God at the 9:30 club: Evangelism and the Lost Sheep

The other night I went to a concert at the 9:30 club.  The band was called Volcano Choir.  You’ve probably never heard of them.  The lead singer, Justin Vernon, once had a slightly more famous group called “Bon Iver.”  They sang plaintive acoustic ballads about “skinny love.”  Justin Vernon, the lead singer, took the stage at the 9:30 club in a way that seemed familiar to me.  The rest of the band arrived first, re-positioning microphones, adjusting guitar straps, then Vernon took the stage.  He stood behind a lectern, a substantial lectern, a pulpit really.  He opened up his moleskin binder, and laid it on the pulpit desk, and sort of touched his lips before beginning to sing.

The scene was reminiscent of what we’re doing, right here, right now, familiar to me because I grew up in the church, listening to preachers hold forth.  Well, I listened to preachers hold forth as much as Episcopalians ever hold forth.  Most of us Episcopalians don’t last much longer the 12 minutes in a pulpit.  Still, I grew up listening to preachers, so when I saw Justin Vernon take the stage the other night, the scene was eerily familiar.

I was up in the balcony, near the stage, so I could look out not just at the musicians, but also over the faces of the crowd.  Their was a rapt attention from the crowd, faces trained on the singer-come-preacher.  In that way, the crowd was very Episcopalian.  At a punk show or a hip hop concert, the crowd would probably be singing along, maybe even dancing.  That crowd would have looked much more Baptist, or even Pentecostal.  This, however, was white-boy acoustic rock.  So the crowd was still, giving their full attention.  Maybe they closed their eyes at a beautiful phrase, but they felt self-conscious about such an obvious display of emotion, like I said, they could have been Episcopalians.

The crowd at the 9:30 club.
The crowd at the 9:30 club.

They could have been Episcopalians, but I’m going to hazard a guess that most of the people in the 9:30 club that night WERE NOT Episcopalians.  I would guess, actually, and I feel pretty confident in this guess, that most of them do NOT go to church on a Sunday.  Many of them may have grown up in church, but I’m pretty sure this was the first time that most of the people in that room had seen someone behind a pulpit in a long time.

Now, I don’t want you to think I judge that crowd for not going to church.  You might think that, as a preacher, I stood up on that balcony, looking over the fans, saying to myself: “Sinners… why are you
listening to this heathen music? YOU SHOULD BE EPISCOPALIAN, DON’T YOU KNOW THAT IS THE ONE TRUE FAITH.”  No, that’s not what I thought at all. Almost the reverse, in fact.  I thought: “Look at all of those faces, transfixed by beautiful music. God is here, somehow, somewhere.”  In an environment as secular as the 9:30 club, something of the beauty of the music was working on the hearts and minds of the people.

I think this is what Jesus is getting at, in his two short parables today.  These are not really stories about “sinners” who have “wandered far from God.”  No, the emphasis is not on those who have strayed, but upon God who constantly searches.  The woman with the coin, the man with the sheep, they represent God’s constant search for us, God’s constant pursuit of each and every person.  This is what Jesus is saying to those Pharisees: God is not only concerned with those who do exactly what they are supposed to do.  God is not only concerned with churchgoers.  God seeks everyone, ESPECIALLY those the world might see as “lost.”  God is so consumed by this search, that God is not content to show up just in temples, just in the expected places.  God shows up where we least expect God, seeking after the people we’d least expect to find God.

I spent most of my teenage and college summers working at summer camps in the mountains of Colorado, and these weren’t Episcopalian, or even Christian summer camps.  The YMCA camp I worked at thought highly of “spirituality” but did not want to get into specifics.  They didn’t want any one view of faith taught to campers.  One of the easiest ways I found to talk to campers about spirituality was to ask them to talk about “a time in your life when you saw something or heard so beautiful, you had to pause, and take in the beauty.”  Kids would talk mostly about sunrises and sunsets, of course.   They’d also talk about the night sky high in the Colorado mountains.  They’d talk about mountain tops, or trips to the beach.  Sometimes the kids would have encountered an animal up close.  The older kids would often talk about music.  They spoke about experiences that had moved them.  Often if they didn’t have anything to say, the kids made stories up, as kids do, but you could tell the real stories of encounter.  There was often still a palpable sense of awe when someone spoke.  They had glimpsed, for a moment, that Reality we name “God.”

God shows up, to kids, in sunsets, and sunrises, and starry skies.  God shows up on street corners in acts of kindness.  God even shows up on the campaign trail, and at concerts.  God’s pursuit of us, of all of us, is relentless.  If this is true, if God meets us on mountaintops, and I believe it is true, why bother to come to St. John’s on a Sunday morning?  Why don’t we all just wake up for the sunrise every morning, and call it good?

I understand the logic.  Especially given how much the CHURCH itself has driven people away from the CHURCH.  I understand why a lot of my friends are nervous about church.  I understand why sunsets feel safer.  But I’m not a camp counselor anymore, and I’m not the lead singer of a band playing the 9:30 club.  I think there’s a reason we’re here this morning, a reason we’re not with our Sunday New York Times and a cup of coffee.

