Lenten Noonday Preaching Series
Calvary Episcopal Church
Memphis, Tennessee
February 18, 2002


What Is a Good Church?
The Rev. Dr. Kenneth A. Corr
Pastor, First Baptist Church
Memphis, Tennessee

(This sermon is also available in audio.)

Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from You no secrets are hidden. Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of Your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love You, and worthily magnify Your holy name, through Christ our Lord. Amen.

In his book Craddock Stories, Fred Craddock tells of a city's Chamber of Commerce advertising for some good churches to come to their town. Craddock says, "I'm sure they did not mean to cast any reflection on the ones they had; they just wanted to have some good ones. What is a good church?" (Fred Craddock, Craddock Stories, p. 76).

I smiled when I read that. I can't tell you the number of times I have invited people to First Baptist and said, "But we are a good Baptist church." What is a good church? Is your church a good church? Is Calvary a good church?

In the movie Saving Private Ryan, Pvt. James Ryan returns to Europe fifty years after his rescue from the war. He is an old man and he brings his family with him. He grieves at the grave of one who died to rescue him and he says to his family, "Tell me that I am a good man." There is the temptation on occasions like today to say to each other, "Tell me that we are a good church."

One day while Jesus was teaching in the synagogue, he startled the people and angered the religious leaders when he healed a crippled woman. But by this miracle of healing, Jesus gives us the measure by which we can judge our churches and ourselves. By this miracle of healing Jesus shows that love is the measure of a good church. That is a message that we need to hear again and again, because there are a lot of temptations to use other models to judge a good church.

The story is found in Luke 13:10-17:

On a Sabbath Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues, and a woman was there who had been crippled by a spirit for eighteen years. She was bent over and could not straighten up at all. When Jesus saw her, he called her forward and said to her, "Woman, you are set free from your infirmity." Then he put his hands on her, and immediately she straightened up and praised God. Indignant because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, the synagogue ruler said to the people, "There are six days for work. So come and be healed on those days, not on the Sabbath." The Lord answered him, "You hypocrites! Doesn't each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or donkey from the stall and lead it out to give it water? Then should not this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has kept bound for eighteen long years, be set free on the Sabbath day from what bound her?" When he said this, all his opponents were humiliated, but the people were delighted with all the wonderful things he was doing. (NIV)

Jesus was the guest preacher in the synagogue that Sabbath and before he was through, he was again embroiled in controversy-- stirring up trouble, pushing the boundaries of the acceptable, challenging social etiquette, disturbing the status quo, aggravating the religious leaders, and being a rebel. (You have to be careful who you invite to preach. It takes courage to invite a guest preacher. Calvary certainly understands that it takes courage to invite a guest preacher. You really never know what they are going to do.)

Jesus saw a woman with an obvious physical handicap and paused in the middle of his sermon. Now, if you want a non-controversial Jesus, you have to be holding your breath, saying, "Don't do it, Jesus. Just let it go and finish your sermon."

Two weeks ago, I was invited to preach for the 20th Anniversary of the church in Sugar Land that I pastored before coming to Memphis. My wife, Denise said, "Ken, don't say anything that will make them not ask you again." If Jesus had had a wife, she would have been saying, "Don't do it, Jesus." But you know that Jesus is not going to let it go. Jesus was anything but non-controversial. "Woman, you are set free from your ailment. Then he put his hands on her, and immediately she straightened up and began praising God."

It is easy for us to read this story from our 21st century perspective and miss the point. But the people reading it in Jesus day did not miss the point. They got the point. In fact, the synagogue leader was so offended by Jesus' actions that he spoke out in correction. Imagine that I said something so offensive that your interim rector, Bob Hansel, felt that he had to stand up and refute what had just been said. That is hard for you to even imagine. (Well, it may not be too difficult for some of you to imagine.) But that is exactly what happened at the synagogue that day. What did Jesus say and do?

In that ancient world, disease meant more than just physical illness. To be sick or handicapped also meant to be stigmatized--isolated and excluded from the religious community. To be diseased or wounded or handicapped carried a tremendous emotional cost. In her commentary on this text, Marva Dawn says that, "…this woman probably hadn't been touched for eighteen years. Imagine the pain and isolation of that." (Marva Dawn, Keeping the Sabbath Wholly, p. 121). When Jesus said that Satan had bound her for eighteen years, it was not just physical bondage that she had suffered, as bad as that was. It was also the social and emotional and religious bondage.

Also in that ancient world, women were not allowed to participate in the worship of the synagogue. They could attend, but not participate. That ancient practice is reflected in Paul's instruction to the church that the women were to keep quiet and if they had a question, they could ask their husbands at home. This was the ancient practice of the synagogue. It is amazing to me that some people think this ancient practice is still required in the church today.

