“Come to me, all you who are struggling hard and carrying heavy loads, and I will give you rest. Put on my yoke, and learn from me. I’m gentle and humble. And you will find rest for yourselves. My yoke is easy to bear, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11: 28-30 CEB).
I think that in my entire short and unremarkable preaching career I’ve had two, maybe three, lines or illustrations that have stuck with folks. Honestly, I’m thankful for that. When I get the opportunity to preach, I always pray that God’s message delivered through the imperfect medium of my brain and voice will touch at least one person. A wise man also once told me that every sermon I ever preached needed to point back to Jesus. He told me that 18 years ago and it still sticks with me.
So maybe I have two or three hits. However, there is one that people mention to me more than any other. Last year during one of my sermons I told those who were in attendance, and still awake, that the Church at it’s best is place for broken people. I went on to list several things that people struggle with, and after each one of those I said, “If you’re here and you’re struggling with that, you’re in the right place!” I did my best to paint church as a hospital where people who are hurt, struggling, suffering, in pain, and full of sorrow could come to the feet of the Master and find rest, but not only that, where other people who are part of the body of Christ can reach out to them (and each other) in very real ways to provide grace, love, and mercy. About a month or two ago one of the ladies in the church said that when she heard that sermon her family was church shopping, but when she heard those words she knew that she wanted to stay because she was “in the right place.”
That totally knocked me over that someone who doesn’t even know me all that well would remember that a year plus later. But I’m not mentioning that to give myself a pat on the back. After all, that wasn’t an original idea by me, it was inspired by author Rachel Held Evans and her wonderful book “Searching For Sunday,” which I suggested that the people there that day read. I suggest that you consider reading it too. Anyway, I don’t mention it to prove my preaching prowess, I mention it because I absolutely believe it.
This was brought home to me again yesterday. I was attending a district gathering of United Methodists from Utah, Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana. We had over 1,000 United Methodists gathered at 15 locations around those 4 states listening to an excellent keystone address by Rev. Christian Peele of the Riverside Church in New York and a sermon plus worship led by our very own Bishop Karen Oliveto. It was the first time I’d had a chance to hear Bishop Oliveto preach, and boy, I’ll tell you what I’m not on the same planet or even in the same universe as she is! She was all at once inspirational, moving, and thought provoking. I know there are a lot of folks out there who think women have no business preaching, but man, you’re missing out!
Bishop Karen asked a couple of very good questions about our churches, and one hit me right in the heart. She asked if our churches were museums or triage centers. I’d ask you to think about that question and how it might apply to your particular church before you read further.
Why would she suggest that some of our churches were more like museums? Well, far be it from me to put words in her mouth, but this is how I thought about it. Have you ever been in one of those old, stuffy museums? You walk in and you immediately notice the stillness of the air. You walk around the place and look at these old, sometimes priceless, artifacts that are encased in glass with big signs that say DO NOT TOUCH. There’s also often some burly security guard types who are hanging out and making sure nothing gets too wild or nobody gets too close.
Now don’t get me wrong, I LOVE museums. I’m a history buff. They have their place and are certainly useful in their context. I’ve been in many museums and have been in awe of the fact that I’m standing in the presence of history. Our churches can be like that in some ways as well. I’m a traditionalist as far as worship goes. I love to be able to walk into a quiet church building and feel the presence of God and kneel in awe. It’s special to me, but I don’t think our churches can, nor were they meant to stop there.
What happens if an ordinary person, or someone who might really be hurting, walks into a church that stops there? Everything is quiet. They’re afraid to touch anything or make too big a noise because they might disrupt something. Our beliefs, and often our Gospel, are encased behind glass labeled DO NOT TOUCH. They are there to be revered, but not often are they interacted with. Our churches often have our own “security guard” types too. These are the people who cast the evil eye on someone who has a crying baby, someone who brings a thermos of coffee into the Sanctuary, somebody who comes in not dressed as we would like, or God forbid, a newcomer who sits in the deacon’s favorite pew.
