Why Go To Church?

Jeremiah 8.18-9.1

My joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick. Hark, the cry of my poor people from far and wide in the land: “Is the Lord not in Zion? Is her King not in here?” (Why have they provoked me to anger with their images, with their foreign idols?”) “The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved.” For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt, I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me. Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then has the health of my poor people not been restored? O that my head were a spring of water, and my eyes a fountain of tears, so that I might weep day and night for the slain of my poor people!

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Inviting people to church can be a strange endeavor.

It’s strange enough if you’re a lay person and you approach someone in your life, whether a friend or stranger, and say something like, “I’d love to bring you to my church on Sunday.” Or “We’ve got this crazy pastor and you’ve just got to see the strange stuff he comes up with every week.”

It’s another thing entirely when you’re the pastor inviting someone to church. It takes on a whole new level of self-righteousness when it comes off as if I’m inviting people to wake up on a Sunday morning, drive over to the church, to listen to me hammer on about grace until it finally sticks.

But we do invite people to church, or at least we feel like we’re supposed to do it whether we actually do it or not.

I know that on several other occasions I’ve shared this rather ominous statistic, but I can’t help myself from bringing it up again: The average person in a United Methodist Church invites someone else to church once every 33 years.

That’s crazy.

It’s really crazy when we consider how the overwhelming majority of us are here because someone either invited us or brought us to church. Very rare is the person who just decides to go check out what all these Christians are up to in whatever worship is supposed to be.

So we invite people, or we don’t, but we know there’s some reason we should be doing it, even if we can’t fully articulate it.

Sure, the gospel of Matthew ends with this great charge to go and make disciples of all nations baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But doing it just because Jesus tells us to never really feels adequate enough.

I have the occasion to invite people to church on a regular basis simply from having to describe what I do all the time. It’s the go-to ice-breaker when you meet someone for the first time, “What do you do?”

If I say something like, “I’m a reverend.” It conjures up all sorts of things that can be good or bad or true or untrue. Therefore, for awhile I tried out different responses to the question.

What do I do? Well, I work for a global enterprise. We’ve got outlets in nearly every country in the world. We’ve got hospitals and hospices and homeless shelters, we do marriage work, feeding programs, educational opportunities. We’re involved with a lot of justice and reconciliation things. Basically we look after people from birth to death, and we deal in the area of behavioral alternation. 

And then people will always say, “What’s it called?!”

And I say, “The Church.”

But that usually rubbed people in a way that did not endear them to whatever it was I was trying to do, so now I just tell people I’m a pastor and leave it at that.

And therein lies the regular opportunity for invitation because people will start asking questions about the church I serve and then I’ll encourage them to join us on Sunday.

Just this Friday, I was working at a local Panera with my Bible out on the table in front of me and a random stranger came over and struck up a conversation. And within the first few minutes the question was asked and the invitation was made, and the man’s response to the invitation was rather interesting. He said, “I’ve got a lot of difficult things in my life right now, but once I get them sorted out I’ll come check it out some Sunday.”

I think some of us, myself included, often confuse what the church is all about, or what it is for. We make this weird assumption that we come to a place like this to feel better. Which makes sense when you think about it, because that’s why we really go anywhere. We show up in particular places with the hope and expectation that we’ll feel better on the way out than we did on the way in.

And yet, at the same time, we also weirdly feel like we have to have it all figured out before we get here. Or, at the very least, we have to make it seem like we have all our ducks in a row before we sit in one of these rows.

But if we read from the prophet Jeremiah – Jeremiah doesn’t seem like he wants us to feel better. In fact, I think he wants us to feel worse.

Or, to put it another way, if we can’t really feel what we’re feeling here, where else can we?

Let me be clear for a moment: you all look good. Best looking church this side of the Mississippi. But I know, and you know, that some of us here are going through some really tough stuff. Some of us are dealing with depression such that it feels like a dark cloud is following us wherever we go. Some of us are struggling with anxiety that keeps us awake at night while we fret over a host of subjects. Some of us are afraid, or are going through a period of grief, or loneliness, I could go on and on.

