We’re in the 2nd week of Advent. This season is quickly passing us by. For those of us in the church, we can assume that we’re all at least packed and ready to go to Bethlehem for our annual visit. Maybe some of us have even begun the journey. It’s a familiar visit. It’s one that promises “silent nights” and manger scenes with snow-laced barns and halos over the holy family’s heads. Yes, it’s a wonder how quickly this visit comes every year. We find ourselves scurrying around to get ourselves together for the journey. It seems to come sooner and sooner with each passing year.
On this second leg of our trip to Bethlehem we’re called to make a pit stop in the desert. There we have to meet a strange preacher with an even stranger message. We might think, “Oh no, not another preacher!” Maybe we can just stay on the bus and not do this part of the journey? We’re so tired of hearing preachers. So many have showed us that preaching is prime ground for manipulation and wealth accumulation. We joke about how poor preachers are but the truth is, everyone knows we get tax breaks for being preachers. It’s really not all that bad to be a preacher and make a living in the grand scheme of things. So forgive us if we’re not too enthused about stopping to hear another preacher with another tired message.
John, we’re told, is a preacher who’s a little different than many we’ve probably encountered before. He wears animals skins for clothing. He eats honey and locusts. He doesn’t shave and preaches like one who doesn’t care if he offends the whole world. At least we can go hear this strange preacher, maybe just once, if for nothing else than to see the spectacle.
And what exactly does John have to say to us as we make our way to Bethlehem? “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is near.” Well, what if I’m in the church? What if I’ve made this journey before? Doesn’t that mean we’ve covered that item? I knew this would be a waste of time. Yet another preacher with yet another tired message. Really?
My wife is currently participating in a small group study called Advent Conspiracy. She’s taught many of the mind-blowing lessons of that study of how much money we, as a society, spend at Christmas and for all the wrong reasons. Maybe John’s message of repentance has nothing to do with “the sweet by and by” as we in the church have painted it. Maybe it actually has something to do with right now. Maybe this is a more relevant message than we give it credit for?
I have a good friend who preached a sermon last Ash Wednesday and used an illustration that’s just stuck with me. He talked about how he learned to do roofing on a college ministry mission trip. The interesting thing about roofing, he noted, was that quality roofing means you sometimes have to peal the shingles off to the roof’s original state. This way you’re not just patching the job by placing another shingle awkwardly on top of others. Instead, you’re fixing the problem by taking the roof back to its original life and the rebuilding it.
I think that might be what John means in his message of repentance. It’s a hard message to hear on our way to Bethlehem. But it’s even harder when we’re weighed down with the baggage of unfulfilled fantasies of happiness from presents and materials. Maybe John is telling us to live our lives by simpler means. Maybe we really should just focus on living lives of love and generosity for others. After all, at the end of the day, our stuff and ambitions are only smokescreens of a life of want and desire-lives that do not really exist. No, we’re both harshly and lovingly reminded in Advent that all we really have is God.
How many of us, when we expect persons between the ages of 20-35 to come to our churches, expect them to be fluent in the Christian life before they get there? How often do we simply assume that everyone has at least been raised in the church and thereby are able to catch on to very odd stuff we do on Sunday mornings? I’m not sure we in the church really understand what a leap of faith it is for a young person to come to church these days. For instance, eighteen percent of college students have never attended church before in their lives, but we too easily expect they will know exactly what to do when they step over the threshold of our sanctuary. They are supposed to know the Lord’s Prayer and the Apostles’ Creed. They need to know what words like the “narthex” mean. They have to know exactly how they are supposed to take communion, or if they are welcome to the table at all. And then they are supposed to know and interpret the many unwritten social cues to which our churches adhere.
It’s important to meet people where they are. Theologian Howard Thurman wrote about his relationship with his landlady. “you have to meet people at the level of the ashtray,” he writes. There was tension between Thurman and his landlady and Thurman wasn’t sure what to do about it. Then he noticed how his landlady dumped out the lobby ashtrays each time there was a butt in it. She was fastidious about it, and so Thurman began to pay attention to those ashtrays. When he walked through the apartment lobby, each time a wayward butt was left in a tray, he took a moment to dump the ashes. Because he took the time to notice something that the landlady cared about, because he began to work with her, their relationship mended and strengthened.
