Jesus, the discomforter
It was simply another noon Lenten worship service. They tend to be short and to the point. A few hymns and a bit of scripture, a bit of prayer. There is hot soup and bread waiting for us downstairs.
The doors were all unlocked, which is honestly something that happens only when we have a service in the building. So Richard (not his real name) came to church, and he brought a friend. When this happens in our churches we rejoice and try to refrain from asking Richard to join the council. They joined us during the singing of the first hymn, and I made sure they had bulletins and knew where we were in the service.
Richard squeezed my hand tight, too tight, pulled in for a hug, and started crying. He was drunk, very drunk. Now this was not a new condition for Richard, or one that I had not experienced before with him or others who frequented our building, but this was the first time he had come for worship.
Jesus was a homeless guy constantly showing up for worship and bringing all of his drunk friends with him.
Richard tried several times to add to our worship. He had a testimony he wanted to share. He had a hymn that needed to be sung. He had just one more thing to tell me during the sermon and he was going to do it loudly, no matter how firmly I tried to redirect him.
When you are the pastor you get to see everyone’s faces during worship. I got to experience not only my own discomfort, but also the squirming and downcast eyes of the other 20 folks gathered for worship.
We were all thinking about the soup. Richard and his friend joined us downstairs, where he ate his cake and mine as well. Come to find out, when our cook for lunch had arrived earlier in the day, she had seen Richard and his friend passing by and she made an effort to invite them to worship and soup.
Who’s that standing next to me?
How often does this happen in our places of worship? Maybe not this exact circumstance, but someone does something to make us uncomfortable. We struggle through clenched teeth to be kind and welcoming and Christ-like.
Hold on, Christ-like? Think about how many stories in our Gospel involve Christ making the people in charge uncomfortable or encouraging someone else’s uncomfortable behavior in the midst of polite society? There are a lot of them, from allowing a woman to wash his feet with her hair to eating at Zacchaeus’ house to doing something unlawful on the Sabbath … again.
Jesus was a homeless guy constantly showing up for worship and bringing all of his drunk friends with him. We seem to have an example to follow. Why does it have to be so hard though? I would like to whine like my children when they really don’t want to go to bed. Do we have to?
No, we don’t. As I am fond of saying, we don’t have to do anything. We can go to the upper room and lock the doors and tremble in fear, but that hasn’t worked to keep Jesus out in the past.
We can go back to our ordinary lives, return to the rest of the world, and ignore addiction and poverty and racism on most days. We can always get out the boat and go back to fishing, but the dude cooking your breakfast is going to be Jesus.
We can make sure that the folks in our churches all look like us — singing the songs we all know, believing correctly, eating the same food, and following rules exactly like us. That church will die, but resurrection is no good unless something dies first.
The guys like Richard are the low-hanging fruit. We look at them and know they are the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the sick, and the imprisoned. And then maybe we remember that they are Christ in our midst.
If we can see them as Jesus, we might have a chance with the folks sitting in the reserved pews as well. Those of us drinking in the afternoon and trying to hide it. The kid who is always wearing a hoodie because she doesn’t want you to see the evidence of her attempts to relieve her pain and the scars on her forearms. The widow who keeps praying for death to take her. The pastor who is shifting in his seat because his marriage is falling apart and it is the Sunday that Jesus talks about divorce.
May our places of worship be communities of consistent discomfort. Jesus has promised to show up and bring new life where all we can see is death. We can still have soup afterward. I hope Richard will join us.
Melissa Pohlman, previously pastor of Christ English Lutheran Church in Minneapolis, will begin her ministry as director of community ministries at Central Lutheran Church in Minneapolis on May 13.