Sunday, January 20, 2008

Epiphany 2 - Year A

Pastor Mark Ralls was leaving the church one evening as the Alcoholic Anonymous meeting was about to adjourn. He noticed a man crouched over the hood of a rusty Ford and Ralls introduced himself as the pastor. The man sighed and told Pastor Ralls how long he had intended to “get back to church.”

Pastor Ralls invited him to worship. The man’s face flushed and he launched into the story of his life. It was the familiar string of regrets and loss that accompany addiction. They shared a prayer and said, “Good night.”

As he walked to his car, the man called after him. “Did you mean what you said?”
“About what?” he asked.

"Did you mean that I could come to THIS church?" the man replied.
Driving home, it occurred to him that the man had told him his life’s story as a response to the invitation. It was a polite way of explaining why he couldn’t take Ralls up on his offer. The man felt he wasn’t ‘clean enough’ to be included in their congregation.

Pastor Ralls never saw him again. “I wish my response to his questions had been more direct,” he later reflected. “I wish I had simply repeated the words of Christ. I wish I had said, ‘Come and see.’” (from “The Other ‘H’ Word”)

Come and see. It’s pretty simple, isn’t it? Basic. Straightforward evangelism.

But it’s not always that easy. The man from AA couldn’t accept the invitation because he felt he wasn’t worthy, he couldn’t clean himself up enough to show up on a Sunday, he couldn’t be sinless enough to stand with God’s people beholding the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.

He’s not alone. I’ve heard a lot of stories like that. People who think they’re unworthy of church, unworthy of God.

But usually, folks say that they don’t need church to worship God; that churches just want money and don’t care about people; that there are too many hypocrites in church, saying one thing on Sunday and doing something else on Monday.

And there’s a fragment of truth in all those charges. It’s true, you don’t need to come to a building every week to worship God. All you need is another believer, a bible, a bottle of wine and a loaf of bread and you’re all set.

Yes, some churches ARE more interested in the size of person’s wallet rather than the state of their soul.

And, yes, churches ARE filled with hypocrites, even this one. Find me someone who isn’t. That’s why we live by grace and forgiveness, and by the transforming power of the Holy Spirit intruding on our comfortable hypocrisy and changing us from the inside out.

But scuff the exterior of those objections; I think you’ll find someone shaking in their shoes. Scared of that the church will cast a disapproving gaze in their direction, scared that God isn’t really a God of love but a God of anger, or if not God, then maybe God’s people. Scared that they’ll be swept up in something they can’t control, and their lives may never be the same again.

Last year we had a hospitality workshop learn how to more effectively welcome new people when they arrive at our doors. What we didn’t receive was how training in how to help people FIND our doors.

On the one hand it seems pretty simple, just like what we heard in today’s gospel reading. “Come and see,” Jesus said.

On the other hand inviting people to church has HUGE ramifications. And people know that. People know that when you invite them to church you’re not just inviting them to hear some good music, listen to some guy in a big white dress shoot his mouth off, or to drink coffee downstairs.

When you invite people to church people suspect that you’re inviting them to experience God. After all, isn’t that what we do on Sunday mornings? Isn’t that why we get up early on our day off, put on a tie or find our cleanest jeans, trudge through the snow, park down the street and walk two blocks to the church?

Because, it’s not as if you don’t have options. Sunday morning talk shows, the epic brunch at the Cheesecake café, the football game, or – hey - even sleeping in. These are all options for you. But you’re here instead.

So why is that? Why ARE you here? You probably all have different reasons. But I’m guessing that you’re here because you’re looking for a Word from the Lord, and this is where you’re hoping you’ll find it.

Maybe, you’re job is sucking your soul through your nostrils and you don’t know where you’ll find the energy to keep on going if this is what your life is like.

Maybe your marriage is being held together by duct tape and you’re hoping that God is still in the business of putting broken things back together again.

Maybe you’ve forgotten your love language, you don’t know how to talk to your kids without raising the decibel level, and you’re hoping God can calm you down, put loving words on your lips, because tender words get caught in your teeth, and all you can do is spit them out. This is where you’ve heard those words before and you’re hoping you’ll hear them again.

Maybe you’ve put Jesus on your tongue in bread and wine and it tasted like freedom and you want to taste freedom again.

Bill hadn’t been to church in years. But when his dad died Bill dug through the closet and pulled out a suit he hadn’t been worn since a Canadian team won the Stanley Cup.

Bill grew up in the church so everyone knew him and his family. They knew his money problems, his affection for Budweiser, and his trouble keeping down a job.

As the family was putting together a memorial table at the church, I chatted with a teary-eyed Bill.

“It’s been too long since I’ve been here,” he said wiping his eyes and looking around the sanctuary. “I really need to come back to church.”

I have to admit, I was skeptical. I’d heard that so many times before. In moments of crisis people often say they need for God. But when the moment evaporates so does the need. Or so it seems.

“We’d love to have you back with us,” I said, not really expecting much follow through.

Two days after the funeral I had a knock on my door. It was Bill.

“I just wanted to talk to you,” he said. “My life’s a mess. I can’t seem to do anything right. I lost my apartment last week because I couldn’t make the rent. I’m 46 years old and I’m moving back in with my mom for heaven’s sake. It feels like everything I touch turns to crap and I don’t know how to change it.”

His eyes welled up.

“What can we do to help you?” I asked

“Pastor, there’s one thing you can do. I’d like you to pray for me.”

So I did. Then we sat in silence.

After a few minutes he picked himself up and left. That Sunday he was back at church. Then the Sunday after. Then the Sunday after that. He listened for God’s Word, received the sacrament of new life. God took over Bill’s life.

Bill got a new job and moved out of his mom’s spare bedroom into a new apartment in a growing part of the city. He met a faithful Christian woman and they’re getting married. He’s taken ministry training and serves as lay minister in the church he now attends.

“I couldn’t have changed my life by myself,” Bill says. “This change isn’t just a church thing. It’s definitely a God thing.”

Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer said that when God calls people, God bids them to come and die. But as Bill will tell you that’s only half the story. The other half is that God bids them to come and live, live a new life, to be transformed into the image of Jesus, who after all, is the one who does all the heavy lifting.

So, when we invite someone to church, to “come and see” keep Bill in mind, and remember that an invitation to church just might be the start of something new. Does that make our evangelistic task any easier? Maybe. Maybe Not.

But then again, it’s our job simply to say “come and see.”



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