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Messy Church

October 07, 2012

Read the full September/October 2012 issue of our sermon magazine, Our Daily Bread, here: 120910OurDailyBread.pdf

Bible Reading

Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations. He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his teaching.

Thus says God, the Lord, who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and what comes from it, who gives breath to the people upon it and spirit to those who walk in it: I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness. I am the Lord, that is my name; my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to idols. See, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare; before they spring forth, I tell you of them.

(Isaiah 42:1-9)

Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

(Matthew 3:13-17)


“What I saw now was the community, imperfect and irresolute, but held together by the frayed and always fraying, incomplete and yet ever-holding, bonds of the various sorts of affections.” (Wendell Berry, Jayber Crow)

A few weeks before Christmas, I went to a conference called “Finding Our Way.” It was a conference for pastors such as myself, designed to help us figure out what’s gone wrong with the mainline churches we serve and what we ought to do about it.

Those of you who have been part of the church for the last fifty or sixty years know that, as good as things are right now, things still aren’t what they used to be. There was a time when, come Sunday morning, you and everyone you knew was in church. The choir was full, the Sunday school overflowing, and everyone who was anyone came, whether they really believed in all this religious stuff or not.

Church was just where you went on Sunday morning. It was an established part of the culture, and frankly, other than home, there was really no place else to go. The shops were closed. No restaurants were open. There was no soccer practice or Little League or band trip scheduled for Sunday. No one went out to brunch on Sunday morning or stayed home with a second cup of coffee to read the Times, because if you did everyone would assume you were dead—or worse, a Communist. And since you wouldn’t want that, barring death, you went to church.

But sometime after 1954, the world changed. Blame it on the Beatles, free love, hippies, Vietnam, postmodernism, fluoridation, what have you; at some point in the last century, people stopped feeling that church attendance was a social obligation. And honestly, that’s not such a bad thing. It hasn’t been great for our numbers, but I do believe that this downward trend may yet save our souls.

Because I learned at this conference that, although the mainline has been in a steep decline since the 1950s, some churches are bucking the trend. They are not only holding steady but growing in number— and, even more importantly, growing in spirit— precisely because people are finally going to these churches because they want to, not because they feel they ought to. And they want to because something about being there is transforming their lives.

Of course, when you go to a conference like this and you hear these stories of transformation, as a pastor, you want to know what the secret is. Is it the music at these churches? Do they have PowerPoint? If we add drums or light more candles, rip out all the pews or get rid of the hymnals, will more people come? But what became increasingly clear as I listened to the presenters was that there wasn’t a one-size-fits-all answer. For some churches, ripping out the pews has worked. Others really like the PowerPoint. But what is most surprising, given that so many of the people now going to these churches were not raised in the church at all, has been the resurgence of ancient Christian practices: disciplines like fasting and tithing, daily prayer, walking labyrinths, going on pilgrimages, practicing hospitality, while at the same time acknowledging and rejoicing in the advances we have made as a culture.

Think about it. On the whole, we are a heck of a lot more tolerant now than we were back in the 1950s— more aware, more open to people who are different. And Diana Butler Bass, one of the presenters, said that the churches able to reach into the past for those ancient practices while holding on to what is best about our present way of thinking are the ones looking forward to a rich and prosperous future.

She closed her talk that first night with a story. She described an Episcopal church service where her friend, who is the openly gay dean at his big, old-fashioned stone cathedral, was doing a baptism. Picture this with me in your mind. The parents brought their baby forward, and the baby was stark naked. The children of the congregation were given bowls of water at the back of the church. They processed down the aisle and up the steps to the baptismal font, where they tipped their bowls into a great stone basin until it was filled to overflowing with water. The priest, in his long white robe, then took the baby, anointed her with oil, and dipped her down into the font three times, causing the water to spill out over the sides. And as the congregation sang contemporary Taize chants in Latin (that’s right, modern music written in an ancient language), the children remained up at the front of the church, splashing about in the water that now covered the steps.

Diana Butler Bass let this image sink into our minds for a moment, and then told us that as she watched this scene unfold, she felt deep in her soul that she had somehow stumbled into the church of the future.

I was deeply moved by her story, and I said as much during the question-and-answer period that followed. But I was also troubled. And so I raised my hand and said, “As a young person of faith, your vision of this gay priest and the wet, oily baby and all the children splashing and the Latin chanting— the whole picture—it fills me with joy. It’s beautiful to me. It feels real, it feels right. So why,” I asked, “do you think so many people find a vision like this threatening?”

She was quiet for a moment, and then she said something I will never forget. “Because it’s messy. And people aren’t comfortable with messy.”

I had expected her to say something conventional about how church people don’t like change, but the moment she said that, I realized that she was absolutely right. It was messy. Good church, living church, a church where people are real and the Holy Spirit is moving—good church is always messy, because life is messy. People are messy. Scripture is messy. Creation is messy. Theology and tradition and society try to impose some order on the mess, but the truth is, if you’re going to try and work with both the Bible and people, over time it’s going to get a little crazy. And that’s okay, because God works best in the mess. That’s the way it’s always been, and that’s the way it should be.

Look at our reading this morning if you don’t believe me. Here, right in the scriptures, we have another baptism, perhaps the most important baptism that ever took place. Jesus, in his first public act, shows up at the Jordan River to be baptized by his cousin John. Whether you think about it logistically, prophetically, or theologically, Jesus’ desire to be baptized was extremely messy—so messy that John doesn’t even want to do it.

