So, what brought you here? Because, the truth is many people don’t bother with Sunday morning worship. Years ago, Willow Creek Community Church, a mega-church near Chicago, did a door-to-door survey asking: If you don’t go to church, why? The five biggest reasons: 1) Church is boring, 2) Church is irrelevant, 3) They’re asking for money all the time, 4) I’m too busy already, 5) I feel awkward at church. Let me add another reason: It’s just easier to stay home on Sunday. You only get two days off. Sometimes it’s hard to get the kids fed and dressed and your partner or spouse to cooperate. Or you are up at the crack of dawn bringing kids to sports practices and games. Wouldn’t it better to sleep in and read the paper, or get up and hit the tennis courts or the golf course and enjoy a leisurely day?
Mainline Protestant denominations like the UCC have lost millions of members over the last 30 years. Nobody knows why, although sociologists, theologians, congregational consultants, and pollsters all have different ideas. Over time, those of us who work in churches have heard dozens of reasons why people don’t attend Sunday worship. Here just a few reasons:
I'm allergic to my religion. I don't like going to church because the minister is too loud and the man behind me keeps coughing! I don't want to go to church because my kids don't want to go and I can't find a babysitter for them. I might as well not go. The last time I went to church, the pastor told us about someone who was burned at the stake for believing in God! I don't want that to happen to me now do I? If I enter a church, it might get struck with lightning.That much church can kill a person. I can't go to church, my name is Judas. I have to wash the car. I need to mow the yard. I worship God at home when I'm alone. My cat is a prophet. I get all my godly advice straight from the cat's mouth. If the cat doesn't tell me to go to church, I consider it great wisdom of the prophet. God made Football . . . doesn't that cover it? I don't go to church on Sunday because getting the kids dressed in their Sunday Best first thing in the morning makes me cuss and curse the Lord . . . very loudly. Nobody notices when I'm not there. They don't sing the songs I like. The organ is too loud. It's too stuffy, why don't they open some windows.There are too many sinners in church.There are too many hypocrites in church.The sermon is too long. The service is too long. I have nothing to wear. I work six days a week. The seventh day belongs to me. I'm not good enough. They don't meet my needs.With all that said, for some reason, each one of us are ‘in here’ rather than ‘out there’ this morning. I just want to say, I’m glad you’re here. Some of us have come here because we are always here.. Some of us are not usually found in church on a Sunday, but we’re here because it’s Easter, after all! Others of us have come because someone invited us, or someone forced us, or bribed us, or somehow made us feel guilty about not coming to church. No matter what, I am so glad you’re here. I want you to know that no matter who you are, no matter where you came from, no matter how you feel about church, no matter what your faith background, no matter your hurts, pains, or emotional baggage, no matter whether you came willingly or kicking and screaming, you are welcome here. And I want to offer the hospitality of our congregation to you. If you are visiting with us, or if you are checking us out, we welcome you. I want to get a chance to know you some more, and learn about who you are, and listen to your feelings about churches, so please do Pastor Amy and me the honor of introducing yourself to us before you leave today.
I say all that because, on Easter Sunday, something brought you all here. I want you to think about a time when you felt God was close and you were in the presence of the Holy. Some of you might be thinking that you felt God
when you recited a creed,
or when you sang a favorite hymn,
or when a sermon spoke to you,
or when you read a favorite scripture or spiritual writing
or when you prayed,
A lot of people will say things like,
“It was when my first child was horn, and I held this flesh of my flesh close to me”, or
“When I hear the sound of’ a gentle summer rain on a tin roof at night”, or
“When I am walking in an open field by myself on a winter day and millions of absolutely perfect snowflakes are falling all around me”, or
“When I lay on my back on a perfectly clear night and see millions of stars shining their light from millennia past’.
People connect with God outside of the church all the time. So, what’s going on in here?
If you travel to the seminary at Princeton University, you will see a beautiful little Greek revival chapel where students and faculty worship. 80 years ago that little chapel was not located on the main campus. The building was actually moved there. Workers jacked the building up, put wheels under it and pulled it to its present location with a tractor. It evidently attracted a lot of attention in Princeton. People stopped along the sidewalk to see this little church bouncing along behind a tractor to its new home. One of the people who stopped to see it move was none other than Albert Einstein. As he watched the little chapel bounce along the lawn to its new spot, he began to smile. And then he said something – “That little box is too small to hold God.”
Those words ought to be inscribed over the portals of every church building in the world, whether it’s a small congregational church or St. Peter’s Basilica,
“This little box is too small to hold God.”
“This little creed is too small to hold God.”
“This little bible is too small to hold God.’”
I don’t think we needed to come here to find God. It’s not as if when you leave the church building you are removed from God’s presence. We can find God everywhere. Maybe we are here for something else. Maybe we are here to listen to the account of the God whose costly, death-defying love embraces the whole world. Maybe we are here to be reminded that we have not been abandoned, no matter who we are or what we’ve done, or what our circumstances may be. Easter reminds us that a compassionate God knows us by name, and loves us, and forgives us, and embraces us and never lets us go. That is what we tell in here, …and sing in here...and believe in here. We come into the sanctuary to once again hear the story of the great generosity of God. And then hearing that Story—
we see what we could not have seen otherwise,
we imagine what we could not have imagined otherwise,
we hear what we could not have heard otherwise,
we do what we could not have done otherwise.
And it then it becomes our opportunity and delight to say, “Thank you, God. Thank you.”
A graduate of Columbia Theological Seminary in Atlanta, told a story about his days as a student there. His name is Bill. The President of the Seminary was an austere Puritan by the name of Dr. James McDowell Richards. People admired Dr. James McDowell Richards, but no one was close with him. The students respected Dr. Richards but kept their distance from him. Bill, graduated from Seminary and eventually became the chaplain in a church-sponsored retirement home. Imagine how he felt when he learned that the newest resident of the home was no other than the now-retired Dr. James McDowell Richards.
He was in awe of the man still and now he was going to have to be his chaplain. He did the best he could. One evening he went into the dining room and saw Dr. Richards seated in his wheelchair at his table having supper. A nurse was standing guard over him. The former student, now chaplain, went up to Dr. Richards. They had some conversation together and then the chaplain started to leave. On a last-second impulse, he turned to Dr. Richards and said, “Dr. Richards. I’ve always wanted to ask you something.”
“What is it?”
“You and your wife were the parents of sons, weren’t you?”
“Three of them. Yes.”
“Did you ever tell your sons that you loved them?”
“No. I didn’t need to . . . Well, once I did. I was in intensive care and I told one of them but it wasn’t a regular thing mind you.”
“I just wondered. You know my father never told me that either. I wondered if fathers ever said that kind of thing.”
The meal was over. The nurse pulled the wheelchair away from the table and the chaplain watched Dr. Richards go. When Dr. Richards got to the door, he said something to the nurse. She turned the wheelchair around and brought him back. Then he got close and reached up and touched his former student’s cheek … and said ‘Bill, I love you.’
“I had known it all along,” Bill said later, “but to hear it, sealed it in my heart.”
There is something we want to receive today in here that you can’t always get out there. What brings us here? Maybe it’s to hear something from God and to have it sealed on our hearts. Have you heard it yet? It’s the unbelievable, really. It declares we are loved by name with a costly, unconditional and empowering love, rooted in the very being of God. It never lets us go, not even when we die. On this Easter Sunday, we gather in this place to have sealed in our hearts a truth -- a living truth that does indeed move us to say and to sing alleluia.