The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it; for he has founded it on the seas, and established it on the rivers. Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? And who shall stand in his holy place? Those who have clean hands and pure hearts, who do not lift up their souls to what is false, and do not swear deceitfully. They will receive blessing from the Lord, and vindication from the God of their salvation. Such is the company of those who seek him, who seek the face of the God of Jacob. Lift up your heads, O gates! and be lifted up, O ancient doors! that the King of glory may come in. Who is the King of glory? The Lord, strong and mighty, the Lord, mighty in battle. Lift up your heads, O gates! and be lifted up, O ancient doors! that the King of glory may come in. Who is this King of glory? The Lord of hosts, he is the King of glory.
“Be careful.” That’s what they kept saying when they found out I was invited to preach at a church in the heart of Detroit. I had been living in Birmingham, Michigan (a rather wealthy suburb north of Detroit) helping serve a church for the summer when I received the opportunity to fill in at another church one Sunday. And as soon as I was asked, all the warnings started coming in: “Be careful” “Park as close as possible to the church” “Keep your wallet in your front pocket.”
I remember thinking these people were crippled by fear, how bad could it really be? We were talking about driving into Detroit on a Sunday morning to preach at a church…
When the morning arrived I was filled with excitement. I picked out the perfect bow tie to go with my blazer, hoping to assert my authority regardless of my young age, I had a prepared a theologically profound manuscript sermon, hoping that it would get people to shout “amen!” from the pews, and I spent the long drive down Woodward Avenue in silence, hoping to boost my holiness before the service began.
The closer I got to the church, the stranger I began to feel. I hadn’t noticed it at first, but the longer I drove, the less people I saw on the streets. The buildings went from inviting homes and businesses to abandoned shells of carpentry. The streets went from well maintained to pot holes that required a car to drive up on the sidewalk in order to avoid.
In a matter of minutes I had gone from “Pleasantville” to a post-apocalyptic movie set, and my excitement was quickly replaced by fear.
By the time I pulled in the parking lot, I realized that I hadn’t seen another human being for at least ten minutes. The streets had been largely deserted leading up to Cass UMC, and it was strangely silent when I stepped out of my car.
So here I was, standing in the heart of Detroit, in a bowtie and blazer, with a bible and sermon tucked under my arm, completely alone on a Sunday morning.
My footsteps across the concrete reverberated in echoes through the abandoned buildings flanking the church and even though it was a bright sunny day, I felt like I was walking down a dark alley in the middle of the night. The building itself was an architectural masterpiece having been built in 1883 with Tiffany’s stained glass windows, though I could tell from the street that bullet holes had cut through the once remarkable windows.
When I reached out my hand to open the doors, the height of my new fears were realized: It was locked.
I knew no one from the church, I had no way to contact anyone, and all of the warnings started to really flow through my mind. But I did what any good pastor would do, I sat down on the front steps and waited for someone to open the door.
30 minutes later, a disheveled looking old man, the first person I had seen in a long time, peeked from around the corner, walked up the steps, and unlocked the front door without saying a word. I wandered around the building until I found the sanctuary, searched in vain for a worship bulletin, and resigned myself to sit down in a chair by the altar.
During the next hour, the most random assortment of people started flowing in through the sanctuary doors. The church, once renown in the heart of Detroit, was being filled with people who slept outside the night before, people who had no money to put in the offering plate, and people who were having conversations with themselves at a volume loud enough for everyone else to experience.
A group of 7 older black women arranged themselves on folding chairs near the front, and without really discussing it they all flipped their hymnals to the same page and started to sing. A man with wrinkled fingers was hunched over a piano in the corner struggling to keep up with the singing, and a young man had seated himself behind a drum-set hidden in the corner, and was wailing away to a song that only he could hear.
When the first hymn ended, the women huddled together to pick another hymn and began singing. At some point in the middle of their fourth hymn, with the pianist still planking away, and the drummer smashing the cymbals, a gentleman stood up in the middle of the sanctuary with his eyes trained on me. He walked down the main aisle slowly and deliberately until he was towering over me and then declared, “Son, if you don’t start talking, they ain’t liable to quit singing.”
The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, from the sea to the mountains, from the rivers to the deserts, from the people to the animals; for the Lord has founded life upon the earth. Who then shall worship the Lord in holiness? And who shall stand with the Lord in the holiest of places? Only those who have clean hands, and pure hearts, those who do not lift up their souls to what is false, who do not break their promises. They will receive a blessing from the Lord, and vindication from the God of their salvation. Such is the company of those who seek the Lord.
