The Church Imperfect

There’s an old Christmas carol, called, as far as I can tell, “Irish Carol,” whose chorus goes like this:

In heaven the Church triumphant adores with all her choirs
The militant on earth with humble faith admires

The carol was on an album produced by Firestone—the tire company—and either sold or given away in 1966, all songs sung by Julie Andrews. So, I grew up with the album, and this song, ringing through the house during December. In heaven, the church triumphant; the militant on earth with humble faith….
The church on earth is not triumphant, not yet; neither is it perfect. The church on earth will be neither until the return of Jesus, and we shall not know that day until it is seen.

So, let’s not claim to be perfect. In fact, let’s claim our imperfection—let’s embrace it. Perhaps, once seen to embrace our own imperfections, the church will seem less daunting, and more approachable, to those who are aware of their own imperfections. The church has been entrusted, by Jesus, to humans for stewardship, discipleship and evangelism. If you believe that Jesus turned over the keys to His church with the understanding that the people who would populate His church, including pastors and priests, would be perfect in faith, words and actions—well, it’s time for a review of the Gospels. Even Peter, the Rock chosen by Jesus as a foundation for the church to come, Jesus knew to be so fundamentally flawed that Peter would deny even knowing Jesus in the most crucial hours. And, yet, we see it, time-and-time again. Churches and church leaders, pastors and lay leaders and uber-pious members, sitting in judgment from the phony throne of self- righteousness.

In our own United Methodist Church, a ridiculous fight looms over how far God’s grace is to be extended, an ongoing battle, now coming to one final (possibly) confrontation between those whose devotion to a hard-edged reading of finely selected Scripture (think of the type of comb used to find nits in a child’s hair) leads them to a judgment that men and women and boys and girls whose sexuality appears unusual to them are something less in the eyes of God and those who believe that the words of Jesus, that all of the law and all of the prophets of the Bible can be explained with the commandments to love God and to love one another as ourselves, are overriding, and who welcome all persons, regardless of sexuality, in full inclusion. The world around us burns with chaos, and the church threatens to self-immolate.

This is not our only imperfection and, perhaps, not the most serious. Reacting to change in the world—change that has been constant through time and that has, at most, accelerated in pace—many churches have turned inward, becoming a refuge instead of a sanctuary, a parking place instead of a launching pad. Self-satisfaction, self-service and self-preservation are powerful urges, yet it is these urges that pose the greatest threat to the church’s faithfulness in meeting Jesus’ call to stewardship, discipleship and evangelism.

There is good news. There is Good News. Jesus anticipated—anticipates—our
imperfections. Judas betrayed Him; Peter, indeed, denied knowing Jesus. Even the leaders of the earliest movements toward Christianity decided to compete rather than to cooperate at times. Without Jesus’ interventions over time, inspiring, reviving, revitalizing His church, where would we be? What difference would we make in the world? But it isn’t our imperfection that limit our impact; it is our refusal to embrace them. So let us laugh. At ourselves. At our self-righteousness. At our mistakes. At our devotion to “the way it’s always been” in the face of a world that has raced past us at breakneck speed and, still, cries out for us to catch up and bring the truth to it—the Good News of Christmas and of Good Friday and of Easter.

Let’s laugh and let’s celebrate and, most importantly, let’s let the world—the people of our neighborhoods, our surrounding communities, our cities and towns and our country see us, warts, sins, failings and faith—all of it, the whole picture. Let’s invite our neighbors to judge us and to tell us where we have fallen short. Let us embrace our own humanness, admitting that while we are surely created in the image of God, we are also laughably short of the perfection
which we shall never achieve unless, possibly, in eternity. And then let us embrace the other,seeing not our differences but our sameness—humans, together, imperfect, just like the church.