A sermon preached on August 14, 2016, by visiting pastor, Rachel Freeny
Good morning. I’m honored to be here with you this morning. Liz, who has preached here several times, has told me wonderful things about this community of faith, and I’ve been looking forward to today. Today is also significant to me because this is my first time preaching outside of a seminary classroom. I graduated from McAfee School of Theology in May. While in seminary, I swore there were three things I’d never do—work for a church, preach, and get ordained. I’m two for three at the moment, so you can see how well it’s worked out for me so far. If you ever feel your life is getting boring, just give God a list of things you’ll never do. In all seriousness, thank you for having me this morning.
A few weeks ago my roommate sent me a YouTube video that had me laughing until my sides hurt. A preacher steps up to the pulpit to begin the day’s scripture reading. He opens his bible, takes a deep breath, and then quickly shuts the bible. The congregation watches him with confused looks on their faces. “UGGGGHHHHHHH. You GUYS!!” he shouts. “You’re supposed to be good. You’re making me look bad in front of God!”
The congregation continues to watch in horror as he flails his arms in frustration. He calms down and opens his bible to continue the reading. “Oh look,” he says. “It’s Jesus, and he says STOP IT. Just….stop it.” He pauses and looks around before finishing with, “The word of the Lord” and walks away from the pulpit leaving the congregation stunned and not quite sure how to respond.
I’ve never identified with a silly YouTube video more. There have been countless times over the years that I’ve looked around the church and wanted to scream, “You’re supposed to be good. Jesus says STOP IT.”
Watching Christians stumble and miss the point, sometimes in a very public way, is frustrating. Unfortunately, much of my generation has given up on the church completely. You may have read…or heard…or seen…that Millenials are largely missing from the church. There are many reasons of course, not all of them noble, but the most pressing one is a disillusionment with what the church can or should be and what the church often is. And I know we’re not the only ones who feel this way. I don’t know many Christians who haven’t been hurt or disappointed by the church at some point in their lives.
We look at the church and see a misguided institution more concerned with self-preservation than reaching out into the community. We see the hypocrisy of a religion that proclaims love for all people, unless of course those people are gay. We long for the church to stand up and say, “enough!” in the face of racial violence, and our hearts break when all we hear is a deafening silence. We’re confused by capital campaigns for new buildings when there are hungry children living down the street.
We know that Jesus teaches love for all people and compassion towards the hurting. We know that Jesus reached across boundaries to include those that society marginalized and cast out. We know what the gospels say, but too often we see the church lash out in fear and hatred. And we wonder, “Is God still working through the church?” We’ve lost hope that things can change, and many of us have stopped trying.
Like the church, Israel was no stranger to missing the point. The prophets in the Old Testament all start to sound the same after awhile: “You guys! What are you doing? Why are you singing songs to that golden cow?? Why are you worshipping Nebuchadnezzar?? Where’d you get that Ba’al statue??”
No matter how many miracles they witness or stories about God’s faithfulness they hear, the Israelites somehow manage to keep turning away from God. They have a short-term memory issue that gets worse in times of turmoil. Hosea is the latest in a long string of prophets sent to remind Israel who they are and whose they are. He comes to them during a time of political upheaval and social chaos. The Assyrians are gaining more and more power and territory every day, and Israel knows they won’t be safe for too much longer. Living under the constant threat of attack is stressful. So stressful that Israel has had six different kings in just thirty years.
Gone are the days of Israel’s prosperity, and people are terrified. They don’t know who to turn to, so they turn to Ba’al and away from God. “Surely Ba’al will save us!” they cry. And God looks down on God’s beloved children and wonders where God went wrong.
“I have loved Israel from the beginning. When they were trapped in Egypt, I rescued them. When they were learning how to be a free people, I guided them and taught them how to live in peace with each other. I gave them food in the desert. I made sure they had fresh water to drink. When they hurt, I comforted them and healed them. I don’t how I can make my love any clearer. I don’t know what I can do to convince them that I am what they are searching for. I am the one who can give them full life, not Ba’al.”
The Israelites disappoint God once again, and God’s heart is at war within itself. God is frustrated and hurt and angry. Israel never learns. And Israel may never change. But as frustrating as Israel is, God looks at God’s children and asks, “How can I give you up? How can I hand you over? How can I sit by and let you destroy yourselves?”
Instead of leaving Israel to fend for themselves, God promises to stick it out. To stay with Israel and restore them. To be patient as they learn. God knows this isn’t the first time Israel has missed the point and knows that it won’t be the last time, but God would rather struggle with Israel than abandon them altogether.
June was a big month for our congregation in Gainesville. We welcomed a Syrian refugee family to our community. This beautiful family of five arrived in Atlanta knowing no one but each other. They left their family, friends, and everything familiar behind to start a new life here in America.
Helping a family start over is hard work. There are appointments at the health department and the social security office and the local schools. The apartment needs furniture, and the family needs English lessons, and the baby gets sick and has to go the hospital. The list of things that need to be done is endless, but this family has never had to go it alone. Kate and Josh teach them English every week, and Brooke and Beth help register the boys for school. Amy helps them apply for food stamps, and Janice takes the mother to get her haircut. Betty and Bob pop in on random afternoons to say hello and bring them fresh Georgia peaches. And Sarah brings her children over for play dates. Cherie takes them to mosque every Friday.
It doesn’t matter that they don’t speak English. It doesn’t matter that they are Muslim. This family has become part of a larger family that loves them because Jesus taught us to love our neighbors.
I’ve wondered many times if it would be easier to throw up my hands and walk away from the church as an institution. Watching the infighting and hypocrisy is frustrating. Wouldn’t it make more sense to walk away and serve Jesus somewhere else?
But then I watch a group of Christians surround a refugee family with unconditional love and care. I see a community of believers come together to mourn with a family who’s lost their beloved wife and mother. I sit in a small group with people who want to know how they can best show their support for their LGBTQ brothers and sisters who have been rejected by the church. I walk with fellow theology students in a protest against the death penalty because we serve a merciful God. I look around at the ways God is still working through Christians, and I realize why I stay.
If we open our eyes to the small acts of faithfulness happening everyday, we start to understand God’s question to the Israelites. “How can I give you up?” The church will continue to let us down and frustrate us. But God has not given up on the church. God has promised to stick it out. To stay with the Church and restore us. To be patient as we learn. This is not the first time the Church has missed the point, and it won’t be the last time, but God would rather struggle with the Church than abandon us altogether.
For all of its faults and failures, the church is still a beacon of hope in a suffering world. God has not left the church, so how can we?