Do You Come to Church to Be Shook up and Thrown Off Balance?

Do You Come to Church to Be Shook up and Thrown Off Balance?

Deuteronomy 12:4-14 and Luke 24: 13-35.

The Road to Emmaus is a favorite among favorite resurrection stories.
It promises, according to good Christian theology,
that God in Christ finds us where we are.

Knows more about our situations than we do ourselves.

And finds us for a purpose–
in order to reveal to us what we don’t yet understand.

Who’s not to like promises like that!

I think clergy appreciate the Road to Emmaus
because it reassures us
the pastor all alone isn’t responsible for everyone’s worship experience.
What do I mean?
Think about it… on any Sunday, it might actually be the Stranger…
the newcomer…
the unknown One…
the guest among us…
who is how it is that we receive our message from God,
through whom we meet the presence of God.

We might just be like that bread
in that no longer stranger’s hands…
broken for sure,
but transformed nonetheless
in ways that turn our lives around.

An impromptu roadside meal become a heavenly feast,
a stranger is actually the risen Lord,
high-tailing it away from danger and threat
turned around
to head back to Jerusalem with the Gospel of their experience.

I want to ask you to think with me for a minute this morning
what The Road to Emmaus says to us about worship.

First, Cleopas and his companion (or Geneva and Janice if it’s the Road from Emmaus!),
their story challenges us to expect and to find
something unusual, in our encounter with God.
terrifying really,
but ultimately wonderful.

Wherever we are on life’s road.
Their experience challenges us:
When have our hearts felt strangely warmed?
When have we experienced our minds opened?
Our souls unburdened?
Our fears dissipated?
Our courage strengthened?
Our resolve returned?

Beloved, the risen Christ can find us anywhere and everywhere, all the time…
But is there anything we can do to best meet Jesus along our church road?

First, let me ask, when you come to church, do you open ourselves to be surprised?
Yes, of course, we need to know enough about what’s going to happen, so that we can participate.
And there is something comforting about the week in and week out familiarity of tradition.
But church isn’t primarily about timeless sameness. It’ s about being confronted with what’s new.
Being surprised. Knocked a little off balance that you can see in a new way, reorganize your life and live better.

Think about Cleopas and his companion:
the leader had been crucified.
their little band had been scattered.

Jerusalem was — at this time for them — full of danger and paranoia, threat and fear…

Here’s their contribution to what happened to them:
They welcomed this stranger…
dared tell them their story, and in so doing,
identified themselves as followers of the Nazarene…

Sometimes we attempt to try to run away, to leave the realities of our world behind
in order to find some spiritual refuge or sanctuary in communion with God.

But our Christian faith, particularly our UCC faith,
suggest that God is as likely to be found
sleeves rolled up,
hands dirty,
in the midst of our mess, where our lives aren’t right, where our world’s broken.

Do you ever think that you are coming to church, not for some restful restoration, but
to wrestle with God like Jacob who meets God by the river Jabbok.
Jacob was expecting a fight with his estranged brother, Esau,
over the resentments of childhood, in their case a real double-dealing, that had festered for years.
But, instead, it was really God that Jacob had to wrestle with.
That’s telling.

Beloved, we may come to church on the run,
or overwhelmed,
or because we have no place else to go,
or all alone…

But do we come here each Sunday willing to be surprised and discomforted
and expecting to leave
changed,
restored,
risen with Him, if you will,
and forever after in the company of the one who is “the Light of the World?”

Do you come here really wanting to be received by Jesus, even if that reception is bracing?
hoping to hear Jesus, even if you don’t like what he says to you?
to learn from Jesus, even if it’s one of life’s hard lessons he has to teach?
to invite him to stay with you, if you need to rearrange your life to make that possible?
to be taken in his hands, and ironically let go of so much of the control and things you’re holding tight?
broken if necessary to make you whole?

Do we come to church so that we might become something different,
holy, a sacrament by which the whole world is fed.

My friend Earl, who is an Episcopal priest,
but grew up Disciples of Christ,
always teases me
that low church Protestant worship risks devolving into a business meeting
rather than a sacred encounter,
where we meet the ground of all being, the Divine.

There’s a challenge to us!
Do we open ourselves completely to the mystery and the wonder of this hour?
We can if we begin by confessing this is less about us,
and certainly completely out of our control
and much more about God who in Jesus wishes to come near to us.

Beloved, can we get ourselves out of the way,
that Jesus might find a way into our lives?

There’s so much more happening when we gather for worship
than meets the eye,
than we can get our reason and our minds around.

In a book called “Everybody’s Calvary,”
Alan Walker tells of a young minister in a little village chapel in Wales.

