For those of us who live in Roxborough/Manayunk the first Sunday of June is either the greatest or the worst day of the year. It is the day of the Bike Race, when our streets are shut down and packed with crowds, many of whom are 20 something’s who gather en masse for a weekend binge.
Anyway, below is the sermon I preached on the subject yesterday. I will be sharing my reflections from being out at the race in a post in the near future.
A few years ago I ventured to the old Khyber Pass bar to see one of my favorite bands. After I settled myself at the bar I was surprised to see a one of our parishioners coming towards me. (I know that it is shocking to learn that the people who go to this church might sometime go to bars!) Anyway, after a hug and an introduction to her boyfriend, she said, “It seems that you see me more in bars than in church.” with a kind of sheepish laugh. Although her statement wasn’t entirely accurate, I started to wonder what she was really saying. The implication seemed to be that because she went to bars more frequently than she went to church that she had something to apologize for, or even be ashamed of.
But as infrequently as I actually get out to bars, I have discovered something extraordinary, namely that bars are full of who are looking for G-D. Now I can guess what you might be thinking… if they are really looking for G-D then maybe they should stop hanging around bars so much and get back to church, right?
If it were only that simple. So many of the people I meet in bars are indeed really thirsting to find a real connection to G-D, but for a variety of reasons, are just not comfortable coming to church in order to meet that need. This is not a 21st century problem. In today’s Gospel (Luke 7:1-10) we see that Jesus clearly recognized that there will always be people who long for what G-D has to offer but for a variety of reasons feel shut out of the religious establishment.
This insight was the bedrock of his ministry. Unlike most religious leaders Jesus didn’t spent all day at the temple or in the synagogues. He didn’t sequester himself away reading and discussing the scriptures and the law. What Jesus did was unique for his ministry took place primarily outside the holy and sacred places and instead took place out in the ordinary world. In other words, Jesus too the Gospel out to the people.
While this in itself was important, Jesus took it a giant step further. He wasn’t content to spend his time with just the decent, ordinary, good temple going folks. If he had, the Pharisees would have been far more tolerant of him. No, Jesus spent time with…. those people. You know the kind I mean, the dirty, the sleazy, the kind of folks we probably wouldn’t want in our homes or our church.
In doing so Jesus not only defied social conventions, he was defying sacred law and tradition. For in Jesus’ time, the law taught that there were some people, who by virtue of their profession, their lifestyle, their parentage or their diseases and disabilities simply were not welcome in the Temple. Yet Jesus freely ignored all that. As a result, while he alienated many of the religious leaders, he also managed to attract tax-collectors, prostitutes, the crippled and the poor.
The Centurion knew this and so dared to hope that Jesus might be willing to help him too. The problem was that even though he was a good man, who did whatever he could to help the people, he was still part of the hated Roman army, and so ritually unclean. Even though he was desperate, he assumed that his mere presence would cause offense and so did not dare to approach directly. Even when Jesus agrees to come the Centurion cannot shake the notion that he is still unworthy of Jesus’ presence.
But Jesus doesn’t keep his distance. Jesus comes to the Centurion because he is in need and he is earnestly seeking G-D. And it doesn’t matter to Jesus that he is ritually unclean or that he is part of the army that has conquered and occupied his country. Jesus is willing to bend all the rules and go to where the Centurion is in order to share G-D’s love with him.
This Gospel gets to the very heart of what Jesus’ ministry was about- making G-D accessible to all people, regardless of whether they were worthy or pure- breaking down the barriers and refusing to be constrained by the old traditions and models. And that has huge implication for how we understand and carry out our ministry today.
The primary reason the Church exists is to bring people into relationship with G-D. Even though all of us who are gathered here today definitely have room to grow in our faith, we at least have some understanding of who G-D is and what that means for our lives. But right now, as we speak there are tens of thousands of people filling the streets just outside our walls. And I would venture to guess that a whole lot of them don’t darken the door of any church. But that doesn’t mean are aren’t still looking for meaning and purpose in their lives or even that they would like to have a closer relationship with G-D.
So why aren’t they here? Some would argue that the traditional music and worship fail to attract them. In my experience it’s not a matter of offering modern music or projecting everything up on a screen or even by having the service as a smart phone app. If all it took was that kind of gimmick, I can guarantee you that Jesus would have done it first. He would have instituted some new and revolutionary type of temple service or so cool and hip way of reading the Torah that really connected with the young people of his day. No, if we are going to get to the root of the problem we must accept the fact that sharing the Gospel is not just a matter of repackaging the same old product.
Nor is it just a matter of being friendly. If it were this church would be packed every Sunday. To your credit on a number of occasions I have seen you truly model Jesus’ willingness to accept and welcome people like the residents of Ivy Ridge Home (a personal care home for people with serious mental illness) or guys who are usually seen hanging around outside DeLeo’s (a place that really puts the “D” in divebar), people who definitely don’t fit into the traditional image of what is expected in terms of dress or decorum. And while this is much more critical to our success as evangelists than just trying to reinvent the services I fear it that even our welcoming culture is not enough.
The bottom line is that no matter how contemporary or hip our worship, no matter how warm a welcome we extend, the real problem is that many of them just can’t bring themselves to come in the door. Yet we continue to avoid the inevitable conclusion, that if we want to help people connect with G-D, it is not enough to simply welcome them in. We have to go out to where they are.
This reality could not be made clearer than it is this very day. For more than a decade I have heard people complain about the Bike Race. Having seen the hordes of underage drunks, the parking nightmares and the tens of thousands of red cups that litter our streets when it is all done, I have to say that I completely understand. But, we are not here just as neighbors or as a civic association. We are gathered here for a higher purpose. If we were really to emulate Jesus, rather than ducking and covering on the way to church and then hurrying back home, we might find a different approach.
Instead of huddling together inside and lamenting what all those partiers are doing to our neighborhood, we might instead choose to take a more radical step. What would it look like if, on Bike Race day we canceled worship here and took it out where the crowds might be able to clearly see and even join in?
It would probably feel awkward. It might even be a little intimidating. But if Jesus wasn’t scared of soldiers or lepers or prostitutes- why should we be scared by a reggae band or by some guys playing beer pong? Sometimes it is the scariest looking people that are also most indeed of what G-D has to offer. Like the Centurion they are longing for it, but may not feel worthy to come under G-D’s roof. And so in order to help them hear the Gospel it is up to us to take up Jesus’ standard and march boldly out beyond our walls.
Think about it. If Jesus came to Roxborough/Manayunk today, where do you think he would go? To Saint Timothy’s in order to enjoy or air conditioning and to hear this fine sermon or to sit and drink coffee with us afterwards? I don’t think so. Jesus would be at the bike race. I can just see him down on the wall or along Manayunk Avenue, mingling with the crowds. Talking with people who haven’t set foot inside a church in years, if they ever did at all. Listening to them. Accepting them. Forgiving them. Loving them just as they are.
May we all learn from our Lord’s example. May G-D give us the courage to faithfully model our ministry after our Savior’s. AMEN