I stood up after the end of the next hymn, and grabbed the hand held microphone to start participating in worship. I felt like a fool standing in my khakis and blazer, with my bowtie tilted just slightly to the side. I felt ridiculous with my over examined sermon under my arm, and bible in my hand. I felt like I didn’t deserve to stand before the congregation, but all of their eyes were on me. (just like all of yours are right now)
I took off the jacket and tie, rolled up my sleeves, ditched the sermon on my chair, and let the Holy Spirit go to work.
“Let us pray” I began, and before I could start praying for our service, the people started shouting out their own prayers. “O Lord, help this boy to preach.” “Yes Lord, show us your mercy.” “My God show me your glory!” “Remove our sins, give us your Spirit, clean our hearts!” “Your will be done!” “Have thine own way Lord!” “Help this boy preach, preach preach.”
It was only after a few moments of silence that I finally said “amen” without having added any of my own prayers.
I preached on the apostle Paul’s second letter to the church in Corinth, about the new creation that comes in knowing Christ. I talked about moments that transform our lives. I said things like “there is a new life in Christ, but just because we find Christ it doesn’t mean our life will get better, but that we are called to make other lives better.” And instead of the typical, and silent, congregation I was used to, the people kept shouting at me while I preached. “Ain’t that the truth!” “Yes Lord!” “We know it, we know it” “Lord, give him strength to preach.” “Speak through him God.”
When I got around to the close of the service, when I offered a benediction to the congregation, when the final amen was uttered, I heard them say in return, “Thank you Jesus.”
Lift up your heads, O gates! Open up you ancient doors! the King of glory is coming. Who is the King of glory? The Lord, strong and mighty, merciful and majestic, the Lord. Jesus Christ the author of salvation, the Good News, the Messiah. The Holy Spirit full of wisdom and truth, giver of life, and partner to our prayers. Lift up your heads, O gates! Open up you ancient doors! The King of glory is coming! Who is the King of glory? The Lord of hosts, he is the King of glory.
We can dress the part, we can read all the right books, we can memorize all the hymns and prayers, but unless we are looking for holiness in our lives, unless we are ready to bow down to the King of glory, then we are forgetting the truth: God is God and we are not.
Many of us are good Christians, we pray for our friends and family, we come to church, we put money in the plate, but there is a profound difference between believing we are holy, and wanting to be holy.
When I arrived at that church in Detroit years ago, I foolishly thought I was bringing something to them. With my well prepared outfit and sermon, I made the assumption that I was bringing God with me, nice and shiny, like a school project. I became my own main character in the story of worship, and it prevented me from seeing the King of glory.
When I stood up in the pulpit to proclaim the words, the people did not see a young man with a seminary education, they did not see some white fool trying his best to not pass out, they saw a vessel for the Lord. Their prayers were not to me, but for the Lord to work through me. The recognized the great division between God and me, and knew that Jesus was the bridge between the two.
They knew that God is God and we are not.
In our contemporary American culture, we tend to view ourselves as the center of the universe.
We assume that everything revolves around us, and that so long as our needs are being me, then everything else should be fine.
We believe that if we wear the right clothes, and get the right education, that holiness will follow accordingly.
We feel holy for giving up an hour every week to sit in a place like this and sing hymns, offer prayers, and listen to a sermon.
That church in Detroit had something that I never knew I needed: They believed that God was the center of the story, that God had the power to transform their lives, and that God really was the King of glory.
Too many of my friends have left the church because they “didn’t get anything out of it.” They might try different styles of worship and different denominations, but if they don’t get anything out of it, they will rarely return. However, church isn’t about what we get out of it, its about what God gets out of us.
Believing we are already holy limits God’s power to make us holy.
It is in the recognition of the great divide between humanity and the Lord that we can let Jesus get to work on our hearts and souls. It is in the great admission of Jesus as the King of glory we start to see ourselves, not as the center of the universe, but instruments for God’s love to be heard in the world. It is in the words of our worship that we recognize the Holy Spirit’s movement in our midst and our lives start to change.
If we remain in the assumption of our holiness, then our lives will stay the same.
But if we truly desire for the Lord to make us holy, then our lives will be transformed. Amen.