We recently ordained our Associate Pastor, Carol McCall Richardson. It made the front page of our local newspaper, The Commercial Appeal. I received a letter from a local pastor in which he said, "While the world is on fire and our young men are having to go to war against our enemies, you people feel it important and necessary to have your feelings vented on the front page of The Commercial Appeal, that you have ordained a woman to preach the gospel. Big deal!" Well, it was a pretty big deal. It was certainly a big deal to Carol. It was a pretty big deal to our church, all of whom love Carol. It is also a big deal to remember that our young men and our young women are fighting a war against a repressive religious government that opposes the freedom of women. And it was a big deal when Jesus stopped the sermon and recognized this woman, healing her, and giving to her her rightful place in the worshipping community.

Also in that ancient world, it was considered inappropriate for a man and woman to touch in public. When Jesus called the woman forward and laid his hands on her right there in the synagogue in front of God and everybody and healed her, there would have been a collective gasp. This was just not done. If you are wanting a non-controversial Jesus, and most of us do, he just disappointed you. Jesus has just violated several social and religious taboos, but the worst of it all was that he violated the Scripture. That was just too much for the synagogue leader.

I am reading Exodus 20:9:

Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God; you shall not do any work-you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and consecrated it.

The synagogue leader quoted almost verbatim Exodus 20:9. As far as the synagogue leader was concerned, Jesus had gone too far when he violated the Scripture. Jesus obviously knew the Scripture. Jesus obviously knew the Ten Commandments. Jesus obviously knew that this was going to be controversial. Was he just trying to be a rebel or was there something essential in his understanding of the kingdom of God that we need to hear? I believe that Jesus is teaching something essential about the kingdom of God.

The kingdom of God, in Jesus' sermon and actions, is a place where love comes first-ahead of our biblical interpretations; ahead of our cultural traditions; ahead of our orthodox doctrines; and even ahead of our desire to be non-controversial. Now we are coming close to what a good church is. Is Calvary a good church? Is First Baptist a good church? Is your church a good church? Is it a place where love comes first?

James Forbes is pastor of the Riverside Church in New York City. He was recently asked about his church's position on some of the controversial issues of the day. He answered by saying, "We figure that there are two ways you can be condemned. You can be condemned for including people that God excludes. Or you can be condemned for excluding people that God includes. We decided in our church that if we had to choose, we would condemned for including people" (James Forbes, spoken at the Stetson Pastors' School, Jan. 30, '02). That's a good church.

Fred Craddock says that he has preached the story of the Prodigal Son for many years without thinking about the party that is held when the son comes home.

I preached that sermon as though this was the wonderful, natural, easy, right thing to do. I had never thought about that party until a family up the street divorced and left three or four youngsters, girls, one of them attractive, prematurely mature, and about fourteen years old.

She was truant at school, into marijuana, always in trouble, always up before the judge, chasing around and hanging on the tail end of every motorcycle that went roaring through the neighborhood. She finally was so truant and so involved in misdemeanors that the judge said "You're going to reform school in southern Oklahoma." She was sent away to a detention home for girls. About the fourth or fifth month that she was there, she gave birth to the child she was carrying. She was fifteen at the time.

Word came to the neighborhood some months afterward that she was coming home. "Will she have that baby with her?" "Is she really coming home, back to our neighborhood?" The day we heard she was to come, all of us in the neighborhood had to mow our grass. We were out in our yards, mowing our grass, and watching the house. She didn't show, nobody came, and we kept watching the house and mowing the grass. I was down to about a blade at a time, you know, watching the house, when a car pulled in the driveway-and out steps Cathy. She has the baby. She brought home the baby.

People in the house ran out and grabbed her and took turns holding that baby, and they were all laughing and joking, then they went in. Another car pulled in, then another car pulled in, and another car pulled in. They started parking in the street. You couldn't have gotten a Christian car down the street, just cars on either side, and they're all gathering there, you know.

Suddenly I got disturbed and anxious and went in my house. It suddenly struck me, what if one of them saw me down in the yard and said, "Hey Fred, she's home and she has the baby. We're giving a party, and we'd like for you and Nettie to come." Would I have gone? If you lived next door to the prodigal son's father's house, would you have gone over to the party? It's easier to preach on that than to go to the party. (Fred Craddock, Craddock Stories, p. 35f).

Is this a good church? Tell me that after all these years, this is a good church.

But in the kingdom of God what we are is not as important as what we are striving towards. Strive to love God with your whole heart and mind and soul and body and your neighbor as yourself and you will be a good church, whether you know it or not.

Copyright 2002 The Rev. Dr. Kenneth A. Corr

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