Churches today rack their brains on how to “attract” people my age (20s and 30s). We attempt to program our way into their lives through all sorts of cliche methods of trying to coax them into our buildings. “It’s Free Keychain Sunday this week! All persons between the ages of 20-35 get a free keychain when they turn in their worship bulletins at the door.” “Maybe we should sing songs that sound like stuff they listen to on the radio,” we wonder. “Maybe that will get them here?” Meanwhile our churches grow more and more gray each and every Sunday. At the same time, we’re told that our generation (20-35) is now the largest generation in the American population. So where’s the disconnect?
Maybe, we could take a nod from Dr. Thurman and just seek to meet people at whatever “ashtray” they find themselves caring about these days? It could be issues of justice. Maybe young people around your church want to see a community that’s more mission-minded; one that is visible where the community’s heartbeat can be found? Maybe young people around your church long for a community that’s representative of the amazing tapestry of human life found in the diversity of the community that worships together-one that is both skin and soul-deep? Maybe young people around your church long to have a place to bring their deep questions of faith-a place that won’t judge them for having legitimate questions and won’t belittle them with simplistic answers?
You see, maybe young folks are looking for more than just a church they can join as a club similar to the Rotary or Kiwanis. Maybe, just maybe, they’re looking for a beloved community where all of God’s children find a place to exist and thrive while sharing the load of caring for the many “ashtrays” of life.
I recently had a conversation with a professor about current events. He told me he had read a story about a neighborhood in another county here in Georgia having an argument about schools. There’s no school in the proximity of this relatively new neighborhood. The children who live here have to be bused to a school in a neighborhood across town. This has become a news worthy issue because the school the children are being bused to has seen a decline in the quality of life there. That neighborhood has experienced a transition along economic lines. With that, crime, drugs, and other bad influences have slowly become present at the school. The parents of the children being bused in are concerned about these influences and have banded together to decide whether or not to force the county to build a school in their own neighborhood, thus avoid the bad influences of the current school their kids attend.
I’m not a parent yet but I know enough parents to know this is a reality of life when you have kids. There’s so many bad things out there, we do all we can to help our kids avoid the wrong people thereby avoiding a negative influence in their lives. We try to keep them from friends who might be bad influences on them. For me, his name was Patrick. Patrick was a friend I had growing up who had two older brothers. The end of our friendship came the day I came home from school cursing like a sailor and using all the new words Patrick taught me. My mother was very mad and informed me I was not to hang out with Patrick anymore.
We try to not only keep our kids from negative influences in life; we work hard to introduce them to positive ones as well. In the church we face the pressure of needing to have quality children and youth programs because parents need a place to send their kids to encounter good influences. In the end, we want to not only help our kids avoid the wrong people in life; we want them to encounter the right ones along the way as well.
But it’s more than just our kids who are caught in the tug-o-war between the right and wrong people of life. Maybe it’s in high school or college where we learn that knowing the right people in life will get us ahead. This doesn’t mean we can’t be friends with all people. It simply means that it’s nice when friendships can benefit us in additional ways. Again, this is not a bad thing. If you have any drive or ambition in life you know it’s important that you surround yourself with the right people. I once read an article from a former insider of the Reagan Administration. When asked what President Reagan’s strengths were he noted that among his greatest was, “knowing who to surround himself with and when to do it.” Life just works more smoothly when we’re savvy enough to know how to hang out with the right people. On the flip side, we avoid a great deal of stress and temptation if we know how to avoid the wrong people in life.
Luke’s Gospel portrays an account of Jesus that’s a little different from this reasonable way of life we live. Luke hints at this early on in his account of Jesus as he worships in the synagogue on the Sabbath-something any good Jew would do. He gathers that day with friends and family and probably many of the right people of his society. There he is given the scroll of Isaiah, and he begins to read:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Well it’s no wonder they drove him out of that place! What kind of nut preacher would stand in the place of worship and align themselves with the poor, the oppressed, the criminals, and the disabled in their very first sermon in a new place? I think sometimes if Jesus had the benefit of a good, solid seminary education, he would know you couldn’t be that radical so early in his ministry. There’s protocol to be observed. Sure we can minister to these folks, but where does that leave the good people of our congregation now? No, if Jesus had the benefit of a seminary education he would know that effective ministry begins by building a church of the “right” people and then you work to minister to those others.
Luke doesn’t stop there. If we read throughout his Gospel account we find that Jesus does indeed heal the sick and bless the poor as he promised. He had a knack of hanging out with all the wrong people. And his odd judgment of company he keeps doesn’t seem to have any regard for race (Good Samaritan), gender (he has female disciples and ministers to women), age (blesses little children) or even socio-economic status.
