Uncovering the Hole in the Church
There’s a hole in our gospel, says the book. Not a hole in the gospel, but a hole in our gospel. This morning I want to invite us to consider what might be a hole in the church. Is there one? And what would it be? To get at that let me begin with a few statistics.
I’d like to share with you several statistics about the people who make up this planet:
- There are nearly 7 billion people in the world.
- 1 in 7 does not have enough to eat.
- 1 in 6 does not have access to safe water.
- 1 in 6 does not have access to the most basic health care.
- 1 in 2 lives on less than $2 a day.
- 800 million (about 2.5 times the population of the US) go hungry every day.
- Every 7 seconds, a child under 5 dies from a hunger related cause.
Now I’d like to share with you about the church in America.
- The total income of American churchgoers is $5.2 trillion. (That’s more than $5,000 billion.)
- American Christians, who make up about 5 percent of the Church worldwide, control about half of global Christian wealth.
- It would take just a little over 1 percent of the income of American Christians to lift the poorest 1 billion people out of extreme poverty.
Is there a hole in the church? Is there something we are missing?
Consider these statistics.
In 1996, according to Barna Research, 85% of religious “outsiders” (people who had no strong religious convictions of their own) felt positive toward the church’s role in society. By 2006 only 16% of them had a favorable impression. What happened?
A few years ago an author named Gabe Lyons and David Kinnaman wrote a book called UnChristian in which they published more of Barna’s research. Listen to this. Among young adults aged 16-29 who are disengaged with the church an overwhelming majority felt that present day Christianity is:
Judgmental, hypocritical, old-fashioned, too involved in politics, out of touch with reality, insensitive to others, anti-homosexual, boring, not accepting of other faiths, and confusing.
How did this happen? I didn’t say they were right. But their perception is their reality. Is there a hole in the church?
Now I share all of that with you because I think as we continue in this very important series of messages it challenges us to think about who were are as a church and who we are as The church because it’s not just about our church, it’s about THE Church with a capital C, the church of Jesus Christ. Is there a hole in the church? Obviously there is something wrong. So what do we do about it? How do we mend that hole? How do we go about the giant and important task of changing either the reality, the perception, or both?
Where should we begin? I suggest we start with an old and familiar parable Jesus told. It begins with the question of a lawyer - not the one that bills at $450 and hour or makes partner after the 7th year. He was more like a scholar, a Torah lawyer; an expert in the Law of God, the 1st 5 books of the Bible. Someone who always knew the right answer in scripture, quick to debate always ready to ask the question to expose someone’s ignorance or maybe highlight his own intelligence. He was smart but he was not always wise. His head was full of ideas but they had a difficult time making their way on that most difficult journey down to his heart.
When Jesus came to town the lawyer thought this would be a great opportunity. Jesus was the talk of the town. His ministry - all the miracles and wonders he had done and He was celebrated as a wonderful teacher and the lawyer maybe felt a little bit threatened. And thought that he might try to use this as an opportunity to put Jesus in his place.
And so he decides to stand up and ask him a question to put Jesus to the test. And the lawyer takes his shot and asks a simple question. “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus always intuitive to the human heart knew that the lawyer didn’t really care as much about the answer as much as getting attention. But Jesus plays along as he often did but when Jesus plays the game, Jesus plays to win. And to put it in the terms of the Final Four which is going on right now, Jesus picks his pocket and steals the ball and goes from defense to offense by answering a question with a question. “What is written in the law?” asks Jesus.
And without blinking an eye, the lawyer always sharp witted, ready for an answer, gave the right answer. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind, and “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
Jesus tells him well done, you’ve won bible Jeopardy. That’s the right answer. “Do this and you will live.”
The lawyer is not satisfied. He does not like playing defense. So wanting to justify himself he rebounds and goes on offense once again to prove himself that maybe he’s just a little bit smarter than this itinerant carpenter. The lawyer asks him a second question. “And who is my neighbor?”
And I imagine that Jesus’ eyes narrow and he lets out a sad sigh. Because he knows that there is something missing in him. He knows that there is a hole in his Torah.
Who is my neighbor? That’s the question. It’s the question that hung over the lawyer. It’s the question that hangs over the church today.
“Come Jesus; let us have a careful discussion about just who qualifies as neighbor. After all this is a complex question. I rub shoulders daily with Romans who oppress and terrorize my people, Greeks who are not like us and neither know nor keep the law of God, and even so called Jews whose purity and holiness leaves something to be desired. I need some definitions, boundaries, and limits concerning where my religious responsibility begins and where it ends. Surely all these people are not “neighbors”?”
Some people don’t seem to know to leave well enough alone. Our lawyer is trying to put Jesus on the spot. But here’s what I want you to notice. Notice the shift that just took place. The conversation began with a question of orthopraxy (right practice), “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” But now the lawyer turns it to a question of orthodoxy (right belief), “And who is my neighbor?”
Jesus begins a story that sounds like anything but an answer. We know it all too well. It’s a story that is told to expose a truth. It’s a kind of truth that is so obvious that it is shocking. It’s a truth that is right under our nose but difficult to see. It’s the truth that we can be right, that we can have all the right answers but still get it wrong. It’s the truth that reveals the hole in our soul and uncovers the hole in the church. Who is my neighbor asked the lawyer. And Jesus responds with this story.
An unidentified man is stripped, robbed, and left for dead on road between Jerusalem and Jericho. By and by two religious types on the payroll at the temple in Jerusalem come upon the man: a priest and a Levite.
