The moral of the story is to never, ever, not ever under any circumstances give up on people, and God is powerful to save:
I first met Jerry about 7 years ago when his Narcotics Anonymous sponsor brought him to church. Jerry was a meth addict trying hard to get his life on track and beat the demon of meth addiction. Jerry is the kind of guy that you like right away. He had an easy way about him and his piercing blue eyes twinkled with excitement like a kid at Christmas. Jerry left that first Sunday morning in tears. The love of God had smacked him slap dab all the way down into his heart. Over the next few Sunday's Jerry came to worship and joined one of our small groups. He was growing in faith, love and was totally accepted by the people in our congregation. It wasn't long before Jerry wanted to be baptized into Christ and his church. I talked with Jerry and asked him to invite as many of his friends and family as possible to be there for his big day. We planned a party for after worship to celebrate our new brother in Christ, and give us an opportunity to rub elbows with his family and friends.
Sunday morning came and Jerry showed up 30 minutes early for worship dressed in his finest duds, black jeans, white dress shirt and a black sports coat. On his arm was his not yet Christian girlfriend and mother of his two little daughters. Soon his family and friends began to show up excited and yet aprehensive of being in a "church". His mother, whose every other word was a curse word, was introduced to me along with his 19 year old daughter dressed in her best skin tight dress complete with overflowing cleavage and 3 inch high heels. Most of his friends looked and talked like bikers, and a few had the tell tell signs of drug addiction. Every single one of Jerrys family and friends was welcomed, accepted and loved by our congregation.
The worship music was great, and I preached as clear and as compelling a sermon on salvation as I was able to muster. My preaching is not your usual "churchy" kind of sermon. I talk to people in language they can access, understand and relate to. I talked about where Jerry had come, how he felt afraid and alienated from God. How he said the message he got from the church was a message of condemnation and judgement because of his failings and life choices. I then talked about a God who loves broken people. A Father who seeks for and chases down broken sinful people in order to love them and restore relationship with them. I talked about how Jesus came, not to condemn the world, but to save the world. I then asked Jerry to come up and take 5 minutes to tell his story. When he was done, there wasn't a dry eye in the place and even his biker looking friends were moved, smiten and afflicted by the palpable love of God in that place.
After the sermon, I had the privilege to proclaim the Gospel through water and the Word. Jerry was born again, a new man who had died with Christ, been buried with Christ, and rose again to new life with Christ. As he stood there grinning the biggest grin you've ever seen, with water dripping off his head and running down his face, Jerry shinned with the light of glory like one of those old paintings of the saints. After the service we had a party to celebrate our new brother in Christ where we rubbed elbows with his family and friends, many of whom did not know Jesus.
Soon after his baptism, Jerry fell back into addiction and stopped coming to church. He got back on the wagon and fell off again numerous times over the next 7 years. During that time, God used Jerry's story to bring his mom, ex-wife, eldest daughter, and three friends to faith in Christ. His ex-wife was baptized with her adult daughter and son and younger son. The ex-wife had the gift of gab, and started telling everyone she knew in her mobile home park about Word of Grace and Jesus. Soon we had 22 people from the mobile home park regularly attending worship with many being baptized.
Jerry touched base with us, dropping into worship from time to time, while continuing in his struggle to get his life on track. Finally after 7 years away, Jerry has reconnected with us and is now once again attending worship regularly. He is staying clean, working a regular job and is bringing members of his family with him each Sunday and to one of our Life Groups.
We have found that as we reach out into the community God brings us into contact with broken people he wants to love, redeem and restore. Rubbing elbows with hurt, broken and sinful people is messy, chaotic and fraught with set backs and crisis. Rubbing elbows with hurt, broken and sinful people is where Jesus is. As we get outside our "churchiness"
and follow Jesus out into the harvest where he is loving, saving, accepting, redeeming and restoring hurt, broken, sinful people we are blessed to be more and more like our Lord, Jesus Christ who came to seek and save what was lost and calls us to follow him in unconditionally loving, accepting and serving all people, not just the ones who look and act like us!
Am I a Pharisee?
Growing up I heard lots of Sunday School lessons about the mean old Pharisees. They were always baiting Jesus. Looking for anyway to discredit the Lord, the Savior, the Messiah. The Pharisees argued with Jesus. Eventually they wanted to kill Jesus. Yet, for all our preconceived ideas about the Pharisees, good and bad, they were the good, solid, dedicated church going people of their time. The Pharisees said they loved God and did all they could to protect the holiness, sanctity, and true worship of God.
But the Pharisees had one fatal flaw, they loved their religion with its rules and laws more than they loved God and people. You see, God cares more about people than he does about rules and laws. God is about relationship, not rules and religion. Jesus said to the good church people of his time, "Go and learn what this means, I desire mercy not sacrifice."
Today we, the good church people of our time, are in danger of being Pharisees. Oh, we talk about Law and Gospel. We proclaim that we are saved by grace through faith, not of works that anyone should boast. We believe we are the defenders of the cross, the followers of Jesus. We study the Bible, we proclaim biblically and theologically correct sermons about the objective truth found only in Christ. But in so doing, we often times forget to love God and love people. Let me give you an example. Some years ago I was invited to preach in a little country church. This church had been built by German immigrants in the late 1800's. It was a picturesque building with beautiful tall white walls, a steeply pitched roof and a tall steeple with a cross on top. The outside was surrounded by a meticulously tended rose garden in full bloom. Inside the sanctuary was an ornate altar and a large pipe organ. The sanctuary was small and intimate with a maximum seating of about 65 individuals. The pulpit was raised up about 10 feet over the sanctuary, the first raised pulpit I had ever preached from. Being 6'3" standing in a ten foot tall raised pulpit, I towered about 16 feet over the heads of the 12 faithful old people gathered for worship that morning! After worship we were standing around chit chatting when suddenly a violent clatter assailed my ears, my eldest son, about 4 at the time, wailing at the top of his lungs. He was standing in front of the altar, with his left ear firmly in the grasp of an old German farmer. I moved quickly to intervene, only to discover that such rough treatment was perfectly called for due to the fact that my 4 year old son had dared to touch the accouterments atop the church altar. I retrieved my son and stood there humbly while this kindly German Pharisee lectured me on how to raise a polite and properly religious son.
