If someone were to ask you what your church was like, how might you answer? You might resort to very picturesque language and use a metaphor or a simile by filling in the blank to a statement like this: My Church Is Like a ______. What do you think they might say? My church is like Cheers because everybody knows my name. My church is like Cold Stone Creamery because there are so many choices and options that are offered. My church is like a museum because they have such a rich history. Or how about the youth: My church is like a McDonald’s or Burger King because they get me in and out in fast order, and I like that!
When I think about what My Church, Christ Lutheran in North St. Paul, is like for me, it will always hold a very special place in my heart. When we moved there in 1989, our oldest joined the Kindergarten class after Christmas, and we began a long relationship with the school staff of Christ Lutheran School. It has been very comfortable for us to entrust our boys to coworkers, knowing their faith and life, and trusting that they would only reinforce the spiritual truths. Christ Lutheran has been a place for friendship. As I think about it, I suppose I might be tempted to say, My Church is Like a Very Comfortable Club. It is a place where I can be with people who are like me, and share my same values and beliefs, a place where I can get a doughnut, some good conversation, and feel like I belong.
Ahhh! My Church is like a Country Club! It sounds like the kind of place I want to be. There seems to be little down side as long as I can afford the membership dues . . . or is there a different picture, a better picture that we could zero in on to describe our ideal for a church??? Could you please listen to this account in Matthew 9:9-13? Jesus teaches a lesson that can help.
As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” he told him, and Matthew got up and followed him. While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and “sinners” came and ate with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples ‘Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and ‘sinners.” On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”
Who had the “My Church is like a Country Club” attitude in this account? Wasn’t it the Pharisees who quizzed Jesus on the caliber of people with whom he was socializing? The tax collectors and sinner-types didn’t have club status and didn’t belong, yet Jesus showing them more attention than he ever paid the Pharisees. What’s up?
Jesus’ reply says it all. “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”
The answers I was sharing before were very self-focused, weren’t they? My church is all about me and what it does for me and making me look good and feel good. But Jesus would fill in the blank with a far different answer, wouldn’t he? Picking up on the doctor and the sick comment, couldn’t you hear him saying, My church is like a medical clinic, a hospital, a trauma facility, or an emergency room! Jesus’ church is to be the place for spiritually sick people to come and get the help and treatment they need.
The fact of the matter is that emergency rooms and patient rooms are not clean and tidy places. They can be very gross with body fluids making messes and body parts that are infected and there can be some horrendous smells as people struggle for their lives. And the truth is, Jesus’ church can be just as messy, can’t it?
The spiritual hospital is to be a place for spiritually wounded souls, people with the hurts of this life, people who have emotional heartaches. And the Great Physician invites them to come to our churches for treatment. What’s that passage of invitation again, “Come to me Jesus says, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” Healthy people don’t need a hospital room, do they? It is for those who need the help and comfort only Jesus can provide.
Which also means something else for us: Christ’s church is going to be messy sometimes, and we want to be ready for some of the emergency cases and advanced cases of spiritual illness that come our way. If we act as a hospital, we’ll welcome the sin-shattered life, the person who doesn’t see Jesus so clearly, the individual whose life is in a meltdown state and has challenging issues, the soul that is trapped in addiction, that one with the perplexing mental health issues.
Wouldn’t you agree with me that our churches are at their best when we are bringing people who are removed from Christ into his presence? When people are touched by God’s Spirit and they hear the Gospel and they know and believe their sins are forgiven and they are safe in God’s loving arms?
One of the members in North Saint Paul met a tragedy last year. Jennifer was at church for the Sunday School picnic. She brought her daughter, Madison or “Maddy”, along with Maddy’s dad, Brian. She had sprained her foot a few weeks beforehand and was on crutches. A week later, a blood clot traveled to her lungs and she died at the tender age of 29, leaving behind her 3 year old daughter.
A little background. Jennifer came to our church 3 years ago and shared some of the messes from her past with me. She told me about a bad relationship with her parents in her teen years and how she moved in with her grandmother. She shared with me that she had been married at a young age and divorced. She shared how she had not been all that spiritually active.
But now she had Brian and Maddy in her life. What did she want most? For Maddy to grow up knowing Jesus. She wanted to be a part of Christ Lutheran and she brought her little girl to 3 year old Sunday School. Maddy was enrolled in our Preschool for the fall. My point is this. Jennifer’s life was not so perfect and she had her struggles, but that is why we are here, is it not? To serve as that place for spiritual healing, that sanctuary, that place where a person can be touched with Jesus’ love, and allowed to grow in her faith and her walk in Christ. The Lord allowed our church to be that contact point for Jennifer, Madision and Brian.
At Jenny’s funeral service, the casket was being carried to the hearse with Maddy following along behind. The Holy Spirit led this little 3 year old to spontaneously break into a song she knew: She sang “Jesus love me this I know!” with her wonderful childlike faith even while people were wondering how she would cope without her mommy. This is an example of one family that has been touched by our church’s ministry.
No, our churches will not always be a neat and tidy place with people just like us where things are always comfortable and perfect. Sometimes we’ll be dealing with hurting or even broken lives. But then, we are not a Country Club are we? We are a hospital, a group of believer who have been called to infuse the love of Christ into sin-scarred lives. Our church is a place to heal. Our church is a place for comfort and tender loving care.
May God bless our mission and ministry as we serve the Great Physician! Amen.