I preached this sermon in Dalton this morning based upon Mark 9:38-50.
At this point the gospel story moved inexorably towards Jesus’ crucifixion. Though he saw the foreshadowing of his death, the disciples did not. When Jesus defined discipleship to them, he was clear, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” (8:34b) The disciples wanting to know who would be first among them were told, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” (9:35b) And then, Jesus lifted a little child into his arms saying, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” (9:37)
Jesus, however, was not specifically referring to children in this instance. Though he had a child in his arms, he made a metaphorical point. Paraphrased it might have been this, “Welcome the most vulnerable people in our midst. Whoever welcomes them welcomes not me, but the One who sent me.” Then, Jesus admonished the disciples not to hinder anyone who desired to follow.
When the disciples reported they saw someone casting out demons in his name, Jesus told them not to stop him. That’s an important point in this story.
How many people who want to follow Jesus get stopped? And what stops them?
Most of the people who come to Cathedral in the Night, the Sunday afternoon worshiping community on the front lawn of St. Joseph’s Church in Pittsfield, don’t attend regular church services. Some of the people I met at Common Ground, the dinner church in Northampton, won’t come to regular church, either. I also talk to people who regularly attend church, but their adult children who are in their 20s and 30s don’t attend even though they went to church as children. I don’t know how many people I meet in my chaplain ministry, whether they are hospice patients and families or veterans, who once went to church but have lapsed.
The answers for each of the groups will probably be different, but we should pause and reflect why. The answers will probably not fall neatly into particular categories. Admittedly, our answers will be speculative. Just as an aside, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America bishop for this synod, Jim Hazelwood, a year or so ago formed a panel of non-church goers to tell their annual meeting attendees why they don’t go to church.
Many people will tell me that they feel disconnected from traditional church. “Worship is boring” is one of the milder reasons. Some reasons are more pointed, “People in church are a bunch of hypocrites. They call themselves Christians, but they don’t act that way.” Other people find that traditional churches fall far short on discipleship. They’re not content to come and worship for an hour a week and then not take action in the community.
Some people have been seriously hurt by the church. While we might immediately think of clergy abuse, it is more often for something less dramatic. Pastors can say some pretty hurtful things when we are too dogmatic, which is why the current pope has become so popular. While he has made practically no changes to church doctrine, he has given the church a more compassionate voice, which has softened its harshness. One example was his response to homosexuality, “Who am I to judge?” He also softened the church around its divorced members by encouraging the church to embrace their spouses and children and that divorced members are not to be excommunicated.
I’m pretty certain that many of the people who come to Cathedral in the Night won’t come into our churches because they would feel embarrassed. Though we would say, “We don’t discriminate. We welcome everyone,” they know differently. Not all of them have dirty and torn clothes. Not all of them smell. Not all of them show clear signs of mental illness. Not all of them are unwashed. Not all of them talk like we do. Not all of them became or are addicted to drugs or alcohol or both. Not all of them have broken with their families. Not all of them have spent time in jail or prison. But almost all of them know that they are not really like us inside the church and that makes them uncomfortable. They have little in common with us. Let’s also admit, their presence will be challenging for us as well.
I remember the first time I went to Cathedral in the Night in Northampton. I went with the senior warden from St. Stephen’s Church and their associate pastor. On the way back the pastor and I asked him, “What did you think about the service?” He replied, “I’ve never worshiped with people on the other side of the wall.”
A few people I spoke with at Common Ground said that they prefer worship where they can talk and ask questions rather than traditional worship. They also like the greater sense of community they have sitting at tables and breaking bread with other people rather than sitting in seeming isolation.
Stumbling blocks. They’re ours. We wonder why people aren’t in church without realizing that many of them who are outside our door or just down the street really want to have a relationship with Jesus. They can’t because they’ve encountered stumbling blocks.
When we step back and look at ourselves critically, we can probably find other stumbling blocks. We might question why we worship on Sunday mornings, especially when the ideal church household of two parents and a couple of children typically has two wage earners working Mondays through Fridays leaving them only Saturday to do errands. Sunday mornings would be their only morning family time. Seriously, I have a colleague who once said to me, “If I weren’t a pastor, I wouldn’t come Sunday mornings either.”
Another stumbling block is not providing an open and safe space for people to ask their deep spiritual questions. I’ve heard from more than a few people as they approached death, “How can God love me when I’ve used drugs?” Or trying to help people sort out the injustice when a young child dies of a disease, especially after people tell the parents “God won’t give you more than you can handle,” or “This was all part of God’s plan.” Or even questions about church doctrine, “Can I be a Christian if I don’t believe in the virgin birth?”
Though we think about handicap accessibility for people in wheelchairs and walkers, how many of our services accommodate people with hearing as well as vision deficits?
Not long ago I questioned how anyone could be an SBNR, Spiritual but Not Religious. What I’ve come to see, especially through my other ministries, is that there are many people who are deeply spiritual, but who confront stumbling blocks when it comes to religion.
Like the man casting out demons, there are many people who want to do the Jesus work and know that we should be servants to all. There are many people who will willingly commit their lives to a cause. And yet many of these people can’t find an easy path into our fellowship.
What I’m asking is for us to take a step back and pause. As we move into a new future, we might want to begin asking ourselves questions and stop taking so much for granted. What has changed in our secular lives that we have yet to translate into our church practices? How can we hear what SBNRs have to say? Where do we go to understand why too many people on the underside of our communities can’t find a home in our churches? What are those deep spiritual questions we’re reluctant to answer ourselves? How are we getting in the way?