September 29, 2002
Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost

LECTIONARY READINGS
from the Revised Common Lectionary

Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32
Psalm 25:1-9
Philippians 2:1-13
Matthew 21:23-32


"How to Have a Perfect Church"
Philippians 2:1-13

It is difficult to find a really good church - isn't it? Much less to find a perfect church. Some years ago a couple from the church I was then serving took a trip to California during their summer vacation. When they returned, they told me how they had visited the most "perfect" church. It was a lively, exciting, welcoming group of people with tons of children and programs for every age group in the church. There was something going on every day of the week and the staff of almost 100 people made sure every one found a sense of belonging.

"Why can't we be more like that?" she asked. Seriously.

Her idea of a perfect church included a church with a mountain of money, an army of paid staff and a weekly schedule that wore me out just reading the Sunday bulletin she brought home. It wasn't an audible response to her question, but I was thinking, "Well for one thing, we are 99 people short of the paid staff to be more like that!"

My wife's idea of the perfect church is a church where no one ever criticizes the pastor. Others see a perfect church as a place where there is no fussing and fighting.  A community free from political infighting. Sometimes the search for a perfect church boils down to the fact that the perfect church would be a place where people think like me, worship like me and share my religious views.

Of course, it may be that the perfect church is a church that has a perfect pastor. There is a tongue in cheek chain letter about the perfect pastor that has made the rounds via email and internet that has circulated all over the world. This version came to me in an email from a friend:

The results of a computerized survey indicate the perfect minister preaches exactly fifteen minutes. He condemns sins but never upsets anyone. He works from 8:00 AM until midnight and is also a janitor. He makes $50 a week, wears good clothes, buys good books, drives a good car, and gives about $50 weekly to the poor. He is 28 years old and has preached 30 years. He has a burning desire to work with teenagers and spends all of his time with senior citizens. The perfect minister smiles all the time with a straight face because he has a sense of humor that keeps him seriously dedicated to his work. He makes 15 calls daily on congregation families, shut-ins and the hospitalized, and is always in his office when needed.

If your minister does not measure up, simply send this letter to six other churches that are tired of their minister, too. Then bundle up your minister and send him to the church on the top of the list. In one week, you will receive 1,643 ministers and one of them will be perfect. Have faith in this procedure.

One church broke the chain and got its old minister back in less than three weeks....so don't break the chain.

***

Let's suppose there was a perfect church close enough for you to attend. What would you do? Would you worship there and even more, would you join the church?

There is a poem that has been around for some time and I am not able to give proper attribution because it is always listed as "author unknown." The last time I saw it was in a church bulletin where I was visiting in worship. It goes like this:

If you should find
the perfect church
without fault or smear,
Please, don't join that church,
you'd spoil the atmosphere.

If you should find the perfect church
where all anxieties cease,
Then pass it by lest joining it
you mar the masterpiece.

If you should find the perfect church,
then don't you ever dare
To tread upon such holy ground
you'd be a misfit there.

But since no perfect church exists...
made of imperfect men,
Then let's cease looking for that church,
and love the one we're in.

Of course it's not a perfect church,
that's simple to discern,
But you and I and all of us
could cause the tide to turn.

So let's keep working in our church
until the resurrection,
And then we each will join God's church
without an imperfection.

We need to be aware of the temptation here to copout by simply repeating the mantra, "Nobody's perfect and there are no perfect churches."   The fact that there are no perfect churches should not keep us from earnestly doing all we can to strengthen and build up the Body of Christ any more than we should not work to improve our Christian lives because there are no perfect Christians.

Our epistle reading today is a great encouragement to work to make the church all it can be. Indeed the passage actually tells us how to have a perfect church - if only we can put into practice the principles given here. There is a three pronged message in the text. [1] First of all Paul tells the congregation how they can bring joy to his heart,  [2] Secondly he encourages than to have the mindset of Christ,  [3] Thirdly - recognizing the very tall order the first two items call for - he explains to them how this perfect church can come about.

Something very much worth looking at - don't you think? There is no question that our world today could use a church where these qualities are at work.

***

The Joy of an Apostle's Heart

When he wrote this Philippians, Paul was in prison and the congregation was worried about him. They had a deep love for him as he did for the church. Paul's strong feelings for the flock of Christ are more evident in Philippians than any other letter. When he gets to our text for today, Paul says, "If there is anything to this Christian faith of ours at all, make my joy complete..."

Of course, under the circumstances, they would want to try everything they could to bring joy to Paul. With everything he was going through, he was in need of good news about the church he had started in Philippi.

The central lesson here is that a church which is functioning as it was intended to not only brings joy to the apostle, or to a pastor who labors to build up a church - it brings great joy to the heart of Christ.

