This is a sermon I preached the Sunday after Easter 2006 using the gospel text that will be used this Sunday.
“The Unsuccessful Church”
April 23, 2006
Community of Grace Christian Church
New Brighton, MN
I want to tell you something about being a pastor: it kinda sucks.
Okay, you probably didn’t expect a pastor to use the word “sucks” in a sermon. You also probably didn’t expect that I would say that being a minister is not always a bed of roses. However it’s true. Being a pastor at times is exciting, but sometimes: yeah, it sucks.
It’s been nearly four years since I was ordained. I remember that was an exciting day, but I can also remember that the last four years as a young minister haven’t been easy. Seminary teaches you how to preach a sermon and how to understand the Bible. It teaches you about other cultures and how to counsel people. But it doesn’t teach you how to deal with your boss, who is also a minister and yet doesn’t see you as an equal and treats you as such. Seminary also failed to mention how to deal with members of churches who act like children of the devil rather than children of God when they deal with you.
Seminary also didn’t teach me about starting a new church, and about how to do it on a literal shoe-string budget. It also didn’t teach me how to deal with people who leave the new church or don’t come because it isn’t “successful,” and how to deal when you’ve planned a worship service and sermon and only two people show up.
There are days that I wish I never went to seminary and never got ordained. I wish I had received an advanced degree in something else other than the ministry.
And then there is the fact that at times I don’t feel like a pastor. I know people who can read the Bible in the original Greek and Hebrew and use that to preach wonderful sermons and I would need to take both classes again. I don’t feel like I have the right words to say when someone shares that their mother has cancer or a close friend is near death. More often than not, I feel like a big failure.
Well, this is a happy sermon, isn’t it?
Maybe that’s why today’s gospel text is so important for me, and someone must have thought it was an important word for the Church to hear, because it’s the only text that appears during all three years of the revised common lectionary. As the story opens, ten of the disciples are in a locked room in Jerusalem. They were scared. The religious leaders and the Romans had succeeded in killing Jesus and they were probably fearful that they were next.
Now, what’s interesting here is that they knew something was up. We didn’t read the earlier parts of John 20, but let me give you a recap: Mary Magdalene went to the tomb on that first Easter morning and found the stone rolled away. She tells Peter and the disciple who Jesus loved, that Jesus was gone. They both go to investigate and it’s true; the body is gone. Mary stands outside the tomb weeping and then in time sees the Risen Christ. Of course seeing your friend, alive and well isn’t something you keep to yourself, so she went to tell the disciples saying , “I have seen the Lord!”
Now, being on the outside of this story, I would think that if someone tells me a friend that was dead was now alive, hiding in a room wouldn’t be my first impulse, but even after they had heard the good news, the disciples locked themselves in a room in fear.
You know, this text includes the story of the disciple named Thomas, who has forever been given the name “Doubting Thomas” for refusing to believe the disciples when they saw Jesus was alive and well. But Thomas wasn’t the only one who doubted. Mary Magdalene had told the disciples that Jesus was alive and well and yet they still locked themselves in a room. And yet, even inspite of their doubts, Jesus appears to them and gives them peace.
I think this is good news to someone like me. As I said earlier, being a pastor isn’t easy. I think some of the reason that I struggle with my role is because I tend to think a pastor is someone who has to have it all together. A pastor has to know everything, do everything well, and have the right words to say all the time. A pastor also has to be a wonderful leader that brings in tons of new members to the church and have a spiritual life like none other.
What’s wrong with that is that it leaves God out. It puts all the focus on me to be perfect, which isn’t going to happen. The wonderful thing is that inspite of my struggles and doubts, despite my desire to do everything myself and beat myself up when things go wrong, Jesus still invades my locked doors and works through this cowering and doubting disciple.
I also think that if the Risen Christ can bypass the locked doors of my heart and give me peace, he can do it with this ragtag bunch called Community of Grace as well.
It hasn’t been easy being on staff. Not because of the other staff, Bryan and Dan are great colleagues and friends. What has been hard is expecting the church to be bigger than it is-filled with people on Sunday evening. I read stories about new churches that start with 200 hundred people and I wonder, what am I doing wrong?
And yet, God has done something with the small gathering of believers. God appears in this group that includes the beleaguered and those on a quest and gives us peace. I’ve seen God at work here. I’ve been in other churches and I’ve never seen such honesty, and such Spirit as I do here. We are all struggle with doubt and yet, that’s okay- we are welcomed by God and God still works through us.
I have seen resurrection happen here. I’ve seen people who were long estranged from the church, come back. I’ve seen people who might not agree on tax policy, pray for each other and befriend each other during dark times.
The ending of this chapter explains that these stories of Jesus are written that we might believe. Belief here isn’t about certainty. It isn’t about having the facts or proof of Jesus. Instead, these stories are written so that we might believe, to rely on Christ, to place our trust in Christ. These stories are here to remind us during the dark times of our lives that Jesus is with us and we can place our trust not in a dead god, but the Risen Christ.
I believe it was the Peace Corps, that once had the slogan, “It’s the Toughest Job, You’ll Ever Love.” It isn’t easy to be a pastor, but then it isn’t easy to be a follower of Jesus either. We all struggle and doubt, and mess things up. And yet Christ is in the midst of us.
And maybe that’s what makes this all worthwhile: despite all the mistakes and less than perfect lives, we get to see how God works in us and how God can change lives.
Thanks be to God.