Let me share one more brief story with you. I was raised on a cattle ranch in the hills of northern California. Going to town, population 5,000 was a big deal. When I graduated from high school I joined the U.S. Coast Guard. After bootcamp I was stationed on a 378' cutter stationed in Honolulu, HI. When I got there our cutter was out of commission for major repairs at the dock for 3 months. I was an 18 year old country boy in a strange place surrounded by strange people and I was homesick. One day, wallowing in my pity, I thought to myself, "Self, why don't you go to church?" I began to have found memories of church and thought that connecting with Godly people would help cure my homesickness. I began to day dream about showing up at church with my dress uniform on, the people would warmly welcome me and one kindly family would invite me home for a good home cooked meal. I set off to church the next Sunday with my dreams of acceptance fresh in hand. I got to church about 15 minutes early. As I entered the narthex I saw a couple of older people talking. No one greeted me, or even really acknowledged I was there. I made my way into the mostly empty sanctuary, found a seat about midway and made myself comfortable. Soon people began to gather and stand in the doorway of the narthex on each side of the sanctuary and in the middle. They all stood there looking sheepishly at me. I heard one elderly lady ask, "Who is he, does anyone know who he is or where he came from." After that people began to find seats in the pews, no one sat by me, but soon two elderly ladies sat behind me and promptly began to complain that I was sitting in their seats! They groused and fussed through the whole service about me sitting in their seats. They never talked to me directly, but they made their feelings known loud and clear. After service I got up and left as quickly as possible. I didn't go back to church for more than 3 years.
Jesus said, "Go, learn what this means, I desire mercy not sacrifice." Perhaps today you might go back and read Matthew chapter 9 with an open heart and see if there be any Pharisee in you and the people you lead. If so, pray to the Lord to deliver you and open your hearts to the hurt, broken, sinful harvest that is dying for the church to stop being Pharisees and once again be people that follow Jesus. People who love God and others, people who know that following Jeus is not about rules and religion but about relationship. Relationship with God the Father through Jesus Christ, and relationship with other people that flows from our relationship with God.
Religion, Rules, and Relationships
Recently I spoke at a memorial service. Bob, the man being memorialized, had been a rugged individualist and lifelong avoider of church. He was baptized as an infant and spoke often of his relationship with our Heavenly Father as he passed on a legacy of godliness to his children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. While a baptized and confessed Christian, Bob had little use for organized religion and the church.
At Bobs memorial service I spoke about his feelings regarding the church and "religion". I pointed out that Bob was probably in line with Jesus regarding his feelings. Bob, and lots of people outside our churches, believe that religion is about rules and control. I struck a nerve when I spoke of how Jesus came to tear down the walls, fences, and gates of religious rules that had for centuries been barriers that kept people from God. True religion is not about rules, but about relationships. First our relationship with God through Jesus Christ, then flowing from that all important relationship to our relationships with each other. I was surprised at how many people responded positively to this message by moving closer to God.
We Lutherans are rightly serious about our Christo-centric/Gospel centered doctrine and theology. We proclaim that Law (rules) lead to death and should point us to our need for Christ and his Gospel of unmerited grace, forgiveness of sins, and restored right relationship with God. But have you ever noticed how sometimes there seems to be a disconnect between what we church people believe, teach, and confess, and our actual behavior? While we believe, teach, and confess a Gospel of grace and mercy, our "religion" often seems to be practiced as if it were about rules and law. Think about this for a moment. Try to look at our practices with the eyes of an "outsider".
For a variety of reasons we too often build walls, fences, and gates as a form of control and create rules that effectively regulate who may and may not enter in to find Jesus. In order to reach many outside the church we need to be brave and ask how may our walls, fences, and gates, though well intended, actually become barriers to those we desire to reach? If we were really, really brave we could ask ourselves whether or not we have rules, traditions and history that blind us to those outside the church.
You know what? Let's do it. Let's be brave enough to set aside our defenses and ask ourselves if it is possible that maybe, just maybe, at least judging by our behavior, that we love our rules, traditions and history more than we love our un-churched neighbor. Ouch! If we are brave enough to ask, and humble enough to confess our sin, then perhaps we will receive grace to allow the Gospel to inform our behavior so that our actions flow from God's love and amazing grace through us to our un-churched neighbor. I know from personal experience that something magnificent happens when we surrender our walls, fences, and gates to Jesus. He actually uses us to reach lost, hurting people and bring them into a loving and living relationship with God and with his church. I have seen Jesus do it over and over again as he uses us to reach people and bring adults, young people, and children to himself through the waters of baptism.
A magnificent thing happened at the reception following Bob's memorial as I made myself and Jesus available to people. People responded to the message and wanted to talk about religion, church, and Jesus. I sat and talked with 6 different people about what I had to say regarding Jesus' idea that true religion was not about rules but about relationships. People turned off to church opened up about their desire to be in a relationship with God. Several, who lived out of the area, said they wished they could find a church that was not about rules but about relationships. One man, with tears streaming down his face, confessed to me his need for salvation. After listening and talking for just a few minutes, we made arrangements to bring him to Christ through his confession of faith and the water of baptism. Perhaps the most interesting thing about all of this is that it all happened outside the walls of a church.