At the tender age of 18, I was asked by my local church to be their youth leader. From that day on, and for almost 57 years, I have been involved with the mission and the ministries of the church of Jesus Christ. Not even “retirement” from active ministry some 10 years ago has kept me quiet, and for the past 15 months I have been as busy as ever –because of you!
Sometimes, and this is not a complain, I feel like the Duracell Bunny — remember the Duracell commercial? That funny, pink bunny with oversized flip-flops, sunglasses and a beating drum that kept going and going non-stop, outlasting bunnies powered by competitor batteries?
For a lifetime the local church has captured my heart, my mind, my strength, and my deepest devotion, and today I believe in her mission more than ever before. Whether you have been a member of this congregation for a few years or a whole life, or now you are praying about joining our congregation, let’s explore some of main reasons why we go to church.
Reflecting on my own church life and all that I have learned from so many people like you, I believe that we join a church because we need to belong.
During the last thirty years or so, the reputable Gallup survey has found that Americans are more religious than ever, yet they just don’t care much for religious organizations and even local churches. In other words, most are believers but not “joiners”. “I believe in God, but I’m not into organized religion” – how many times have we heard something like this?
Many folks out there tell us that they practice their faith privately, get their religion electronically, pursue their beliefs individually, and they are content with that –and that’s great, of course. So why bother with people in a local church –a bunch like us here today — when we can build our own sacred spaces, commune with nature, and so forth?
I’ll never forget that horrendous morning of September 2001 when the world stopped turning and we discovered we did not want to be alone — we needed to belong. We needed a faith to carry on. So, we went back to church and held hands with a stranger and said a prayer amid devastation. And we re-discovered that Barbara Streisand was right a few years earlier when she sang, “People who need people are the luckiest people in the world.”
There is a phrase in the New Testament that has captured my imagination for quite a long time now. You can find it particularly in the epistles, those letters that describe the theology and community of the early church. There are two simple little words that show up again and again in the letters and those words are these —one another. Let me give just a few.
Love one another, encourage one another, be kind to one another, comfort one another, edify one another, fellowship with one another, confess your faults to one another, forgive one another, pray for one another, minister to one another, bear one another’s burdens.
See? The first Christians, the first men and women touched and empowered by the Holy Spirit of Pentecost very soon discovered that they could never achieve Christian maturity apart from a Christian community — the “body” of Christ.
Very soon they realized that they needed more resources than their interior lives could supply, and more influences than their few like-minded friends could give them. Nothing has changed over twenty centuries — we still need the support of a community of people who are both like us, and different from us. A community that sticks together through all seasons of life, which reminds me of those flocks of geese flying right over our heads twice a year.
Have you noticed how they fly in a “V” formation? By flying in the uplifting wake of the geese in front, the whole flock adds at least 71% to its total flying range. Geese have learned some other things that the rest of us need to learn — leadership is shared, for instance.
The head goose is only there for a little while, then comes back into the flock to rest, to have its energy restored. All that honking is the encouragement of one goose to another to keep going, to keep at it. And when one goose falls, is wounded or becomes ill, at least two others will fly to the ground, swoop down and stay with it until it is restored to the flock.
So why we go to church?
We go to church – a bunch like us here today — because deep in the human soul there is a hunger and a need to belong to a warm, welcoming flock that helps us stay in good shape as we sail through life — all its challenges, but also all its opportunities for emotional and spiritual growth with Christ.
I have also learned that people join a church because there is a deep need to understand. A few days after completing my first year of seminary I was literally dispatched to a small church some 200 miles from home. Barely a week later, one of most “prominent” members was killed in a tragic accident.
Suddenly I found myself trying to care for a widow and several children as they walked through the valleys of the shadows of death – and I hadn’t yet taken a single course on pastoral ministry for this kind of situations.
Through the years, I have walked with several wonderful people who died untimely or was deformed by illnesses. I have led the funeral processions of several teenagers. I have listened to spouses despair over being left for another person. I have watched parents age over wayward children.
And the questions are always the same. Why do bad things happen to good people? Where is God when it hurts? Where is the answer to the riddle of suffering? Why is hate so strong? How come good people go astray?
And when we confront these crises and run out of answers, how do we know that God is love and loving? How do we know that forgiveness is possible? How do we know that that no trouble is forever? How can we know unless we belong to a community of faith that is not afraid of the questions nor timid about pointing the way to the Christ who has the answer?
The Church, my friends, can be a mighty force to encourage people to move toward faith, hope, and love.
We just heard about the early Christian community, how they were transformed by the Holy Spirit and how they became the “Body” of Christ, an extended family by the grace of God where they share in prayer, in fellowship, in discernment, where they even shared from their blessings and riches to support those who had very little, or nothing.
The church can also call attention to the least among us when everybody is wanting more. It can challenge us to understand even as we long to be understood.
Why then go to church? Because there are moments and times in our lives when we just need to deal with the deep, excruciating questions of life and faith – and we can’t just do it alone. We can do it alone – it’s true– yet what a big relief, what a joy when we, a caring bunch like us here today, has our back.
Finally, I also learned over the years that that we go to join a church because we need to make a difference. I have been so blessed by others’ vision of the church as God’s main tool for touching hearts and transforming lives. God’s vision that we are called to find a need and try to fill it, to recognize a hurt and try to heal it. That is what the Church is about.
A few months ago, I heard from good sources that just one in five Americans feel hopeful about the future –what about the other four? Hope is the Church’s business, my friends. You see, we are people of hope because we know the final score. And so, whatever the circumstances, we live as people of faith and hope — that is who we are, and I want to be around people like that.
And we are called to be disciples of the One who brings hope to us so that we can share it with one another. A Lutheran colleague once told me about his “favorite” church member, Billy — a little guy who wore extremely thick glasses and a hearing aid in each ear. Billy didn’t own a car, so he hitchhiked six miles to church every Sunday morning. He sat on the front row near the center aisle.
He always sang about three measures behind everybody else when they sang the hymn. He never knew what the pastor had preached about.
One day somebody asked Billy, “Why do you bother to come to church? You can’t see, you can’t hear, you don’t have a way to get here. Why don’t you just stay home?” With a twinkle in his eye, Billy said, “Oh, but come Sunday, I want my neighbors to know whose side I’m on, so I’m always in church.”
My friends, I want to tell you, come Sunday I want the world to know whose side I’m on! And I always pray that you may feel the same. As I admitted earlier, almost 75 and going, and going like the Duracell bunny, like many among you today!
I continue to believe in the depths of my heart and with all of my soul and with more energy than ever before in all of my life that the church, any sacred gathering like this bunch here today, has been gifted to us so that we can belong, we can make sense out the ups and downs in our lives, and above all, we can make a difference to others in the name of the Lord.