There are two central characteristics that make for this kind of a church. "...be of the same mind..." and, "...have the same love..."  Having the same mind means that the congregation has a single mindset which is centered in Christ and the good news. Having the same love is simply following the command of Christ to, "...love one another as I have loved you..."  As they live out these two key qualities, they translate to the very practical issues of humility and compassion. "Don't live out of your own ego and personal agenda," Paul enjoins them, "But look out for others, and defer to others before you seek gratification of your own interests."

What would happen if we were to do everything in our power to integrate just these two things into every aspect of our life as a church. We would center our thinking in Christ and the good news and we would absolutely commit ourselves to having the love of Christ for each other.

The Mind of Christ

Paul takes this all a little deeper when he grounds it in the mind of Christ. This common mind he is searching for in the congregation is actually the mind of Christ. Literally, this means the "mindset" or "basic attitude" of Christ. That mindset was made up of absolute humility and striking obedience.

"Christ," Paul says, "Even though a part of the Godhead and reigning right there with God, did not insist on his rights, but instead took on humanity and came to us as a servant.  he gave up everything, including his life."  It is God who finally exalted the name of Christ and every knee shall one day bow to Christ.

In light of the life, death and resurrection of Christ, Paul enjoins the Philippians Christians - and by virtue of the scriptures enjoins us to live these things out in our life together as a church. His point is this:  Christ did it for us - we live it out for him!

The Power to Live It Out

Frankly, this is very tough stuff. Putting aside our own ego and embracing the humility and love of Christ in a radical way for everyone not just some within the congregation is no easy task.

No wonder there aren't any perfect churches!

Yet - there it is right in front of us in the scriptures.  This is not one of those esoteric, difficult to understand scripture lessons that needs the wisdom of brilliant scholars to explain.  This is not spiritual brain surgery.

"Get your act together! Think like Christ! Love like Christ! and be humble like Christ!"

That's all there is to it.  Easy to understand. Darn near impossible to accomplish. Right now, most of us are probably thinking along the lines of the disciples words to Jesus when he turned a rich young man away from traveling with them. "...they were greatly astounded and said, "Then who can be saved?" But Jesus looked at them and said, "For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible."  [Matthew 19:25-26]

Our epistle reading today concludes with the secret to how  we can have a perfect church. This secret is not so secret after all - it does, however, call us to open our lives more fully to the work of God's spirit in our lives. It is hard to become a great (much less perfect) church in our own strength. It is difficult to even think about saying no to self and yes to loving absolutely everyone in the church. (Who can do that!) Nevertheless, it is possible because, "...it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure."

If we first receive this and then believe it, we have made the first powerful step toward becoming the perfect church. On our own we can't do it. But God can.  The task is to get out of the way within our own lives and let God do the attitude changing and loving action.

So you see - the old poem was right. If you find the perfect church, don't join it - you'll wreck it!  On the other hand you can start with the imperfect church you've got, and write a blank check for God to work in your life to work in the church to perfect the one you're in.

Ah -- for sure we will not get this done in our lifetime - but we can certainly make a huge impact on the present condition of our churches and on the world around us that is dying to find the perfect church!


Connections in the Texts

The Old Testament lesson, the gospel and the epistle all have to do with the general theme of doing God's will.  The gospel has Jesus in conflict with the religious officials who are quite confident that they are in the will of God -- they assume so because they are officials of the temple and the temple is of God.   The assumption is in error.  The will of God, Jesus' parable points out, is in our actions and not in our words.  There is a real discussion available here with respect to outward religious behavior and inward spiritual commitment.  They are not the same.  The chief priests and temple official are centered in the temple and its life -- they are "religious".  Jesus' life is centered in doing the will of God (fulfilling God's desires for his life).  "My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work." [John 4:34] -- His is a "spiritual" commitment. In the gospel, the religious and the spiritual are on a collision course that will result in the crucifixion of Jesus and the virtual end of "religion" as the curtain in the temple is torn in two. [Matt. 27:51

The brief text in Ezekiel is a word of correction to the exiles.  As the temple authorities, they do not want to look at their inward life and relationship to God.  They blame their exile on the misdeeds of their "fathers".  Because the fathers sinned, they are now paying the price.  (The principle is set forth in Deut. 5:9)  Through Ezekiel, God tells exiled Israel that each individual is responsible for his or her relationship with God.   The will of God is a matter of individual spiritual commitment.

Philippians is absolutely the central text in the New Testament concerning the will of God in action.  The way up with God is down!

Matthew 21:23-32

An examination of the questions Jesus asks his critics throughout the gospels makes a wonderful study of his ability to penetrate superficial argument and get to the heart of an issue.  His detractors are frequently left with nothing but a public display of their petty prejudices.

