Lent III, 2018
The wireless communication read “To Titanic: Ice report in Lat 42.n to 41.25n Long 49w to Long 50.30w saw much heavy pack ice and great number of large icebergs also field ice. Weather good and clear.
9:40 pm, April 14.”
This is one of nine warnings HMS Titanic received the night of April 14 1912. On receiving the report, Captain Edward Smith made an incremental change, turning to a slightly southern course. However, he maintained flank speed. Over the next two hours Titanic received updated reports on ice. However, as the radio operator’s prime job was to facilitate passenger communications, they were too busy to relay the updates to the bridge.
Shortly before 11:40 that night, the crow’s nest watch reported an iceberg straight ahead. In a panic and last minute effort to avoid collision, the ship began a turn to port, the left. Because of the ship’s watertight compartments, it is thought a full-frontal direct hit might not have sunk the ship. Instead the last minute panic doomed the ship as the iceberg tore along the starboard side of the ship.
It is widely acknowledged that hubris, not the iceberg, was the main culprit that cold night on the North Atlantic. Titanic was the largest vessel afloat, equipped with the finest luxuries and latest technology. Famously she was deemed “unsinkable.” Sailing on her maiden voyage, it is thought the captain ignored an unseen danger. It was a combination of invincibility and invisibility that created a precondition for a disaster.
Our word this week from our scripture and faith is Church. Defined by the dictionary as “a building for public worship,” or “the whole body of Christians.”
The definition of church is John’s key question in the story today: “What does it mean to be Jesus’ church?”
As the story unfolds, Jesus, like thousands of other faithful Jewish pilgrims, has come to Jerusalem for Passover. He goes to the temple, a sacred space, the dwelling place of God on earth. It was a magnificent place. In 20 BCE, Herod the Great had begun a massive restoration and expansion meant to awe and humble all who entered.
The religious leaders of the day thought they were on track, that they were doing all they were supposed to do, and doing it rightly. With the luminous temple as a backdrop, they sought to serve God and their faith to the letter. They so zealously guarded the Law that they built a fence of minute laws around it so that no one would break a precious commandment.
Hosting three main festivals every year the leaders sought to accommodate pilgrim worshippers. It was difficult to travel with their livestock for temple sacrifice. The sacrificial animals had to be without blemish, not easily accomplished on pilgrimage. So leaders had a ready supply of livestock for purchase right there in the Court of the Gentiles.
Also, the temple tax had to be paid in temple coinage. Since the main currency in the empire was Roman coinage, the leadership met the consumer’s need by providing moneychangers. Pilgrims had little use in their homeplaces for temple coins, so the service the money changers provided was almost like pastoral care.
On the surface, it was difficult to find fault with the system the religious authorities had established. It served the people’s needs and paved the way for worship. It served to keep the temple functioning.
Or so it seemed. Out of nowhere storms a whip brandishing pilgrim creating holy havoc chasing all the livestock into the streets and dumping all the coins into the road. “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!”
Just imagine the sound, tables turning over, coins clattering on the floor, animals squealing and squawking, turtledoves flapping wildly as Jesus cries out again and again, “Take these things out of her!”
The authorities are stunned. What is wrong? What have they done incorrectly? They ask Jesus for evidence that he has the authority to disrupt everything. They were only doing what had always been done. And they did them because they believed they were the right things to be done. They had no intention of violating God’s purpose. They would never knowingly oppose God.
In theory, the leaders may have thought they were serving God, keeping the temple functioning and protecting the law. In reality they had forgotten their purpose. Sure the trappings were all in place, yet like the Titanic leadership, they were oblivious to the warning signs. The temple had been taken over by buyers and sellers, consumers and marketers who knew how to fill the pews and meet capital campaign goals. Yet had no clue how to worship God and serve Gods’ community.
Folks, this is the same fix the church has found itself in over the last generation or so. As we have experienced cultural shifts in how people live their lives and create community, the church has often be left out of the equation. So we have doubled down on “the ways we have always done things.” Or we have thrown energy and money at what we perceive to be crowd pleasers in order to “get” people to church.
And, potentially, like the Titanic, in response to warning signs, we have made incremental changes oblivious to the icebergs around us. And rather than take them head on, we seek to avoid them, even as they slowly rip our sides apart.
That is the threat to the church. The good news is the church is still afloat. The good news is Jesus has come to throw out what doesn’t work in the church. So the answer to John’s implied question, “What does it mean to be Jesus’ church?” rests mainly in our response to the warning signs.
A few weeks ago our church leaders began a conversation to answer the question and to chart a course to respond to the icebergs of our modern context. Reading three recent books on transforming church life, our leaders are engaged in discernment of how we can best be Jesus’ church on this corner in the decades to come.
Some of what they are discovering is a focus on worship and mission. Kierkegaard famously said that worship has an audience of one, God. That all we do in the most visible act of being the church, worship, is done in performance for God. But that can be misleading. It can lead us to conjure a divine passivity, a watchful yet distant God.
One of the authors our leaders read, Tony Robinson, notes, “Yet we discover in worship that even as we focus our worship on God and lose ourselves in God’s love and praise, and as we give ourselves to God in offering and sacrament, something also happens to us and for us. Even as we are busy praising God, God is busy healing, touching, renewing, shaking, and redeeming us.” God is active.
That is to say, what we are about in this moment, around this table, is at its best when we are not passive recipients or even listeners, but active in dialogue with God to find healing for ourselves, for our pew neighbor and for our neighbor down the street.
Robinson goes on to say that effective church is when we balance worship with mission. But he has a warning, he says: “we confuse mission with getting everybody involved on committees, task forces, and boards within the congregation, we tend to get people stuck in the church. We tend to confuse ministry of the laity with running the church. In reality, the primary ministry of the laity is to represent Christ to the world.” Mission then is feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, welcoming the immigrant, visiting the sick and imprisoned and clothing those whose life is in tatters.
It seems to me Robinson’s caveat is a bit like old cliché about rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. Old polarities like traditional versus contemporary are just that, rearranging the furniture. It may look nice, but the change does not address the real crisis. Robinson’s call to the church is like Jesus in the temple. The survival of the church takes place when the people of the church worship authentically in community and then move beyond the Sunday pilgrimage to a building to be the word of Jesus in each step of life.