Monday, September 16, 2019

Sermon: "The Doctor Is In", Exodus 32:7-14/1 Timothy 1:12-17 (September 15, 2019)


Today’s lectionary readings are kind of a downer. They focus on how awful human beings are, especially the first passage from Exodus. The “golden calf” incident certainly wasn’t humanity’s finest hour. It gets worse when we realize that the Israelites didn’t just melt their jewelry into the shape of a baby cow out of boredom or ignorance: they were appealing to the god Apis, who was worshiped by the Egyptians (you know, the people who’d enslaved them for hundreds of years). They were choosing to trust the god of their oppressors over and above the God who had literally JUST performed the most epic demonstration of faithfulness of all time. It’s kind of a miracle that God chose to stick with humanity after that. I mean, even Moses got so mad that he threw down the freshly-chiseled Commandment tablets in rage!

But God continues to invite us into relationship with Godself, in spite of our hilariously irrational treachery, because that’s who God is, and that’s who we are. This reminds me of an aphorism ascribed either to St. Augustine or the columnist Dear Abby, depending on who you ask: “The Church isn’t a museum for saints; it’s a hospital for sinners.” (I can only find definitive evidence that Dear Abby actually ever said it, so we’ll give her credit here.) In reflecting on this hypothesis, it made me wonder what else the Church isn’t.

Even though it’s a place of welcome, the Church isn’t a hotel.[1] If it were, it’d be a place where we expect to be served. If it were, it’d only be for special occasions, not for everyday life. If it were, we'd expect to get exactly what we want as soon as we ask for it. If it were, we wouldn’t be expected to stay for long. Thank God that the Church isn’t a hotel.

Even though it’s a place where we discern right from wrong, the Church isn’t a courtroom.[2] If it were, the sentence we received would depend on how well we could defend ourselves. If it were, all our attention would be focused on each other’s wrongdoing. If it were, it’d be a place where justice and mercy don’t always coexist. If it were, we would have already earned harsh judgement. Thank God that the Church isn’t a courtroom.

Even though it’s a place where we learn, the Church isn’t a school. If it were, we’d have teachers instructing students, and we wouldn’t be equal participants in the learning process. If it were, we wouldn’t have any work to do in the summer. If it were, there’d be tests to take and requirements to meet. If it were, we could be suspended for bad behavior. Thank God that the Church isn’t a school.

Even though it’s a place of joy, the Church isn’t a circus (although it might feel like it sometimes). If it were, it’d be more concerned with entertainment value than with substance. If it were, people would have to buy a ticket to get in. If it were, danger and fear would be essential to its allure. If it were, we’d be spectators, not participants. Thank God that the Church isn’t a circus.

Even though it’s a place where we feel awe, the Church ISN’T a museum for saints. If it were, NONE of us would make the cut; only the perfect would be allowed in. If it were, the whole point would be to preserve things as they are forever. If it were, we’d be expected to be quiet and not touch anything. If it were, there’d be a standard of flawlessness to maintain. Thank God that the Church isn’t a museum for saints!

No, the Church isn’t any of these things. The Church is a hospital. To be sure, it’s a hospital where we are abundantly welcomed, must discern right from wrong, learn, find joy, and experience awe, but at its core, it’s a place where sin-sick people go to be made well. Now, some of us might reject this idea because if the Church is a hospital, well, then that must mean that there’s something wrong with us. We’d rather think of the Church as a museum, hotel, courtroom, school, or circus—anything but a hospital. At the very least, we’d rather think that our Sunday mornings are wellness checkups rather than emergency sin-ectomies. But the truth is, every time we walk through these doors, Jesus is triaging our hearts and figuring out what in our lives needs his attention most urgently.

In fact, the Church HAS to be a hospital, because if it were anything else, our faith could be no more substantial than a shadow or an echo. Our relationship with God can’t go anywhere unless we first acknowledge and address our sins (which is the reason the Prayer of Confession always comes so early in worship). And given the sheer immensity of our sin, we badly need God’s help to do this. Sure, Jesus healed those with physical ailments, but the most important work done by the great physician was healing the spiritual wounds stemming from our sin. That’s why he came. Jesus said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick [do]; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners”[3]…and that’s all of us.

