A stranger walked into church one day, a Sunday naturally. He was carrying a Bible which should be a good sign but in the modern era, it’s sort of a danger sign, I mean, how many of you carry a Bible to church. We’ll get to asking why we don’t later on.
He had that kind of sunny smile that is the hallmark of the truly contented or the truly demented, it stretched from his left ear, made a mad dash across his lips and headed straight for his right ear. His eyes were bright and interested and it seemed like a great day for Faith Lutheran Church.
I approached him and introduced myself, as is my habit, we chatted a bit and I began to get this odd feeling and so I asked him what his church experience was, where he had worshipped in the past, what we was out in the world seeking.
“Well, I like Joel Osteen a lot. I watch him on television most days!” he said excitedly.
Naturally, my heart dropped. I didn’t think this man would find what it was he was looking for in this place. He would most certainly, if I had my way, find what he needed, but probably not what he was seeking.
I was still solicitous, I was still kind, but Joel does not work here. We look to another to find our truth.
The sad truth is that in our world, in this ego-driven, marketing-dominated existence that we are living, it is often the pastor, or the music director, now called “worship team leader” or some other thing that draws people to church and finding out what that thing is, what it is that draws people is a subject of much research and speculation and argument.
How can we make church more friendly? How can we make church less off-putting? How can we make it look like it’s not just a bunch of old people sitting around? How can we make it cool? How can we make it hip?
Maybe we ought to ask Jesus question from today’s Gospel, but I’m going to correct the grammar it you don’t mind.
“Who are you looking for?”
Because if the answer to that is not Jesus Christ, then how many other questions do we have? I mean, I understand that we have the chance to turn someone’s head away from the showmanship and the promises of money beyond counting and toward the cross, but people’s expectations are a stumbling block in our path.
If they want to feel good about themselves, well, Luther had a pretty low opinion of humanity, like Paul and Jesus himself, after all, Jesus recognized that it would take His own death to rescue us from our sin and error, so maybe sober confession is what we have to offer instead of praise and assurance.
That’s probably not going to work is it?
If they want to be rich, well, I’ve read through the whole Bible and while it does promise life abundant, I’m not at all convinced that means you get a Cadillac. If you want a Cadillac, go get one, I just don’t think Jesus cares if you’re driving that or a Mercedes or a beater Toyota you found on Craig’s list. I just think Jesus, judging by His words, has other things on His mind.
If they want to be a part of the cool kids club, you know the one all of their friends are going to, well then they are already there and not likely to come here anyway. Unless your idea of the cool kids are the ones who go and visit people, reading to them, just talking to those souls living out the remainder of their days in a care facility; unless the popular crowd hangs out with prostitutes and tax collectors, the way Jesus did; unless the in-crowd this season spends its Friday nights at a homeless encampment, feeding the ones who have somehow missed coming in first in the race of life by some little margin; unless the cool kids are the ones on their knees starting their prayers with “you” and not “I,” then this is not going to be the cool clubhouse either.
I don’t mean to say that sober confession isn’t a path to joy. It most certainly is and for those who indulge in it, for those who embrace the truth, learn God’s laws and how far short of the mark they have come and then come to appreciate how far Jesus came to redeem them? Well those people feel mighty good about themselves, they just feel better about Jesus is all.
And I will not apologize for the notion that a church is a place where you learn to give of yourself and share your blessings, not where you come to hear about how many more you are going to get. This is not a job where you expect to be paid for your appearance, where God says, “If you do this then I will bless you.”
I assure you that is not the fundamental message of the Gospel. It is more something like thikingdom ofs, “Because I see you cannot manage it on your own, I will bless you.” Blessings are a statement about God, not about you, so maybe we are going to have to let the prosperity folks go. I don’t think we have anything for them.
But I would propose the following questions for them, as a parting gift, so to speak. “What does it say about someone who says they follow Jesus and says they lead people to Him, but they cannot seem to emulate, or even try to emulate Christ in any way? Where is the charity? Where is the humility? Where is the sharing?”
What we offer here is the Kingdom of God. For free. To anyone who comes. Anyone.
But the Kingdom of God means work. It’s not all just basking in the love of the Lord and then going home. Here we speak of the unimaginable riches of the Body of Christ. Not unimaginable riches from the Body of Christ, but the riches that are ours because of Him, a hundredfold brothers, sisters, houses, and fields. If that isn’t rich enough for those who pass by, then this might not be the place for them.
The thing about being in the in crowd always gets me. A part of the confessional life of a Christian is to set aside those cliques and recognize every man as brother and every woman as sister and let there be no more slave nor free, Jew nor Gentile, male or female.
I understand why it happens. We all want to be a part of something special, a part of a going concern, so to speak. We crave the company of successful people in the hope that it will rub off somehow, we crave the spotlight and if not the spotlight then the reflected glow of the spotlight because that means we are where it all happens.
In the eyes of God there is only one crowd anyway. The Bible speaks of sheep and goats but let me tell you, there will be plenty of elbow room on the sheep side of the field because all of us will be on the “goats” side, wandering around blindly, sin in every step we take because that is who we are, what we are. Trying to build up new walls where Jesus has torn them down seems like bad business to me. Trying to be better than other people seems to just be daring Jesus to knock you down a peg or two.
So who are we looking for?
I am looking toward the cross and on this day I find the Son of Man, the Son of God, the savior, the messiah hanging there in my place, punished for my sin and it lifts me up at the same time it drives me to my knees.
This is a complicated thing. Faith is easy. Anyone can claim Christ and a lot of people do who I find highly questionable and I would love the opportunity to ask those questions. Discipleship, on the other hand, is hard. It asks questions of us we might squirm to answer. It asks favors of us that frighten us at our core. It says only that we are His, and that is the sum of our being and that has to be enough.
Wealth and belonging and self-affirmation are all the stock in trade of the marketplace we call earth. You can get them anywhere.
Here is the place you can get a scrap of bread and a sip of sweet wine that offers to you release from guilt and pardon from sin and a rebirth unlike anything you can imagine.
Here is the place where you can see an infant drowned in the baptismal font, their sin cleansed until they emerge from their baptisms a new creation.
Here is the place where the words are spoken and the songs sung and nothing is done that is not an attempt to ask the question, “Who are you looking for?”
The nice man with the smile didn’t even make it to the sermon. I hope he finds his way into a fellowship that asks tough questions and offers up no easy answers. A fellowship like this, at the foot of the cross, looking up in awe. Looking up in hope.