Sermon by: Robert Austell
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“Robert, will you come lead a retreat with us on music and worship? We are trying to draw younger families into the church.”
That’s basically the invitation I got from a church in the western part of the state. And last weekend I went to that church to lead an officer/staff retreat and then preach on Sunday morning.
During one of the breaks at the Saturday retreat, having heard about our music, worship, and mission at Good Shepherd, someone asked me if things ever got “messy” at church, meaning chaotic, loud, and disruptive. And was there any push back to it? Because already they had received some complaints about children wiggling and whispering in their very quiet and reverent service.
I responded, “Yes, definitely; but it’s a glorious mess!”
What are they to do about these “twitchy children?” Should guidelines for behavior be passed out at the door of the sanctuary? Should only well-behaved families be allowed to join? Those questions are a bit tongue-in-cheek, but they also unmask a bit the attitude behind the resistance. And I think it is an interaction and a “problem” worth a closer look.
Before I go further, here’s my premise: though God is a God of order, and there are examples of teaching that calls a chaotic congregation to better order (like 1 Corinthians and 1 Timothy); there is also such a thing as a “glorious mess” where people become more concerned about encountering and obeying Jesus than about external appearance or pleasing people first. Let me share some examples of the mess we’ve got now. Then we’ll look at our two texts for today and consider if there may be even more mess yet to come.
The Mess We’ve Got Now
This person who was asking me these questions asked me if we had any such “mess” at Good Shepherd and how we had handled it. I told her, then the whole group, that we indeed had a fair bit of mess going on, but I saw it not primarily as something to be stamped out, but to be celebrated as a sign of obedience to God’s mission. I think there are a number of examples of this kind of “mess” at Good Shepherd; let me share a few.
CHILDREN: Do you realize how many children and young families have come into the church in the last five years? Yes, you probably do, because the noise level has gone up significantly – and running, zipping, darting knee-high bodies. And parents do work at the noise and the running, but there is an unavoidable increase in the mess. A few weeks ago the children’s choir sang and there were about 30 kids up for the children’s sermon. We have children stay with us on communion Sundays. All that adds to the noise level and the chaos – to the mess. But it is a glorious sign of life and God’s presence among us!
STAGE: Do you realize how unusual this is [full stage covering 1/3 of sanctuary]? In many, many churches, a drama ministry would have been relegated to the church basement, kept away from the holy space and the holy carpet and the holy furniture in the sanctuary. But what you have embraced is God speaking through our drama. That we had sawdust or scratches or staging in the sanctuary is definitely a “mess,” but it is a glorious one, full of God’s Word and Spirit.
MUSIC: Do you realize how unique our music ministry is? I know there has been discomfort at times over music style or all the extra wires and equipment in the sanctuary, but you have persevered in unity and I trust have seen how God works through diverse music, musicians, and styles to meet us in worship through music. Of the few churches (still a minority) who have added contemporary forms of music to worship, MOST separate that music out and hide it away where it won’t make a mess. That we have let go of personal preferences and stay united as one family of faith through worship is glorious!
PEOPLE: One of the most admitted weaknesses of the Christian church is its economic and racial homogeneity or sameness. When we welcome people different from ourselves, it feels messy – or awkward. I believe our obedience in reaching out to our neighborhood has first manifested on Wednesday nights as a glorious mess. I don’t quite have the words to describe Wednesday night dinner; you really need to see it first-hand to experience it. There are many children, many of whom are friends and guests. There are many teenagers, many of whom are friends and guests. There is a growing group of middle school boys from Brighton Place that come for dinner and tutoring – often running around and fairly loud. There are regularly 3-5 men from the Swan’s Run group home who have become part of our family. They are sweet as they can be, but can be socially awkward, laughing loudly or hugging affectionately. And many of the adults attending on Wednesday night are folks relatively new to the church; some have not joined, but consider this their church home. Now we could tell all the new people and all the neighborhood people to go away, and send all the children and youth off to another building and have a very nice, quiet, and reverent adult meal together, but I think we’d REALLY be missing God’s plan for us. Instead, any given Wednesday night I look around during dinner – and it really is pretty chaotic – and I think, “This is what church is supposed to look like!”
