I recall a nature documentary on the humble bumble bee. According to the experts, it should not fly. This creature does not possess the right characteristics or aerodynamic qualifications to fly. Except that God wills it to fly. God's will triumphs engineering declarations every time.
It seems that we have come to a certain juncture in history when many in the Church have become convinced that God's Word as it has been read will not fly with the people. It is antiquated, out of touch, irrelevant to, and distant from the judgments of modern day man. It may have once been vital and vibrant when folks thought the earth flat or had no distractions of entertainment and pleasure but not in our world of choice, sophistication, learning, and self-confidence. It will not fly, they have decided. It must be so.
Those of us who see empty pews on Sunday morning fear that perhaps this judgment may be correct. Those of us who have labored to faithfully proclaim the Gospel in unbroken solidarity with the apostles often have our own anxieties fueled by what seems to be a lack of progress or success within our parishes and communities. We may not be ready to exchange the yesterday, today, and forever Jesus with the Christ who wears a current wardrobe of opinion, culture, and values... but we do face up to our questions and fears from time to time.
Many have gone well past the point of fearing. They have decided that something must be dared in the name of God to save Jesus from being a historical footnote. Some have decided that it is best to confront change and to simply admit that we were wrong and now we have changed... changed about evolution and creation... changed about sin and death... changed about abortion and life... changed about sexuality and marriage... changed about eternity and this temporal reality... These are those among the most liberal of "Christians" who meet and vote or who simply make on their own the changes that update Christianity to keep it from becoming irrelevant. "God is doing a new thing," they say. And boldly they embrace what is contemporary, entrepreneurial, and innovative. It is as if they are striving not just to keep up but to get ahead of where they perceive the culture is going -- the cutting edge of proclamation, ministry, and belief.
Some have chosen not to publicly make such a judgment but in more subtle nuance have adjusted the message. These have quietly began preaching a message of me in which sins are more hindrances to my full pleasure, happiness, and fulfillment than, well, sins. So what is confessed are those things that keep us from becoming all we want to be and worship becomes the learning center where we grow past these impediments to fuller humanity. And the Church becomes a large self-help group with the pastor the chief motivator and prognosticator of looking at what makes you sad, ditching it, and finding what makes you happy (usually it works out to more money at work, fewer kids at home, freer responsibilities in marriage - or none at all - and a life defined by all the experiences you can pack in). The Thee of Christianity has become the ME of pop psychology and life coaching for better choices.
Others have made the truth so relative that it exists in bits and pieces of every religion and spirituality is about picking and choosing from the buffet of all religion to find the thing that centers you in the universe. Some of these have turned religion into a green revolution in which the goal is saving the planet -- not the people. Animals and plants have lives and feelings and value on the same plain as people for these radical reformers.
A few have become bitter and angry. Their words to the world are doom and gloom and they speak of the Savior in such brutal terms that it is a religion of fear that few want except those ideologues so determined that nothing else will do. These folks do not really want to save their neighbors as much as condemn them. Their weakness is their own seeming lack of sin or failure but so often those who are the hardened believers in this movement of triumphalism come out of the most wounded or sordid pasts.
And then there are those who struggle to be faithful -- faithful to the message and the mission of Jesus Christ. I suspect that there are far more of them than we think. People like the vast majority of those in my own parish and my own denomination who come every Sunday to confession because they know the destruction and death breeding power of sin in their own lives. They come kneeling and confessing because they year to know freedom in the peace of a conscience washed clean by the blood of Jesus. They pass the font every Sunday knowing it was there they were caught and claimed by the compelling love the flows from the cross and through the water to mark us for the Lord and for life in His kingdom -- now and eternally.
They sing sometimes with faltering voices and sometimes bold and strong. They sing not because they like the music or because they love the melody. They sing because the words tell the story, the old, old story of Jesus and His love. They sing in praise of what God has done for us in Christ, of the forgiveness that answers sin's pointy finger of guilt and of life that laughs at death's seeming defiance of God's purpose and plan. They listen as they sing and sing as they listen -- voices of today that echo the voices of yesterday and teach the voices of tomorrow.
The listen to the sermon not because they are looking for help for this problem or that... not because they think a new way of living will bring them more happiness or fulfillment... not because they want to be confirmed in their sins... They listen for Jesus Christ and they glory when they hear the message of the cross and empty tomb. They are silent as they listen but their hearts are filled with the "Amens" of a people who have come to hear the cross, who hear it for their joy and salvation, and who pray they may take it and speak to those outside the doors of this sanctuary.
They come to the Table of the Lord to receive what is promised -- knowing not how to understand this mystery but knowing to receive it with faith and all its blessings flow freely and fully into their mortal frames preparing them for immortality. They come to eat the bread come down from heaven given for the life of the world and to drink the cup of salvation that points to the heavenly banquet yet to come. "Here, O my Lord, I see Thee face to face," they sing -- because they do see Him where He has promised to be and it is a glorious glimpse into the presence of God, the face of mercy, and the hand of pure grace.
They go home, in part tired for the all the energy expended in this House of the Lord on the Lord's Day and in part invigorated by the experience of it all. They wonder why the pews are not filled with people looking as they do at the richness of the mercy, the wideness of the grace, and the blessing of such participation in the means of His presence among us. But they are not so much disheartened as they are confused by the way the world chooses a moment of false hope over a lifetime of real hope... by the way the world is content for a message of the moment when it might have eternity spoken to them... by the way the world is looking for pleasure when the joy of the Lord is what fills the heart no matter the circumstance around you...
I must admit, despite all my wonderings about why the pews are not fuller, this is how I come each week to the place of God's presence, to the people bidden by His Spirit, for the purpose of His pleasure, to give us His gifts of forgiveness, life and salvation.
Like the bumble bee, this message of the cross should not fly. But then, God wills it to fly and so it shall. Whether we see all of its wings in flutter or its meandering journeys. This Gospel will fly and will accomplish the purpose for which He sends it forth. His Word has wings.