We can sum it up: they came, they saw, they left. Whatever the reason these two holy men, representatives of the Temple, symbols of the orthodoxy of the faith, see no one that requires their intervention or involvement. They sense no duty, feel no obligation, and detect no neighbor of theirs.
And then a Samaritan, who by fault of birth is anything but orthodox in matters of the Jewish faith, comes along. To sum it up: he came, he saw, and he had pity (compassion). He takes personal responsibility for the man whoever he is. He goes to great risk, great inconvenience, and great expense to make sure that this nameless victim is cared for.
What is Jesus comparing? Is he saying that Samaritans are to be preferred to employees of the Temple? No. Is he comparing what people believe and what people do? It seems so. It appears that when it comes down to believing the right thing (orthodoxy) or doing the right thing (orthopraxy), right faith is no substitute for right action. And even a Samaritan knows that.
In case we wonder if we are hearing the story as Jesus intends, notice the word “pity”, better translated as compassion. The clergy in the story lack it; the Samaritan in the story has it. But compassion is a word almost always reserved to describe the internal character of God in the Bible that moves God to act. In Luke 1:78 it is the tender mercy or “compassion” of God that causes God to send Jesus to make a way for the forgiveness of our sins. When Jesus in Luke 7:31 comes across a widow whose only son had died, his “heart goes out to her” (he has compassion). He turns and heals her son.
So what is the difference between a Samaritan, a Levite, and priest walking down the road? One word: “compassion”.
The story is so compelling we almost forget the real question that led to it. The lawyer asked, “And who is my neighbor?” But in the hands of Jesus the question has changed: Which of these three was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”
Our lawyer wants to take refuge in orthodoxy. But Jesus won’t let him. Where’s your right practice, your orthopraxy? So through gritted teeth the lawyer answers the question, “The one who had mercy on him.” And Jesus says, “Go and do likewise.”
Is it possible that the reason most outsiders to the church in this country like us about as much as they like politicians, is that in defending our beliefs, we have neglected our practice? That in trying to settle the question in this sinful world about who our neighbor is, we have walked past one too many dying beside road?
Please understand, I’m not saying, “It doesn’t matter what you believe, it only matters what you do.” After all, the story is about “right” practice. One drunk buying a drink for another drunk may be compassionate; I doubt it is right. And I do believe that right belief is to right practice as the foundation of the skyscraper, which you don’t see, is to the part of building which you do see. If the foundation is rotten one day the building will fall into the street. What we believe has consequences.
But all that said…Jesus is saying your belief may be as grounded in the creeds, confessions, and scriptures of the church as is possible, but if it doesn’t get you to stop by the naked bleeding humanity in the ditch beside the road, don’t bother. The hole in the church is about the size of the absence of our compassion.
Somehow the church, in its struggle to defend itself in a culture that is growing less Christian, has managed to communicate to our neighbors, “We don’t like you very much.” And our country has noticed. If that seems far-fetched, go back to where we started this morning. How many 16-29 year olds are sitting in Christian churches this morning?
The outsiders liked to see Jesus coming in his day. Do they like to see us coming in ours?
Jesus said to the lawyer, “Go and do likewise.” Quit defining your neighbor and be one. So where is our compassion? I don’t mean that in some sweeping way as if we are heartless people who need somehow to find our hearts. I don’t believe that. I mean it in the most narrow, literal, way. Where is our compassion? Where, as we travel down the road of our lives, do we stop and do something about the person we discover there, bruised and bleeding, lying in the ditch?
Richard Stearns, in his book The Hole in our Gospel, has some good advice if we are struggling to answer the question. Three words that will help us as we strive to live the whole gospel as the church and as individuals. If you would be a neighbor, if you would be compassionate you must have:
1. Awareness. Where are you aware of a need? The Samaritan is a neighbor because he is aware of the need and he acts on that need. In the age of instant communication it’s hard to claim we don’t know about our neighbor’s pain. If you have been through this study and have read this book, you are aware. But you don’t have to go very far to be aware. Look around. What do you see? And with awareness, a neighbor acts.
2. Access. Do you access to the need? Can you put yourself there? Jesus gets very specific about what this Good Samaritan does;
- He goes to the wounded man,
- He bandages the wounds,
- He pours on oil and wine,
- He puts the man on his donkey and takes him to an inn.
In short, the Good Samaritan does not wait for someone else to get involved. What Jesus describes for us is a very hands-on response by this “neighbor”. He allows his schedule to get interrupted; his daily goals become secondary to the human need before him.
Though in the end he will use money to help this wound man, he doesn’t just thrown his money at a problem for someone else to deal with. He got personally involved.
3. Ability. Do you have the ability to help with the need? Obviously the Good Samaritan knew basic first aid, but in the end had the ability to coordinate and fund the care this man needed. How has God enabled you to do something that will make a difference? Money, knowledge, time, expertise…what do you have to share? We simply can’t claim we don’t have the ability to help. We do. The question is, do we have the desire to be a neighbor in the world; a neighbor as defined by our Lord, Jesus Christ.
As we are making our way toward the conclusion of this series and today with a fresh look at Jesus’ Parable of the Good Samaritan we can’t help but conclude that God has given us the awareness, the access and the ability to be a neighbor; a neighbor like the Good Samaritan, lo a neighbor like Jesus who as these elements remind us stopped and looked at the bleeding, sinful, needy humanity he found lying in the ditch, and he had compassion. He forgave their sins, fed their hunger, healed their sickness, and clothed their nakedness. He loved them and welcomed them. He answered their questions. He didn’t judge or condemn. So he leaves disciples like us the simplest of instructions. “Go and do likewise.”