“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where
thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither
moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your
treasure is, there your heart will be also.
--Matthew 6:19-21 NRSV
In 2014, I took a Holy Land tour of Israel and Palestine. It was a dream come true for me to see sites I had read about in the Bible all my life. One of the sites that left a lasting impression on me is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, built, according to tradition, on the site of Jesus' crucifixion and the tomb in which he was buried. It is considered one of the holiest sites in Christianity, and pilgrims visit it from all over the world. What stood out to me, however, was not its holiness but rather the chaos of all the different sects of Christianity mashed up together.
Bloody battles have been fought down through the centuries over what denomination has control of the site. The violence even continues into recent years as one group fights another over small parts of the complex. Various parts of the site are controlled by the Roman Catholic Church, Eastern Orthodox Church, Armenian Apostolic Church, Coptic Orthodox Church, syriac Orthodox Church and Ethiopian Orthdox Church. Over the last 15 years or so violent fistfights have broken out between groups when one "trespassed" on another's section of the church. Two of the denominations fought more recently over a section of the roof.
Disputes dating back decades, even centuries, govern which Christian group is responsible for maintaining which part of the site. Even the most mundane tasks prove contentious. While there, our guide pointed out to us that there were no trash cans in the entire complex, because the various denominations couldn't agree upon who was responsible for emptying them. The intransigence of the battling Christians has gone on for centuries. In the 12th century, the Muslim general Saladin conquered Jerusalem but was unable to solve the conflict over the site. He gave the key to the church to a Muslim family to serve as an impartial party (one group or another kept locking others out). To this day, members of the same Muslim family open the church each morning.
Perhaps the greatest example of the stalemate among Christian groups at this holiest site in Christianity is a ladder leaning up against the side of the church on an upper level. (I thought I had a picture of it but couldn't find it. Google "ladder church of the holy sepulchre" and you'll find pictures of it.) Nobody knows who left the ladder there, but the earliest evidence of it dates back to the early 1700's! To this day, nobody has moved it for fear of upsetting one or more of the other groups laying claim to the site. Alone it sets down through the decades and centuries as a symbol of the hard-heartedness of Christians.
The story of the ladder nobody can move sounds ridiculous when the fighting over it takes place between orthodox priests of Christian denominations of which we American Protestants are not familiar. Yet, when I replace the exotic location and characters with typically dressed Americans in an average Protestant church the dynamics seem familiar. A seemingly immutable fact of church life exists in the form of disputes among church members over their church buildings and who lays claim to what part of it. Unofficial and unelected individuals or groups become de facto arbiters of taste when it comes to decorating. "Landmines" lay waiting for anyone who dares disturb a certain classroom, chapel or section of the building declared sacred by a matriarch or patriarch of the congregation. Often the nastiest disputes arise about the things least related to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
I grew up loving going to church. At church, this skinny, undersized rather nerdy kid was loved and declared special. At church my talents were appreciated and my gifts recognized. I was taught about a loving God and shown love by church people. Yet, at the same time I bore witness to people bearing the name Christ being god-awful to one another, often filled with rage over things that seemed trivial to me. In the many years since, not much has changed. I still have plenty of stories of love and plenty of stories of nasty fights. I have learned that most of these disputes over church buildings and the things in them aren't really about the building and the stuff but rather about people feeling a need for control, people afraid of death and their own impermanence and people finding their self worth and identity in mere objects.
Given the emotional toll small changes may take on churchgoers, is it any wonder why it is so difficult to achieve truly significant changes in congregations. Change involves, well, change, and most of us come to church for a break from the neverending changes in our culture. Yet, the price of bitterly refusing to cede control of the parts of the church we lay claim to is we have a lot of immovable ladders laying around. Junk piles up in store rooms in our buildings, but also spiritual junk piles up in our lives. Churches are often the last places to change when it comes to racism, sexism, income inequality, equality of LGBTQ people and more, because change is difficult and costly. Is it any wonder that younger generations have left their parents and grandparents churches behind in search of spiritual places without so many "ladders" in the way?
One wonders where we got the idea that following Jesus would be easy? Why did we start holding onto things that matter so little in light of eternity? Jesus told us clearly to "lay up your treasures in heaven" and "take up your cross and follow me," but we act as if Jesus commanded us to settle down and defend our favorite parts of our churches to our dying breath. This isn't a new problem. The place Christianity claims Jesus suffered, died, was buried and rose again is a sprawling building complex filled with various Christian groups ready to literally fight one another at any moment. I feel pretty confident that none of this is what Jesus had in mind.
Grace and Peace,
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