Monday, January 10, 2011

A Sermon Entitled: It's Hard to be the Church

On a couple of occasions, I have shared the following story about little Ben Hooper. It’s original title is, " "Do You Know Who His Daddy Is?"

Ben Hooper was born many years ago in the foothills of Tennessee, and at that time, children who were born like Ben-to an unwed mother were treated terribly. By the time he was three years old, the other children would scarcely play with him. He would overhear adults saying things like, "What’s a boy like that doing playing with our children?" And, "Did you ever figure out who his daddy is?"

There was no kindergarten in those days, so when Ben turned six, he went to first grade. At recess, he stayed at his desk studying while all the other kids went outside to play. No one would play with him. At noon, little Ben could be found eating his sack lunch all alone.

It was a big event when anything changed in the foothills of East Tennessee, and when little Ben was 12 years old, a new pastor came to shepherd the little church in Ben’s town.

Almost immediately, little Ben started hearing exciting things about him–about how loving and non-judgmental he was. How he accepted people just as they were, and when he was with them, he made them feel like the most important people in the world.

One Sunday, though he had never been to a church a day in his life, little Ben Hooper decided he was going to hear the preacher. He got there late and he left early because he did not want to attract any attention, but he liked what he heard. For the first time in that young boy’s life, he caught just a glimmer of hope.

Ben was back in church the next Sunday and the next and the next. He always got there late and always left early, but his hope kept building.

On about the sixth or seventh Sunday, the message was so moving and exciting that Ben became absolutely enthralled with it. It was almost as if there were a sign behind the preacher’s head that read, "For you, little Ben Hooper of unknown parentage, there is hope!" Ben got so wrapped up in the message, he forgot about the time and didn’t notice that a number of people had come in after he had taken his seat.

Suddenly the services were over. Ben very quickly stood up to leave as he had in all the Sunday’s past, but the aisles were clogged with people, and he couldn’t run out. As he was working his way through the crowd, he felt a hand on his shoulder. He turned around and looked up, right into the eyes of the young preacher who asked him a question that had been on the mind of every person there for the past 12 years, "Whose boy are you?"

Instantly, the church grew deathly quiet. Slowly, a smile started to spread across the face of the young preacher until it broke into a huge grin, and he exclaimed, "Oh! I know whose boy you are! Why, the family resemblance is unmistakable. You are a child of God!"

And with that, the young preacher swatted him across the rear and said, "That’s quite a heritage you’ve got there, boy! Now, go and see to it that you live up to it!"

Now, I’ve told this story in regards to baptism and how God’s love extends even to this young boy, and I think we all sympathize with little Ben Hooper. I think we all appreciate the preacher who ministered to little Ben. But as I thought long and hard about the nature of baptism and the reality of the church, I decided the story was incomplete. So I took a little bit of time to add the next chapter to the Ben Hooper saga, and it’s entitled, "The Fallout."

The young preacher walked into his office on Monday morning with a grin on his face. He had been reflecting on Sunday’s worship service and his meeting with little Ben Hooper. He had seen Ben on numerous occasions, knew the story of his birth and his subsequent trouble fitting in. The preacher also had seen Ben in church several weeks in a row, and he noticed how Ben slipped in late and left early. The preacher had prayed for an opportunity to speak to Ben, and the Holy Spirit had orchestrated an almost perfect meeting. The preacher was certain Ben would be back and one of these days would commit his life to Christ. Thinking over this made the preacher grin even larger.

But then, the preacher saw the envelope on his desk. It was addressed to him, but it was done with a type writer. "Why didn’t they just write my name on this?" the preacher thought to himself. But as he began to read, he understood. The letter was typewritten as well, and the preacher’s hands began to shake as he read it.

"Dear preacher," the letter started. "A group of us got together yesterday afternoon for a social, and Sunday morning’s church service became the topic of conversation. Now, don’t get us wrong when we say this. You’ve done marvelous things for the congregation. Folks are coming much more regular than they used to. But, we’ve got a few concerns.

We admire what you said to little Ben Hooper. We believe he needs to know God’s love just like the rest of us. But we are wondering just what the fallout will be. I mean, did you consider the fact he might go home to his mother and tell her what happened? Did you consider he might ask her to come to church with him one Sunday morning? What would folks think about us if a woman like that came waltzing in on a Sunday morning? Do you think that would be good for our congregation?

Why, before you know it, we’d have a room full of loose women, of folks who tip the bottle too much, of folks who swear and cuss, of people who have been divorced and who have catted around on their families. Do we really want a church made up of such people? Not that we are telling you what to do preacher, but think about what you are doing and what you say to such folks."

The letter of course wasn’t signed, and the preacher sat down heavily in his chair. He picked up the phone and called all the elders and asked them to come to a meeting that night.

At the meeting, the preacher presented the letter to the elders. They each read it, and in the next two hours, each had plenty to say. Some sided with what the preacher had done and talked of how Jesus came to the sinners. Some sided with what the folks said in the letter commenting how the church should stand against sin and keep such folks at arms length until they showed true transformation in their lives. Heated arguments broke out all around the room, but little was done to resolve the issue.

When things seemed to settle for just a moment, the preacher chimed in. All eyes were riveted on him. "Folks," he said. "It’s hard to be the church. What I mean to say is, if we were a club, it would be easy. We could let in those who we wanted. We could keep out others. We could make sure that anybody who joined was exactly like us and shared the same principles and values we shared. That would be pretty easy, but instead, we call ourselves a church.

As I thought and prayed all day, I came across a passage from the book of Galatians. St. Paul writes, "For as many of you have been baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek. There is no longer slave or free. There is no longer male or female. For all of you are one in Christ Jesus."

It seems to me this passage means the challenge of the church is to be able to sit down and worship with someone who is not like you. Jews and Greeks were totally opposite folks. The same with slaves and free. And you all know there’s big differences between male and female. But in the church, there isn’t. When we’re baptized, we are clothed with Christ. That doesn’t mean we give up all of who we are, but He covers us up. Sure, we need to change our ways and repent, but don’t folks need to be here in order to hear His Word, be forgiven, and experience His love so that they can change? Seems to me, we have a decision before us. Do we want to be a club? Or do we want to be a church? Just to let you know, it’s hard to be the church."

With that, the preacher closed his Bible and sat looking at the elders with expectation.

The elders sat in silence. Amen.

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