fter the last person had walked silently out of the sanctuary on their way to Sunday School, my wife and I looked at each other with raised eyebrows. I figured there would be whispers, questions, maybe even anger, but there was nothing visible.
What I did not know was that there was plenty of whispering going on out of my earshot.
During the service, the lack of response continued. Things rolled along smoothly. The slideshow, I must say, was powerful. The chorus to the song<i> If We Are the Body</i> goes “If we are the body, why aren’t his arms reaching, why aren’t his words teaching, why aren’t his hands healing/ and if we are the body, why aren’t his feet going, why is his love not showing them there is a way?” The photographs combined world news events with pictures of our own congregation in service.
I started the sermon with “it is often said the British have a reputation for being able to ignore hugely uncomfortable social events by simply being polite. You guys could give the British a run for their money – the fact that nobody has said anything about the Jesus picture being gone showes me that we can ignore several huge elephants in the living room very effectively.” I think it was a good joke to start with, since it let people relax.
Then I preached this sermon:
On the first day of the week, very early in the morning, the women took the spices they had prepared and went to the tomb. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they entered, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. While they were wondering about this, suddenly two men in clothes that gleamed like lightning stood beside them. In their fright the women bowed down with their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here; he has risen! Remember how he told you, while he was still with you in Galilee: ‘The Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, be crucified and on the third day be raised again.’ ” Then they remembered his words.
When they came back from the tomb, they told all these things to the Eleven and to all the others. It was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the others with them who told this to the apostles. But they did not believe the women, because their words seemed to them like nonsense. Peter, however, got up and ran to the tomb. Bending over, he saw the strips of linen lying by themselves, and he went away, wondering to himself what had happened. (Luke 24)
So the women come running back to the male disciples, full of this wild story about angels and how Jesus isn’t where they expected him to be. But the male disciples did not believe them, because their words seemed like nonsense. The men turn to each other. You can imagine their response. “Not in the tomb? He has to be somewhere. Where is he?” You may have asked yourself that question this morning. Where’s Jesus? And you may have felt any number of things. You may have been angry, or you may have been confused. If so, you have the faintest glimmer of insight into what the disciples felt when they heard the news, “he isn’t here.” “Well where is he, then?”
They had spent three years walking with Jesus. They had given up so much to follow him. They had had some amazing times, and while he was with them they felt especially close to God. But then Jesus was taken from them by death. Sure, he came back for a little while, but then he ascended again, and he told them as long as they were doing his business, he would be with them, even until the end of time.
Something happened to those disciples. When we see them in the gospels they are timid. They are followers. They are sheep. But after the resurrection, they become leaders and pastors. They go out and preach the good news and Jesus is with them.
Paul even takes it a step further. He tells the church, “you are the crucified and resurrected Body of Christ.” When we celebrate communion we read about how when we eat the bread and drink the wine we become the body of Christ, broken for the world. That’s powerful stuff! Think about this: God came down and took human form in Jesus. Now the spirit of Jesus takes human form in us.
I have had probably a dozen people – members here, former pastors, and others – tell me that if I moved the Jesus picture from the Fairview sanctuary, I would make people mad. They have told me that it could split the church. Well, first of all, I have told you, and I believe it to be true, that not making people mad and preserving harmony is not a reason to avoid change. Churches that avoid conflict at all costs will surely die. If churches are being the church there will necessarily be conflict! Second: hogwash! I believe that you all are mature enough to handle change. There is enough spiritual leadership in this congregation that we can be like the disciples and understand that even if we can’t see Jesus, he is among us!
So you may be asking several questions. Let me guess that the first one is why move the Jesus picture. There are several answers to that question, but the first one is because. No, really. Because. Because it symbolizes resistance to change in this congregation. We all know in our hearts that revival cannot take place without change. So we make a few little gestures here and there. Revamp the children’s Sunday School. Hire a youth minister. Experiment with new ways of making decisions. But even though those are all very good things, they don’t get to the heart of the matter. Real revival and change take place at a deeper level.
Now, lots of people use words like “risk” and “change.” The vision of the North Alabama Conference is “every church challenged and equipped to make disciples by taking risks and changing lives.” Which sounds great as long as you aren’t actually risking anything. As long as you don’t change the one thing that actually makes us uncomfortable. If you are going to make a life change, you have to change big things and symbolic things. If you are a recovering alcoholic, you may have to move houses, or take a different route to work, because if you keep doing the same old things and the same old habits, you know you are going to slip back into death. If you are a congregation stuck in a rut, you may have to rearrange the furniture. Sit in a different seat. Worship at a different time. Experiment with new ways of seeing Jesus and new ways of worshiping. Because if you keep doing the same old thing in the same old habits, you know – you know – you are going to disappear. So the first answer is because. Because change needs to happen.