And the message of scripture today is this: God knows all of those things and grieves over them.

Woah. 

God, the God we worship and praise and adore, weeps for our weeping. Jeremiah describes God crying a fountain of tears because of the plight of God’s poor people, us.

And even if you want to pretend like your life is perfect, just look at what’s happening in the world…

Millions are marching right now in an effort to combat the devastating effects of climate change and they are largely being led by an 11 year old girl because for some reason we live in a time when adults are acting like children and the children are being forced to act like adults.

Yet another major politician is struggling under the discovery that he wore black face to a party as a twenty something.

Saudi Arabian oil facilities were allegedly attacked by Iran bringing a host a major world nations into the possibility of a conflict the likes of which haven’t been seen in decades.

And here’s one of the craziest things about all the news. We might try to block it out, it might feel simply too overwhelming, but even if we can’t avert our eyes and ears it doesn’t matter much because so many things keep happening that we just move from one horrible thing to another. 

It’s no wonder people show up on Sundays with the hope and expectation that whatever happens here will make them feel better on the way out.

However, for the overwhelming majority of the church’s history, people showed up in places like this with people like us for one reason: to make things right with God.

Christians knew deep in their bones their own sinfulness and they knew they had wronged the Lord.

And we don’t really know that anymore. We avoid the s-word (Sin) like the plague. We fear that we might run off the newcomers if we mention it too much. 

We come to the church to feel better, not to feel worse.

In other words, we’re all looking for a balm.

We were singing the words just a few minutes ago, and we read them from Jeremiah, the balm of Gilead. Gilead was known for its commercial and medicinal success with a simple apothocaric venture with balms that could close wounds and keep them closed. And Jeremiah uses this culturally known and available remedy to poke at whether or not the illness of God’s people can be handled by a spiritual balm.

God’s laments that God’s people feel deserted. And yet, it is their own behavior that has them trapped in this paradoxical feeling of isolation. It’s hard for anyone to realize how trapped they are by their choices or their decisions or their prejudices. We no longer know we are a people of sin because we’ve grown so accustomed to seeing and naming the sins of other people.

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During the time of Jeremiah the temple was responsible for making sure the people of God upheld the covenant made with God. It was at the temple where the nation Israel was told the unvarnished truth about their behavior and the consequences of their never-ending self-interest.

But for some reason the temple stopped doing its job. The priests neglected to speak truth to power and truth to people. 

They had failed and there was no balm.

Imagine if all we ever did was pick and choose the people outside of these walls as the scapegoats for all of our problems.

Imagine if you came to a place like this, a church, week after week and all you were told is that the world is perfect, that your lives are perfect, that all is well.

Imagine hearing that knowing that all is not well, in fact it often feels like all is hell.

Today we are no less lost than the people were during the days of Jeremiah. Our own self-interests blind us to the harm we are doing to others. Greed increases because our insecurities are overflowing. Fear pushes us into such rigid postures of defense that we are no longer listening to the people we really need to be listening to. We rarely recognize how often we place other things from our lives on the altar of our worship as if those things can save us when the only hope we have in the world is a God who weeps for us.

You see that’s the whole thing right there. It would be all too easy to end a sermon like this one with a resounding refrain about how mad God is at us for all the stuff we’ve been doing and all the stuff we’ve avoided doing. I assure you there are plenty of churches out there that can meet that need if that’s what you’re looking for. But the witness of Jeremiah is not that God wants to strike us down out of loathing. 

Jeremiah reminds us of a bewildering truth that we’ve all but forgotten these days: God grieves for us and God grieves with us. 

The balm of Gilead came from the resin of a tree – cultivated and disseminated for all in need. Our balm comes from a similar place, but from a different tree, the one on which Jesus hung for you and me. 

The great witness of the church immemorial is that we know there is a balm in Gilead! The balm isn’t in us. We know we can’t fix ourselves, much to the contrary of the narrative beat into us by the world all the time. 

All we’ve got in us is sin, is selfishness, is self-righteousness. 

