One of my favorite Doonesbury cartoons depicts the Reverend Scott at the Little Church of Walden meeting with two potential new parishioners. The strip opens with Scott saying, “So what would you like to know about Little Church of Walden, folks? Don’t hold back – I know how difficult it can be to choose a church.” The husband replies, “Well, what’s your basic approach here, Reverend? Is it traditional gospel?” Scott responds, “In a way. I like to describe it as 12-step Christianity. Basically, I believe that we’re all recovering sinners. My ministry is about overcoming denial; it’s about recommitment, about redemption. It’s all in the brochure there.” The wife then joins in the conversation, “Wait a minute, sinners? Redemption? Doesn’t all that imply… guilt?” “Well yes,” answers Scott, “I do rely on the occasional disincentive to keep the flock from going astray, guilt’s part of that.” “I dunno,” answers the husband, “there’s so much negativity in the world as it is.” “That’s right,” adds his wife, “were looking for a church that’s supportive, a place where we can feel good about ourselves. I’m not sure the guilt thing works for us.” “On the other hand,” responds the husband, “you do offer racquetball.” “So do the Unitarians,” concludes his wife. “Let’s shop around some more.”
If I was going to preach as if I was not interested in the consequences, if I wasn’t afraid of generalizing, I might say something like – many, many of the people sitting in this church and in churches around this country, myself included, are a bunch of half hearted, fair weather, lukewarm Christians, who like to play church. The majority of us give God about ninety minutes a week and not a few of us complain either silently or aloud that those ninety minutes ought to be closer to sixty or else they will mess up our afternoon plans. In fact, many of us spend twice as much time reading magazines each week as we do saying our prayers. Some of us come to God’s house monthly, bimonthly or only on the high holy days. We like the big events and we don’t have a lot of time to spare. Christmas and Easter – if you get these two in you really cover most of the important stuff don’t you?
As the Doonesbury strip lampoons, I often wonder how many people sitting in pews around this country are actually there primarily to have their own needs met. Church, corporate religion is one more in a long line of service industries whose job it is to serve our needs – like a good dry cleaners, a convenient grocery store, or a friendly dentist. We come to church to be fed, to find the right programs for our kids, to get something to help us feel better about our lives. We come to church for ourselves and I wonder how often we actually think about going to church in order to serve God, in order to honor God, praise God or to better understand what God wants from us and our lives. How many of us spend more of our time thinking about what we want from God?
If I was going to preach as if I did not care about the consequences, I might say something like – all of the clergy, myself included, go through periods when we are half-hearted Christians, lukewarm in our faith. We may love the job but I wonder how many of us spend much of our time only playing church – running on a never ending treadmill in an attempt to keep an institution alive, an institution the world finds increasingly irrelevant.
But of course, I don’t have the nerve to say any of these things because rarely do the clergy actually ever say anything that isn’t predictable and comfortable. You might not like us if we did and for many of us having you like us is almost as important as preaching the gospel.
We aren’t deserving of this day. We don’t in any way deserve to be associated with the God/man who gave his life because he believed in love more than he treasured living. But do you want to know another truth, a greater truth than any of those things I might say if I was going to preach as if I did not care about the consequences? Christ comes anyway! He rides right into town and then walks all the way to the cross. He knows these truths about you and me, these truths about churches, people and priests and yet he keeps on coming. All of us with our half-hearted belief systems, selfish motives, indifferent attitudes and self-absorbed lifestyles – he sees us all. In fact, we line the streets. We line the streets into town as he rides that colt. Two thousand years ago or the day before yesterday, it doesn’t matter, the people are the same. They are us and we are them. There we stand cheering him along so that he might enjoy his 15 minutes of fame. We stand around on Golgotha too, gaping a the loser who wouldn’t even stand up for himself, wondering if there is anything to see as we watch him die.
He knows us. We are all as guilty as sin and yet he comes anyway. He gives his life to die on the cross – because he loves us. He loves us!! In spite of our weaknesses, in spite of our failures, in spite of our raging inabilities he loves us. And he says – I will do for you what you cannot do for yourselves. I will lead you back to God.
We can’t know, I can’t know the real power of this day until I have been convicted of my sin. I, who call myself a Christian, fall so short of the glory of God and yet God loves me anyway. I, who call myself a priest, can be so very unfaithful and yet Christ still dies for me. Jesus says, don’t try and put a good face on it. I know how dark and ugly it can sometimes be inside your soul. I have seen it with my own eyes. Judas’ betrayal, Peter’s denial – I have seen your underbelly and I know no matter how hard you try, left to your own devices you will never really change. There will still be ugliness, indifference, cruelty, prejudice, hypocrisy and selfishness no matter what you do. You are not capable of freeing yourself from this mess – without me. For that reason, because I love you I am going to die for you, in your place, bearing your shame. And I don’t just do it once, two thousand years ago, I do it over and over and over again. I have born the shame of humanity so that humanity might be something more. I have sunk to the depths of human depravity that I might lift human beings closer to God. We don’t deserve him, but he comes anyway. Thanks be to God – he comes anyway. Amen.