The second answer is because of the message it sends. What kind of message does it send to visitors and newcomers if the biggest change we’ve made to our worship space in the past 40 years is to pain the walls? And you have told me there was nearly a war over even that. Folks, if people get bent out of shape about the color of the walls or the carpet, how in God’s name can you carry out the radical ministry of Jesus Christ? I can’t tell you how many members have told me they would like to see young people more active in this congregation. The message an unchanging sanctuary sends to every young person is that while we want to see you involved in our church, because we don’t want to see it die, we won’t change so much that it actually makes us uncomfortable. We don’t really want to grow, you see, we just want to survive and have things carry on the way they’ve always carried on, so we can die and be buried in the backyard, and we want people to keep going to this church so that the lawn around our graves stays mown. That’s the message it sends. It symbolizes every thing we are not we are not willing to change in order to fulfill the mission that Jesus himself gave us.
An unchanging sanctuary sends a message to you, too. I worry about your self-image, church. When I first arrived here, I asked folks about the personality of this church. I asked what was the vision of Fairview? And the reply I usually got was “we’re just a small country church.” Now, there is nothing wrong with being a small country church. You learn about the importance of family in a small country church. You learn a work ethic. You learn that we all have to pitch in when times are hard. You learn that God is personal, and worship is more about your duty to glorify God than about big-budget entertainment. You learn that we take care of each other. No, there is nothing wrong with being “just a small country church.” If that is what God is calling you to be. But often what I hear lurking behind that answer is fear. When we talk about spiritual gifts, and someone says, “I don’t have many talents.” That isn’t humility. That’s fear. When somne like me to ministry,” that isn’t humility. It’s fear. We may be a small country church, but God has given us a mission! God has a vision for your life, and God has a vision for the life of this church. In the 1800’s this may have been a neighborhood church, but today people have automobiles. Some families even have more than one! I daresay the world has even changed a bit since the 1960’s, when this sanctuary was built. Ask yourself why has God placed us here on the busiest road in the county? Why has God blessed us with such a huge pool of talent among our members? Why has God put us in a county that is growing faster than we can measure? I suspect it is because God has a different image of this church than we do.
The third answer is because even though our church is Methodist, and even though our county is Baptist, many of us worship cattle. It’s true. Now, that may surprise you. You may not have known that you worship cattle. But what other explanation is there if you hang on to a sacred cow and will not let go? Woody Guthrie wrote a song about Jesus, and he said:
Well, the bankers and the preachers, they nailed him on a cross
And they laid Jesus Christ in His grave
Well, the cops and the soldiers, (and I would add, the church people) they nailed him in the air
One book’s title sums it up: Sacred Cows Make Excellent Gourmet Burgers. Christians are not meant to have sacred cows. We are supposed to be looking for lost sheep! And if you’ve watched any Westerns, you know that cattle people and sheep people don’t mix!
What I’m talking about is a conversion experience – going from worshiping sacred cows to worshiping the Living God. The disciples were able to change the world because Jesus was with them. Not in front of their eyes. He was among them. In their hearts.
Now I have prayed about moving this picture for weeks, and I got a pretty clear answer. And it was this: as long as Jesus is nailed to the wall up here, he cannot be resurrected among you. Do not nail Jesus in the air.
Which finally brings me to the second question you may have asked yourself. “Will we put Jesus back?” I don’t know. I think that the people who lead worship should make that decision, but I think putting it back next week would send an even stronger message.
Now, I know that some of you may be as emotionally attached to the picture as you are to this building. When you look up into Jesus’ face and outstretched arms you feel welcome and loved, and this sanctuary may have been a stable place for you when the world was stormy and threatening. And I’m not one of those scaredy-cats who is afraid we’re going to start worshiping images. But here’s my counter-question. Shouldn’t worship reflect the fact that every day with Jesus is new? Shouldn’t we deliberately look at other pictures of Jesus? Shouldn’t the worship team be able to use this entire space that God has blessed us with to proclaim God’s message in whatever ways they decide are best?
In fact, I think it’s a beautiful picture rendered prayerfully and with a lot of love as a gift to glorify God. I have looked at it so closely that I can tell you where the brush strokes are. I have seen the indentation the artist’s pencil made when the painting was sketched. There is obviously a lot of time and love invested in that painting. But here’s another question. What kind of picture of Jesus are you painting? Why isn’t your handiwork up here?
If you have any desire at all to praise God with the work of your hands or voice or with prayer, you should look at your worship bulletin, where you will see that there is a worship team meeting tonight at 6:00. If the worship team decides that the best way to proclaim Jesus next week is to put the picture back, then by all means, let’s do it. But if not… shouldn’t that be their decision?
We started studying our mission during Lent, and as I said, I’m going to preach on God’s mission for us until you are sick of it. I am not the one to tell you what the mission of this church is. Your mission comes from God, and y’all have to discern what it is.
We are on the cusp of a big change. I wish I could tell you what it will look like, but I don’t know. I do know that every time I have trusted God and leapt with both feet, I have never fallen far before God has caught me. I do know that to strike out and follow God means forgetting my vision of the future and trying to see God’s vision for the fore us. Where’s Jesus? Look in your heart.
So that was the sermon. We sang “He Lives,” the chorus of which ends with “you ask me how I know he lives – he lives within my heart.”
During the sermon, the congregation seemed engaged, and I saw a lot of nodding heads. But only time would tell what kind of long-term response there would be.
To be continued again….