The balm we need comes to us from outside of ourselves. It comes to us through the one who condescended himself to know our miserable estate – he became sin who knew no sin. We might not think about our own sins, we usually don’t, but our lives are ruled by them. Its our sins that keep us awake at night and disconnected from one another and even disconnected from God.

How terribly sad.

But God says come to me all you who are heavy laden and I will give you rest. The beginning of our transformation comes not in feeling good, but strangely enough in feeling bad. That’s after all why we come to church: to bring our burdens to bring our truths to bring our shortcomings to the one who offers us the things we need the most: grace, forgiveness, mercy. 

And then maybe we do leave feeling better than we did on our way in, knowing God did for us what we could not and would not do for ourselves. Amen. 

Devotional – 1 Thessalonians 5.9-11

Devotional:

1 Thessalonians 5.9-11

For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him. Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing. 

Weekly Devotional Image

When I arrived at church yesterday morning I had a lot on my mind. We had a rough and busy week here at St. John’s and the events from the previous days were weighing heavily upon my heart. After having the funeral service and burial for Chris Harris on Monday afternoon, I was surprised to hear on Wednesday that her husband and now widower, George, was rushed to the hospital and passed away shortly thereafter. Moreover on Thursday I received a phone call informing me that Howard Cassidy had been placed on Hospice care, and by the time I got to his room next door, he too had passed away. Our church quickly became the location for a tremendous amount of heartache and grief, and I was tasked with entering into that suffering and proclaiming the hope of the resurrection.

While I stood in the pulpit yesterday morning, talking with the gathered people about the importance of telling the great story, Marshall Kirby stood up from his pew and walked to the front. The sanctuary became silent as all eyes were on Marshall as he made his way up into the pulpit and wrapped his big arms around me in a hug. In the midst of our embrace Marshall said, “You do a great job telling the story for those who have died, and we are praying for you.” Up until that moment I had neglected to realize how much the recent funerals had taken a toll on me, and how badly I needed to be encouraged by the church through Marshall’s hug and words.

1Th5.11

Therefore, readers of this devotional, I task you with the same responsibility that Marshall exemplified yesterday in worship. The gathered body of Christ is tasked with encouraging one another and building up each other for the betterment of the community. Whether you know it or not there are people in your lives who are suffering and need some encouragement. It can be as simple as a phone call, an email, or even a letter. All it takes is that extra effort to ask how someone is doing, and then truly listen to their response.

I needed Marshall’s embrace and kind words yesterday. I needed to be reminded of my calling and feel the support of the people I serve during this difficult time. Moreover we are now called to encourage and build up the families who have lost their loved ones in the midst of death. We gather to support them at the funerals, but our support cannot end there; it must transcend the walls of our church into the great bounds of our community so that we can be Christ’s hands and feet for the world.

Who needs encouragement and building up in your life? How can you show them a glimpse of God’s love through your actions this week?

Sinners and Saints – Sermon on Psalm 34.1-8

Psalm 34.1-8

I will bless the Lord at all times; his praise shall continually be in my mouth. My soul makes its boast in the Lord; let the humble hear and be glad. O magnify the Lord with me, and let us exalt his name together. I sought the Lord, and he answered me, and delivered me from all my fears. Look to him, and be radiant; so your faces shall never be ashamed. This poor soul cried, and was heard by the Lord, and was saved from every trouble. The angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear him, and delivers them. O taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are those to take refuge in him.

All-Saints-Day-candles

Tomorrow will be my 6th funeral. Betty Lancaster, Georgeanna Driver, Brandy Garletts, Russ Wisely, Dick Markley, and now Chris Harris. I can remember the way my heart raced when I got the phone calls when each of them passed, I can still see their families in tears during the funeral, and I can still remember the sensation of the dirt in my hand when I dropped it on the caskets at the cemeteries. Without a doubt, preaching and presiding over funerals is one of the greatest privileges, and most difficult challenges, that I have as a pastor.