Let’s talk logistics first. When you imagine John the Baptist, what sort of guy do you see in your mind’s eye? He’s not a middle-aged pastor with a neat combover in a long white robe singing in a deep, sonorous voice, “Softly and tenderly, Yahweh is calling, calling for you and for me…” No, no, no. John’s hip deep in muddy water. His camel-skin tankini thing is soaked through. He’s probably sporting dreads that haven’t been tended to in a really long time and yelling like the late Sam Kinison. People are delightfully terrified, queuing up as much for the show as they are for the ritual cleansing.

John’s been calling people away from the temple in Jerusalem, out to the wilderness, to receive repentance. He calls the priests and scribes a brood of vipers when they come out to see what the heck is going on. And he keeps talking about this messiah who will come with spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand. His axe is at the foot of the tree. He’s going to separate the good fruit from the bad, the sheep from the goats, the wheat from the chaff. “And when he gets here, he’ll be so holy that I won’t even be worthy to untie the thongs of his sandals,” says John.

But then Jesus appears. He forgets to bring his winnowing fork. He doesn’t yell or accuse. He doesn’t freak out. He doesn’t say, “I am the Messiah; bow down before me.” He doesn’t even ask John to untie his shoes. He just shuffles in like an ordinary person, gets in line with everyone else, and waits his turn to repent and be baptized.

And so I imagine John, in the middle of the river, dunking one guy after another. He helps the individual in his arms back up on to the bank, reaches his hand out to receive the next person in line, and stops short when he sees Jesus. Jesus steps forward to be baptized anyway and John says, “No, wait, I need to be baptized by you.” Why are you coming to me? This isn’t part of the script. This isn’t what we talked about. Come on, Jesus, you’re gonna mess everything up. Look, cousin, I’ve set the stage. They’re ripe. They’re ready. Let ’em have it, and let’s get this kingdom party started!

But Jesus doesn’t do what John expects. Jesus doesn’t do what John wants. He isn’t the messiah John thought he would be. This Jesus does not cry or lift up his voice. He does not yell in the street. People who feel as vulnerable as bruised reeds, as exposed as dimly burning wicks, are safe in his hands because his coming is so gentle as to be almost imperceptible.

Jesus blows his entrance. His first public appearance, and rather than take charge he humbly submits to be baptized. He’s not just messing with John’s head, he’s messing with the heads of every theologian who has come along since. Because, you see, if Jesus is God incarnate, there should be no need for repentance, and even less for baptism, because Jesus isn’t supposed to have any sins to repent of. If Jesus were playing by the rules, then he should know this. He should have shown up with a lot of fanfare, thanked John publicly for all his hard work, and then set about baptizing the people himself. But he doesn’t.

And so logistically, prophetically, theologically; it’s all very messy. But John, God bless him, John decides to run with it anyway, and this is where I want to draw your attention this morning. John baptizes Jesus, and because he does, because he accepts in that moment that things aren’t going to work out exactly as he had planned, because he makes room in his ministry for Jesus to be, not who he thought he should be or who he wanted him to be, but who he really is, something truly miraculous happens. John also makes room for the Holy Spirit. He lifts Jesus up out of the water, the heavens open wide, the Spirit descends like a dove, and the voice of God is heard saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

God spoke. Just as God spoke into the midst of the chaos that became creation, God spoke into the midst of this mess that was the Incarnation, and pronounced it good. Some people say that God is in the details; well I believe that God is in the mess. God is in the chaos. God is in those places where we allow God room to move and work and play and be, and it is in those places that God is still speaking. God is still speaking in those churches, and in those people who allow the Spirit to move as the Holy Spirit desires to move, rather than how we think the Spirit ought to move.

God is still speaking in those places where people make room for God to speak. God is still speaking in those places where people are willing to let go of their preconceived notions and their neat little theological frameworks and their sense of obligation and their well-worn prejudices. God is still speaking in those places where people are willing to live with a little ambiguity, where people are willing to run with it even when they don’t get it, in those places where we are still open to being taught, in those places where we have allowed our love for God to overcome our fear of one another. God is still speaking in your life when you are bowed down with grief, in your life when you are overwhelmed with despair, in your life when you’ve given up trying to figure out how it’s all going to come together and just started believing that it will. God is still speaking.

And what is God saying, over and over again? What is God saying to those with ears to hear? God is saying, “You! Yeah, you. You are my beloved. With you I am well pleased.”

So my friends, let us let God be God, let church be church, and let people be who they really are rather than who we would have them be. Let God speak, and let the children splash. Let the Spirit in, that the church might be the glorious, ambiguous, and wonderfully messy place that God would have it be. Amen.


Come, my Way, my Truth, my Life:
Such a Way as gives us breath:
Such a Truth as ends all strife:
Such a Life as killeth Death.

Come, my Light, my Feast, my Strength:
Such a Light as shows a feast:
Such a Feast, as mends in length:
Such a Strength as makes his guest.

Come, my Joy, my Love, my Heart:
Such a Joy as none can move:
Such a Love as none can part:
Such a Heart as joys in Love.

- George Herbert (1593-1633)

Rev. Sarah Buteux