Monday, February 10, 2014

Epiphany 5 of Series A (Isaiah 58:3-9a)

A town has two churches. This is a small town, typical of much of the Midwest, populated by about three hundred people. No stoplights, just a post office and a bar, a town hall and these two churches. Both are affiliated with the same denomination; they teach the same things, they confess the same faith. They may have different preachers, but they hear very similar sermons. Their children receive the same baptism, the confirmed receive the same Body and Blood. The pews in both sanctuaries are occupied by believers in Christ, those who have been claimed by His Blood, who have the faith which grasps His salvation. The crucifix is displayed prominently, reminding all who worship of the great cost of their sin, paid for by the Son of God, their Savior Jesus. The Law is heard in all of its sternness to condemn sin, and the Gospel is heard in all of its sweetness to forgive it. Neither church is bigger than the other, neither church is younger than the other; in most ways, they are mirror images. They sit on either side of this small town, placed there by chance and the will of the Lord, who puts churches where He pleases.

It is Sunday morning, the second week of February—bitterly cold. But inside the sanctuary of First Lutheran Church, on the south side of town, it is warm and cozy. They have been blessed, the council will proudly tell you, with the funds to heat this building adequately for the comfort of all the members. They are singing the hymn of the day, “Thy Strong Word,” with the gusto it demands, looking toward the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ Himself, displayed on the crucifix behind the altar. Where they don’t look is out the windows, which are thick stained glass, other than a small patch where it is clear. Looking through each pane of clear glass is a face. The needy of the town stand gathered outside First Lutheran Church, summoned by her singing, hungry for her warmth, desperate for the love displayed upon that crucifix.

There is a man, John, suffering under the bondage of addiction. Everyone in town knows what kind of man he is, they know him as one of the town drunks; what they don’t know is that he has lately been into harder and harder stuff. What they don’t know is the pain he feels, the guilt that drives his addiction, like a continuous circle, a cycle that he wants to escape, but doesn’t know how. He has some inkling that the church is the place to go, and so he is there, standing in the snow, crying for help without words.

At the next window is Andrea, with two little ones and another on the way. She has learned the hard way that feminism and the sexual revolution have simply given men the ability to shirk their responsibilities, and she is left with the wreckage. The world promised freedom, but the fathers of her children were the only ones to find it. She is left scraping by, desperately hungry, unable to adequately feed her little ones on three part-time jobs, carrying the guilt of the one that was put to death in her womb. It seems that the church is the only place left to turn, and so she keeps her babies warm and gazes in.

A man, Ryan, stands there stamping his feet. He’s cold, but he’s used to it, because he doesn’t have a home. Yes, he’s made some mistakes, he’s squandered opportunities, some could say that this situation is his own fault. And he would probably agree. But now he is at rock bottom, aware that in this cold, he probably won’t make it through the night. His pride is strong, but he is ready to ask for help, and maybe his heart is open, too, to hear of the One who had no place to lay His head.

Finally, there is Georgia. She’s elderly, widowed, lives by herself, surviving only on the little that comes each month from the government. She heats her house with two little space-heaters, because she cannot afford to run her furnace. She doesn’t have nearly enough warm clothes or blankets, so she goes around with a perpetual chill, a chill that she knows will one day take her life. She used to be a churchgoer, and now here, in her most desperate hour, she has come back, she is hungry for Christ and His gifts once again.

Four desperate, hungry faces look into the church, but no one looks out at them. The worshippers focus on Christ, as they should, but no thought is given to the world outside, to seeing Jesus in their neighbors. The preacher proclaims the love of Christ for all people, especially the poor and needy, and the people nod approvingly. They all put money for Lutheran World Relief in the offering plate this morning, they’ve done their part. Then, after the closing hymn is sung, they shuffle out to their cars. Longing faces greet them, but they take little notice. Their sole concern is to get home and relax. Even the preacher looks past them as he locks up the church; Sunday mornings are exhausting, and he has lunch and a nap on his mind. When all the people are gone, back to warm homes and warm meals, the church is dark and desolate, but to the needy gathered at its windows, it has always been dark. Yes, there was light in that warm sanctuary, but it never escaped into the world outside, it never touched the darkness of their lives.