Remember that despite his particular word about the poor, Jesus takes the time to dine with Zaccheus-the rich tax collector who had swindled many out of their life savings. That’s a hard pill to swallow these days too. It’s as though he went to have dinner with the CEO of Enron or Lehman Brothers. This means he was willing to hang out even with a man who made his riches on the backs of those he swindled. Some probably lost their savings to this crook. And yet, Luke tells us that Jesus declares this crook is a child of God in spite of it all. Jesus really seemed to have a knack for hanging out with all of the wrong people in life.
As the Church, we struggle with this because we’re called to do much of the same ill advised way of living. We’re called to keep similar company as Jesus even when it makes no sense or is too uncomfortable for words.
Bishop Will Willimon tells the story of a pastor in his conference who had an interesting first few months of ministry. She was appointed to her new church and found a wonderful congregation of 10-15 people who worshipped together. She made up her mind early on that she worked much too hard on her sermons to have only 10-15 people come to worship. She asked someone about why the congregation was so small. One man told her very quickly, “no one is left-everyone has moved away and there’s no one left around us.” This puzzled the pastor so she decided to go driving around the area nearby. She found that across the railroad tracks there was a housing complex where probably 30 families or more lived in various apartments. She decided to go over there one day and tell them that if they would be outside on Sunday morning, she’d pick them up, take them to church, and then feed them a good lunch after. Willimon asked, “Did anyone show up?” “Oh they showed up all right. I picked up 3 carloads of folks and took them to church that next week. We’ve since added 10 to our roll and we’ll baptize 4 more this next Sunday.” Willimon said he was astounded. He told her that she should win the Denman Evangelism award. She just doubled her church size! She said, “Well, not so fast. I added 10 to our roll but I lost 8. I asked them why they wanted to leave. All they could tell me was that they didn’t feel comfortable going to church with a bunch of crack heads and their kids.”
Yes, Jesus has a knack for hanging out with all the wrong people sometimes. It’s not easy being the church when it means we’re called to get out of our comfort zones sometimes. It’s not easy being the church when, frankly, life is much easier and often more pleasurable if we just avoid the wrong kind of folks when we can. Ministering outside of our comfort zones causes things to get sticky. They get complicated. Issues arise and we’re put in the place of having to make tough decisions about where to go and who to minister to. Yeah, life would be so much easier if we could carry on just as we are.
That brings us to our text for today. Isn’t it odd that here again we find Jesus doing the very thing he did so often in his ministry-he’s hanging out with the wrong people. Only this time, he’s literally hanging there-with two criminals-the wrong people. One criminal looks to Jesus in his time of need and asks to be remembered when he comes into his kingdom. And just as he did so many other times in his life, here in his final moments of life as he faces death, Jesus speaks a word of grace, and offers salvation. But it’s not to those in this scene we might see as the “right” people of the world. It’s to a criminal. “Today, you will be with me in Paradise.” And here we’re able catch a glimpse of a king with a very strange idea of what it means to build a Kingdom. His is a kingdom that is so deep and wide, it’s one where the poor and the disabled, the captive and the swindler and the crook and…it’s a kingdom that has a special place for all the wrong people-even us! Amen.
We’ve all had them. In my job, to confess this is like confessing that you drink alcohol when no one’s looking or watch movies with lots of cursing in them. Bad days. It’s hard to be cheerful some days. On days like these you do what you can. You get up, get dressed, get in your car and go about your day. Somewhere along the way, you wait for the tide to shift and the stars to realign themselves. But alas, no such luck. It’s just a bad day.
It’s often the little things that make us relish in just how bad our days are. You’re out of creamer for your morning coffee. You stub your toe on the side of the tub as you make your way into the bathroom for your first-thing-in-the-morning routine. You grit your teeth, use a little creative adult language, and hope things turn around soon. You might even convince yourself that good luck and rays of sunshine are just around the corner. That is, until you find that the shirt you wanted to wear that day has a stain in it. The dog has decided it’s easier to just do their “business” on the rug inside this morning. Never mind that you wasted 15 minutes standing outside using your best coaching phrases to convince the dog to do what you know good and well it’s just about ready to burst over doing. Looks like it’s still just a bad day.
