A Church That Takes Risks

A Church That Takes Risks

January 23, 2022 • Rev. Rob Fuquay

I hope you’ve enjoyed our trip to France these past three weeks, albeit virtually! We have used as a metaphor for this series about the purpose of The church, a little church built in the 12th century in a remote village in Normandy called Angoville-au-Plain. You would not think this church makes for a good model considering it has been out of commission for nearly a hundred years but, of course, the reason we use it is because of what happened in it on D-Day 1944. 

Two young American paratrooper medics, Robert Wright and Kenneth Moore established it as an aid station. Pews became operating tables where you can still see blood stains today. (In fact, that was my suggested title for this series: Blood Stains on the Pews.” But I got voted down) It has been a good metaphor because it reminds us the Church’s mission to be a healing place for the divisions of our world and people who are wounded. Sadly the church has contributed to many of these wounds.

We also talked about how this church reminds us our mission to welcome all. The medics treated Germans as well as allied soldiers along with civilians. Those bloodstains most likely come from all the people treated. The church is to welcome all to know the hope and truth of Jesus Christ.

Today, as we get ready for the presentation of our long range vision next Sunday, we consider one final metaphor for the mission of the church: taking risks.

Listen to the sacrifice and risks of Moore and Wright. First of all, as medics they could not carry a rifle or weapon. They wore Red Cross armbands to identify themselves and trusted in the good will of the enemy to recognize war-time treaties. They needed all their strength just to carry supplies like plasma, drugs, and medical equipment. To drop out of a plane with the enemy shooting at you and you didn’t even have a gun was a vulnerable experience.

Not only that, the plane Kenneth Moore was in was hit by a bundle of equipment that fell from another plane above it. The pilots lost control and it was hurtling toward earth about to crash. Moore was the last paratrooper to jump. In 2013 a documentary was made of this story with interviews of Wright and Moore which was timely as they both died within a year and half later. Listen to Moore as he describes his drop…(clip)

They eventually made it to the church and set it up as an aid station. At one point the mortar fire was so heavy that while treating wounded soldiers a piece of the ceiling fell and hit Moore in the head, causing him to lose quite a bit of blood. He received the Silver Star for this.

At another point an unexploded mortar shell came through the ceiling and landed on the floor. Everyone waited for it to go off, but it didn’t, otherwise it would have probably killed everyone.

Then as nightfall came on June 6, thoroughly exhausted, the Germans gained the upperhand and an American officer came to the church to tell the medics they were withdrawing. Listen again as Moore describes the scene…(clip)

Clearly this mission to save people’s lives involved a lot of risks. Any significant mission always will. You can’t rescue people from danger without doing dangerous things. And that rubs against our human need for safety.

We see this in our scripture story this morning. It is an important story. It explains why the Israelites wandered in the wilderness for 40 years. They didn’t have to. In just a matter of weeks God brought them out of slavery in Egypt to the edge of the Promised Land. But God would not force them into that land. Why? Because of every act of faithfulness requires faith.

So God directed them to send spies into the land and bring back a report. The spies were composed of one influential leader from each of the 12 tribes. They returned and two of the spies, Joshua and Caleb, were enthusiastic. They emphasized the fruitfulness of the land.

Think about why that would have had appeal. The land they just crossed, the Sinai Peninsula, is some of the most barren in the world as you can tell by these pictures. It is tremendously hot and arid. To arrive at the edge of a land that is green and fertile with reports of grapes the size of a person’s head (no doubt an exaggeration!), you see why it was a place of Promise. But, and this is key to the story. The land was inhabited. And ten of the spies countered the enthusiasm of Joshua and Caleb. They emphasized how big the people were, not how big the potential blessings were. They said the inhabitants looked like giants! (No doubt as much as an exaggeration as the grapes!)

But this reflects an important trait in human personality. There are those who see opportunity and those who see obstacles. For a tired and weary people, it’s no wonder that more than 80% of the spies fell into the obstacle-seeing category. And that probably reflects how the people overall saw things. You know how such conversations go, a few start grumbling and quickly others join in, and a hesitant response before long becomes a hopeless response. “All is lost! We should have never come here in the first place! It would have been better had we just died back in Egypt!”

