Have you seen Ugly Betty? It's a show just out this year about Betty Suarez, a frumpy young woman from a struggling Latino family who works as an executive assistant at a fashion magazine. Most of her female coworkers are more attractive than she is, and they often humiliate and insult her because of her appearance. She wears braces, is overweight, and completely unable to dress fashionably but keeps her job because she's got skills and a good attitude. She is, according to some, Fall TV's most interesting character.
This may be a bit of a jump, but I'm wondering if some of us see the church as an Ugly Betty: frumpy, not very fashionable, but with sort of a good attitude and some skill. Have you ever had a feeling of incongruity as you've sung a hymn about the church and looked around and thought, "The words of this hymn and what I see around me just don't match"?
I love Thy Church, O God!
Her walls before Thee stand,
Dear as the apple of Thine eye,
And graven on Thy hand.
For her my tears shall fall;
For her my prayers ascend;
To her my cares and toils be given,
Till toils and cares shall end.
Beyond my highest joys
I prize her heavenly ways,
Her sweet communion, solemn vows,
Her hymns of love and praise.
Do you ever sing that and think it's a little like telling Ugly Betty that she's the most beautiful girl you've seen in your life?
Eugene Peterson, the man who created the Message paraphrase of the Bible, talks from the perspective of a pastor. He says that some may have at one time thought that pastoring is like riding "a glistening black stallion in daily parades" and then returning to the barn where a lackey grooms the steed for us. Instead, he says, church is more like the routines of "cleaning out the barn, mucking out the stalls, spreading manure, pulling weeds." Nothing wrong with that, but it's a little like Ugly Betty.
I discovered this software the other day. You can take really good pictures of yourself, like this one. Or, you can take pictures and distort them, like this one. It's fun to distort pictures of yourself – as long as you can remember which one is the real you. My son has taken hundreds of distorted pictures of himself now. There's not a problem with that unless he begins to think this is what he really looks like.
So let me ask you: what is your picture of church? Is it more like Ugly Betty or "Dear as the apple of Thine eye, And graven on Thy hand"?
I guess I should be a little more specific. Let's forget talking about churches in general – that's like talking about the institution of marriage. Let's talk in specifics. What is your picture of this church? You know, of course, that I'm not talking about the building or the programs. I'm talking about us as a community of people. I'm talking about the people who helped you move; the guy you try to avoid in the foyer after church; the young lady who used to babysit your kids; the married couple who have a completely different parenting style than you do; the person who's sat in front of you for the past two years. What do you think of this church in particular?
I suspect that you may have a similar view of the church as we read about in the letter we've been considering. I want to take you five thousand miles and two thousand years away from here. Picture getting off work the first day of the week – the equivalent of our Monday – and heading off to what we would consider a small house today. There's twenty or so people there. There's a wife who became a Christian last year against her husband's wishes. There's a servant who's having a hard time with his master. You look around and you see a group of tired people who have only a few things in common: they are followers of Jesus Christ; they are out of step with the rest of society; and they really don't look like much. They look a little like Ugly Betty.
But that evening, word gets out that a letter has arrived. It's not just a letter from anyone. It's a letter from Peter, now an old man. The same Peter who knew Jesus better than almost anyone else; the same Peter that some in your home heard preach at Pentecost years ago. This is Peter the Apostle, hand-picked disciple of Jesus Christ.
What does Peter say to this tired and rather unimpressive group meeting at the end of a long workday?
As you come to him, the living Stone—rejected by human beings but chosen by God and precious to him— you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ…
But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. (1 Peter 2:4-5, 9-10)
I was in Boston in March and decided to get tickets for a Boston Bruins game. I took a couple of friends, one from Nebraska and one from Oregon. My friend from Nebraska was fine: he knew more about hockey than I did. But my friend from Oregon didn't have a clue what was going on. They showed a picture of the famous Canadian hockey player Bobby Orr, who played ten seasons with Boston, at the beginning of the game
and the crowd went wild. I explained that he was the Wayne Gretzky of hockey in his day, but otherwise my friend wouldn't have had a clue.
That's a little how I feel as we read what Peter says to this church, and I believe what he would say to us as well. Peter throws in every Biblical image he can think of and more to describe the church, and those who read this letter that night after work would look around and the others and say, "Is this right? Is this who we really are?" They would get what Peter is talking about, and it would hit hard. It's not a view that ignores the tough realities of human nature and the disillusionment that results. But it's a profoundly positive view of the church despite the fact that most churches don't look like much. It's a view that is just as true of Richview as it was of this group back then.
What does Peter say about the church in this passage? There are a lot of themes in this passage and you could preach ten sermons. Here are the two overarching themes that tell us who we are today:
We are where God lives
Thousands of years earlier, God told a group of escaped slaves traveling through the dessert: "Have them make a sanctuary for me, and I will dwell among them" (Exodus 25:8). They did build the sanctuary, just as God told them. When they finished, we read, "Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. Moses could not enter the tent of meeting because the cloud had settled on it, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle" (Exodus 40:34-35).
Picture God living right there among people. Wherever they went, God tented right among them. They could look over and see his visible presence, and he guided them toward the land he promised them.
Eventually, Solomon built the Temple, which became the new dwelling place for God. Then it was destroyed and rebuilt and then destroyed again. When this letter was written, the Temple had just been through an 83 year building project. It was understood to be the place where God lived on this earth.
But then Peter writes, "As you come to him, the living Stone—rejected by human beings but chosen by God and precious to him— you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ" (1 Peter 2:5-6).
