I wonder what you’ve been watching this past year? I bet you have a sharpened opinion now on where you find the best programming: Netflix, Hulu, Peacock, Youtube, Acorn…. The list could go on and on! We’ve had some time on our hands since last Easter and we’ve filled some of that time with programs. Even though I like to finish what I start, there are some series we started in our household but never finished. They weren’t worth our time or emotional investment. In the past month my son and I discovered a program that was touching, worthy even of an Easter sermon! It’s called Last Chance U and the particular episode focuses on a coach at East Los Angeles College. It’s a documentary that celebrates a triumph of the underdog. At this community college, a basketball coach by the name of John Mosley transformed a team into winners and put their modest school on the map!
Mosley had been a successful basketball player and coach in several different settings before accepting the part-time position at East LA College. He took a significant pay-cut even though he and his wife are raising three children. His wife supported this vocational move because she understood his sense of calling: to give underprivileged young men a chance to escape poverty and aimlessness. He brought with him significant basketball skills and a seemingly endless supply of energy. Perhaps the greatest gift he offered to these young men was his Christian faith.
The guys on the Huskies team learned to expect sermons from him. His half-time pep talks in the locker room were impassioned and sometime angry but they often morphed into prayer. The players closed their eyes when he prayed in Jesus’ name and headed back onto the court with the assurance that a power greater than their coach would fight for them. I’m surprised that the academic institution has allowed him to be so vocal about his Christian perspective. Perhaps he was granted such latitude because of the great success he has brought to their team. Maybe the administrators allow him to throw out scripture passages as motivation because they’ve been on the receiving end of his compassion. They have witnessed the broad capacity he possesses to love others. In the series we meet one of the star players who never had a dad in his life but was very close to his mom. When she developed advanced cancer, her son found team practices and games to be his safe space. As the mom lay dying, she told Coach Mosley that she was entrusting her son to him. In one of the sideline interviews, Mosley says with a smile that he will always be there for that young man—always. At the end of the season this orphaned student, along with eight other players on the team, was given a full scholarship to play for a 4-year university. Offering his players the opportunity for a better life is central to Mosley’s mission.
In one of the locker room scenes, Mosley is giving one of his boisterous pep talks. Then he quiets it down and asks, “You know what we’re going to do now?” One of the young men mutters, “Go to church?” The players knew when their coach was going to launch into a sermon, pray, or recite scripture. But Mosley replied, “We’re not going to go to church. This IS Church!”
What is Church? Have we been out of church? Or have we been going all along? Is it a building with stained glass windows, pews, and a bell we ring into the community? Or have we learned, in the past year, that Church happens in more ways than we ever imagined possible? Where is Church? Is it found where a crowd of believers gather to sing hymns and bow their heads in prayer? Or does it happen in our homes when we set out communion elements and share in the feast remotely with other believers? Does Church happen when we sit on our beds, wearing our pajamas, drinking our coffee while we sing hymns at the top of our lungs–by ourselves?
We have discovered that new life comes from unlikely places in the past year. Christ has been at work in each of us so that we could affirm at unlikely times and unusual places: This IS Church!
A couple of weeks ago a man stopped by the our church looking for some financial assistance. We sat at a distance from each other in the sanctuary so that he could tell me of his struggles. His mother had just died and he needed gas money to make it to Indiana. He needed to bury her and close out her life there. He told me he had hoped to move her near him but she became sick and died before he could do that. He confessed his emptiness. He missed his mom and wished they had more time together in recent years. He started to talk about his faith and I realized that he needed a pastor. He asked me a few questions and showcased a great knowledge of the Bible in our reflection. As light streamed through our stained glass windows and danced around the pew where we sat, he expressed his amazement that God gave up the beloved Son, Jesus, for us! He grew quiet and hung his head, reflecting on this miraculous gift. That very morning I had stopped at CITGO to pick up some more gas cards. I wanted to have a few available just in case someone stopped by. I told him his timing was just right. We both knew that God orchestrated our meeting. As I sent him off with a couple of gas cards and a prayer, I thought to myself, “This IS Church!”
Jesus said, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there in the midst of them.”
We have been to Church in a lot of new settings this past year!
Church happened when I went to the local motel to pay for several nights lodging. It was for a couple who have been living out of their car. COVID cost them their jobs. They both have health challenges and and rely on an unreliable vehicle. I talked with the woman over the phone, asking about their circumstances and offering words of encouragement. When I told her we would be able to pay for several nights, she wept. After the phone call, I stopped by the motel with my church checkbook. I met with the owner who is of a different religion. We have worked together before, across cultures and faiths, to put a temporary roof over the heads of individuals who find themselves in desperate circumstances. Our congregation—this Body of Christ in Rockford, Michigan—have supported a pastor’s discretionary fund. Their compassion brought Church to these two women who had lost hope. In the modest shelter of a Colonial Motel room, we offered them resurrection. We assured them through our actions that there is always new life in Christ. That morning I came in to the woman’s message on our church answering machine: “You’ve helped so many people and that is a really beautiful thing. But if you can help us, we’ve been living in our car…”
How good it is that word is out in our community that we can be counted on for respite in troubled times.
