ALL HAIL HOLY BUILDING
“The church is defiled when those kids show up.” These were the words aimed at a new friend of mine, a pastor in a rough neighborhood in Guatemala City. The high school and college-age members of his fellowship have been showing the love of Jesus to the drug-addicted street kids in the impoverished areas around the city dump, which is only a hop skip and a jump from where this group of Jesus followers meets. Their facility used to be a nice building but now, for a number of reasons, they have never been able to rebuild after the 1976 earthquake destroyed much of their construction. Now the members meet in a parking garage at street level or below in the part of their building which survived the quake. The Sunday school rooms are tin shacks built up on the rooftop of the garage. This group could almost be considered an underground church–literally. Relationally they are underground, as some leaders of their denomination and some influential members of their congregation are opposed to them working with the street kids and have ordered them, in essence, to cease and desist. In more ways than one they are an underground church.
“The church is defiled when those kids show up.” These are some of the ugliest words a Christian could say. Too bad we don’t all wear a WWJS (What Would Jesus Say) bracelet. I am not the judge of the world nor of any individual, but I can’t help but ask myself if a real Christian would even be capable of uttering those words. They are wrong in so many ways, and they hint at what is so sinfully askew in many congregations. A building, holy? Really? No one actually believes this, do they? Is it even possible for behavior to mess with the spirituality of a physical place? Sounds kind of like pantheism–or is it evangelical Feng Shui? This building is nothing but poured concrete strong enough to withstand a major earthquake, which it already has. What could these kids possibly do to it? Can the messed up behavior of a young girl who has been serially raped uncountable times by malodorous, unwashed men, filthy after having spent their days scavenging in the dump, really be blamed for messing up a church building’s spirituality? A building, holy? This is a joke, right? Sure, in the Old Testament there were some places called holy, such as the Tabernacle, Solomon’s temple, and the ground around the burning bush, but it was the temporary, very evident presence of the Lord that set the place apart, not the place itself. For a Christian to give more value to block and mortar than to a truly needy person – well, I just don’t have the words right now to describe how that makes me feel; although I can say, my current feelings are not pretty and might not even be Christian.
“The church is defiled when those kids show up,” was later followed by, “Our church isn’t a safe place anymore.” We like to quote God’s promises, and we even publish that little booklet of 100 promises we can carry in our purse or in our hip pocket snuggled up against our often flabby gluteus maximus. I don’t recall any promise that the church is supposed to be safe. Actually, in the Bible we do have one example of when church was downright dangerous. Eutychus fell asleep during a sermon and fell out the window. Fortunately, in America we have padded protective pews to keep sermon-induced narcolepsy injuries to a minimum. Jesus does make some promises, but they are not always pretty. We are promised blessings if we obey him and we are promised that he will always be with us. But other statements made by Jesus sound harsh. Some of his harshest words come when he is really angry at the mistreatment of the powerless by the powerful. Maybe if enough of us who are in the habit of living for ourselves while ignoring the poor could band together we could vote to excise Matthew 25 from the Bible. Being sent to Hell because we ignore the plight of the poor doesn’t seem to fit with the “get out of jail free card” we call grace. Our passionate, laser-like focus on grace may have blinded our eyes to obedience. Grace without obedience is impunity. This is what that troubling passage in Hebrews 6 is all about. Not serving others is what is “…nailing him (Jesus) to the cross once again and holding him up to public shame” (Hebrews 6:4-12).
“The church is defiled when those kids show up.” Where else are these kids, created in the image of God, going to find help, dignity and respect? Aren’t these the sick people Jesus came to seek and save? Isn’t the church the tool God generally uses to accomplish his purposes for planet Earth? Or does Jesus only love the middle class or higher? The Jesus followers I was with yesterday feed the street kids, give them a change of clothes once a week, and give them access to toilets and showers. Most importantly, this group of Jesus followers gives the street kids access to their hearts. This group of Jesus followers gives the street kids membership in a group. These young Jesus followers give a sense of belonging to people who have been rejected by everyone else from their very first breath. This group of young Jesus followers understands those first words God spoke to humanity when He said near the beginning, “It is not good for man to be alone.” Rather than abandoning the lonely street kids to unending rape, abuse, hunger, scorn, rejection, sickness, violence and the filth of the street, the young people of this small fellowship in Guatemala City share life with those rejected by society and by the church. I take that last word back. The true church would not and could not reject street kids. The young Jesus followers I met share life and resources with those their “Christian” leaders have declared to be dirty, dangerous and ultimately unworthy of salvation. The institutional church has damned the street kids in life and it will damn them in death. The humble, loving attitude of the pastor and the young folks in his church reflects the attitude Jesus would have shown. The attitude of the denomination and of some of the church leaders is a send-off to Hell.
Yes, I am angry, actually quite angry. I am not claiming my anger is good or that it is righteous indignation. I am just angry and I am exposing my soul to you. I am debating in my own soul whether I am guilty of judgmental anger or if I am sharing the feelings of the Old Testament prophets as they looked at the corporate sin and greed of Israel while she ignored the plight of the poor. I confess I am feeling sinfully superior to many wealthy American Christians who wallow in their comfort ….. yet at the same time I am mired in shame at my own hypocrisy because I have not sold everything I own and given the proceeds to the poor. I find myself trying to justify my own American, middle-class, hedonistic, God-owes-me-this-because-of-my-Judeo-Christian-heritage lifestyle by assuming others are greedier and more materialistic than I. PTL for tax brackets which allow me to prove I am not as rich as my neighbor and therefore less guilty than he. I preach the temporariness of this life; yet I collect material goods and comforts as if this current life is the one that really matters. I know the arguments that say, “I’m okay as long as I hold my stuff in an open hand” or that “I’m okay as long as the stuff I own doesn’t own me.” What a load of garbage. Just saying these words is a paltry attempt to justify our materialism, our greed, and our comfort and we know it.
As I was leaving the parking garage church yesterday a group of the young people approached me. I had just preached the Sunday sermon and they wanted to talk to me about how to protect abused women and children from dangerous men. I was honored that these servants of King Jesus asked me for help. But, I was humbled because it was I who should have been seeking answers from them. They live lives of sacrificial service every day. I, on the other hand, am writing these words in an airplane on my way home to the comforts of the wealthy suburbs. Two questions need to be asked: How can we make holy a church which has defiled itself by ignoring the poor? And, what am I going to do about my own life?