I know this may seem like an odd question, but why do you come to church? Some of you are here week after week (and if you aren’t, I didn’t say that to make you feel guilty). Maybe you don’t give that question much thought. It is good for us to ponder though. So, why do you do it? Do you come for the fellowship and relationships you have with those around you? Do you come for the music? Do you come because “that’s what you’ve always done?” Tell me your reasons. Now here’s a strange question; why do people not come to church? I want to hear all the reasons you’ve used and all the reasons you’ve heard. So, speak up.
I heard an interesting story once. I have a friend whose father was a life-long alcoholic. He was clean then he wasn’t, he was sober, then he wasn’t. Finally, something just clicked and he’s been sober for years. One of the most important things he does, as far as he is concerned, is attend AA meetings. I asked my friend “has your dad connected with a church he likes?” And I was surprised to hear the answer. “He says AA is his church.”
“Why is that” I asked?
“He didn’t like being around people who didn’t make room for his brokenness and imperfection.”
I shook my head in agreement and in disappointment. I want the church to be a place where people who are broken and bruised can come and just be; no expectations, no false sense of self, no ego competitions, just a place to rest and be. Part of the reason I stayed away from the church for so long was that I felt like there wasn’t a place for me and the questions I had. I wanted honest conversation surrounding shame, self doubt, feminists in the church; I had questions about the Bible, questions about the liturgy, questions about the priesthood. And all I felt was guilt that I couldn’t ask those questions because either 1) I thought maybe I should already know the answers or 2) I felt like I might be shamed for asking them in the first place. I had hoped the church I was at might be the place for me to turn, and it wasn’t. Instead, I spent too many years lost, fumbling, and mad at God for no apparent reason.
Part of our Easter celebration (which is still continuing, by the way) should be the voicing of things that caused us to lose hope on Good Friday. In today’s story we accompany the disciples on the road to Emmaus. The disciples are still in mourning over their friend Jesus and are unaware that they are being accompanied by the risen Lord. They talk to who they assume is a stranger in their midst and say something very interesting. “We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.” In this time of great loss, not only are the disciples mourning their friend Jesus, but they are also mourning lost hope.
If I am going to be honest, I think that sometimes those of us in church leadership don’t do the best job of talking about losing hope or lost hope. It’s all too easy for us to point to the resurrected Christ and say “see….that makes everything better!” And while the resurrected Christ certainly gives us a hope of salvation and a hope for a life to come, it may not be the words and comfort we need when we either lose hope or start to lose hope. The church needs to be a place where people can come with their scars and not feel like they have to cover them up.
“We had hoped…” is a small, 3 word phrase that is so powerful and carries so much weight that its almost daunting to even say it. Because often times, the phrase “we had hoped” is our equivalent of a Good Friday. Of a death; a death of a dream, a death of a wish, a death of that last chance; even an actual death. We had hoped to start a family sooner than we did. We had hoped that we wouldn’t need medical assistance.
You hear this phrase other places too. “We had hoped that the chemo would work this time.” Or “we had hoped that they would go to rehab.” Maybe “we had hoped that grandma would take our offer to move in with us instead of the nursing home.” Perhaps it’s just a simple “we had hoped that things would be different.” What gets wrapped up in that phrase is grief, hurt, loss, anger, maybe even guilt and shame. “We had hoped….” And it makes me frustrated when that phrase gets completed like this “we had hoped that we would be welcomed in this church.” Now, it’s only fair that I pause here to say that when I say “this church” I’m not necessarily talking about Elvira Zion. When I say “this church” I mean any church where God’s people are gathered in God’s name.
Too many times we hear “all are welcome” but as it turns out, that’s not the truth. What we really mean to say is “all are welcome as long as you look like us, think like us, talk like us, and believe what we do.” What is ironic is that I’ve often heard “we had hoped that the church attendance would increase by now” in the same breath that I hear people say “did you see so-and-so at church? I’m a little surprised they showed up!”
Being God’s church isn’t easy, friends. Being a place where sinners and saints are gathered isn’t easy. Being God’s hands and feet in the world isn’t easy. Wearing our identification of baptised and claimed isn’t easy. Belonging to God means going into the world to places where we are going to encounter the mantra of “we had hoped” over and over and over again. We aren’t in this world to fix people. It is almost impossible to fix systems that are years past fixing status. Belonging to God and declaring God for a broken world means acknowledging the hurt, disappointment, guilt, shame, and loss that surrounds a lifetime full of “we had hoped” and loving all at the same time.
Being God’s church means acknowledging that yes, people of God’s church hurt one another. Being God’s church means acknowledging that people fall short of expectations. Being God’s church means acknowledging that yes, even the pastor is imperfect. Being the church means acknowledging that but still gathering together weekly to hear the good news that the brokenness does not last forever. Being the church means that we see one another’s scars and say “hey, mine looks like that too–let’s walk through this crappy situation together.” Being the church means not being afraid to admit when hope is lost and to mourn that hope.
If you have come here today and you feel like you have to put on a false face, or if you feel like you have to put on an act, or if you feel like you don’t belong here, let me assure you that this is the place for you. We are surrounded by a Christ who finds us on our roads when we have lost hope. We are loved by a Christ who says “yes, put your fingers in my hands and your hands in my sides.” We are embraced by a Christ who says “I know you had hoped and I weep with you.”
The church, if anything, should be a place where the rooms we have for brokenness and imperfection looks more like a mansion. And hear this. Even if you are scared to show your scars. Even if you are scared to remove your mask. Even if you’re not too sure that you can even udder the phrase “we had hoped” for fear that someone will knock you down. Know that Christ knows. Christ knows of your lost hopes. Christ knows of your lost dreams. Christ knows of your disappointment. And Christ will encounter you, on the road, at this font, and at this table. We shall see him in the breaking of the bread.