What are you looking for?
Text: Matthew 11:2-11
Grace and peace be unto you from God who is our Creator and from Jesus Christ who is our Savior and our Friend. Amen.
Earlier this week I read a sweet article by a Presbyterian pastor titled “Who Will Decorate the Church?” She began her essay by writing that it’s too bad that Santa can’t deliver Barbie Dream Churches. What’s a Barbie Dream Church? Well, she says it’s a congregation where the volunteers are as plentiful as the money, and also where the coffee is as strong as coffee should be.
Pastor Jackson mused that a Barbie Dream Church would be especially useful to have in advance of the winter holiday rush. She writes, “I’ve discovered that… the Advent message of those walking in darkness having a light shine upon them loses its powerful punch of hope to a more pressing matter at hand: How will the church get decorated for Christmas?”
“Who will climb those steep stairs to pull out the boxes of greenery? Who is willing to go down into the belly of the church basement to find the lights? Who will get the 10-foot Christmas tree that has been propped near the baptismal font for the last 20 years? Who is going to make Christmas happen, especially in a church that has fewer hands to help?”
Pastor Jackson continued, “I’ve been serving small churches for 12 years, and while there are times when I wonder what it would be like to be in a big cathedral with professional choirs and professional Christmas decorators, I wouldn’t trade my sparsely filled pews.”
“Small churches are a gift from God, as they can be examples of how God can do so much with so little — that is, do so much with so little if we just let go of how we think things should be, including what Christmas in the church should look like.”
Herod Antipas, the ruler of Galilee, was a typical dictator and low-life thug. He had thrown John in prison for speaking the truth publicly about Herod’s corruption. From prison, John sent his disciples to Jesus with a question.
"Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?"
“Jesus answered them, "Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them." In other words, these are the signs of the Kingdom. Go and tell John that you see them.
Then, Jesus turned to the crowd and asked them a question
about John: "What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? Someone dressed in soft robes? What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, and more than a prophet.”
Interestingly, the reed shaken by the wind and someone dressed in soft robes are both references to Herod. Herod issued a coin in his name with a reed on it, and he lived in luxury in more than one king’s palace.
Jesus asked the people who had heard that a Messiah figure had arisen, “What did you go out to see? A king? Because if you sought an earthly ruler with wealth and power, that is not what God sent.
On the other hand, if you went looking for a prophet, someone who speaks for God on behalf of the poor and the oppressed, then you found him.
You know, this year we also asked, “Who will decorate the church for Advent and Christmas?” For Thanksgiving Lutheran it was a poignant question. This is TLC’s first Christmas since leaving Fulton Street. Would they/we be welcome to make this sanctuary feel like home? Speaking of huge Christmas trees, would there be space for TLC’s beloved, ten foot tall tree and would someone help Jordan get it in here?
Fortunately, the answer was yes on all counts. Thank you, Knox.
For Knox, the question was, is Jo Ann willing to decorate the church once again, and is anyone willing to help? The answer is that Rich and Gary hung the greens, and then last Sunday, between services, volunteers from both TLC and Knox decorated the worship space and the narthex with items from both churches. And we sang Christmas carols together.
I really hope that this year both congregations feel at home in their space, not only because of familiar decorations, but because there is love and acceptance here, and sharing, and old traditions, but also new ones.
However, this week I’ve been pondering the bigger question. Not just who will decorate the church, but what did you come to see? When you think of a church, in your mind’s eye, what do you see? What is your Barbie Dream Church? In your subconscious, what is it supposed to be like?
Maybe it’s the church of your childhood. It certainly had more people, and many more children. It was probably more homogenous –maybe even made up of people with the same ethnic background – and the pastors were men and there weren’t any LGBTQ+ folks that you knew of.
Maybe the way the church is supposed to be is a place where
people don’t disagree, let alone argue. One of the things I hear people say who have left the church is that they think the church is full of hypocrites. Well, yeah. It is. As St. Augustine said, "The church is not a hotel for saints, it is a hospital for sinners."
What else does the Barbie Dream Church look like? My guess is that it has a special kind of music, does it not? It either absolutely has an organ with several ranks of pipes, or it absolutely does not have an organ and instead has a band with guitar and drums. In a real church people stand and sing hymns except for the real churches where people lift up their hands to contemporary tunes.
Communion can define what people are looking for, can’t it? It must be every Sunday or it must not, and for some communion must be from a common cup except for those who find that icky and prefer a little individual cup. Real wine or grape juice? Yes.
What did you come out to see?
All those things matter, of course. Traditions make us who we and are, and they are beautiful and meaningful. We just have to be sure they don’t limit or even strangle us, preventing new growth. But I don’t think that even something as important as tradition is what makes a church a church.
Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; 6then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; 8A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way; the unclean shall not travel on it, but it shall be for God’s people; no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray.
10And the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.
These are the signs of a church. These are the signs of the Kingdom of God. Jesus said, Go tell John what you see and hear. the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. If these things are happening it means God is present.
This Advent we’re imagining what it means to walk with God, and this week Isaiah presents us with a vision of a highway. It’s God’s holy way. It’s broad and flat and straight and it’s safe. Best of all, Isaiah says, no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray. Now that’s my kind of highway.
Knox Presbyterian/Thanksgiving Lutheran, let’s be that kind of church on that kind of highway. That’s not a dream, it’s a vision and with the coming of Jesus it is reality, even if not fully.
When we see the true church, it’s not one where no one ever disagrees and where we know every single hymn and the organist never makes a mistake, not least of which because that church doesn’t exist. No, the true church is one that cares for the poor and the oppressed, that feeds the hungry, stands with the immigrant and stranger, and visits the prisoner and the sick.
The church of Jesus Christ is one that believes, prays, worships, loves, and serves. Let us see a church with Christ at the center. A church with Christ’s own heart. A church walking with God on God’s holy way. Amen.