Recently, in a conversation with one of our 40-something members, she said that she does not tell people that she is actively involved in a church. Why? Because the word “Christian” has been hijacked by people who seemed to have missed the command of Jesus to love one another. We talked about the fact that many in the general public think of the church as toxic. In their minds, the people who are involved with church are narrow-minded, judgmental, and homophobic.
Unfortunately, the research bears this out in spades. A few years ago, David Kinnaman did a three-year social scientific survey with the Barna Group. He collected and studied “reams of national survey data.”1 It documents that the great majority of 16-29 year-olds “view Christians with hostility, resentment, and disdain…. According to Kinnaman’s study, here are the percentages of people outside the church who think that the following words describe present-day Christianity:
Out of touch with reality 72%
Insensitive to others 70%2
So, the next time you’re in a store or a restaurant, think about the fact that this is how the majority of people would view you if they knew you were a Christian. Kinnaman says, that it would be hard to overestimate “how firmly people reject – and feel rejected by Christians.”3
Needless to say, we have many challenges before us. Is there anything that each of us can do individually – and is there anything we can do as a church – to alter such hideous perceptions? How can we show others what it genuinely means – genuinely means – to be a follower of Jesus?
Today’s gospel lectionary reading reminds us of a poignant moment at the Last Supper. Jesus knows that he is a marked man and he gathers with some of us closest companions for a meal. Once all had arrived, Jesus rose from the table, poured water into a basin and began to wash the feet of each. This was the customary chore servants performed when a person came in off the dusty roads.
Jesus, their teacher, master, and Lord, who had kept them spellbound with his wisdom and mesmerized with his healings, was kneeling before each of them and scrubbing their filthy, dust-caked feet. It was shocking – some might even say scandalous – and it etched an unforgettable image in their minds. We’re so accustomed to visualizing this that we may not realize how shocking it must have been.
When Jesus finished the menial task, he quizzed them. “Do you know what I have done to you?” The room fell quiet. I suspect most of them dropped their gaze so that Jesus did not make eye contact and they prayed that Jesus would call on someone else for the answer.
But Jesus unpacked the moment for them. He said, “I have given you an example. You ought to wash one another’s feet.” In other words, serve the needs of others. Strive for a mindset that shifts from “What do I need?” to “How can I be of help to this person standing before me?”
I imagine silence blanketed the room as Jesus allowed time for each one to mull over the meaning of his words, the habits they would need to break, and the new mode of thinking they would need to embrace to fulfill his expectations of them.
Then, Jesus broke the silence with a stunning accusation. “One of you will betray me.”
“What?” The disciples look at one another. “What is he talking about?” I wonder if several of them are offended that Jesus questions their loyalty.
Jesus knows that the sand in his hour glass is running thin, so he says, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”
After Jesus entered Jerusalem a few days earlier, the chief priests, the elders, the Pharisees, and the Sadducees all joust with Jesus and display their disdain. Sitting at table with his disciples, he knows the vultures are circling overhead and cannot wait to sink their talons into his flesh and drop him at the feet of Pilate. With the clock nearing midnight, he does not have enough time to cover everything he hopes his followers will remember. At this critical moment, we hear not only what he says, but we become aware of what he does not say.
He does not say, “Here are three things you need to believe about God and me.” He declines to spell out a proper way to pray or to insist on reading a passage of Scripture each day. When the gravity of termination presses down like a boulder on his back and chaos is poised to pounce, instilling confusion and fear in his followers, Jesus is forced to reduce all of his teachings, including more than 40 parables, into one memorable line. He says, “I give you a new commandment” – “Love one another as I have loved you.”
A colleague – a Presbyterian minister and former seminary professor – tells about a young couple he met in Des Moines who are members of a Presbyterian Church. Knowing that most young people have either walked away or never wanted to be a part of the church, he asked them what was wrong with them. Why were they actually in a church? They told him their story.
They fell in love at Rutgers, and shortly after graduating, they married. They were both recruited by different firms in Des Moines. Neither of them knew a soul in Iowa, but they were young and hungry for jobs, so they moved.
Their family and friends in New Jersey thought they were making a mistake, but they found life in Des Moines to their liking. They visited a few Presbyterian churches, but were not drawn to any of them.
Then, one day, after living there for three years, the young woman felt a lump in her breast. She immediately called her mom, and her mom reassured her that they had no history of breast cancer in their family, so it was likely a cyst. But she should get it checked.
The young woman went to her doctor. The doctor told her she did not want to alarm her, but that she needed to see a specialist. The specialist saw her and said that to be safe, they needed to do a biopsy. She called her mom and dad, her in-laws, her sister and brother-in-law and everyone agreed it was good to err on the side of caution, but again, assured her it was likely nothing. A week later she received a call from the doctor’s office and was told to come in the next day. She had stage 4 cancer and needed surgery.
Her family and friends flew out from New Jersey and surrounded them. When the young couple went to the hospital for surgery, the admitting clerk asked about her religious affiliation, and she said, “Presbyterian.” The clerk asked which church, and the couple said they didn’t really have a church there. They did visit one church twice, but they did not remember the pastor’s name. The clerk assured them the chaplain could find that out for them.
The chaplain found the church. A small church mainly comprised of older adults. The pastor went to the hospital and prayed with her before surgery and then stayed with her husband and her family during the surgery.
A few days after being released from the hospital, the family and friends needed to return to New Jersey. They began working on a schedule to return, but on that day, the young woman and her husband were alone.