When have you brought Church to someone who wasn’t sure they dared to hope for new life? There’s been so much bad news this past year. Even now, the COVID numbers in Michigan are headlining in national news. I wondered if we would have to stay virtual after all our planning to reunite in person—even if at a distance and masked! We repeatedly hear news of shootings in our towns and cities. In California a disgruntled employee turned a gun on folks he knew. The price of his anger: four deaths and another shock to our nation. Rage simmers just below the surface for many people. The prophet Isaiah ministered during the time that the Israelites were overtaken by the Babylonians and marched far from home as slaves. After half a century of servitude, God opened the way for the people to return to Jerusalem. Isaiah wrote, “How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation, why say to Zion, ‘Your God reigns!’”
When have you been the bearer of good news to a people who have come to expect only disappointment? When has Church happened on somebody’s doorstep, by a hospital bed, in a Zoom conversation with people you missed? When have you coached someone not just on how to play a sport or master an instrument? When have you coached someone into discipleship in the name of the resurrected Christ?
One of our members, who has been tested as a frontline worker this past year, was recently approached at the workplace by a young colleague. He said to her, “You’re the only person around here who goes to church. Why do you go?” Nearly twenty years his senior, she told him, “My faith keeps me safe and gives me the strength I need to deal with my struggles.” This person isn’t preachy but she lives her faith. She mentions church in her conversations which is code for, “I’m a Christian—if you want to talk faith!”
After a year of confronting our mortality, people are hungering to talk about eternal matters. About truth. About a God who loves us for who we are. Church happens in the most unlikely places when we invite Jesus to use us. Church happens when we dare to tell someone we will pray for them. Church happens when we invite someone to go to a worship service with us or send them a scripture verse that offers encouragement.
George McLeod, the founder of the Iona Community in Scotland stated, “I simply argue that the Cross should be raised at the center of the marketplace as well as on the steeple of the church. I am recovering the claim that Jesus was not crucified in a cathedral between two candles; but on a cross between two thieves; on the town’s garbage heap; at a crossroads so cosmopolitan they had to write his title in Hebrew and Latin and Greek…at the kind of place where cynics talk smut, and thieves curse, and soldiers gamble. Because that is where He died. And that is what He died about. That is where church-men ought to be and what church-men ought to be about.” (Beyond Playing Church: A Christ-Centered Environment for Church Renewal by Michael Slaughter. Anderson, IN: Bristol House, 1994, p. 69.)
In the darkest times, we experience new life in Jesus. I asked folks on our church Facebook page what blessings have surprised them during this COVID year. Guess what? Folks’ answers assured me that God is with us! Church happened! We found gifts amidst the COVID carnage! Maybe you can relate to some of these answers: I learned to appreciate the little things. Slow down. Quality time with my kids—maybe I missed something in the past because I didn’t have time to really watch them grow and learn. Folks from all over the world joined in our worship and Bible Study. Random acts of kindness. My sense of community deepened. Creativity abounded, like sewing and cooking and bread baking and woodworking! I added new and let go of old. I changed priorities. Deep conversations with my spouse and family. We understand each other better! Reading. Long walks. An appreciation for nature…and for quiet.
Early in the morning, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene headed to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ dead body. When she discovered that the tomb was empty, she ran to the place where the fearful disciples were hiding. Peter and John raced back with her, mystified by the empty tomb as well. They returned to their hideout, leaving Mary alone. She was unable to leave without the assurance that her beloved Jesus was safely at rest. She worshiped Him even in death. We read that when He revealed Himself to her, she fell at His feet and wept. This is Church. Mary encountered the risen Christ and couldn’t get enough of Him. He had a mission for her. His resurrection was not simply for her. It was for the disciples—and the world. He told her to share the good news of His resurrection with the beloved disciples who had abandoned Him in death.
“How beautiful upon the mountain are the feet of one bringing good news…” I can only imagine how effortlessly Mary covered the distance between the tomb and the disciples’ hide-out. She is the very first missionary of the Church of Jesus Christ. When she burst through their doors, she cried out, “I have seen the Lord…”
This IS Church when we attest to the ways that Christ is alive within us. This IS Church when we act with kindness to those who have lost hope. This IS Church when we encourage the gifts of a stranger or offer financial help. This IS Church when we break bread at our dining room table, fully confident that we meet the risen Christ in that meal. This IS Church when we assure a hospitalized family member of our love on speaker phone because we can’t be with them. This IS Church when we help a friend move in the thick of a pandemic when workers are hard to find and COVID threatens us.
What we have been doing this past year, as frustrating as it may have been, IS Church! The celebration today that met in our building on Easter morning and in our parking lot and streamed into our homes IS Church…because the risen Christ cannot be contained or owned or denied. Like Mary, run with that good news wherever God leads you.
Christ is risen. Risen indeed! Hallelujah!