Traveling the roads of Ireland, one is struck by the number of towns that have the sign "Way Out" somewhere near the edge of their municipality. In County Cork, Ireland we encountered our first "Way Out" sign. After five or six roundabouts, we were feeling a bit dizzy. It was encouraging to know there was a "Way Out." However, what is the purpose of a "Way Out" sign? Why place a sign that seems so obvious on the edge of town? Do they want people to leave? Are they trying to reassure visitors that they can exit what they entered? Are these subliminal messages to lifelong residents directing them to the highway that leads away from town? Or is that which is really "Way Out" about to appear just down the road?
Reflecting on the purpose of "Way Out" signs for our life's journey, two lessons come to mind. First, "Way Out" signs point away from what has been and ahead to what is coming. Second, the "way out" is back through.
Lesson #1: "Way Out" signs point away from what has been and ahead toward what is coming. There comes a transitional time in everyone's life when they question what their purpose has been on the planet. For those who have been highly successful, they question when and if their lives will be significant. For we know, there comes a point when you stop chasing success and start chasing significance. For those who have toiled a lifetime in a certain vocation, their question of purpose may reflect on what their legacy will be. For we know, after the labor comes the legacy. For those who have worked with children, the poor, the elderly or in "helping professions," the escalating societal cycles of pain, poverty and violence from birth to death cause them to ponder the meaning of their work. Has their work been in vain?
For John the Baptist, questions of significance, legacy, and meaning settled into his soul as he sat in a prison cell awaiting his execution by beheading. With life hanging in the balance, John asked his disciples to go and ask Jesus if he were the Messiah for whom John had waited and prepared the way.
Imagine the depth of feeling and doubt behind that question from this, the one whom Jesus said, "among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist!" (Matthew 11:11). This was the Embryonic Prophet John, who leapt in his mother Elizabeth's womb when she heard cousin Mary's announcement that she was carrying the Messiah. This was Wild-eyed John, who had eaten locusts and wild honey in the desert and told anyone who passed by that the "Lord was at hand." This was Baptizing John, who washed every one of their confessed sins and knew in a moment that Jesus was the Messiah when he approached on the banks of the Jordan River to receive baptism. It was this John who wondered what lay ahead? How painful it must have been for John to ask "Are you the one?"
What returned to John was a confirmation of Messianic promise! Jesus' answer was clear and strong: "Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me" (Matthew 11:4-6). Translation? "Tell John the Baptist he was right! Tell John the Messiah has come!"
Not long ago, I received a call essentially asking John's question, "Are you the one?" The caller was not asking if I were the Messiah. But, she was asking if First Church meant what we said. Her question was: "Will you welcome me if I am a lesbian?" Before getting up, getting dressed, and carrying her tired and forlorn soul to yet another church door that might turn her away, she needed to know that this church truly offers the extravagant love of Jesus. She, whom Jesus baptized and saved by Jesus, AND had come to accept her sexual orientation as lesbian, needed to know if she would be "bounced out of here," or "held in Christian love."
She needed a way out. The place she was leaving was not a welcoming place. On the "way out" of town she needed a place with Jesus lived out in love! She needed a place ahead on her journey that would offer her hope. The body of Christ had "bounced" her from every stop on her journey. She needed entry to the Messiah and the fullness of the love his body is supposed to give others!
I answered her with a paraphrase of Jesus' words to John's disciples. "Come, see and hear for yourself. If we are what we say we are, I believe you will know in your heart of hearts. And if we are not, the judgment falls us me and on all of us." I added, "There is a phrase in the welcome at AA meetings that goes something like this: `We are not perfect. The welcome we give you may not show the love that we feel for you in our hearts.' In other words, `we are not perfect, God is not finished with us yet.' Hopefully, `we are on the road with Jesus.'" She agreed to come and see and hear for herself. The rest is in our hands and in the hands of God. At least one weary traveler has followed the "Way Out" sign to our doors.
So many of us came here on our "Way out" of some place else. We came with similar pain. We came seeking God after time away, time apart, time broken, and time forsaken. We might have come from great distances or great rejection. We might have come from the pain of loss with loved ones or in marriage. We might have stumbled in here on the road to recovery. We might have come because no other church would accept us for whom God created us beautifully to be.
