Can You Help Me Find the Church?
Jennell and I stood in the mountain village of Trou Jacques on the island of La Gonave off the mainland of Haiti. We were meeting with Monsieur Bellegarde, the mayor of the village. Everywhere we turned we saw the ravages of severe poverty – not enough jobs, hungry children hoping to eat one meal that day, women spending hours retrieving just enough water to get by.
As a group of benevolent white westerners, we were ready to help. So, we asked the mayor what his village needed the most. With absolutely no hesitation, he answered, “A church.” As a privileged first-world white man, it was not the answer I was expecting and it made no sense. For in my quick assessment, they needed new jobs, good medical care, easily accessible fresh water and ample food, but all that was secondary to Monsieur Bellegarde.
The mayor gave his answer with no great expectations. He pointed to weeds growing around pieces of rebar amid an unfinished foundation of a building. He then told us stories of church groups in the past that had asked my question and had heard his answer and had made big promises that went unkept. I apologized to him for failed promises made by others in the past, but secretly, I asked myself, “Maybe others realized that a church was the last thing this village really needed.”
Fast forward two years later, after a group of architects from the U.S. and builders from Haiti had constructed a new church building on that same site. Jennell and I returned for the dedication of this church building and I quickly realized how wise the mayor had been and how wrong I had been. I soon saw that not only did this new church building in Trou Jacques host Sunday worship services that lasted well into the afternoon, but it was also the community center where women had enough consistent electricity to start several micro-businesses, where children could gather for classes during the day and adults at night, and where the village would gather to exchange clothing and to share produce from their gardens and to discuss village issues.
Long before I was wise enough to see it, Monsieur Bellegarde knew exactly how to find the church.
It was almost eight years ago, on a cold winter’s night, that I saw Cove for the first time. As a city boy, it struck me that I had arrived smack in the middle of nowhere. After our initial conversation, Fran, Renee, Will, Susan, and Beth Neville walked me from Cove Hall into this sanctuary. I loved it from first sight, its simplicity, its charm, its warmth, and its acoustics. Oh my Lord, its acoustics! I still do! I love the fact that I can see each of you when I am standing in the pulpit no matter how hard you try to hide! And, yet, as much as I love this sanctuary, I love this church far more.
Inevitably when people learn that I am a pastor, they ask some version of the question, “Can you tell me how to find the church you serve?” The obvious answer is one that involves entering correct GPS coordinates, getting folks to Rte. 29, and noting the wee brick church atop the hill. That is the obvious answer to their question but it is not a sufficient one, not even close.
“Can you tell me how to find the church?” Before I return to that question, take a look with me at a related question Jesus asks his disciples in our text from Matthew. I am not sure what prompted him to ask his question. Was he bored after a long trip with not the brightest company? Or did his own curiosity get the best of him? Whatever the reason, Jesus stops somewhere in the middle of nowhere and tosses out a question that make his disciples scratch their heads. He asks them, “Who do people think that I am?” “What’s the word on the street?” “What do the polls say?”
The question that Jesus asks catches them off guard, but it doesn’t take long before he starts to hear some answers.
“Some say you are John the Baptist come back from the dead.”
“Some say you are the prophet Elijah sent down on the same cloud he was taken up.”
“Some are not so specific. They just say you are some sort of prophet.”
I don’t know if they walked several more miles or just a few more steps, but Jesus stops them again and asks them a question that takes the stakes up a notch.
“But who do you say that I am?”
Not known for hanging back or holding his tongue, Peter steps up and says, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” And, Jesus responds, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock, I will build my church and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.”
This is the first time that the word “church,” or in the Greek, ekklesia, appears in the Bible. Matthew uses the word “church” long before the first Roman cave was adorned with a wooden cross or the first flying buttress supported a Medieval cathedral, years before some Reformers stripped European churches of icons and removed their stained-glass windows and centuries before Puritans and Quakers built meetinghouses.
So, if the church is not simply something we construct from brick or wood or steel, what is it? For Matthew, we find the church wherever the people of God gather to worship God and whenever they scatter into the world to follow the lead of God’s beloved child, Jesus. The church is the gathering of Easter people with hearts to care for those in quiet pain and love to embrace those experiencing the earth-shattering grip of grief.
All that is true on the church’s best days, but as we learn in Matthew, even the church’s poster boy, Peter, does not frequently have best days. When Peter makes his audacious affirmation that Jesus is “the Christ, the son of the living God,” does Jesus say, “Well done, Peter” or “Well, Peter, it’s about time you came to your senses” or “Did someone whisper that answer to you, Peter?”? No, Jesus says, “Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but only my Father in heaven.”
Simply put, Jesus reminds Peter that faith comes to us as a gift from God. We may come to this or any other sanctuary looking for the church and trying to generate some faith in Jesus, but if Matthew is right, faith happens, the church is born, when the risen Jesus comes looking for us.
It is not that I do not love this sanctuary. I do, but I love the church in and out of this sanctuary much more. I love watching Cove folks in full stride, watch as you prepare to resettle a refugee family that has not known something called “home” for years. I love watching you reach out to and care for members who no longer have the capacity to reciprocate your care. I love watching the church gather on Zoom for Bible studies, many of whom have never stepped foot in this sanctuary and never will. I love watching you read to children in the CCDC, get sore hammering nails and hanging sheetrock with Habitat, spend hours learning music to lead this community in song.
I love this sanctuary with its clear and beautiful windows out to the world, its Sunday visits from freight and Amtrak trains, its quiet simplicity and endearing charm, but I love the church in and out of this sanctuary so much more. I love the passion with which some of you practice law for a living and fight against those who would profit off defoliating forests and polluting streams. I love the memorable stories that you tell on canvases and in novels and in poetry. I love the dedication that so many of you show to living lives in the service of others, even at the expense of an easier and more financially profitable life. I love the tough love I see when you won’t walk away, throwing up your hands from a difficult situation or a difficult person, when you have every good reason to do so.
Who knows what lies ahead for Cove? I can promise you on my long list of worries that is not one of them. I suspect as long as you and I remember whose church this is, as long as we keep our eyes fixed on those people upon whom Jesus set his gaze, as long as we cross with Jesus to the other side of the tracks, to where propriety and good sense and good religion suggest we dare not go, as long as we love this sanctuary, but do not adore it, turning it into some sort of sacred idol, then we have a fighting chance of being the church that Jesus intends for us to be.
Who knows what lies ahead for Cove? God only knows. And for that truth, you and I can take long, deep breaths and give great thanks.