2 Corinthians 4:5-12
5For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake.6For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.7But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.
8We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair;9persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed;10always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies.11For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh.12So death is at work in us, but life in you.

There is a scene early in Margaret Mitchell’s classic novel of the Old South, Gone with the Wind, of the barbecue at Twelve Oaks plantation. Many young people were there, dressed in their best party attire, flirting, bragging and having a genuinely good time. During the barbecue, word came that the “War Between the States” had started. The young men donned their uniforms, mounted their horses, and rode off to fight for the Confederacy. They fully believed the war would soon be over, and they would come home victorious and heroes. Not so! Four years later they came home wounded, hungry, disillusioned, and defeated. They came home to a South that had been burned and looted; all was gone.

This was much like my experience ten to fifteen years after seminary graduation. My phone started ringing with classmates who had entered church ministry with high energy and strong idealism. They were full of Niebuhr, Barth, Brunner and Tillich, not to mention Greek and Hebrew. They believed that once they explained these theologians to their churches, all would be right in the Kingdom. They thought that there was nothing in the church or denomination that would not be better once they were in control.

These same young men, now older and wiser, called and told me about their brokenness; of churches that would not do the right thing about the race issue, organizational change or community involvement; of Consitories who were masters of political intrigue; Treasurers who believed they ought to control the money; of families who were selfish in their demands; of old men and women who excelled in controlling the church and the pastor with gossip and innuendo. They told me of their families being harassed by these same people and of the unfair demands placed upon them and their families. They also recited incidents when the denomination and seminaries had abandoned them. The recurrent refrain was “the church is the only army that shoots its wounded.” You may ask yourself, “Is the church worth the effort?”

Like the canary in the mine shaft, the church is the early warning system for our culture. Most pastors were making hospital visits and conducting funerals for young men who had strange and mysterious illnesses long before the general public was informed by the media of HIV and AIDS. The struggle over Vietnam, fundamentalism, the rise of the Religious Right, the rising divorce rate, and women’s leadership all were issues most churches faced before they were ever acknowledged by the general public. The United Church of Christ, in particular has been on the very vanguard of many social issues. And, we have been barbecued for it.

These days, younger Christians among the Buster and Mosaic generations seem to be dissatisfied with the individualistic Christianity of their parents’ generation. They long for deeper community. But they tend to be skeptical about the church. In many cases, this skepticism has come from personal experience of a church, or even several churches. Those church folk who were supposed to imitate the love of Christ turned out to be judgmental, prideful, narrow-minded, and even hateful. Churches seems more interested in getting more members and building more buildings than in helping their members to be more like Christ. So many among the younger generations are cut off from church, not because they want to be Lone Ranger Christians, but because they don’t trust the church.

However, in spite of these issues, I still love the church. I love the church universal, as well as the church local (red brick, white-columned with the meetings that matter happening out in the parking lot). With all of its dysfunction and flesh marks, with all of its confusion and humanity, it is still the best thing God has going for Him in this world. We do have a treasure in earthen vessels.

Let us not forget that the church was in the ghettos before the current crop of activists – note William Booth and the Salvation Army. The church was into education before the government. Note the many ‘Sunday schools’ in our area that taught the 3 r’s long before there was any public education; remember the large number of universities, i.e., Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, that were begun with the express purpose of educating clergy. The church has been feeding the hungry and providing community while the general culture was debating political agendas and power. It was the church that broke down the Berlin Wall, that led the March on Selma, produced Martin Luther King, Jr., the Civil Rights Movement, and it was the church that led the War on Poverty.

The church is a solid oak tree, not a fragile tea cup. It has withstood Roman Imperialism, Jewish legalism, pagan optimism, medieval institutionalism, the excesses of the reformers, wars and rumors of wars, a youth quake, modern skepticism, southern provincialism, resurgent fundamentalism, and heresies in each generation that seem never to die. It can withstand anything our generation can throw at it.

It has been victimized by unprepared and selfish clergy, tone-deaf musicians, manipulative members, argumentative lay-leaders, demanding denominations, unloving reformers, and greedy politicians. Still it continues to provide love, affirmation and community to the fallen in the face of alienation.

To those who are believers and have given up on the church and those on the outside who do not understand it, I offer this final word.

You really cannot understand the church from the outside. To know its real meaning you must be inside; in fact, it must get inside of you.

6For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.7But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.

And now I say to all of the critics of the church – and there are many. If you do not have a church, where do you assemble people to teach them to live by the highest summoning of the human spirit? Is your book called Scripture? What do you sing about? How do you celebrate?

The church is worth the effort.
(this sermon was adapted from a sermon by Rev. Dr. William Self, titled: “The Church IS worth the effort”)

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