Timothy C. Ahrens
The First Congregational Church
United Church of Christ
October 1, 2000
Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of each one of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our salvation. Amen.
Lee Domann is a singer, songwriter and United Methodist pastor serving churches in Nashville, TN. Recently I ran across a story he shared of an earlier time in his life when he was working in Kansas City, Missouri. Back in the 60's and 70's, Lee often found himself in settings that weren't always healthy, spiritually or physically. A big jazz fan, Lee would often cruise the bars and night clubs along Main St. in Kansas City. One of them that was a notch or two above the rest, where you had a somewhat better chance of walking out alive was simply called Milton's. Milton was the first name of the owner who doubled as a bartender.
For a few bucks you could sit in the corner of Milton's and listen to the sweet sound of old reel-to-reel recordings of Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, and John Coltraine. One night Lee heard a song called "Church Pews and Bar Stools." The chorus went like this:
"Church pews and bar stools both hold God's children,
weary from playing life's games;
And they all need some place to lay down their burdens.
Church pews and bar stools are a whole lot the same."
I suspect there's truth to this, but as Domann points out from his own life experience (and mine) there may be truth in this, but I've never seen anybody fall off the back of a church pew! Good point. So there are differences, some major.....Yet the fact remains that we all do seek comfort where we think we can find it, whether it turns out ultimately to be the right place or not. And Milton's had lots of sad, lonely people seeking a place to call home.
One of the saddest sights at Milton's was a cork board over the pay phone, where Milton pinned all the bad checks. Above the checks was a sign that politely invited these particular customers to pay their bills as soon as was convenient. Sadder still was the fact that many of those folks who signed those checks -- folks that Milton genuinely loved and cared about -- never came back, and never did pay up. Maybe they were too ashamed. Maybe they were con artists. Maybe they felt too guilty.
I suppose there are spiritual con artists in the church. In fact, I'm convinced of this although I can't prove it. Some are behind the pulpits; some sit in the pews. Some sit at home and complain about both the people in the pulpit and the people in the pews. Yes, I'm convinced that there are a few spiritual con artists in the church. But, their total number can't hold a candle to the total number of people whose overriding feeling is one of guilt. Some know why they feel guilty, and others don't. Some stand behind pulpits charged with the responsibility of saying meaningful things on topics they don't feel worthy to address. Some sit in pews, not feeling worthy enough to be in church -- or for that matter, anywhere.
It's a shame. What a shame to feel your spiritually bounced check somewhere. And either you remember this all too well, or you can't remember it at all. What a special tragedy in light of God's forgiveness and amazing grace -- a forgiving love so powerful that a man like Paul, once a scoundrel and a murder, could be swept away by that Love and have his life changed by God, in spite of himself. Paul, a forgiven sinner who was given the gift of joy and compassion, to the point where he could plead with his fellow Christians in the early years of the church, "Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another even as God for Christ's sake has forgiven you."
In a few minutes, we'll gather once again around the Lord's table, together with millions of other Christians throughout the world on this World Wide Communion Sunday. When we do, I hope and pray we'll all feel that we belong here, no matter what we've done or said in the past week, or in the past in general, that we may regret. Or no matter what we've done that we should regret, but don't, either out of callousness or out of ignorance that our words or behaviors hurt someone else. I pray that no matter what spiritual "bad checks" we've tried to pass off in the totality of our lives up to this point, we'll nevertheless remember this morning that God has already forgiven us through Jesus Christ.
In telling his story, Lee Domann writes, "I don't know whether Milton called himself a Christian. I do know that some folks would judge him because of what he did for a living. I hope I never do, and I hope you won't either, because Jesus didn't judge the Milton's of his day. His message was the same as it was to the rabbis: `It's between you and God.' But, I do know (he continues) that Milton received the spirit of the living God into his heart more than most people do. I believe this because Milton knew the meaning of forgiveness. And I know this because about 2-3 a year in the classified ads of the Kansas City Star there would appear the following words: "all debts forgiven. All is forgiven. Please come home. Love, Milton." He'd clip it out and tape it on the tiny window on the front of his lounge, so you'd see it if you were one of the guilty or the ashamed standing outside on the sidewalk wondering whether to come in."
When I started preparing for today's sermon, I had planned to tell you about the 31 stories of Jesus on giving; on the fact that one out of every three of Jesus' parables is about giving; about tithing or giving 10% of your income to the church; about all the reasons it would be good for you to give generously to First Congregational Church in 2001. I had planned to map out the "Forward in Faith Vision" for First Church. I planned to preach on "Compassionate Stewards." Instead, I ask you to remember this day. That Christ broke himself for us, that he shared himself for us, that he gave himself for us, that he poured himself out for us.
As each of us now prepares to receive Christ at His Table, I simply ask you to remember that God's forgiving love appears, is mirrored, and is reflected in our world in such unexpected ways and places -- sometimes even in the most unlikely people. I figure if Milton the bartender knows something about the power of forgiveness and love, then God holds out a little bit of hope for me and you. I am grateful that God doesn't nail my spiritual bad checks up to some celestial corkboard. I am grateful that instead of revealing all of my shortcomings, God chooses instead to reveal God's sacrificial love in the body and the blood of God's cone, our Savior Jesus Christ. I am grateful that he was sent to let us know that it is possible to be in human form and still have the capacity for divine compassion, love and forgiveness. I invite you to join me at the table, humbled and grateful.
Here at the table forgiveness can be found. All you and I have to do is accept it. "All debts paid. All is forgiven. Please come home. Love, God." Amen.
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