That’s why even worshipping an Egyptian god wasn't enough to cut the Israelites off from God: because even though the Church was not yet “the Church” as we know it, the doctor was already in. A hospital never turns away a sick patient. Thank goodness, because we’d be in some serious trouble otherwise. That’s what Paul tells Timothy in our second reading. He says, “I’m the biggest sinner of all, and yet God has granted me mercy and given me strength.” We’re in desperate need of God’s hospital, and so God opens it to all of us so that we might be healed: blasphemers, persecutors, people of violence, arrogance, ignorance, or apathy. No matter who you are or what you’ve done, this hospital is for YOU.

But this is a strange hospital, for a few reasons. To begin with, unlike most hospitals, the goal isn’t to make you well and send you on your way. In this hospital, our sickness is always with us, no matter where we go, no matter what we do. Seeing this doctor isn’t a “one-time fix”. We need to keep coming back, keep turning to the great physician, keep asking for help with our malady. It’s the human condition that, in the words of Psalm 51, “My sin is ever before me.”[4] So the hospital will never be able to turn us into those saints that live in Dear Abby’s museum.

But this doesn’t mean that the doctor is ineffective or the hospital pointless. On the contrary, this physician and this practice is the only thing that can heal us. It’s just that “being made well” doesn’t mean that we’re sin-free. It means that we’re free from sin’s power over us, because although we can’t conquer it, God can overcome it with forgiveness and Grace. It means that we’ve accepted that we’re sick, and we’ve put ourselves and our spiritual health in God’s hands for good. When we recognize this, we realize that we’re not at a hotel, courtroom, school, circus, or museum after all, and we can start focusing on allowing the doctor to transform us from the inside out. We may never be free of our need for the hospital, but fortunately for us, it’s a great place to settle in long-term.

The strangest thing about this hospital by far, though, is that its patients are also the most important members of its staff. While we’re physically in the building, we provide vital support to other patients, warmly welcoming new arrivals, reminding one another to take our medicine, and helping each other interpret the doctor’s orders. I suppose that makes us kind of like God’s nurses.

It’s when we leave, however, that we undertake our most important responsibility. Don’t worry; contrary to popular opinion, we’re not God’s paramedics. It’s not our job to heal other people from their sin ourselves. We, um, aren’t qualified for that. We can’t tell people what to do or what not to do in order to become well by God’s standards. What we CAN do is help others understand their need for the hospital and its great physician. We can share our own experience of healing and grace, enthuse about the other patients, and praise the doctor’s skill and love. Evangelism is basically Public Relations for God’s hospital.

If even that sounds like a little bit too much responsibility for you, maybe you could think of your job as a Yelp reviewer instead: “Super helpful place. Doctor spent lots of time one-on-one with me. Other patients were welcoming and kind. Five stars; will definitely be back.” Paul tells Timothy that this, too, is part of God’s plan: “The reason I received mercy is so that Jesus might display his patience through me, and that I could serve as an example to others.”[5] The best way for others to learn about the Great Physician and his hospital isn’t through mystical experiences; it’s through us.

This is a job that we must take seriously. For every person who avoids church because they think it’s silly, there’s three others who avoid it because they assume it’s that museum for saints and that they don’t belong, or because they don’t think there’s any hope for them, or because they believe they don’t deserve to be healed. And as those who have personally experienced God’s great redemptive Grace, we NEED to spread the word. We NEED to let others know what the Church REALLY is, how it can help us, so that every one of God’s beloved children can experience the relief and peace of Christ’s healing hand.

The Church is not a hotel, a courtroom, a school, a circus, or a museum. It’s not for being served, for judging others, for being tested, for being entertained, or for exhibiting our holiness. The Church is a hospital, where we come to be healed. And the work of this hospital doesn’t just fall to the doctor; we’re a vital part of this heavenly healthcare system. Everyone, from the Israelites in the wilderness to the apostle Paul to you and me, needs to be forgiven and healed, but that can’t happen until we let the doctor examine our hearts. So do your job, people: tell others about how Jesus has touched your heart. Tell people about how this loving, quirky, hopeful community full of broken, imperfect, and sin-sick people wants nothing more than to love and welcome others who need healing, too. Tell them that the doctor is in, and that you’d be happy to introduce them. Amen.


[1] A metaphor originally from St. Augustine.
[2] A metaphor originally from St. John Chrysostom.
[3] Mark 2:17, NRSV.
[4] Psalm 51: 3, NRSV.
[5] 1 Timothy 1:16, NRSV paraphrase.

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