You’re now 15 minutes late for work as you speed down the road and try to balance that bitter cup of coffee because, at this point, you’d trade the effects of caffeine for your first-born child, much less for savoring a decent tasting cup of coffee. You get to work to find out that yesterday’s good decisions have become today’s problems to fix. Nothing is going right, your coworkers irk you more than usual. Especially that one-you know the one. The one who comes to work humming or whistling or doing whatever it is that nauseatingly cheerful people on their way in to the office. Yep, it’s still just a bad day.
You leave work with more to do than you came in to find. Frankly, at this point you consider turning the desk over or seeing how long it would take to burn up if you “mistakenly” dropped a lit match on the paperwork. Before you get carried away you realize it’s time to pick the kids up from school. “I have a science project to work on.” Ugh. “When is it due?” you ask. “Tomorrow morning.” “How long have you known about this?” You now feel your blood pressure climb point by point to some ungodly high level. “Um, 3 weeks or so.” Well that’s just great. An evening doing a science project. You wish they wouldn’t put things off to the last minute. And now you know that you’ll be up all night doing this because, frankly, you don’t trust the crap they may come up with on their own. For all you know, they’ll try to pass of a few glued toothpicks, gum, and string as the solar system. So it’s science project time after dinner for the rest of the night. Yep, still waiting for the winds to shift because it’s still just a bad day.
As you climb in to bed after midnight. The science project is done. The kids are asleep. You lie there and think about the day and just how rotten it’s been. You start to laugh. Maybe a giggle at first, but then you begin to laugh out loud. You catch yourself so you don’t wake up the little monsters. Um, I mean kids. Maybe it’s the glass of wine you had that’s making you feel a little silly. Maybe it’s laughter in the place of tears or whatever else sort of irrational reactions that seem appropriate. The work is still there for the next day. Last minute projects will inevitably come up again. Come to think of it, you forgot to go get creamer for the coffee. But you go to bed with the knowledge that tomorrow might be a good day. If nothing else, after a rotten day like today, you like your odds a little better that tomorrow will be a little brighter. And that’s enough for now.
I was recently reading a article where someone reminded me of a poignant scene from one of my favorite movies. You will remember that several years ago, Hollywood produced a movie about the life of Johnny Cash called Walk the Line. The film includes a powerful scene every preacher should see. In this scene, Johnny Cash and his band secure an audition at a small recording studio. They sing an unimaginative gospel song. Less than one minute into the song, the unimpressed owner of the studio interrupts them. He says, “Do you guys have something else?” Unhappy with his negative response, Johnny asks for an explanation. The studio owner says, “We’ve already heard that song a hundred times.” Johnny complains, “But you didn’t let us bring it home.” The owner says, “All right, let’s bring it home. If you were hit by a truck, and you were lying out in that gutter dying, and you had time to sing one song that people would remember before you are dirt, one song that would let God know what you felt about your time here on earth, one song that would sum you up—you’re telling me that’s the song you’d sing? That same tune we hear on the radio all day about your peace within, and how it’s real, and how you’re going to shout it? Or would you sing something different? Something real? Something you felt? Because I’m telling you right now, that’s the kind of song people want to hear. That’s the kind of song that truly saves people.” Johnny then decides to sing a song he wrote years earlier about a man in prison. In his deep penetrating voice the “Man in Black” begins to sing, “I hear that train a coming. It’s rolling round the bend. And I ain’t seen the sunshine since I don’t know when. I’m stuck in Folsom prison, and time keeps dragging on …” As Johnny sings, the recording studio owner’s eyes light up. This song is real.
How often is this true for us at church? We do things the same way we’ve always done them. Church hasn’t changed all that much in the last 50 years or so. Our theologies are oversimplified because we live in the world of the sound-byte and it’s much better to sum up our faith in 12 words or less. We become narrow and entrenched in the way we do things. If we didn’t know better, someone might accuse us of leading unimaginative faith lives.
In a world of facades and pretentiousness, I wonder if what we long for more than anything else is a good dose of reality. Now this isn’t the scripted reality of TV reality. No, it’s the honest to goodness ugly, lots of excess baggage, burdensome reality we all know and avoid at all costs. There’s something oddly beautiful about this load of dirty laundry we call life. Sometimes it’s in living into our brokenness that we come close to God’s wholeness. It’s not the unimaginative, everything is A-Okay faith that people want to hear about. No, it’s the reality of that which is truly felt, lived and yet still sort of a mess that truly saves people.