The people were learning the hard way an important spiritual lesson, that significance and safety are not always compatible.

In his Chronicles of Narnia, C.S. Lewis tells children’s stories that teach profound spiritual lessons. In the The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe Lewis presents an image of God that is unsettling to some. The four children enter the magical land of Narnia and hear of the great lion Aslan, whom Lewis uses as a Christ-figure. The children learn about Aslan from Mr and Mrs Beaver. They ask if Aslan is safe?

 Susie says, “I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.” “That you will dearie,” says Mrs. Beaver. “If there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly.”

 “Then he isn’t safe?” asked Lucy.

 “Safe?” said Mr Beaver, “Don’t you hear what Mrs Beaver is telling you?...‘course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the king.”

Many people hear that and struggle with the thought of a Christ who isn’t safe. But they miss the point that CS Lewis was subtly making to children, that Jesus doesn’t call us to safe living. He calls us to risk and sacrifice for the sake of goodness. “Take up your cross,” he tells would be followers.

Mike Slaughter in his book Unlearning Church says, “Too many Christians today are without passion because we have made Jesus, the Lion of Judah, safe, predictable and logical. But lions are not tame and Jesus is not predictable. So we Christians are not called to be predictable or safe either—but we are called to be good. We are called to show God’s endless and abundant love to the world, unencumbered by concern for our own safety or security.” (p.60)

I would have to add, “up to a point.” We never abandon all concern for safety, but that’s not what Slaughter is saying. He’s making the point that too much of the time we want sacrifice and safety to go hand in hand, and when safety feels at risk, we are often too easy to abandon sacrifice.

It is blissful to hand out bottles of water to thirsty people, but when we ask why people don’t have clean drinking water then we are going to risk safety. It is blissful to support minority owned businesses, to tutor in low-income neighborhood schools, and to help provide housing for minority residents. But to ask why are there disparities in minority housing, education, and business, then we are going to risk safety. Its blissful to handout snacks to people standing in long lines to vote, but to ask if there is equality in voting access we are going to risk safety. It’s blissful to say we welcome all people, but to say we are going to advocate for the rights of gay and trans people in the church means we are going to risk safety.

As the story of the Israelites on the edge of the Promise Land remind us, our failure to take risks prolongs our getting to a better world. Betterness and blissfulness do not always hold hands.

But you know what? St. Luke’s is a church that has always leaned toward betterness. That’s who St. Luke’s is and has always been. We have been a church that welcomes risk in order to reach people and to advocate for those on the outside.

In 1953 a group of people from Central Methodist downtown, now the Indiana Landmarks building, wanted to begin a new church north of town. So without permission from the conference, without even a pastor, they started a new church at the American Legion Hall in Broad Ripple. Maybe there’s a lesson in there for us today about not needing to wait for the United Methodist Church to endorse our being who we are called to be. Just a thought.

But the next year the Indiana Conference sent a pastor to St. Luke’s, Rev. Bill Imler. Under his leadership they made the daring decision to purchase property here at 100 W. 86th St. and build a building.

We remained daring under the next pastor, Dr. Richard Hamilton, who helped the church keep growing which required the building of a new sanctuary, now Robertson’s Chapel. But perhaps more significantly, Dr. Hamilton led us to risk in other ways, ways related to justice. On the Sunday before the famous March on Washington in 1963 where Martin Luther King gave his famous speech, I Have a Dream, Dr. Hamilton preached a sermon here titled Six Questions to the Marchers on Washington. I want to read various excerpts from that sermon:

The objectives seem to be broad – to symbolize the strength of the Negro demand for new opportunities and equality in many areas of life, to demonstrate to Congress that the time is now for significant new federal legislation in the civil rights field, to confront national leaders with specific demands for equality of education, law enforcement, real estate, public accommodations, employment, (and) to provide a dramatic symbol of the rising impatience of Negroes with what they call gradualism.

When the question is why should Christians get involved in such things…I must admit more than a little impatience with the question…The mandate of the Bible can scarcely be misread. It is the business of God’s people to minister to all God’s children, not as benevolent overlords, but as brothers in life as they shall be in death.

If the church has nothing to say to our society in our day at this point, then the church is an insulated island of self-righteousness which deserves to die. “Inasmuch as you did it not to the least of these you did it not to me.”

