This Sunday we once again find ourselves on the other side of Easter. In the weeks leading up to Easter, the season of Lent, we were invited to prepare ourselves for this holy day through self-examination and reflection, prayer and repentance. It was an invitation to examine the ways in which our lives are not yet fully what we hope they will be, the ways in which our lives are not yet fully what God calls them to be.
We then celebrated Easter and heard the good news of the gospel, which proclaims to us, on the one hand, that no matter who we are or what our lives are presently, we are accepted and loved by God, that each one of us is a wonderful creation with whom God is well-pleased, and, on the other hand, this good news to declares to us it is never too late to make a change, that there is new life available in Christ today, and through the grace of God and the power of the Holy Spirit, our lives can become more than they are today.
In these weeks that follow Easter, therefore, we are encouraged and invited to consider the impact that this good news will have on our lives. We are invited to chart our way forward as we seek to live in response to this good news in Christ.
Last week we sought to do this by asking ourselves the question, "now what?" Easter has come and gone. Now what?
Implicit in this question is a sense of uncertainty. There is an acknowledgment that while the gospel is good news, this good news does not come along with a simple five step process outlining the precise and exact things that we have to do in order to align our lives with this good news. We have to chart our way forward into terrain that is unknown, unclear, and at times disorienting.
When faced with a decision at work or at home, at our child's school or our retirement community, how do we know what choice to make. Sometimes this issue is put in terms of seeking to make the right choice and avoiding the wrong choice. However, as we know, life's decisions, both big and small, rarely fall into a simple dichotomy of right and wrong or black and white. Oftentimes, perhaps most times, life has a lot of gray areas. So the question should not be what is the right choice and what is the wrong choice. Rather, the question should be which decision is more likely to result in a situation where my life and the lives of those around me are more aligned with this good life to which God calls us.
To acknowledge the fact that life rarely has a simple answer to the most perplexing and important decisions is honest, but it is also disconcerting.
It may be helpful and comforting however to remember that we aren't the first ones to live through this. Two thousand years ago around this time there was a group of disciples gathered silently in a quiet room tense with their fears, each wondering what they should do next.
But as that group of disciples got up the courage, they moved forward, seeking to be faithful disciples, eventually forming the church.
In the ensuing two thousand years, when faced with decisions to make, the church has not always gotten things right.
A colleague recently said, "God sure chose a crazy, leaky vessel to help save the world!" He was talking about the church.
Most people, inside and outside of the church, can point to ways in which the institution of the church is or has been wrong.
Over the course of history, we can see shameful moments when elements of the church supported the wrong side of an important issue. The passage from 1 Peter that we read this morning was once used by some in the church to defend the practice of slavery.
On a personal level, we can point to churches and individuals within the church who have failed us, failed to live up to what we might expect for the church and those involved in it.
On an even deeper personal level, many of us can list churches that have hurt us or our family or our friends by substituting abusive language for the good news of Jesus Christ and his message of justice, grace and love.
On the just bizarre and utterly sad level, we can point to fraudulent distortions of our tradition in the contemporary world - manifestations of church that make us cringe and wish we could revoke their right to use the adjective "Christian" to describe their activities.
The church is an imperfect institution. And yet, God loves the church, God loves us.
When the church is at its best, the world recognizes that through the church, God is doing good in this world.
There was an article in the New York Times recently where author Sandra Loh described a recent encounter she had with the church, after a long stretch of not being involved in any church. She describes herself as a middle-aged Whole Foods devotee whose Sunday morning routine was "coffee in bed while cheating my way through the crossword puzzle" after which she would "go to the farmer’s market to buy organic vegetables" which she admits she will never cook.
But one Sunday, she decided to attend All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, Calif., a church with stunning Gothic Revival architecture.
She admits that when she went in, she felt like an outsider. She didn't know if she should take off her shoes or leave them on. When the offering plate came by, she wanted to know if they took Visa. At the end she felt like asking if they would validate her parking.
But, she said, she saw in that church hope. Hope for a better day. She also saw in that church - as she looked through the volunteer opportunities in the morning announcements - she saw people who were actively working to make that hope become a reality. This was no pie-in-the-sky hope. This was a hope that was grounded in the promises of God, and advancing through the power of the Spirit in people who were engaged in their community of faith.
This sounds like a lot of work, and it is a lot of work. Eugene Peterson points out that church is difficult. It’s supposed to be. Or, as pastor Scott Black Johnston points out, "Church is difficult like working out is difficult. It is difficult like getting along with family is difficult. Jesus never intended for church to be a spa. It's a gym. It's a challenging conversation. It is a place where our own notions of God are often challenged; where our self-righteousness and narcissism are exposed; where deep hurts can be salved, and we can grow in hope. Church is the crazy, leaky vessel where, sooner or later, we Christians must engage if we want our hearts to be shaped to do God's will and work in the world."
It is us up to us to figure out, at the urging of the Holy Spirit - it is up to us to figure out how to make this ship set sail, to make this church and our lives be instruments of God's grace, and love in this world.