The husband apologized, but he had to go into his office for a couple of hours. She told him to go and assured him she would be fine. She was heading upstairs to rest. He left, but in a short while, she heard a knock on the door. She ignored it — but the knock was persistent.
Annoyed, she got up and went downstairs and opened the door, and there stood a lovely older woman holding a paper bag sideways. The visitor asked the young woman her name, and when she said it, the older woman said, “Oh, good. I have the right house.”
She introduced herself and said she was from the church. The young woman asked,
“What church?” and the woman named the church of the pastor who had come to the hospital. She had made a casserole and some fresh baked rolls for her and her husband. She said she was sorry to hear what had happened and told her the whole church had been praying for them.
The young woman told the older one that she hadn’t asked for food, and the older
woman smiled and said she knew that, but it was for her anyway. Then the young woman asked how much it cost, and the older woman said it was free. She asked if she could come in and put the food away. The young woman said, “Of course” and showed her in. Then the older woman asked if she felt like some company, and the young woman said, “Actually, I would love some company right now.”
So they sat together in the living room and they talked and laughed and cried and prayed. After a while, the young woman grew tired, she apologized and said she needed to go upstairs and lie down. The older woman said, “Of course, dear. And I do not mean to be rude, but I am looking around your place and, sweetheart, you need to dust, and if you don’t mind, while you’re resting, I would be happy to clean. I love to clean.”
“Well, how much would you charge me?” asked the young woman.
The older woman laughed and said, “Sweetheart, it’s free. We’re the church. You just go upstairs, and I’ll be quiet.”
Later, the young husband came home and, noticing the difference, asked his
spouse, “Baby, did you clean downstairs?” And the young woman told him about the woman from church. “What church?” he asked.
“The pastor’s church,” she explained. And then she told him about their dinner.
The next afternoon, there was another knock on the door. The young woman opened it, and there was a rather uncomfortable looking older gentleman. “May I help you?” she asked.
“Uh, yes, are you …?” and the older man said her name.
She said, “Yes.” He said, “Good” — and thrust a bag at her and told her it was a chicken dinner his wife had prepared. And he told her there was also pie and that the church was so sorry to hear about her illness, and they were all praying for her.
She thanked him and asked if he would like to come in. He said, “Well, not really.” But then he said that he noticed that the screen door was not working that well, and he knew what was wrong, and if it was okay with her, he would be glad to fix it.
She told him that her husband had been meaning to fix it. And he said, “Yes, well, young guys, they’re not that great at this, but I know what’s wrong. I have my tools in my car. It won’t take long.”
So she thanked him and put the food away. When her husband got home, he asked, “Baby, did you fix the screen door?” “No,” she said, “A man came from the church.”
“The same church. The pastor’s church. And he brought a chicken dinner and a pie.”
She told my colleague that this little congregation provided them a meal every day for weeks. Then she looked at him, with tears on her cheeks, and said, “I have already told my family and friends in New Jersey, whether I live for six more months, or six more years, or 60 more years, I am never leaving OUR church. I am going to die here in our church.”
If you think they were just casseroles, then you missed the point. This young couple was terrified and convinced they were alone. But the church enveloped them and said, “You may be lonely, but you are never alone!”4
Jesus said, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you should love one another.” And then, he followed with these words: “Everyone will know you are my disciples if you love one another.”
God of All Time and All Creation —
this is the day that you have made;
we rejoice and are glad in it!
We give thanks that you have gathered us
from east and west, north and south
to enjoy the fellowship of this family of faith,
to unite our voices in prayer and praise,
to rest in your presence.
Draw near to us in this hour,
and open us to your Spirit moving among us.
Sustain those who are weary;
encourage those who are weak;
bring peace to anxious minds
and hope to despairing hearts.
And surprise all of us, we pray,
with glimpses of your grace.
Compassionate God —
We pray for people known and unknown to us
who seek your healing;
we pray for communities near and far
that yearn for your wholeness;
we pray for this creation,
which is groaning for redemption.
We lift before you:
Those with ailing minds or aching bodies,
those ensnared by illness or addiction,
those whose spirits are heavy
or whose souls are restless;
Those whose days are waning;
those who helplessly watch loved ones slip away;
those who feel their lives are defined by loss.
Those suffering from a lack of resources
or a poverty of opportunity;
those living in neglected neighborhoods
or communities torn by conflict;
those who feel discarded or devalued,
or who have long suffered the effects of injustice.
We especially pray for the heartbroken of Buffalo,
now reeling from an act of hatred and violence.
Comfort the mourners,
sustain the helpers,
embolden the advocates,
and surround this hurting community
with the peace that flows from justice.
Be present, O God, with all these siblings:
through the compassionate care
of those called to tend hurting minds and bodies;
the healing touch of family and friends;
the comforting embrace of community;
the prophetic witness of advocates and change-makers;
and the generous service of strangers who mirror your mercy.
Help us — your church, called to love with Christ’s love —
to embody his grace in word and deed.
Free us from selfish impulses
and cast out demons of prejudice and apathy,
that we might be agents of healing
and transformation in this world.
By your Spirit,
open our ears to hear your commandment anew;
stir our hearts to respond with compassionate care;
and stretch wide our arms to embrace others as kin.
Move in us and through us, we pray,
that our witness might glorify you
and point others to the radical love of Christ.
We pray in the name of your Son, our Lord, and offer the words he taught us:
Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. And, lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil for thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory forever. Amen.
We take your confidentiality seriously. Please know that only the Prayer Ministry Team receives this information.
We take your confidentiality seriously. Please know that only a pastor receives this information.