We need to remember our first time through the doors, when these stones and windows spoke to the deepest part of our souls, when the music reached a part of us that had fallen asleep in hopeless fatigue, when some angel of God ministered to our hurts. We certainly are not perfect, speaking for myself alone. Nevertheless, on the road of life we have found our way out to the Messiah who meets us where we are and heals us for the days ahead.
Our United Church of Christ has taken a passage from the wisdom of the comic prophet Gracie Allen and shared it with love. Gracie once said, "Never place a Period where God has placed a Comma." God is still speaking. Are we still listening? If so, we need to offer ourselves and those who visit us "Commas" not "Periods" for the journey ahead. On the road of life, we need to know, God is not finished with us yet. Beware of placing periods in this sentence called Life.
Lesson #2: The "Way Out" is Back Through. From a traveler's point of view, this may not make sense. If you are leaving a place, why go back through? From a spiritual point of view, there could not be a clearer sign on the roadway of life. One fantastic example of how this works is the Amachi Program.
"Amachi" is a Nigerian Ebo word that means, "Who knows But what God has brought us through this child?" "Amachi" is a mentoring program administered by Big Brothers, Big Sisters. It is a program with people of faith mentoring children of promise. Amachi has grown out of an American tragedy. That tragedy is the state of children in America. There are 15 million children in poverty. 2.5 million children are homeless. 1.5 million children live in dope homes. And perhaps most tragic of all - 7.3 million children have one or more parent incarcerated in jails, prisons or under federal or state supervision. Of those 7.3 million children, unless there is intervention in their lives, 70% of them or 5.1 million will end up in prison later in life.
When he retired from his work in government, Dr. W. Wilson Goode, the first African-American mayor from Philadelphia, went to a seminary. There, he got in touch with his own story. When Dr. Goode was fourteen years old, his father was incarcerated. Teachers told Wilson he was no good. They said he would never amount to much. God, still speaking through Wilson's pastor and his pastor's wife had a different message! They believed he could touch the stars! The church raised money to send him to Morgan State University. The rest is history.
Forty-three years later, while matriculating at Eastern Baptist Seminary at age sixty, Dr. Goode realized the tragedy of children, like himself, with incarcerated parents. God called him to go back through his own story and lead other children to hope. He formed Amachi. Through Amachi, children of incarcerated parents are meeting one-on-one with adults who care. They meet two hours a month for one year. Five years later, 900 children in Philadelphia, and a growing host of children nationwide have hope. Two-thirds of the children have improved test scores, grades, attendance, and reading levels. Instead of 70% headed for prison, 67% are headed for Hope!
Here in Central Ohio, we have identified 3,500 children with parents in prison. Statistically, 2,500 of them will end in prison unless something changes. Amachi offers that change. In this church, we have the capacity of love and positive belief in the power of God to change lives so much so that I want us to step forward and embrace this amazing program run by Big Brothers Big Sisters. This organization has a 100-year track record of success with children and youth. It is about time that we partner our 2000 year success story to theirs! They are in the mentoring business. We are in the saving business! After worship, I have invited Tracy Hoffman from Big Brothers Big Sisters to join us at coffee hour in the Parlor (on the first floor) to share information about this wonderful movement of love and support. I invite you to sign-up and join this growing movement of hope for the children. In this Advent season, I cannot think of a better way to see the Christ child than through Amachi. For certainly it is true: "Who knows but what God has brought us through this child."
The "Way Out" is back through. This applies to each one of us as well as the young boys and girls of Amachi. You and I need to go through the places of our lives that for too long have been unattended. We need to care for our bodies and souls in order to break on through to the other side. Our conscious minds need to allow our unconscious minds to mend the wounds of our lives. James offers us these words in scripture: "Be patient . . . strengthen your hearts . . . do not grumble against one another so that you may not be judged . . . See the purpose of the Lord who compassionate and merciful." The road sign "Way Out" offers you a choice in this season of waiting. Follow the signs. They lead to Bethlehem where you will find a babe wrapped in swaddling cloth and lying in a manger. He is the Incarnation of your "Way Out." Amen.
Copyright 2004, The First Congregational Church