One Sunday, he invited the congregation
to stay after the morning prayer service,
quite like we do on the 3rd Sunday in this congregation

Only two people waited after worship.
He looked at the tiny congregation: two pensioners and a priest.
He was so disappointed.
He almost cancelled the communion service.

But deciding to go on, he came to the point in the liturgy
where the ancient words of the Anglican ritual read:

“Therefore with angels and archangels
and all the company of heaven,
we worship and adore thy glorious name.”

The young minister stopped,
grabbed by the wonder of it all.

There in his nondescript chapel
in an out of the way village,
beside 3 humble Christians,

“…Angels and archangels and the whole company of heaven.”

“God, please forgive me,” he prayed silently,
“I failed to recognize the company I was keeping.”

From his story, I’ve never been sure he’d recognized that Jesus was present too.

Remember how at Dothan, Elisha opened the eyes of his servant,
so that he might recognize the unseen host that encompassed them from heaven.

Sometimes, when I stand in the pulpit looking out at you all,
I begin to focus on who isn’t here.
It’s easy for a pastor to get caught up in the folks he hoped would be here,
but aren’t.

Some because I worry what’s kept them away.
Some because I trust the gathered community and worship would be ministry for their journey.
Some because I was looking forward to seeing them here.

Yes, I miss you when you aren’t here at church.
But, I believe, I’m more faithful,
I’m pastoring better,
when looking out, I can recognize
what a miraculous gathering we have in this Sanctuary.

And even better, when I start to sense Jesus there near you.

Whenever just 2 or 3 are gathered in his name,

together to pray,
to sing,
to talk,
to serve…

…whenever just 2 or 3 can manage to recognize Jesus in our gathering,
he’s there too.

God, forgive us, we do not always remember and see, much less behave,
as if we are in such company.

Beloved, worship isn’t something to do out of habit,
or as a burden of duty.
Or a hallmark of your respectability.
Or some satisfaction of convention.

Your engagement in the life of the church
is your hope to encounter Jesus as he passes by.

Sandra will be baptized next Sunday.
We talked yesterday.
She explains that her belief in God
is mostly something she’s come to by herself.

I responded: “and now, in baptism,
besides, as you said, wanting to commit your whole life to Christ,
you are opening yourself to the ways
that the church can help you on your journey.”

This handsome building.
Majestic music.
Heartfelt prayers.
A short sermon… don’t make a church.

If you would have spoken to Peter or Paul or Jesus about the church
as a building, they would have scratched their heads and thought you a bit sketchy.

The Congregationalists refer to their sanctuaries as Meeting Houses.
Because the church can’t ultimately be a building or an institution.
It’s an assembly of people,
Those who’ve encountered and mean to stay close by the Risen Christ.

We make God’s work in Christ harder
if our backs are turned,
if our most vital energies and deepest hopes are dedicated elsewhere,
if our eyes are clouded with criticism and doubt.

Let’s turn around.
Look into one another’s eyes with love and thanksgiving.
Whisper a quiet “yes,”
an “Amen” deep in our souls.

I did my taxes this past week–
maybe that’s why today’s sermon is more bracing than most!
Yes, late, but with an extension,
and I was remined that
according to current IRS regulation,
your gifts to this church are only tax deductible if (and I quote):
“you have received nothing from the church in exchange for the gift.”

But we’re church members, not church customers.

One can’t expect to get much out of life, if one doesn’t put much in it.
The same may be true for church…

Come prepared.
Even if you got up late and are running out the door…
even if your spouse or your kids t-ed you off and made it hard this morning,
say a prayer for them and all who will meet, and that we all will meet Jesus.

And come seeking:
There’s never REALLY business as usual here.
There’s always someone new.
Always some opportunity to do or say something healing.
Always so much hurting.
Always the possibility that your might life might be completely turned around.

Know why you come,
and what you are doing here — because you want God, and the change that relationship makes in your life.

Finally, come here determined to give and share.
If we bring not only our physical bodies,
but also bring our love and devotion…
we make it a lot easier for Jesus…

As Cleopas and his companion
drew near the village of Emmaus,
the Stranger “appeared to be going further.”

I’ve always wondered why?

… maybe because there were other lonely, desperate folk?

…or because the only way to stay with Jesus is to go onward with Him?

or, maybe, Jesus wants us to invite Him in?
…because somehow, even God’s job is easier, Jesus way is clearer,
when we are in touch with our own deep needs and desires…
and a Godly kind of hospitality
that knows itself as a guest, not the host, even in our own homes.

Abide with us,
tarry with us at least a little while longer, Lord Jesus.
We need you.
Amen.