It's a bizarre image, but let's think about it. Look around you right now. What do you see around you? Peter says you should see a community of people who are built on the precious but rejected cornerstone of Jesus, and who are being built up into the very place where God has chosen to live in this world. We are, as we come to Jesus, where God now lives – an amorphous building that continually takes on the changing dimensions, but where God has chosen to live. Remember that he's not talking about the church in the abstract, the church of our dreams. He's talking about us. We together are where God chooses to live.
In 1991, a prosperous architect took a drive through America's deep South. He was struggling with his profession which sold beautiful buildings to those with status, wealth, and security. Only the rich can afford to live in architecturally beautiful buildings.
The architect dreamed of the poor living in stunning new houses. As he drove through poverty-stricken rural areas, he saw hundreds of dilapidated, almost unlivable houses. That year he gave up his practice and started an architectural school called the Rural Studio. He and his students walked up dusty driveways to decrepit old shacks, knocked on the door, and offered the residents new houses. Here are what some of them look like. He took decrepit old houses and transformed them into works of beauty.
So if you're driving in an impoverished area and see a house that doesn't fit, it's not because the people living there scraped it together themselves. It's because someone saw the potential for beauty in places nobody else would look, and gave them what they couldn't afford for themselves.
Likewise, if you go looking for God, don't go looking in all the obvious places. Go looking for a group of nobodies who are meeting together after work in someone's house one evening. Look around you. God has chosen to move in and live among decrepit communities of people who couldn't make themselves beautiful, and he has made them into beautiful dwelling places for himself. He has choosen the people you see around you as living and moving stones in his house.
We are the people God has chosen
Peter gives us a second image in verses 9-10:
But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.
This looks at first glance like a laundry list of titles. You could take each metaphor – chosen people, royal priesthood, holy nation, God's special possession – and study it by itself. But the main point Peter is making here isn't each term on its own.
Peter takes a whole bunch of metaphors that were used to describe Israel and applies it to the church. He says that we are the new covenant continuation of the people of God. We are not only where God lives; we are the people God has chosen to be his and to participate in his mission. The responsibility once solely trusted to Israel has now been given to the church.
He even tells us our purpose as his people: "that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light." God has chosen us to represent him and to declare his praises, so others will see his glory and praise him as well.
Now, take all of this together. Take a group of people who have come to Jesus Christ. Put them together in a group like this, centered around Jesus Christ, and they become the very dwelling place of God, the people he has chosen to participate in his mission. To put it simply, the church is where the action is, not because we are something, but because this is who God has chosen and where he has decided to live. The church is something because this is who God has chosen and where he has decided to live.
So what does this mean for us today? Verses 1 to 3 say:
Therefore, rid yourselves of all malice and all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander of every kind. Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation, now that you have tasted that the Lord is good.
The church doesn't look like much to us, which means that it's easy to see the church cynically. In fact, cynicism pretty much defines how increasing numbers of people see the church. But Peter reminds us that the church is where the action is, because this is who God has chosen and where he has decided to live.
The church is relational, and that means that the greatest dangers within the church will be relational as well. Seeing the church the way that Peter describes means that we must take the sins he mentions in verse 1 as seriously as we take any sin. These are sins that deface God's dwelling place, and that tear down the people God has chosen to be his own.
Malice – ill will; a hateful feeling towards someone; a hostile attitude
Deceit – being less than truthful with each other; being tricky or manipulative
Hypocrisy – insincerity and pretense
Envy – resenting when others do well; wanting what they have for ourselves
Slander – speaking evil of anyone else
If a child came in with a spray can this morning and began spraying paint all over the walls, there would be more than a few of us who would be angry. But if someone expressed some hostility to someone else in this congregation, or spoke unkind words toward them, or refused to deal with conflict in a healthy way, and excused such behavior, then we are complicit with the defacing of God's dwelling place, his living stones, his very own chosen people. We need to take this very seriously. In fact, some of us need to take action today to stop doing this, to stop being party to the defacing of God's dwelling place and his chosen people.
It also means that we crave growth together – that we crave being shaped by his Word so we can become all that he intends us to be.
So let me ask you again. What do you see when you look around? What do you think of the church, this church in particular? As you look around, do you see Ugly Betty? Or do you see that this group, just as we are in our imperfection, is who God has chosen and where he has decided to live?
Sarah Cunningham is a twenty-something author who has written a book called Dear Church: Letters from a Disillusioned Generation. Sarah is disillusioned in many ways with the church. Her book is fascinating and disturbing. She doesn't write as someone who is blind to the faults of the church. She writes with gripping honesty and sometimes with despair.
But listen to how she ends the book.
It may surprise you…sometimes it surprises me…that I am where I am today.
That I can still say I love you.
And, after all of this, you deserve one really good love letter…I write you, Church, because despite your flaws and despite my affair with disillusionment, I love you…
I love you because you are brilliant. You started out as this fragile group of marginalized disciples that almost no one thought would succeed. Yet in a dot-comlike explosion, you emerged on the global scene as a force to be reckoned with. Google and eBay have nothing on you, Church…
I love you because I am part of you. Because when my friends and I are teamed in Christ's mission, we are you.
So I write – first and foremost – because I love you.
There is something powerful about realizing that someone or something is not perfect and loving them anyway.
Sometimes, love is all the reason a person needs to stay in contact. So I leave you with this final message: I love you. Keep in touch.
Father, when we look at the church, we don't often see what you see. Thank you for Peter's reminder that while we see people and disappointment and ordinariness, you see the very people you have chosen to be your house, the people you have chosen to be your own, participants in your mission.
Right size our view of this very imperfect, sometimes frustrating, but ultimately glorious group of people here. Help us to be aware of the ways that we deface your house and your people and let us see them as seriously as we would see graffiti on these walls.
Make us the church you are calling us to be, so we may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. In Jesus' name, Amen.