Crushed and disappointed, the needy begin to disperse. But then John sees the steeple rising on the north side of town, and without a word, he points the way. After a long, cold walk, they are gathered around Second Lutheran Church, once again gazing through the windows. The scene is much the same. The congregation is warm, but not too warm; many of the parishioners are still wearing coats. The hymn is the same, and the gathered needy hear once again of the redeeming Light which from the cross ever beameth. Somehow, at this church, they see the reality of those words; the light does seem to flow from the crucifix into the sanctuary, and then from the sanctuary into the world. The Light shines on their faces, and despite the cold, they feel the warmth of Christ’s love.

The door opens and out comes a man. He walks directly to Georgia, standing at the first window. She expects to be shooed away, but instead the man takes off his warm jacket and puts it on her shoulders. Then he leads her inside. They chat briefly in the warmth of the narthex; he will help her apply for heating assistance, and in the meanwhile the church has a number of quilts and sweaters that will keep her warm. He invites her to join his family for the rest of the service, and with a smile and some tears, she agrees.

The sermon is half-way over when a woman emerges and approaches Ryan. She invites him in, but Ryan isn’t quite ready to step foot in a church, and so they talk in the cold. She tells him that the church isn’t as warm because part of the budget goes to a fund for housing assistance; on Monday, they will help him get into some low-income housing, and for tonight, her husband will drive him to a shelter. The rest is up to him, but the church is willing and able to give him a fresh start. She offers once again to bring him inside, but he says he’ll wait for her in the cold.

One of the elders, fresh from collecting the offering, is the next to step outside. He comes to Andrea and her two children and ushers them inside. In the bible study room, she is told about the mobile food pantry that the congregation helps to sponsor, but in the meanwhile, he gives her a voucher that can be spent at the grocery store. Then he tells her about Sunday School, and she shuffles into the sanctuary to observe, somewhat awkwardly, the communion liturgy.

After the service it is the pastor who finds John, having skipped the usual routine of shaking hands. They talk, the pastor in his robes, and John in his blue jeans, about guilt and addiction, and about the Jesus who sets the prisoners free. They will talk again; John wants out from bondage, and the pastor wants to help him. The pastor returns into the building, and there he meets Andrea. She wants to talk to him privately. They go to his office, and she collapses, sobbing about the child she didn’t allow to live. This pastor has the privilege of placing his hand on her trembling head and declaring, “I forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.”

When all have left, the church is as dark as it was before anyone arrived that morning, but to the poor and needy of this community, it is a constant beacon of Light, shining the love of Christ into the darkness of their lives. The Light flows from this sanctuary into the world outside in a thousand different ways, carried by Christians who practice their faith as much outside the building as inside it. They can’t help it; Christ has shown them such great love and mercy within that sanctuary every Sunday morning that they can’t keep it to themselves. He has forgiven their sins, He has fed them with His Body and Blood, and now what else can they do but in joy take that love into the world?

A town has two churches, the same in almost every way. They have the same Lord, the same faith, the same Baptism. They have been shown the same love, given the same forgiveness. Neither church has earned such grace; even the congregation that showed such love has not contributed one bit toward their own salvation. Jesus declared, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” The righteousness that enters the kingdom of heaven is perfect righteousness, the righteousness of Christ applied to those who believe in His perfect life, death, and resurrection for their sake. No amount of good deeds can ever outweigh the sin; man could never earn salvation for himself, and so God Himself took our human flesh to achieve it. He died for you, he died for me, he died for all.

A town has two churches; both are called by God to repentance and faith, both are called by God to remember that while good works do not earn salvation in any way, faith without works is dead, worship without love is empty. The Church is salty, the Church is light, because the Church is forgiven. [Repeat] The love and care of the neighbor in need doesn’t earn forgiveness, it flows from that forgiveness into a world in desperate need of the love that the Church has in abundance. This love is given to you, it is given to me, it is given to the world; it is for all men. In the name of Jesus, Amen.

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