I am invited into one of the most sensitive aspects of a family’s life when I find out that someone has died. Those moments in the car on my way to a home or hospital, are filled with prayerful silence as I ask God to use me as a vessel of his grace and peace with a family who is in the midst of grief. You never know what to say, because there is nothing to say. You sit and listen, you provide the loving comfort of presence, and you pray for everyone you can think of.

Today is All Saints’; a day for us to remember those who have gone on to glory over the last year from our church, and from all of our families and friends. It is a hallowed time where we reflect on the ways that our friends and families shaped us into who we are today. It is that precious day when we give thanks to God for putting them in our lives, and then welcoming them back into his eternal arms. All Saints’, like funerals, is a time for us to speak truths about the lives of those close to us, with the hope of the promised resurrection.

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No matter what, funerals are always difficult. Funerals are a remarkably sensitive time for families and you have to be very careful about what you say, and how you say it. Yet even with the fear and trembling that comes with proclaiming someone’s life and death, I do look forward to sharing stories that help to reveal the character of the person’s life that we are remembering.

For instance:

The first time I met Brandy Garletts was early in my time here at the church. She was older and had been moved to a rehabilitation center when I went to visit her. I spent way too much time worrying about what I would say to this stranger for the first time, what her impression of me would be, and how could I speak words of hope in her situation. When I made my way to the facility, after finally finding her room, she motioned for me to sit across from her to lean in closer. Before I could even open my mouth to begin speaking all the prepared thoughts that I had, Brandy asked me a question that I was completely unprepared for: “Are you a registered voter?

There I was sitting across from an incredibly sweet woman, someone that many people from our church have admired and looked up to, prepared to talk about God, faith, and grace, and she wanted to find out if I was a democrat or a republican.

Brandy was a fiercely strong woman and fought for what she believed in. Asking me about my political ideology was indicative of the life she lived; always looking for new opportunities to make the world better for others.

Or I could tell you about a story that Russ Wisely shared with me in my office: “Many years ago,” he began, “we had another young pastor. Fletcher Swink had just graduated from Duke Divinity School and was sent to Staunton for his first appointment, just like you. In the beginning everything was great. Fletcher provided strong leadership, the church was growing, and we started to build the property that we are now sitting in. However, one day, Fletcher called me because he had a problem and had no idea what to do. He had performed a wedding for a young couple in Staunton, his very first, and only after signing the marriage certificate did he realize that he had not filled out the proper paperwork to legally marry people in the state of Virginia. He was at a loss for what to do, so I told him to come with me to the courthouse; I knew the judge and figured we might be able to work something out. When we brought the matter to the judge he looked at me and he asked ‘Russ, what do you think we can do?’ and I told him that we could sign the paperwork and just change the date to have happened before the wedding, to which he replied, ‘sounds like a good idea to me.

I sat there in my office stunned. Here was this older man telling me a story about how he had manipulated the legal system just to cover for a young pastor who had made a mistake. Was he telling me this story to make sure that I didn’t make any mistakes? Was he trying to scare me about the responsibilities of leading the church? I sat there in my chair, unsure of how the story would conclude. Russ then looked at me right in the eyes to finish, “That happened nearly 60 years ago. I helped Fletcher because it was important. I want you to know, young man, that I am here to help you as well. If you need anything I want you to call me.” And with that he stood up and prepared to leave my office. Only then did I realize that I never said a word. 

Russ Wisley sacrificed for others and was willing to work behind the scenes to make things happen. Whether here at church or in the community, Russ would help anyone he could, because he believed in the importance of supporting others.

What has struck me most about the lives we have celebrated over the last year, the people who we are remembering today, is that they understood the words from Psalm 34; their lives were a reflection of God’s goodness and they lived as saints for others to follow.

I will bless the Lord at all times; his praise shall continually be in my mouth.” Saints are those who can speak and live in such a way as to point to the Lord in all that they do. They give thanks to the Lord their God for the blessings they have received and give back to others from their abundance. Saints recognize the presence of God and do whatever they can to share that experience with others because they know how life-giving it can be.

