October 1st 2017
James 2:14-18, 26 Matthew 7:14-17,20-21
I cannot remember precisely when I became interested in churches, not in what goes on inside the sanctuaries, but in the churches themselves. I’m not sure whether my worship experience was the catalyst for my curiosity in church buildings or if that curiosity existed even before my faith grew in a significant way in my life. I know that for far more than twenty, maybe thirty years I’ve had a desire to ride around New England photographing all the marvelous churches with their unending variety of architectural styles – from the big stone edifices, to the little white country churches like our own. Different denominations tend to stick to a particular architectural style, and I’ve always had this desire to create a collection of as many of them as I could. Unfortunately I knew that desire would never be fulfilled, because I have a flaw or quirk that insists I ‘keep moving’ and I rarely pause long enough to enjoy the things I encounter on the road, especially when I am on the road riding on my motorcycle. But has not always been the case, there have been occasions when I’ve stopped; I’ve visited some great cathedrals, most recently the Basilica of Peter and Paul in Philadelphia; I’ve stopped in at the little one room Free Quaker Meetinghouse in Philadelphia, (which is now a museum) but also spent time at the Arch Street Meeting House a few blocks away, which after 335 years still serves the active Quaker community. I’ve worshipped in the church in a farming community on the New York border with Vermont, where the pews still have doors, and little boxes sit below each pew where a hot brick once was placed to warm the occupants on frigid Sunday mornings; and I have visited Christ Church in the City of Boston, known by most as the Old North Church, where two lamps were hung in 1775 to signal Paul Revere.
I suspect it was around the time I entered the ministry, that I noticed my interest in churches had taken on an added element; my fascination with the church buildings themselves hadn’t waned but I began wondering, what ‘kind’ of churches these buildings I passed were, what denomination do they affiliate with, how do they worship, what is their theology? Now I often find myself slowing and turning to read as much of their sign as possible, instead of zipping by. And so it was, as I traveled last week, a journey that took me as far east as Portland, Maine, as far north as Burlington, Vt. and as far west as Lake Placid, in the Adirondacks.
There were two churches in particular, two completely different and unrelated churches which I had driven by more than once, (probably hundreds of miles apart), which piqued my interest last week. I can’t recall where the first church was located; I don’t remember the church’s name or what denomination it might have been, or even what style architecture it was, but what stood out to me was the sign out front. Most of this church’s sign was taken up with a picture of Jesus’ face wearing a crown of thorns, with the message “Believe in Him… and be saved.”
I know exactly where the second church is located and so it wasn’t difficult to do a little Google research to find out who this church was… but you would not have learned that from their sign. If you have real “eagle eyes” (which of course I don’t) you might have been able to make out their website address, which was printed in letters so small, until I saw the photo on Google Maps, I hadn’t even realized was included (and I drove by this church three times). About the only thing you will learn from the sign in front of this church, is that they “Love People” and that you are invited to “Come Celebrate” with them at 10:00am, (there was a second temporary sign for a recent special event). I’ve noticed in the past few years seeing more and more former church buildings, now occupied by something called “centers for spiritual or meditational development.”
The thing that struck me about both of these two church signs was their ambiguous message. I realize they’re ‘just’ signs… but we put signs out front of our church buildings for a reason. Like a church’s architecture, the signs in front of them are meant to be an intentional statement, of what those who worship there say a visitor can expect to find inside. They are meant to make it clear, who they are and what they believe, in order to interest you in walking through their door. Although sometimes, the signs churches put on their lawn end up being more a statement of who they would like to believe they are, than who they actually are. Several years ago I was having a conversation many with the chaplain from our local hospital; she described the church where she worshipped as a congregation which liked to believe they were “far more liberal than they actually were.”
But returning to these two particular churches, taken at face value, which is what every church who puts a sign out front would like us to do, one believes that all you need to do to be “saved,” is believe in Jesus. Now I know that’s what the Gospel of Mark records Jesus saying, and I know that promise is repeated throughout the scriptures. I know John wrote, “That whoever believes in him may have eternal life;” “whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already.”  I know Paul wrote to the Romans that “if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved,” and that Luke wrote, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you (and your household) will be saved.” But that simplistic formula seems reduce our faith – and our eternity – to something similar to the words Lady Day, Billy Holiday sang “If I go to church on Sunday, then cabaret all day Monday – T’aint nobody’s business if I do.” The theology their sign suggests is that nothing – nothing else you may do in your life, has any bearing as long as you “believe” on Sunday morning.
And the extreme opposite end of the pendulum’s swing is that second church, who would ask only one thing of us, to love people – to love everyone. Again – I know what the scriptures teach us about love, that Jesus said, “Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another;” I know John wrote: “Whoever loves his brother abides in the light;” I know Paul said, “Be devoted to one another in love;” and Peter, “Love one another earnestly from a pure heart.” This church invites us to come and celebrate, but it doesn’t appear, at least in the message transmitted to the world through their sign, that they’ve invited Jesus to be at the center of their love-fest.
There has got to be more in our faith than simple swearing our belief to a poor Jewish rabbi who lived 2,000 years ago; there’s got to be more even than believing – as miraculous as it is – that he was raised from death after he was crucified. That over-simplified ‘believe and be saved’ theology is one reason so many people have turned from the church, because they can’t see how that promise is having any impact on the pain they see, and the terrible things happening all around them. It’s not overcoming poverty; it’s not reducing the blatant injustices; it’s not putting an end to the violence in the world and in their own backyards. ‘Believe and be saved’ is not producing the results they always thought their faith would – or should.
But there has also got to be more to our faith than simply wrapping our arms around one another, holding tight and telling them how much we ‘love’ them – sure it will bring people through the door because everyone wants to feel good, and no matter who you are, when someone tells you you are loved, you feel good; and it makes you feel good to tell someone else you love them. But those same people are also slowly drifting away again, when it comes to the hard part about loving… when they are confronted with someone who has hurt them or is betraying them, and are suddenly expected to love them too. When they are asked to love and forgiveness to that family member who has stolen from them, that person who has slandered their reputation, that individual who has trashed your relationship, they have nowhere to turn. John Lennon didn’t get it right when he sang, “All you need is love.” Jesus said “Even the worst sinner will love someone who loves them; what good is loving only those who love you in return.” Love… the kind of love God asks of us, is more than celebrating a ‘warm and fuzzy’ feeling once each week.
No, if our faith is to be real, if our faith is to be genuine, it has to exist somewhere between the easy slogans “we love people” and “believe and be saved.” It must lie in the everyday living out the lessons that rabbi taught us when he warned us to be wary of those who promise the easy path… Living our faith, he said, is difficult. It is difficult to love your enemy; it is difficult to put yourself on the line and the well-being of another – a stranger – ahead of yourself. And he says that that ‘being saved’ promise, held up by some like the golden prize, will not be the reward of “everyone who swears he is Lord, Lord.”
What does your sign say? Does it make the passerby want to investigate what’s going on inside? What good is wearing the label “Christian” out front of your life, if in your heart it is cold and empty? What good is saying the words “I love you” to the person whose heart is hardened, if your actions betray your words; what good is telling someone to “have a good life,” if the way you live your own does nothing to bring hope into theirs? What good is your faith… it is an empty promise if you are not living it? Living for Jesus is more than saying “I love you” and more than swearing “I believe.” Take down your signs – discard your labels, and let the way you live your life show the world all it needs to know about your faith, about your Savior, about your God.
— Amen ―
 John 3:15 & 18
 Romans 10:9
 Acts 16:31
 John 13:34
 1 John 2:10
 Romans 12:10
 1 Peter 1:22
 Luke 6:31
 Matthew 7:20