Rough Around the Middle
My wife couldn’t hide the sadness in her face. I’m not sure if she even wanted to. We were about to go out and get yogurt with our three kids after dinner to celebrate the kickoff of another new school year. However, I spent that evening in an apartment with someone else’s kids whose mother had been arrested earlier that day. Her children had been home alone for hours. The confusion on their faces when I opened the door of their apartment was sincere. When the four year old saw me he said, “It’s Jesus!” His older brother corrected him, “It’s not Jesus. It’s Pastor Scott.” “What are you doing here, Pastor Scott?” The truth is I was there to wait with them until their mother made bail and could make it home. So I had come with Happy Meals in hand and a little lie about their mother’s car trouble.
I kept staring at his Tag Heuer watch. It was a beautiful watch. I thought to myself if I could have any watch, it’d be that one. I was looking at his watch to avoid looking at the tears coming down his face. Less than four years in and his marriage was teetering somewhere between joylessness and divorce. This handsome, very educated professional saw those as his only two options. I saw him and his wife the next Sunday though sitting across from a man and woman that had been married twice as long as this young couple had been alive.
"You need to come to church with us one Sunday. They take that $h!t f#*king serious. It’s awesome.” I had never quite heard someone invited to church like that before. But that’s how my buddy, who up until the last couple of months had never been to church, invited a mutual friend of ours. I kept my mouth shut as this buddy of mine described the “Time of Preparation” we have in between our welcome and announcements and the beginning of our worship. In this time at our traditional service our organist will play for a minute or so allowing everyone a chance to focus their hearts and minds on God. I always assumed that nobody really understood what that time was for. But in describing it he said, “At first it’s all like, ‘Hey everybody! Welcome to church.’ And then they’re like, ‘Before we start though, we need to get f#*king ready. We’re about to worship the God of the universe so prepare your hearts.’” At this point our mutual friend looked at me as if to say, “Is he serious?” To which I responded, “Yeah, it’s kind of like that.”
We have a large Sunday School class that recently had a high percentage of African Americans in it (30% or so which is high for Presbyterians). I was told that while in that class a white man weighed in with a very conservative take on the Trayvon Martin / George Zimmerman verdict. There was disagreement. My first thought was, “Uh oh. Can we handle this?” I was worried about the potential fallout. Could we handle that kind of issue and stick together even with differing opinions?
Preaching gives one a unique, visual vantage point. I see it all. Two weeks ago I saw a man who doesn’t believe women should hold positions of authority in the church sitting a few feet away from a woman who believes very strongly in gay marriage. In that same service I saw a Congressman sitting a few feet away from a person who would never vote for him in a million years. I saw a tattoo artist sitting next to a 90 year old matriarch of the church. I saw a family sitting next to a felon. There are people who can’t afford to go to the doctor sitting feet away from those who have elected to undergo cosmetic surgery. Dirty blue jeans, Armani suits, people who hitch rides, people who leave multiple cars at their second homes- this is all part of a shift that has been taking place over the past few years in our congregation.
From the pulpit I love to look up and see these diverse stories gathered under a common roof. It feels like the kingdom of God. But in worship it is easy to be smooth around the edges. We have enough in common to be there together. But what happens when the family knows it’s sitting next to a felon? What happens when the grandmother realizes that the nice girl that has been sitting in front of her for the last few weeks is an addict? What happens when folks discover the stuff that’s just below the surface- that we fundamentally disagree about Trayvon Martin or gay marriage or our president? Do we shake the hand of the man any differently when we hear him use the “F word” to describe how excited he is about preparing to worship the God he has just come to know and love? How will the blue collar worker who puts in 55 hours a week treat the single mother of three on food stamps when he finds out she’s not even looking for a job?
The reason most congregations are homogenous is because true community is rough around the middle. Once we start to move centripetally from the smooth edge of cordiality we’re in for a bumpy ride. Real people are messy. The only way for a community to handle the rough middle is to believe in a gospel that’s bigger than our baggage; to trust that a greater truth than our uniqueness is the commonality that we share in our redemption.
I think that’s what Paul is getting at when he writes to the church in Philippi, “I plead with Euodia and I plead with Syntyche to agree with one another in the Lord.” (Philippians 4:2). We may not agree about personal issues or social issues. We may have problems with too much wealth or with what leads to poverty. We may struggle to value an addict or criminal. Our politics and preferences will run afoul to each other. Our neighborhoods and incomes may be the difference between night and day. But if we agree with one another in the Lord, then these differences need not divide. Beware of the homogenous church. It’s the community that is rough around the middle which believes in a gospel big enough to sustain it. If our gospel isn’t bigger than our politics then it’s a false gospel. If our gospel isn’t bigger than our tax bracket then it’s a false gospel. If our gospel isn’t bigger than breast augmentation or prison tattoos then it’s a false gospel. At the end of the day, if we can’t agree with one another in the Lord, then our Lord is too small. And a Lord that small isn’t worthy of our gathering together to worship him anyway.