O magnify the Lord with me, and let us exalt his name together.” Saints do what they can to benefit the greater community and not just their own lives. They are not content with having a “personal relationship with Jesus Christ,” but see the great gift that the community of faith can be. They worship together to praise the Lord of hosts, and exalt his name. At church they sing from the depth of their being, and greet others in Christian love. At home they pray fervently for their lives, for their friends and family, for their enemies, and for their church. They strive to magnify the Lord in all that they do so that others can know how life-giving it can be.

I sought the Lord, and he answered me, and delivered me from all my fears.” Saints understand that God has continued to seek them out throughout the years, and take the time to respond to God’s great calling. Instead of remaining complacent with their faith journeys, they seek out the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob with the knowledge that in doing so, the Lord will answer. Instead of just hoping for good things to happen because they live good lives, they take leaps of faith to encounter the living God who will deliver them from fear. Saints believe that going to the Lord reorients all expectations and priorities and they encourage others to go to the Lord because they know how life-giving it can be.

Look to him, and be radiant; so your faces shall never be ashamed. This poor soul cried, and was heard by the Lord, and was saved from every trouble.” Saints know that life is not always easy, and that there will be times of suffering. To follow the commands of God, to live by the beatitudes, implies a willingness to see the world turned upside down where the first will be last and the last will be first. They do not let their sufferings get the best of them, but instead they remember that suffering produces endurance, endurance produces character, character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint. They encourage others to not give in to the suffering in their lives but to firmly place their hope in Jesus Christ because they know how life-giving it can be.

Our saints have lived lives worthy of emulation. The more I learned about their discipleship as I prepared for their funerals, the more I wanted to live like them. I was struck over and over again by how deeply rooted they were in their faith, and how much they worked to live like Jesus. However, that’s not to say that our saints have been perfect; even Jesus’ family tree is filled with broken and battered branches.

On All Saint’s Sunday, we remember the saints, and let us be sure to remember all of them. Not just the wonderful and psalm-like moments from their lives, but the bruised and blemished moments as well. Not just the saints from our church family that have died, but all the saints who have witnessed to God’s love for us.

Who do you think of when you hear the word “saint”? Do you picture Mother Teresa, Augustine, or John Wesley? Do you think about people who lived perfectly pure lives? Or do you think about the people in your life who have simply encouraged you in your faith?

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Those who we remember today were both sinners and saints. There were times that they fell short of God’s expectations, there were times that they did not practice what they preached. There were moments that they neglected to praise and and magnify the Lord. But God has a crafty way of turning sinners into saints.

God almighty, maker of heaven and earth, has done, and will continue to do, some incredible things through the sinners in our midst. You might remember those that have died for all the negative, bad, and embarrassing things that they did, but God saw them in their sinfulness and saw potential. God has used our saints to change our lives for the better by shaping us into the disciples we are today.

The pulpit is a wonderful vantage point. From where I stand I can look out on the gathered body of Christ and take in the view in one fell swoop:

When I look out from here I see a church full of sinners. I see the brokenness that many of you have shared with me, but have refused to share with anyone else. I see the fights, frustrations, and failures that haunt so many of you on a regular basis. I look out and see the doubts that cloud your faith, the temptations that draw you away from God, and the selfishness that drives you away from one another.

But at the same time, when I look out from here I see a church full of saints. I see the body of Christ praising the Lord through prayer and song. I see the humble souls that are thankful for the blessing of life. I see the love, life, and vitality that invigorates so many of you toward wholeness. I look out and see the radiant faces that shine with God’s glory. I see a church that is full of people willing and excited to work for God’s kingdom.

So, like the psalmist says, let us come to the God’s table; see and taste how the Lord is good. Remember all of those who have gone before us to a table such as this, to take refuge in the Lord.

Let us also give thanks to the Lord for putting the saints we remember into our lives. For helping to shape and mold them out of their sinfulness and into saintliness. For their desire to share the Good News with us so that we might know what grace is really all about.

And let us hope and pray that God would continue to give us the strength to be saints for others in spite of our sinfulness. So that one day, God willing, the church will get together to worship the Lord and give thanks for us after we die.

Amen.