(shared with the people of Friendship Church, May 29, 2005)
It happened about ten years ago. I had a Sunday off, but my family and I were still in town. We decided to worship at the church where a friend of mine pastored. We arrived about ten minutes before the service was to begin. People were in the lobby of the church buidling, enjoying coffee and conversation. Nobody seemed to want to acknowledge our existence.
During worship, the congregation shared the peace. But as I recall, only one or two people made the effort to greet us. I forced a few more into doing so by greeting them myself.
After worship ended, there was a line to greet the pastor at the door and guess what? The pastor was the only person who spoke to us the rest of that morning.
Tomorrow is Memorial Day, dedicated to remembering all those who, through the past two centuries, have given their lives so that we can live in freedom in America. America is a nation dedicated to the proposition that there are no throwaway people. As a country, we believe, what President Franklin Roosevelt declared in a speech in 1941 that a nation is at its best when it guarantees four freedoms to its people: freedom of speech and expression, freedom to worship as we choose, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. When human beings are granted these four freedoms, we believe that even those regarded as trash by the rest of the world prove to be treasures. That’s why that famous poem by Emma Lazarus is etched in stone on the Statue of Liberty, the imposing lady who welcomes so many to our country:
"Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"
But if our country believes that there are no throwaway people, our experience at my friend’s church makes me wonder, “What do we believe as followers of Jesus Christ?"
Do we think that there are some people worthy of just being ignored or forgotten because we don’t know them or we don’t like them?” I have my suspicions.
Years ago, a man who traveled a lot wrote to a syndicated columnist to say that in the preceding two years, he had worshiped or attended functions at 195 churches. But in all of them, he said, “I was spoken to in only one by someone other than an official greeter--and that was to ask me to move my feet.”
The mission statement of our congregation says, “Friendship Church is a welcoming and caring people who seek to share the kindness of God so that all metropolitan Cincinnati may grow in the faith, hope, and love of the living Jesus Christ!” Those are more than just words. There’s a reason that we adopted them as a summary of our congregation’s mission.
The fact is, none of us deserves these wonderful gifts God offers us through Jesus. Born slaves to sin, none of us can, by the things we do, ever be good enough to erase its stain from our souls. That’s why Paul, the writer of our Bible lessons for this morning, says, ““All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”
But there is good news! The God of the universe offers us a freedom that’s better, more precious, more wonderful, more life-changing, and more enduring than any freedom that a nation could ever offer or that any soldier, however heroic, could win.
It’s freedom from sin and the freedom to be who God made us to be.
It’s freedom from death and the freedom to live forever with God.
It’s freedom from futility and the freedom to live for the purposes God had in mind when He made us in the first place.
Paul writes about the freedom God offers in our first Bible lesson this morning. Let me read it to you in the translation of the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible:
For I am not ashamed of the gospel [the good news of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection]; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, ‘The one who is righteous will live by faith.’God believes that none of the children He lovingly formed in their mothers’ wombs is a throwaway person.
God believes that every human soul has so much value that He was willing to die for us.
Jesus has come to pull us out of sin and death and pull us close to God for all eternity.
The gospel--the good news--of Jesus, Paul says, has the power to do this. The word in the original Greek of the New Testament that’s translated as power is dunamis. We get words like dynamite, dynamic, and dynamo from this.
Think of that! God can use His dynamic, explosive, infinite power in any way He chooses. When you consider all the ways we hurt and disappoint God with our selfishness and greed, the most natural thing in the world for Him would be to just wipe us out. I certainly think of that when I remember how often I’ve sinned and hurt him. One of the prayers most often on my lips each day is a simple one, “God, I thank You that for whatever reason, You haven’t killed me.” I’m amazed by that because I know what a terrible sinner I am!
But God does amazing things for those who believe in Jesus. He uses His power for us. He pulls them out of the trash heaps of life and saves us to live brand new lives filled with His love forever!
Knowing that, floods my heart with thankfulness to God and sometimes, when I think about God’s love in Christ, even I--big-mouthed, ever-verbal Mark--can do nothing but shake my head or cry from happiness.
I think that Paul felt this way, too. That’s no doubt why he wrote to the Christians in the little church in first-century Rome that we, who have been saved simply because they believe in Jesus, have no reason for boasting or self-righteousness or being judgmental of others. None of us has any reason to regard others as throwaway people. After all, God hasn’t thrown us away although that’s what we deserve!
Years ago, I knew a man--I’ll call him Sam--who befriended a guy--I’ll name Joe. Everybody else saw Joe as a loser. Joe was slowly destroying his life with drink and selfishness. He had been unable to sustain any friendships or dating relationships because of his fierce temper, his workaholism, and a love of money that crowded out everyone and everything. But Sam worked hard to befriend Joe. Sam never preached to Joe, but like Paul in our Bible lesson, he wasn’t afraid to admit that Jesus was the absolute center of his life. One day, Sam invited Joe to hang out with his family for a holiday get-together. (It may have been for a Memorial Day picnic.) On the way home, Joe became silent and asked Sam, “What is it that you’ve got, Joe? You’ve got less money than I do, but you’ve never asked me for a dime. I’ve seen you drink a beer, but I’ve never seen you drunk. You work hard, but you still have room for people in your life. How do you do it?” Sam was able to tell Joe that it was nothing he did, it was the power of Jesus working in his life and, he said, that same power was available to Joe and anyone who dares to believe in Jesus. (Except for a few name changes, that’s a true story!)
The Church is God’s recycling center. Here, everyone is welcome. Here, all are invited to come and let God’s truth be spoken to them--the truth that we are all sinners in need of a Savior, that Jesus wants to save us all, that if we will turn from sin and walk with Him, He’ll change our lives for the better forever, that He will be with us always. God wants to help all the Joes of the world by deputizing you and I to welcome them in Jesus’ Name.
People always tell me that when they visit Friendship Church, one person after another welcomes them. They say, “When I worshiped at your church, I sensed Jesus was there more authentically and more deeply than I have in any church I have ever visited.” That’s good to hear, of course. May I always hear it!
Over these next few weeks, we’re going to explore what it means to be God’s welcoming people. But if you want to know what I’m going to say in a nutshell, it’s this: God has welcomed you and me with open arms; our call is to do the same for the whole world!
God wants us to share the power of the Good News with others so that, like us, through their faith in Jesus, they too will be yanked from the world’s refuse piles and placed in the kingdom of God forever!