Some of Jesus great questions:

* "Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save life or to kill?" [Mark 3:4]
*  "And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? [Matt. 15:3]
*  "Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax." [Matt. 22:18-19]
*  "Why do you raise such questions in your hearts?"  [Mk. 2:8]
*  "Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need of food?"  [ Mk. 2:25]

In this text, Jesus applies the teaching of the parable directly to his questioners.  "...into the kingdom of God ahead of you.   For John came to you..."  This begins a series of three parables (the text for this week and the next two weeks) where Jesus points the finger at the religious officials of Israel.  The final conflict is fully engaged with these parables.  It is significant that the beginning words of today's text are, "When he entered the temple..."   signifying the final days and hours of his ministry.  It is the officials of the temple that will finally reject the One who comes to save -- the One who came to give his life as a "...ransom for many."

Ezekiel 18:1-4

This brief text is addressed to the Exiles who find themselves in a foreign land -- their homeland lying in ruins.  "Whose fault is this?"  This question connects humanity from every age.  When something dreadful happens, we begin to look for the "fault" -- and the "fault" is always without and not within -- right?

"Wrong!"  God says through Ezekiel.  The principle of individual responsibility is spelled out here and dispels any notion that there was no such thing as individual responsibility in Israel.   There may be application here and there in our congregations -- the need for people to understand...  "You are responsible for your own spiritual life.  It does not matter that your uncle was a bishop or that your grandfather started the church or that your wife and children attend weekly -- you are responsible for your own spiritual life!  So...  how is it with you and God?"

Philippians 2:1-13

This text contains the famous kenosis passage (2:7) in which Christ "emptied himself".  The word comes from the Greek kenaow - "to empty out".  There is no greater definition of the will of God in action than this passage.  The beginning verses enjoin Christians to maintain healthy Christian community and unity and then says that they must have the mind of Christ with respect to their relationships with each other.  What follows from verse 5 on is absolutely counter cultural and revolutionary!

The will of God is defined in the life of Jesus who chose the characteristics of humility, service and obedience.  The phrase "he emptied himself" is instructive.   You have heard the phrase, "He is full of himself..." or "She is full of herself..."  For our purposes, the point is that there is no room for the will of God in a life that is full of self.  Thus, Christ is the model of one who, having every reason to retain self, gives self up and chooses the characteristics of humility, servanthood and obedience."

Will the world reward such an attitude?   Absolutely not!  But...  God exalts the one who for the sake of the will of God, empties self that the counter cultural, revolutionary desires of God can live within.  Then...  it is God who is at work within us accomplishing the Divine will.  (V.13)


Worship Helps

A Call To Worship  (Adapted from Psalm 25)

Leader:   We open our hearts to you this day, O Lord
People:  We place our hope and trust in you.
Leader:   O Lord, teach us and give us guidance today,
People:  For your truth is our salvation.
Leader:   May we discover love, acceptance and forgiveness, 
People:  In the embrace of your steadfast love!  Amen!

A Prayer of Confession

O loving God, we come before you once again asking for forgiveness and restoration.  We have gone searching for meaning without seeking your will and we have anguished over decisions without seeking your guidance.  O, by your grace help us to put first things first and make your Son, our Lord Jesus Master of all.  Give us healing and  set us on your pathway for our living,  Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Assurance of Pardon

Be assured, sisters and brothers that God hears the cries of a broken and contrite heart and cleanses us from all unrighteousness.  Because of Christ we are forgiven. Amen.

A Pastoral Prayer

Lord save us from the deadly spiritual sin of presuming upon your grace.
Keep us ever centered on the fact that you have lavished your love upon us
when we did not deserve it.
And O dear Lord, how we give thanks that we
do not have to earn that love.  How could we ever be worthy of the love which
was bestowed upon us by your Son Jesus Christ?

We give thanks and praise you for receiving us as your children.

Now, O gracious God, we plead for the strength of your Holy Spirit to become
witnesses of this transforming love. We can not do this on our own.  We are
too quick to judge and too prone to reject those who do not measure up to our
standards. Having received your grace freely, we can be less than gracious when
others are in great need of grace. Having received your love without cost,
we are sometimes less than giving with our love.

And the world is in such need of your free flowing, transforming love.  Jesus came
to love anyone and everyone who would simply turn to you with open heart and
empty hands... those who knew they had nothing to offer but a broken spirit and
a contrite heart.

May we accept the bold commission to go from this place as those who live and
share the love of Christ. May all those who meet us meet your love and grace in us.
Then shall we truly be the church and the name of Christ be truly lifted up.   Amen.

A Prayer of Dedication

O gracious Lord of life, we come before you today with these gifts.
Your Son gave up absolutely everything to save us.  He poured out
his very life that we might have life with you.  These gifts seems so
small in the light of his great gift.  And yet, O Lord, you honor us with
joy in your heart, because these gifts make you glad.  We praise and
thank you for such a love!  Amen.