Stained Glass Wounds

Stained Glass Wounds

One Thursday night during our discussion around the sharing table, Marilyn Puett contributed this observation: “wounds made with stained glass heal only very slowly if at all.” “Stained glass wounds” captures a truth I have observed in my ministry. So many Preacher’s Kids abandon the church, because they have suffered emotional wounds caught in the crossfire of abuse intended for their clergy parent. Again and again I have heard horror stories about the treatment of people by churches, when they finally had the courage to embrace their sexual orientation, or how they were shunned, when they got a divorce, or the nightmare of people who have been sexually abused by clergy. I hear the echoes of emotional wounding, when people say, “I am a recovering Catholic, or a recovering Baptist, or just a recovering church person.” I remember the title of a book published in 1970, The Churches and Cruelty Systems, by J. Edward Carothers, he noted so many wounds are inflicted in the name of religion or as the result of life in community in the church.

How does it happen? How is it that an institution dedicated to following in the way of Jesus the prophet of love, the great healer, the advocate of peace ends up inflicting so many wounds upon people? To be fair we should note that Christian faith is not the only religion that has been used to persecute, destroy, or wound people. Islamic cultures are full of torture and abuse in the name of religion – whippings, stonings, beheadings, executions. Hinduism’s caste system institutionalizes discrimination and abuse. While Jews have historically been the victims of persecution and abuse, especially at the hands of Christians, if you can find a Jewish friend who will speak honestly, you will discover that the intrigues and power politics in synagogues rival anything in our churches. I recall that Rabbi Ballon at one point in his ministry was so beat up and wounded by the synagogue he was serving, he left the rabbinate and sold insurance for a while.

So I am not singling out the church as the only or even the worst example of cruelty in the name of religion, but we certainly have more at stake in addressing our own issues, rather than the problems of other religions. So, why are there so many stained glass wounds?

First, we can acknowledge the church is a human institution. We hope and pray the Holy Spirit is present among us at least once in a while, but God has given responsibility for the church to us. You may have noticed God does not make regular deposits into the church’s checking account. God does not go out and share the message of Jesus with other people for us. God does not guarantee the church will not make mistakes, nor does God guarantee that if we sit and do nothing, the church will survive. The community of faith that follows the way of Jesus is our responsibility. It’s up to us, God doesn’t have any plan B.

The church then is a human institution and as such it is a sinful institution. All of the worst aspects of human nature can be found in the church: greed, lust, envy, pride and in particular desire for power – power of control, power over others, power for the sake of power – all of the human attributes that drive the foundation of Empire.

The way of Jesus undermines Empire. The church originally sought to subvert and convert the Roman Empire. Instead of pride the way of Jesus sought humility. Instead of greed the way of Jesus taught people to share. Instead of power over others the way of Jesus sought to set people free. But as the way of Jesus grew in popularity, and as the Roman Empire discovered they could not stamp it out, the Empire tried to reach an accommodation with the church. And the church thinking they could sleep with the devil and still remain innocent, found themselves under the Emperor Constantine coopted and taken over by the Empire.

So the church defined faithfulness as adherence to a creed, rather than loving your neighbor and caring for the poor. That’s how the church sponsored the Inquisition, the Crusades, and ecclesiastical infallibility. Maybe they should have consulted Snoopy about theology. The money and power of Empire were just too tempting, and the church sold out.

Since the first Council of Nicea in 325 A.D. the church for the most part has served the purposes of Empire rather than the way of Jesus. There have been notable exceptions in history, when individuals or movements within the church have recalled the church to greater faithfulness to the way of Jesus. The Desert Fathers who sought lives of poverty and prayer to escape the corruption of their time lifted up an alternative life style to the decadence of the church under the Empire. St. Francis of Assisi recalled the church to poverty, humility and faithfulness serving the poor in a time when the church had become rich and powerful and had abandoned the impoverished. The Protestant Reformation sought to strip the church of much of its wealth and power in a return to the way of Jesus. The abolitionist movement, the women’s suffrage movement, the Social Gospel movement, all growing out of the church in the Nineteenth Century, were efforts to subvert the culture of wealth and Empire and establish greater justice in the name of Jesus.  In the Twentieth Century Dietrich Bonhoeffer led the Confessing Church in Germany opposing Adolf Hitler and was martyred for his faith.  Martin Luther King compelled by the love of Christ opposed and subverted the culture of racism in America, and he was martyred for his faith.  Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandella led their people in an epic struggle for freedom, justice and forgiveness in South Africa and became one of the most notable examples of applying the way of Jesus to social change.  The Jesus movement from time to time lifts up heroes of faith, challenging and subverting the oppression and values of the dominant culture , but all too often our faith communities simply roll over and serve the values of the dominant culture.

Many of the wounds inflicted in the name of the church are driven by egos fighting about who is going to be in control, or who has the right belief, or what faction is going to dominate the governing board. Again and again we need to hear Paul’s words from our scripture: 31 Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and gossip and slander be put away from you, with all malice,

32 and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.

I am reminded of a story about two older people attending a revival. When the preacher condemned the sin of lust, the two people sitting in the front row cried out at the top of their lungs… “AMEN… BROTHER!”
When the preacher condemned the sin of stealing, they yelled again…. “PREACH IT REVEREND!”

And when the preacher condemned the sin of lying…. they jumped to their feet and screamed, “RIGHT ON BROTHER…. TELL IT LIKE IT IS…..AMEN!”
But when the preacher condemned the sin of gossip, the two people got real quiet and one turned to the other and said, “Now he’s quit preaching and gone to meddlin’.”

Our scripture this morning reminds me of a story about Reuben Sheares one of the saints of the UCC. Rose knew him, because he was a Talledega College graduate. Reuben had served as the director of the Office for Church Life and Leadership of our denomination for 15 years, when he accepted a call to become the Pastor of the influential Congregational Church of Park Manor on the south side of Chicago. Park Manor’s previous pastor had left under a cloud of gossip, innuendo, and general hostility.

In the United Church of Christ, when a minister is installed other people lead the worship service except for the benediction, that is performed by the person being installed. So when Reuben stood up to give the benediction, he was carrying an open Bible. And he said, “I was just looking at Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, and allow me to read from chapter 4 verses 31 and 32: 31 Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and gossip and slander be put away from you, with all malice, 32 and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.”

When Reuben had finished reading that scripture he looked up and eye balled the congregation. People squirmed uncomfortably in their pews. Reuben then proceeded. “There has been bitterness in this congregation. There has been gossip in this church. There has been slander and malice among you, and it stops now!”

Again he eye balled the congregation. Then he proceeded. “It stops now, and if you want to do that, you go down the street, but not here.”

Again he eye balled the congregation. You could hear a pin drop. And slowly people began shaking their heads in acceptance. Then Reuben proceeded with the benediction.

Probably only Reuben could have gotten away with that. But every once in a while we church folk need someone to take us up by the scruff of the neck and give us a good shake. Even though we have been called to follow the way of Jesus, we often fail to reflect the love of Christ. We allow our bitterness, anger, hostility, our prejudices, our ego driven selves to wound others in the Body of Christ – stained glass wounds.

We need to understand we will always struggle to follow the way of Jesus. Paul wouldn’t have written what he did if there had not been problems in those early churches. Too often we idealize those early followers of Jesus and call them saints, but they were just as sinful as we are. So since we are not perfect, let us remember Paul’s words: be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.


One Comment on “Stained Glass Wounds”

  1. Sue Duthie says:

    Thank you, Bob. Well written and so true.

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