The new pope, Francis, man, this new pope.  His strategy to get the lost sheep back to the church seems to be to call them all personally on the phone.  Have you heard about this?  The pope is calling people who write to him, which to me sounds intimidating.   But pope Francis, apparently realizing he wasn’t going to be able to make it all the way through his call sheet, this week wrote a letter to agnostics and atheists.  In it, he takes that surprisingly conciliatory tone that has become his trademark.  He tells atheists to “follow their conscience,” and he talks about why he is a man of faith, and particularly a Christian:

“For me, faith began by meeting with Jesus.  A personal meeting that touched my heart and gave a direction and a new meaning to my existence.  At the same time, however, a meeting that was made possible by the community of faith in which I lived and thanks to which I found access to the [wisdom] of the Sacred Scriptures, to the new life that comes from Jesus like gushing water through the Sacraments, to fraternity with everyone and to the service to the poor, which is the real image of the Lord. Believe me, without the Church I would never have been able to meet Jesus, in spite of the knowledge that the immense gift of faith is kept in the fragile clay vases of our humanity.”

For Pope Francis, faith began by meeting Jesus.  He met Jesus in and through the Church, that fragile clay vessel.  He speaks of the community, the wisdom of the Scriptures, the sacraments, and particularly the person of Jesus as ways to God.

The pope’s religion is, decidedly, organized.  No one is surprised that the pope is in favor of organized religion.  He’s the pope.  His faith is systematized, and there is method to the madness.  The pope sees himself, Christians as a whole, see ourselves tied by community and story, by wisdom and tradition back to Jesus of Nazareth, the one who showed us God.  The church is imperfect, fallible, relentlessly human.  Our history witnesses to our broken humanity, but the faith of the Church is about following a God who invites us to be our best selves, our most loving, and self-giving selves.  The faith of the church is about making God real in our own lives, and especially in the lives of others.

I hope your faith has made a difference in your life, a measurable difference.  Sometimes it is hard for those of us who grew up in faith to measure the “difference” because we don’t know any different, so let me put it another way.  I hope your faith has helped you to encounter God, and to name those encounters.  I hope that the tradition and the language of faith has given you words to express what may be a very faint sense of God’s presence.  I hope your faith has been a guidepost, has helped you to hear God’s invitation, in Jesus, to love and to serve your neighbor.  I hope your faith has sustained you in some of life’s darkest hours.

I hope your faith has given you a greater capacity for awe, knowing that when you marvel at the night sky, you are looking at the same sky that Abraham looked upon when God told him his descendants would be as numerous as the stars, the same sky that shown over Jesus and the disciples the night after Jesus calmed the storm, the same sky that shown over Harriet Tubman as she hummed spirituals while leading enslaved women and men to freedom.  I think there is value to a faith, because I believe in that the tradition, and especially in the love of the community, we learn more about God, about who God is, in a way slightly deeper and more developed than any one sunset or a piece of music can ever teach us.  Knowing a faith tradition, being in a community of faith, we can learn about what God is doing in our world now.

Many Episcopalians are really wary about the word “evangelism.”  I have to confess, I am one of them.  We like to talk about St. Francis, who said “preach the Gospel always.  When necessary use words.”  We like to think that it is often not necessary to use those words.  But sometimes it is.  Sometimes we need to be able to name for others WHY our faith is important to us, WHO Jesus is to us, HOW God has transformed our lives.  God needs us to know how to tell our story, so that we can cooperate with God’s grace as it searches out the lost, the least, and the left out.

This last week I was reading some of the work of one of the Episcopal Church’s first bishops, John Henry Hobart, third Episcopal bishop of New York.  Hobart wrote about God’s grace in a distinctly Anglican way.  In between the Romans that talked about human works that could offer salvation, and the Lutherans who argued sola gratia, only God’s grace, Hobart argued pragmatically that God’s grace DEPENDS on human cooperation.  God is in the world, yes, but God is “immortal and invisible,” as St. Paul put it.  As Teresa of Avila said:

Christ has no body but yours,

No hands, no feet on earth but yours,

Yours are the eyes with which he looks.

Compassion on this world.

Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,

Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.

Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,

Yours are the eyes, you are [Christ’s] body.

The invitation of the Christian life is an invitation to work with God, to be transformed by the God who is constantly seeking out all those lost sheep, and an invitation to join God in the search.

The only way some of those concertgoers from the 9:30 club are going to darken the door of the church is if they feel there might be something inside that is worth their while, some story that might help them make sense of the feeling they have when they close their eyes at the beautiful moments in a song.  The only way all of those 20 and 30 and 50 and 70-somethings who have lost their faith or who have never seen a reason for faith, the only way they are going to find Jesus is if the community of the church can talk about what Jesus means for them.

The Good news, the news that we hear from Jesus today, is that God is already searching them out.  God is already searching for us.  In these parables, the lost are not struggling to find themselves.  No, the action is God’s, our God’s, the God who relentlessly pursues each and every one of us, yearning to for a deeper relationship, with them, with me, and with you.

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