05/14/2023 ~ Sixth Sunday of Easter ~ *Acts 17:22-31; Psalm 66:8-20; 1 Peter 3:13-22; John 14:15-21 ~ Mother’s Day on the Secular Calendar VIDEO OF THE FULL SERVICE: https://vimeo.com/showcase/7960701/video/826952397
[Jesus said:] “….I will ask the One who sent me to give you another Advocate, another Paraclete, another Helper, to be with you always, forever— the Spirit of Truth, whom the world cannot accept, since the world neither sees Her nor recognizes Her.” — John 14:16-17a.
A couple months ago I leaned on my theater background in a sermon and talked about George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, collaborators who wrote plays, musicals, reviews. In 1938 they wrote a play, The Fabulous Invalid, which offered lamentations on how the theater of that era, a long, long time ago, was dying.
Despite this premature obituary the institution of theater survives, lives and thrives. But the name, The Fabulous Invalid, has remained a code name for the theater. Why? It always seems like the theater is dying— that is… until the next hit production.
And yes, even theater people often lament the theater is dying. That is, until they, themselves, become involved with the next hit. In short, the theater just seems like it’s always dying. It’s not.
I suspect the reason theater survives is because we are a race of story tellers and we tell stories when gathered in groups. Theater is about telling stories to gathered groups. Further, I maintain something which makes us human is we tell stories and in order to do that we need to gather in groups.
Why tell stories? Stories help us make sense of the world around us. Now, that title— The Fabulous Invalid— is one many would apply to the church. After all, how often have you heard it said or even you, yourself, have said the church is dying?
Take my word for this: it’s likely the idea that the church is dying came into existence about three days after Pentecost, right after Peter spoke to that crowd in Jerusalem. It, in fact, can be argued the church in Europe and North America is in decline today in terms of numbers, attendance, budgets and perhaps the area that really gets under our skin, in societal influence, cultural influence.
On the other hand, Lutheran Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber has published a sermon with this title: Stop Saying the Church Is Dying. Why? She draws a distinction between a cultural church, a church of cultural influence— that church which probably is in decline— and a church who proclaims the Gospel, administers the sacraments and names sin as the brokenness we find in the world.
Another Lutheran, Erik Parker, says the church is not dying but is in transition, changing from what it has been for a number of generations into something new. Further, there is a serious flaw in even saying the church is dying today. The self-centered implication is that we today are, ourselves, actually capable of killing the church.
Let’s consider the weight of that claim over the course of 2,000 years. At first the church barely survived getting off the ground. A cursory look at the facts tells us it took nearly 400 years before the church could be called a viable institution within society.
Then the church survived the trauma of becoming imperial, being designated as the religion of the state. It survived even though it took on the already failed structure of that state— a bad idea. Next, the church survived going to war— the Crusades.
Then the church survived the Great Schism— East and West— something we in the West barely acknowledge— because those folks over there in the East don’t count— right? Between you and me they do count.
Still later the church survived the stress of numerous reformations, the rancor of counter-reformations, the discovery of the so called new worlds, scientific revolutions, nationalism, charismatic movements, revivals, global wars. (Slight pause.) And we think we can kill the church today?  Come on! (Slight pause.)
So, here’s an obvious question: does the church survive because we are, it is, an institution? Or does the church survive because we are story tellers who strive to tell the story to each other about the love of God? And by the way, if we strive to tell the story of the love of God to each other we simultaneously need to try to be… relational. (Slight pause.)
These words are in the work known as the Gospel According to the School of John— [Jesus said:] “…I will ask the One who sent me to give you another Advocate, another Paraclete, another Helper, to be with you always, forever— the Spirit of Truth, whom the world cannot accept, since the world neither sees Her nor recognizes Her.” (Slight pause.)
There is no question about this. We are conditioned by our culture— our culture— to recognize some things and ignore others.
A case in point (quote): “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” (Slight pause.) What’s the most important word in this sentence? (Slight pause.) Our culture insists ‘commandments’ is important. And our culture would be… wrong.
Throughout Scripture one thing is absolutely clear: the prime imperative is love. And love is, in every sense, the only imperative. Everything else is superfluous.
Put differently, God does not demand, command, compel, require, force, dictate, order, burden, saddle, mandate. Love does not allow for that. Rather, God invites… God invites love. It is our human society, our social context and our structures which demand, command, compel, require, force, dictate, order, burden, saddle, mandate. (Slight pause.)
If God invites love, the church is or should be more than an institution. The church is or should be a Spirit-led community proclaiming the gospel, administering sacraments, naming as sin the brokenness we find in the world. If we, the church, practice the love which God invites, the church will exist long after the structures of current institutions are gone. (Slight pause.)
In saying we are a Spirit led community, not a structurally bound institution, I am also saying we mis-read Scripture. We read Scripture through a parochial, cultural lens. Our cultural lens instructs us to demand, command, compel, require, force, dictate, order, burden, saddle, mandate and presumes the church should do likewise. (Slight pause.)
So, how did Jesus read Scripture? Did Jesus use the cultural lens of the Roman Empire, a cultural lens for which and in which force was the imperative? Or did Jesus use a lens which sought to be led by the present reality of the Spirit? (Slight pause.)
Methodist Adam Hamilton says the way Jesus read Scripture is clear. Jesus never set out dogma but favored passages that portray a God of mercy, a God who invites love. Jesus was led by the present reality of the Spirit in reading Scripture. Jesus never tried to tweak instruments of violence out of every jot and tittle.  (Slight pause.)
That brings me back to the fabulous invalid known as the church. It is Jesus who refers to (quote): “the Spirit of Truth, whom the world cannot accept,”— the world cannot accept— and then says (quote): “…you can recognize the Spirit, because She remains with you and will abide with you, and will be within you.”
So, the challenge set forth here is to read the Scripture the same way Jesus did— with an understanding that the Spirit walks with us. Further, this is certain: when we become enamored of a lens which encompasses only our own parochial, limited cultural context, we will see the church as dying.
On the other hand, when we read the words of Scripture with Spirit filled hearts and minds— then what Jesus says (quote): “you can recognize the Spirit, because She remains with you and will abide with you, and will be within you”— what Jesus says will empower us. And when we do read the words of Scripture with Spirit filled hearts and minds we are invited to love.
Further, when we read the words of Scripture with Spirit filled hearts and minds, we are also invited to tell the story Jesus tells about God who loves. And God who loves clearly invites us to relate to each other in love. (Slight pause.) Love is, you see, what the story to be told, the story we need to tell, is about. Amen.
ENDPIECE— It is the practice of the Pastor to speak after the Closing Hymn, but before the Congregational Response and Benediction. This is a précis of what was said: “I am not making this up. At the start of my very first class in Seminary— at the start, it was a New Testament survey course— the professor invited us to introduce ourselves, tell our stories to the other students. Then the professor said this: ‘The New Testament is about confrontation. The New Testament is about confronting one another in love about the reality of God. Hence, the New Testament is about telling the world our stories about the love of God. And how is that done? We need to tell one another and the world about how our own stories reflect the love of God.’”
BENEDICTION: Let us never fear to seek the truth God reveals. Let us live as a resurrection people. Let us understand every day as a new adventure in faith as the Creator draws us into community. And may we love God so much, that we love nothing else too much. May we be so in awe of God, that we are in awe of no one else and nothing else. Amen.
 Adam Hamilton, Making Sense of the Bible, HarperOne, © 2014, pg. 54.