurt by churches and their leaders. Even this beloved West Concord Church is not without its hard chapters of history, and we are certainly imperfect today.
So why: why invest our time, our energy, and our money, as we do today, in the church (and in this church)? It is becoming a very unusual thing to do, at least for some of our age groups. Are we throwing good money after bad? Have we missed all the signs that this is a failed experiment?
Despite all the bad press, despite all that we get wrong, I believe that the church matters today, and that it can be a powerful agent for good. Because the church calls us to a higher purpose than our individual desires; even if we fall short of that purpose every day. Because the church reminds us that we are profoundly connected with every human being on the planet, and all of creation; part of a whole that must be recognized and honored if we desire to mitigate human suffering and address climate change. Because the church teaches us that life is a precious gift, and that our fundamental identity is as beautiful and beloved children of God.
The church matters today, because it is a community in which God can change us. Just like for the Corinthians, it all comes back to God. God, who thank goodness, is bigger than all of our mistakes. God, who cannot be broken or diminished. God, who created this world out of love, and who is still moving in and around us to call us towards a more just and compassionate future.
With this foundation, with this hope, I truly believe that the church universal is called to boldness. And it is with great gratitude that I see boldness happening here.
We are bold, when we invest in the spiritual nurture of our children, and welcome as full members adults with developmental disabilities. We are bold, when we care for one another as members face illness, loss, and despair. We are bold, when we decide to partner more deeply with our allies in mission, wanting to know and be known, to change and be changed as we serve. We are bold, when we begin to imagine how we can be part of a growing movement to protect and restore our natural world. We are bold, when we dream of a future together that is more welcoming, more accessible, more sustainable, and more responsive to our changing needs and God’s new calls.
I believe that we are making a worthwhile investment today. I hope that you believe that, too. It’s not so much that West Concord Union Church is so extraordinary in and of itself. We’ve got plenty to learn, so many ways in which to grow. Look around, we are ordinary folks. But God, God is making something beautiful with our imperfections. God has called us to an amazing ministry that we can only carry out with her help. The Spirit of the Living God is writing on our hearts, making of us a love letter to the world. And I say: Halleluia. Thanks be to God. Let’s do it.