Re-Imagining Church

Revelation 3:1-6 (New Revised Standard Version)

“And to the angel of the church in Sardis write: These are the words of him who has the seven spirits of God and seven stars: ‘I know your works; you have a name of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is on the point of death, for I have not found your works perfect in the sight of my God. Remember then what you received and heard; obey it, and repent. If you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come to you. Yet you still have a few persons in Sardis who have not soiled their clothes; they will walk with me, dressed in white, for they are worthy. If you conquer, you will be clothed like them in white robes, and I will not blot out your name in the book of life; I will confess your name before my Father and before his angels. Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.’”

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There’s a story about an eccentric pastor who one Sunday told the congregation, “Later today I want to invite everyone back, because we are going to be having a funeral service for the church.” Well you can imagine that everyone’s interest was piqued and so when evening came the church was full to the brim of both members  and of people who were from the community who had heard and were curious what a funeral service for the church would look like. As the pastor stepped up to the pulpit and began to lead the “funeral service,” he asked if people would be able to come up to the front of the church where there was a small wooden casket. Each individual made their forward from the pew that they were setting in and as they made their way to the front they looked inside and saw a little mirror inside the casket reflecting back an image of themselves.

The church in Sardis had a reputation for being great… The church in Sardis was established in a city that had accumulated a significant amount of wealth. The church in Sardis had in more ways than one become like the city itself, rich and powerful. Sardis was a place of trade and commerce. Merchants brought their goods into the city and the revenue generated from the sale of those items meant that Sardis had a pretty secure financial income. It appeared that the church in Sardis had everything that it needed to be successful in its ministry. But perhaps it was because the church in Sardis had everything that it needed that it eventually became “lukewarm” in following the teachings of Christ. Perhaps it was because the church in Sardis tried so hard to hold onto the things that made it great that it became a church that lost its way instead.

We are not immune to the struggles and the temptations that the church in Sardis faced. The temptation of looking in the mirror and seeing only the things that make us great, the things that remind us that we are a pillar of the community, the things that make us feel  impervious to the ongoing flow of time. But the church in Sardis, the church today is not immune to the false sense that everything is okay, the misbelief that the status quo is what is to be maintained at all cost, the desire to look longingly at the past as some ideal that needs to be reincarnated into today’s church. The identity of the church of Sardis had become so enmeshed, intertwined, with its wealth, history, and tradition, that the original mission of the church had become muddled and cloudy. The fire that had once kindled the church had become dim. No longer was there a priority to share this flame, the love of Christ, but instead the primary focus of the church had become to preserve this flame for posterity.

So what are we going to do and who are what are we going to become? Are we going to become the living church of Jesus Christ, the church that is being continually challenged to grow and change or are we going to place history and tradition over the gospel of Jesus Christ? Are we going to only write a check and give of our earthly treasures or are we going to give not only our earthly treasures but also give of our time, our talents, and our blood and sweat to the people that Jesus called us to serve? Are we going to be a church that wants to be served or are we going to throw open the doors of the church and take on the risks of what it means to be a church in the 21st century? Are we able to put down that crystal mirror long enough to see that outside our vaulted ceilings and rich history there is a community that is longing to be fed both in body and in spirit? Who are we going to become? Do you dare imagine?

At the beginning, I believe the church in Sardis must have had a passion for Christ, they must have had a passion to be the hands and feet of God in their community. I imagine that those who founded the church were like those who had come before us here in this place. I imagine that they were a small group of people, and dedicated themselves to doing the work that Christ had called them to do. I imagine that they could not have possibly dreamed of what the church would and could become when the laid the groundwork for the church in Sardis. But like all things in life things, things that started out in a simple manner don’t stay simple for very long, and instead of being focused on the mission of Jesus Christ they become a gathering place for those who want to be comfortable instead of being challenged.

There is a natural waxing and waning that occurs throughout the life of the church and throughout our own lives. We do not know where the Spirit of God will lead us. We do not know what lies around  the corner, we do not know what changes there will be, and we do not know whether or not God is calling us, here in this place, to be the same people we have always been or to become people who are always changing and being led by the Spirit of God. And while Christ is there with outstretched arms that offer us grace and forgiveness, Christ is also there with arms outstretched that push and prod us to go outside our comfort zone. Christ is there with outstretched arms to remind us that the church is not a place to be comfortable, but it is a place where we wrestle with all of life’s complexities, it is a place, a sacred place, a place that happens not only here and outside of these walls, where we give our all for the sake of having received all.

I’ve told this story before, but I think that it’s fitting to share it again.  I was leading a confirmation retreat for youth and their mentors. Besides leading plenary sessions for youth, I also led a small group for the adults who had come with them. While I try not to have favorites, there was one older man named Denny, who quickly jumped to the top of the list. During a discussion about how the church can be a better neighbor to those in the community Denny chimed in, “You know I’m really tired of some of the things my church does… All they do is debate and complain about how the church should be decorated. They’re concerned about the flowers and the building, but not about the people around us. When I walk outside of church on Sunday I see that there is so much more that we can and should be doing! Yet all people seem to ever talk about is keeping things the same!”

It is without a doubt that there will be a point in time where we, as a church, will encounter a moment that forces us to stop and think about what it means to be the church of Jesus Christ. Perhaps that moment is today, tomorrow, or the day after tomorrow… But for today we pause as we break bread and pour out the cup in remembrance of the unity we share with all the saints in every time and place. In our partaking of the bread and drinking from the cup, perhaps we will once again find the spark that ignites our souls, similar to the spark that fueled Denny’s passion for the church. In our participating in this holy sacrament we are able to glimpse at what the church of Jesus Christ is really built on. This thing we call church isn’t meant to be easy. It isn’t meant to be a comfortable place. It is in a fact place where we hold a mirror up to ourselves, seek and ask for forgiveness, and then the most important part it is a place then where we then go out into the world as people who have been transformed by the love that we have received from God.

What is the Spirit of God saying to the church today? Where do we see the Spirit leading us today, tomorrow, and the day after tomorrow? We don’t know what tomorrow will bring, but we can take solace in the fact that those who have come before us have laid the foundation to discern where God is calling us to be. We always talk about what it means to be a church in the 21st century, but why don’t we act on it? I think that starting today would be better than starting tomorrow, and would be a great place for us to re-imagine what the church could and can be as we  join with other churches in same the process of re-imagining what it means to be the hand and feet of Christ in the world! So I’ll ask again, “What is the Spirit of God saying to the church today?” What is the Spirit of God saying we need to let go of and prune in order to bear fruit? What is the Spirit of God saying we need to embrace in order to become the full body of Christ? How is the Spirit of God calling you to serve? So let us rekindle that fire that dwells within our hearts! And if we are dare ask ourselves these questions we may find that there is something great waiting to be discovered! Amen.