This story contains a disclaimer: I am not talking about our church. This is not about our church. This story you are about to hear in no way reflects our church. Does everyone understand the disclaimer? Good.
A new Pastor in a small Oklahoma town spent the first four days making personal visits to each member, inviting them to come to his first services.
The following Sunday, the church was all but empty. Accordingly, the Pastor placed a notice in the local newspapers, stating that it was everyone’s duty to give it a decent Christian burial because the church was dead. The funeral would be held the following Sunday afternoon, the notice said.
Morbidly curious, a large crowd turned out for the “funeral.” In front of the pulpit, they saw a closed coffin smothered in flowers. After the Pastor delivered the eulogy, he opened the coffin and invited his congregation to come forward and pay their final respects to their dead church.
Filled with curiosity about what would represent the corpse of a “dead church,” all the people eagerly lined up to look in the coffin. Each “mourner” peeped into the coffin and quickly turned away with a guilty, sheepish look.
In the coffin, tilted at the correct angle, was a large mirror.
No. That is not our church; however, over time, it can be the story of any church. By looking back into history, we can see how.
It’s been a while, but we’ve talked about how in 538 b.c. the Persian king, Cyrus, freed the Israelites and allowed them to return to Jerusalem. Once home, the Israelites began to rebuild the city that had been destroyed, starting with the walls. That project took almost one hundred and fifty years because of politics and infighting, but when Ezra and Nehemiah arrived on the scene, progress was made. In the year 385 b.c., the Prophet Nehemiah says, “The wall was finished on the twenty-fifth day of the month Elul, in fifty-two days. And when all our enemies heard of it, all the nations around us were afraid and fell greatly in their own esteem, for they perceived that this work had been accomplished with the help of our God.” (Nehemiah 6:15-16)
Following its completion, the people were all brought together, and the Book of the Law of Moses was read to them. The people now had a wall to guard their city and, in the Law, a wall to guard their souls.
The walls we build are meant to protect us from the elements, those who wish us harm, the wild beasts, and such. They provide security, yet sometimes the walls we build become so high that we become isolated, not seeing the world around us and not really caring about it either. The Israelites finished the wall around their city, but the religious leaders never stopped building the wall around their souls. It got higher and higher, and in the process, it no longer provided security for the soul; it became a prison for the heart, creating a heart that no longer cared, no longer had compassion, and no longer loved. It created a heart so rigid that it would become angry if a woman who had been sick and bent over for eighteen years was restored to health on the wrong day.
Scipio of Rome is considered one of the greatest generals of the Roman Empire. He did not put up with much nonsense. Writing of him in City of God, St. Augustine said, “He did not consider that republic flourishing whose walls stand, but whose morals are in ruins. But the seductions of evil-minded devils had more influence with you than the precautions of prudent men.” It is good to have strong fine walls to protect a city, but if the people living inside them are not good, then walls or not, the place itself is not good. That was the result the religious leaders had accomplished, and Jesus was angry with them, not because they were keeping the Sabbath holy, but because they had stopped caring, stopped loving, and not just on the Sabbath but the other six days as well. The spiritual wall that was given to protect the soul had become a prison for the heart, so everything that God had accomplished in the time of Ezra and Nehemiah was still standing but in ruins.
In calling out the religious leaders, Jesus was having a funeral for a dead church. He was holding up a mirror and showing them what they had become.
The words of Isaiah that we read this morning speak very clearly about what was happening but also point the way out of the prison they had created:
If you remove the yoke from among you,
the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.
It is not about the walls around this building that matter. It is the wall around our souls. Should we have one around the soul? Yes. Absolutely. As we said last week, we must care for our souls, but to avoid becoming a dying or dead church, we can’t turn it into a prison. We guard our souls so that we can go outside these walls and care for the souls of others. How do we do this?
I enjoy the short films you can find on YouTube. They are five to twenty minutes in length. A few weeks back, I came across one that had been nominated for an Oscar: Feeling Through. It is about a young homeless man’s encounter with an older man who is both blind and deaf. Imagine trying to communicate with someone who is both blind and deaf. Not easy. The two meet when the younger man reads the sign that the other is holding: “I am blind and deaf. Tap me if you can help.” Tap me. Touch me so that I know you are there.
How do we care for the souls of those outside the walls? We touch them so that they know we are here. We help ease their burdens, both physically and spiritually, we bring reconciliation and not strife, we feed bodies as well as souls, and we care for and love the oppressed and afflicted. If we do these things, then it will be as Isaiah said: “The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail. Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.”
Or, as Jesus said, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’” If we touch those outside of these walls, then we will become stronger, and we will continue to provide rivers of living water to all who are thirsty.
There is a story about a tourist visiting Italy who came upon a construction site. “What are you doing?” he asked three stonemasons.
“I’m cutting the stone,” answered the first.
“I’m cutting stone for 1,000 lire a day,” the second said.
But the third answered, “I’m helping to build a cathedral!”
With the enthusiasm and joy of that third stonemason, let’s care for our souls but also build a church that is the source of living water so that the souls of many are touched and cared for.
Let us pray:
Come, all who are thirsty
says Jesus, our Lord,
come, all who are weak,
taste the living water
that I shall give.
Dip your hands in the stream,
refresh body and soul,
drink from it,
depend on it,
for this water
will never run dry.
Come, all who are thirsty
says Jesus, our Lord.