Both of the scripture texts we heard involved mess and what I’d call “push back” from some of the people involved. In the second text, some parents brought their children to see Jesus. I’m sure it was loud and disruptive – not the usual setting for a master Rabbi to speak his words of wisdom. So the disciples stepped in to get those kids out of there. “Hush them; get them away from the Master!” But Jesus stopped the disciples and welcomed the children to him, saying, “Let the children alone, and do not hinder them from coming to me; for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” (Mt. 19:14)
Yes, children are wiggly, noisy, and messy! But what we are doing here isn’t just for adults; it is for them and those like them, maybe especially so! So, I don’t deny the mess exists, or the awkwardness, or even the irritation sometimes. I’ll tell you that every time a child sits next to the worship team platform during the children’s sermon and starts playing with the microphone stand, I get on the edge of my seat, ready to jump over and catch it before it all comes crashing down. But it is well worth any awkwardness for each and every one of those children to be here in God’s house surrounded by the family of God. It is well worth any awkwardness for the boys from Brighton Place to be learning how to be better students here in God’s house with some folks who are showing them outright grace. It is well worth any awkwardness – significant awkwardness – to figure out how to include the group home guys and extend God’s love to them by welcoming them. That is true religion. That is what this is about – not wearing coats and ties or using our fancy words when we pray or hearing a pin drop (hard to do on our carpet!); but being obedient to God’s mission for us, even if that creates a glorious mess.
The other text, from Matthew 9, is similar, but goes a bit further. In it, too, Jesus is on God’s mission and things get messy. But instead of now reaching out to sweet (if noisy) little children, Jesus is reaching out to known sinners, people whose lives are a mess in some very un-sweet ways.
He is eating with tax collectors, considered traitors and thieves. Again Jesus corrects those pushing back against him and says, “It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are sick… I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Matthew 9:12,13b)
This is at the heart of the mission of Jesus that we keep talking about. Jesus said that he came to “seek and to save the lost.” And that means mess! As we continue to engage in God’s mission inside and outside our church walls, I believe things will get messier yet. And that may well be unsettling, feel awkward, and make us nervous; but it is not something back away from, but something to embrace and celebrate as a sign of obedience to Jesus.
Messier Yet for the Lord
I want to briefly mention several areas in which I think we might grow further yet – in obedience and perhaps in “messiness.”
The first is outside the walls and is simply pressing on where we have begun. As we press on in reaching out to our neighbors and neighborhood, increasingly we will connect with folks who are less and less churched. Years ago, I challenged the leadership and the congregation not to be content with “low-hanging fruit” – that is, the people who are already church-goers and who may move into our neighborhood. We can simply advertise in the paper and on Christian radio and have good programs and reach more churched people who are moving for one reason or another. But for many of our neighbors, we are the closest and best chance to encounter Jesus Christ. It takes time to build relationships, earn trust, and prove ourselves good neighbors. And as we continue to meet and welcome people who are not used to “church” we will be challenged to accept them, messiness and all!
Another specific area which we seem to be moving toward is reaching out to those struggling with sexual conflict or addiction. While just speaking of the topic already brings a certain level of awkwardness and mess, I believe we are positioned well with both truth and grace (remember those two things?) to minister effectively. Tragically, those struggling in these areas find such a strong push back from most churches that there is no opportunity to encounter God’s grace and truth. Christ-filled ministry in this area is needed outside and inside the church walls, and I believe God is opening doors and preparing people to lead in just that area.
Two weeks ago I reminded you that our ministry within the walls is no less for all the challenge to minister outside the walls. This is true in terms of “getting messy” as well. The church is not a museum for “finished masterpieces” but a hospital for the sick. Within our walls we have financial crisis, struggling marriages, desperate people, depression, and much more. We hope to provide contexts to engage those situations with people you trust and respect – with our Wednesday night small groups, our blended families group, pastoral counseling, and more. But I understand that kind of mess is sometimes what we avoid most of all. If there’s anything this play should remind us of, it is the importance and the real hope of facing the mess, surrounded by prayer and godly counsel. If you are among the many who have your own significant mess going on right now, don’t push it away, but seek help. And know that at least as far as I am concerned – and I believe this whole church family – it is nothing to be ashamed of, but something for which we will stand with you, pray with you, and struggle with you.
Finally, the very pattern of Christian life is to deal with mess and not turn away from it. This is most personally true internally, within the walls of our own skin and heart. The pattern of life for a Christian is not one of arrival and perfection, but one of regularly examining one’s self, facing the mess, and leaning on God’s grace. This is the process of conviction and repentance. We include it every week in our service, but it is meant to be a daily or even more frequent part of life. Where is there mess in my own life? Will I ignore it and pretend it’s not there? Will I confess it to God (and perhaps to others) and seek God’s help and forgiveness? I think sometimes our resistance to the mess of sin and struggle “out there” or even “in here” [church] is that it reminds us of what’s going on in our own lives, and we don’t want to face that.
I call all this “glorious mess,” not because there’s anything good about sin or struggle or mess itself, but because Jesus’ favorite place to be is right in the middle of it. He very rarely hung out in the Temple, but spent his time in messy places.
So hear this Good News: as we follow Christ, we will become more and more aware of the messiness of life, inside and outside the church walls, even inside our own hearts; but God is good and has come ALL THE WAY DOWN to where we live, and it is there that He has declared, “I am for you; come to me, all who struggle and are heavy-laden, and find rest for your souls.” Amen.