There is no place to stand within the Biblical faith and counsel the church to remain aloof from the basic issues here.

The old taunt is still true—11:00 Sunday is the most segregated hour in America. I get rather tired of hearing it, but I know you and I are going to keep hearing it until it is no longer true.

A Christ who drove the unjust from the temple, who castigated the hypocrites in public exchange, who challenged the power structure of his day by open defiance of their regulations, this Christ cannot be appealed to in the name of weak acceptance of justice. The dark skinned man has lived under pressure from above for 150 years; he is not overly moved by your white horror of pressure from below.

Not all of my questions about the march on Washington are answered. I’m sure that is true of you. But enough of them are answered for me that I shall be a part of Wednesday’s demonstration.

That is some bold preaching! And it continued 20 years later when one Sunday Carver McGriff rose in the pulpit to speak openly about a population few churches would talk about in anything other than condemnatory language. He said, “We are going to be a church that openly welcomes gay people.” And that started the creation of an identity statement which began, “We are an open community of Christians…”

Then Kent Millard came to St. Luke’s. He turned our attention outward. He said, “We’re here to improve the community and world. He encouraged us to live out our passion to make a difference and suddenly we were sending people out in missions. Some became concerned that we weren’t focusing enough on the people here. They even left the church because of this. Yet the church became better.

And now we turn the page to the next chapter of our unwritten story. Now God tells the next story through us. What will that story be? We look ahead to a post-pandemic world of which the only thing we can count on is not much will stay the same. But God will be. God is the same yesterday, today and forever. God will still be about the work of loving people, healing people, and giving hope to people. And God will do that through people willing to dare and risk and sacrifice. God will do it through people willing to dream big and believe boldly. God will do it through people who opt for betterness over blissfulness; who understand that faithfulness will always require faith.

Will you be bold and welcome risk as a necessary part of allowing God’s story to be told through you? Will you trust God to be with you in taking steps of risk and boldness and know that the confirmation of your choices is not always that life gets easier but that you know deep in your heart you’re doing the right thing? Will you live not for safety but significance and give God permission to disturb you so that God can put you right where God needs you?

There’s one last thought about the Israelites on the edge of the Promised Land I want to leave you with. The people gave into their initial reaction of the challenge to enter a land they had never been and only focus on the risk it would mean and conclude it was too much. It’s a natural thing to do. Any time we face change it is natural to think, “What will this mean? What will I risk?” But the question we don’t always ask, and really, it’s the more important question, “What do I risk if I don’t do this? What do I risk by doing nothing? By staying where I am? What might I miss out on?” And usually the miss is not more money, more fame, more power. The miss is greater living. The miss is the adventure of following Jesus where God wants to use us.

Let me close with this. Richard Rohr, founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, NM, tells about Frank Strabala who was a frequent visitor until his death. He worked for the nuclear test facility outside Las Vegas for many years, and in fact had headed its operation, but as he grew closer to Jesus, the more unsettled he became by the work he did. It’s an interesting contrast, that getting closer to Christ doesn’t always make life easier.

One time he even joined Rohr and others at a civil disobedience demonstration at the site. Imagine the top brass of a nuclear test facility seeing one of their leaders demonstrating! Richard Rohr says he’ll never forget seeing Frank walking toward him with a half-worried look on his face saying, “I have trusted your teaching all these years. Now I’ll have to trust where it leads me.” Listen to Rohr describe the moment:

“We stood together as his former employees drove by and gave less than flattering gestures to their old boss. I was humbled and awed by such courage and such humility. He had let go of his secure monument through an encounter with the man Jesus and the vision of the peace movement.” (Wisdom Pattern, p.95)

Closing Prayer:

In what ways have we become complacent as a church and in what ways have I become complacent?

You teach us about risking the 99 to reach the 1. What do you want our church to risk to reach the ones in our community? What am I willing to risk to welcome all people into your family?

And what blessings do you want to give our church that will involve risks? And what blessings do you want to give me that will taking risking something?

O God, help us to have hearts that are open to the ways that you want to stir us from any complacency. And Give us eyes to see and courage to take the necessary steps to experience the life you want for us.

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