How did you get to church? What gets you here? What keeps you coming? You have options. I am always glad you are here. Years ago in a parish, an ample, elderly dear woman always attended. She’d huff and puff up the steps, take her seat. By sermon time, she’d be fast asleep. Once someone asked, “Steve, do you think it’s your sermons?” chuckle, chuckle.” “Probably, but I’d rather she sleep here than stay home.”
I was born into the church and never left. My parents took me from my beginning – only way I didn’t go was if I was contagious. I had doubts sometimes, but none that put my faith in God or the church at risk. I must have been good enough. I never had a Damascus Road experience like Paul’s. My story is pretty plain, uneventful, non-dramatic. When asked how I decided to be a minister, I replied, “Well if I’m always going anyway, I might as well get paid.”
Paul, on the other and, tells a heck of a story. He’d become a Jewish fundamentalist – a religious bully on steroids, harassing, terrorizing, arresting, and stoning Jews who liked Jesus better than Moses. You know his story. Jesus throws him down, and gets in his face: “What do you think you are doing?” and hands him a gospel to take to gentiles, not a plum assignment. It gets him in a ton of trouble. Persecutor becomes persecuted. Now Paul gets stalked, attacked, imprisoned, threatened, and exiled. That’s how Paul got to church.
I am glad when someone says they found Jesus. I never realized he was lost. Seriously, it’s called, “getting saved; born again.” The newly saved often become zealots for Jesus – has to tell everyone they meet, and save them. That’s why we run when we see them coming. Truly they mean well. I’d like to tell them, “Take a lesson from Paul, Galatians – Chapter One. Go off for a couple of years. Think about this a while. Get to know Jesus better. Then come back. Maybe you’ll have discovered something worth saying.”
Some have a miraculous conversion story. Most of us are good enough – pretty steady and consistent; go through our share of high and low seasons. Life is pretty good. We’re not bad people, but we can grow complacent. Faith gets stale, routine. We’re good enough. We’ve had all the saving we need. We are ones God has a harder time reaching. When you’re good enough the idea of needing a savior lessens. It’s hard to admit, “I get to church because I need God. God gets me to church.” It’s easier to talk about the pretty windows, stunning building wonderful music, our friends that get us here. All of that is great. But don’t even we, the slow, steady faith types, at the end of the day, get here for God?
Paul never could find the off switch on his zealous gene. Even if he was wrong about God at first, his self-assurance never suffers. He wrote the book, “Humility and How I Conquered It,” you know. He brags that people now glorify God when they see him coming. His ego is pretty vibrant. It still takes him three years, though, before he’s ready to come out for Jesus. And when he does, he forces the Jerusalem apostles to admit and certify the gospel to gentiles is legitimate. Gentiles don’t need to become Jewish to get to Jesus. God’s light can now shine on saints and sinners, Jews and Gentiles, agnostics and atheists, Muslim and Buddhist alike – was that way all along. Jesus lets the cat out of the bag. God’s love and grace are for all, not just some. Paul just can’t sit in the pews with this news. He’s driven, on the move, for the sake of Jesus. If Jesus could find and love him, we all ought to be relieved – or worried. Paul shows us not even his personality will get in God’s way. God takes us where we are – dramatic, quiet, and works through us. We don’t always recognize that. No one is too awful and broken for God to fix. It’s not all bad for Paul.
He picks up a lot of friends, and when his day is done, I imagine he went into the night, glad Jesus hunted him down. I suspect he could relate to Elijah with the woman’s son; to the widow and her dead young man. Both boys got raised out death. Paul got raised from death to life, too, before he finally died.
I asked the vestry for their thoughts. How did you get here? “I was invited, welcomed, not pressured, could find my place here.” And another question I asked: How do we show God’s love here? “In diversity, our openness and welcome to others, through outreach in the community, in the love and warmth of our fellowship; people feel they belong; they matter.”
These are ways God steadily and quietly works through us. People aren’t going to know this unless we get to know them – go where they are, build relationships, listen more than talk, and help them experience God’s love in us. That’s slow, steady work. It often takes time for God to settle into them – into us. God may arrive like a thunderous storm – or a still small voice, like my old friend whose faith was a quiet, consistent passion for God. And if she needed a nap during my sermon, I’d be the first to hand her a pillow.
Bottom line, we here because God’s grace has grabbed us, even if we don’t like to admit it. We’re here trying to adjust our lives to live with grace and love. God’s grace is not to be hoarded. It’s a gift we live and share – dynamic in its own way. Jesus says go into all the world. Take his gospel – live it. I wonder what would happen if we took the pews out? Just kidding. Instead, let’s remember to take God’s love and grace with us when we go from here, and not leave it behind in the pews.