One recent morning at the gym I go to, the group present for class included a guy whom I hadn’t met yet. I’m still fairly new to this gym, so I didn’t really think anything of it. There are any number of members there I have yet to meet. After the class, as we were cooling down and getting ready to leave, the new-to-me guy said to our coach, “I’m sorry I was a no-show the other day. Again. I almost didn’t come today because I’m embarrassed about that.”
Our coach, being the good guy that he is, responded, “Don’t be embarrassed! I’m just glad you’re here today! Good job getting through that tough workout.” Coach’s sincerity was evident.
I couldn’t help but think, “Wow! That same scenario happens at WUMC!” In the 20 years I’ve been a pastor, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had a variation of that conversation: the sheepish look, the expression of guilt or shame for having been away, the presentation of reasons for the absence, the admitted hesitation to return.
Which, believe me, I get. Whenever I skipped a class in college, for whatever reason, it was easier to skip again. It was always harder to go back. We often become our own harshest critic. Same for those few times a year I’m not in worship on Sunday. It’s harder to go back after being gone.
But I promise you this: when I say, “I’m glad you’re here! We’ve missed you.”, I genuinely mean that. I’m not trying to guilt or shame you. That’s not the way of Jesus.
So, I’ll listen to your litany of reasons for being away, if you really want to name them. But, that’s really not what I’m after. I’m not your professor or your parent. Those excuses aren’t required for your re-entry into the building. Or, more importantly, the community.
Here’s what I say to our congregation: Your presence matters because we are better together. Each one of us has gifts to bring and share — gifts that further God’s work in the world through Jesus (aka, the Kingdom of God, the Kin-dom of God, bringing God’s dream for the world to life, God’s love revolution, etc.). Life can be really tough, so let’s walk through it together.
There’s a story in Luke chapter 5 that we read for our weekly bible study wherein Jesus tells some professional fishermen where to cast their nets in order to obtain a huge catch. After which, the one named Simon knelt in front of Jesus and declared himself unworthy of being near Jesus. But Jesus responds, “Don’t be afraid.”
So many people seem to expect the church — and thus, by extension, Jesus — to say to them, “you aren’t worthy!” While I understand that feeling — honestly, far too many people who self-identify as Christian are far too ready to tell whole groups of people they are unworthy (women, LGBT, Muslims, etc.) — notice that Jesus did the opposite of that. Jesus never tells anyone they are unworthy of him. Just the opposite–Jesus consistently sought out the marginalized, the outcast, the “sinner” in order to talk with them or share a meal with them.
Whether you’ve been a faithful attendee for all 53 years of WUMC’s existence or you’ve never been here, or anything in between, don’t be afraid to enter those doors. Whomever you are, wherever you’ve been, whomever you love… You’re welcome here. We’re glad you’re here today. You matter here. You are a beloved child of God.