Is that a church that hurting people want to come back to? No, I don’t think so. However, I think a lot of our churches are like that sometimes. My church can be like that sometimes. In his new book, “Becoming a Welcoming Church,” author Thom Rainer suggests that most churches think they are a friendly church, but often when given a chance to give feedback visitors often say that they are not.
Now this isn’t another liberal, hippy, left leaning, progressive hit piece on the Church. I love the Church. I love my Church. We are certainly not perfect. We are the Body of Christ that is composed of human beings with different motives, agendas, thoughts, emotions, styles, and views. Yet isn’t it remarkable that Christ still uses us to do his work in the world?
I want to imagine where Church might go from here. I want to think about the challenges that we face. I want to think about how the Church can bring Christ’s model of amazing grace and unfailing love to a world that so desperately needs it.
That’s where I come back to the church as a hospital, a place for broken people to come and be healed. A place where people can experience what Jesus mentions in the verse above, where they can find rest from their worries and burdens. This is kind of where I think Bishop Karen was coming from when she talked about church as a triage center.
In college I had a professor who worked as a first responder to various disasters. He was there in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, the tsunami of 2004, and Hurricane Katrina in 2005. He talked a lot about what triage was like. In addition, one of my favorite subjects to read about is military history. Recently I’ve been reading a lot about World War I. The descriptions of what we would call triage type areas in the immediate vicinity of battles are mind numbing. When I read them I picture a hellscape that I’m not sure how anybody could endure.
What might you see, hear, and smell in a triage area? I have a few friends who are nurses who have painted some pretty vivid pictures. There’s often a lot of injured people (which is why they need triage). Everywhere you look there are people who need help from various types of injuries and other people who are doing their best to help them.
Triage areas can be messy, They are noisy. They are bloody. They are chaotic. Sometimes the conditions can be so difficult that even the healers themselves experience trauma.
Why on earth would anyone want to go to a church like that?
I’ll tell you why. Because that’s where the need is. That’s where there is healing to be done. That’s where people come when they are seriously wounded and have nowhere else to go. That’s where the love and grace of Jesus are at their most potent.
I don’t know that I would paint the current state of our world as a mass casualty incident (at least not yet). But people are hurting. People are struggling. Despite all the advances in our modern world we have yet to eradicate the forces that do some of the worst damage to God’s children: hate, anger, vitriol, judgment, and of course FEAR.
In our world today our cell phones, our newscasts, and our social media keep these forces in people’s faces at all times. Various parties and organizations have realized in the the 2010’s one of the most effective ways to get people on your side is to inspire fear. Now that’s not a new tactic, but it’s something that has been honed and refined with our modern communications technology.
People are afraid. People are lost. People are angry. People are weary of existing in a constant state of being “woke.” I also think that people are getting tired of being constantly told that people who don’t agree with them 100% are their enemy. It’s easy to paint life as a battlefield when people are obsessed with “the enemy” being behind every tree or around every corner.
And I think that’s where the church can really shine. If we are open to being authentic, to being vulnerable, to truly loving the same people that Christ loved, and to retiring just a few of our museum pieces, our churches can be that space where people can step away from all that is going on in the world and be healed. Then they can in turn help heal others.
It’s going to be messy. It’s going to be chaotic. We’re not going to win every battle. We’re not going to be able to take everyone’s pain away. But that shouldn’t stop us from trying, from pulling the Gospel of Jesus Christ out from behind the glass case and infusing it back into people’s lives and the life of our world.
Just imagine what we could do!
On a final note I want to talk to people who have gone to a church seeking that healing and that community and have come away wounded even more deeply. I know you’re out there. I’ve been where you are. Fortunately I found a church where yes, we do have some museum tendencies, but where people were ultimately willing to accept me for who I was and experience the love of God anew through them. I would encourage you to keep trying. There are people out there who care for you.
If you’re not in that place where you can do that, that’s ok too. Maybe start here: God loves you more than you could ever imagine and I promise you that there is nothing you can do to change his mind. There is no wound too deep for him to heal. Hold that in your heart and in your head and seek him. If you need help, reach out to someone around you. People care about you. I care about you.
God loves you, and there’s nothing you can do about it!