[Sermon I didn't preach on September 25, because my wife was in labor. My deep thanks to the lay readers who stepped in and preached this sermon for me.]
dad used had a sign out front of his old church in South Bend,
Indiana. The sign wasn’t particularly special: the name - St Michael
and All Angels’ Episcopal Church - and service times, but then - this is
what excited my dad - three blank lines that he could fill in with
whatever he thought a passerby driving down Ironwood Road at fifty-plus
miles an hour on her way to somewhere else might find interesting or
uplifting or even mildly distracting, such that the next time said woman
was firing down that direction, she might think for a second about
pulling off for a pit stop with Jesus.
was a challenge he relished. A fun game on the side. One week,
though, in the winter, it was too cold with a couple of feet of snow
piled up outside, so Dad sent my brother and me to put the white letters
trapped in their clear plastic squares up on the sign. We tromped off
in the snow. Problem. The squares already on the sign, the ones we
needed to take down, were frozen on good, so we had to put some elbow
into it, and when they finally came loose, they had some momentum, if
you know what I mean, and they shot off like rockets, a good fifteen
yards, and cut through the snow like a hot knife through butter. And
more snow falling fast. We didn’t find those letters again until
seen these signs. You can even generate your own online for kicks.
Three lines. And I’ve seen folks go for broke in any and all
directions: the crass, the corny, the well-intentioned. Some feel like
gimmicks. But a good process to take because for better or worse, signs
make you think about what it is you have to share.
once the car has pulled off Ironwood, that is, the interested or
distracted individual is now on your campus, church signs don’t become
less important. A kind of essential hospitality, pointing you to where
the action is. I once circled a church building twice on foot before I
found an unlocked door with any kind of indication as to where it went
or what I’d find there. I felt a little bit like Joshua at Jericho.
Let’s just circle ‘round a few more times, I thought, and blow some
trumpets. Just get on with it.
while these signs, hospitality signs, don’t bear the creative pressure
of the roadside street signs - they’re just pointers, arrows - they
still make you think about what it is you have to share.
this reason, the most memorable signs I’ve seen in churches aren’t for
the new folks. They are reminders to the folks who already attended.
Not because anyone was forgetting where the restrooms were, but these
were signs that kept the people thinking about, kept calling the people
back to, what it was they had to share.
one church I visited had a sign as you left the parking lot. Not for
the ones coming in, but for the people going out. “You are now entering
the mission field.” A reminder that on Sunday they received food for
the journey, and that Monday through Saturday was the journey. The
wandering, the purposing, the serving, the loving, the being, the
growing, the real task of discipleship.
church had a reminder sign placed just about the doorway as you entered
the worship space: “Expect a miracle,” it said. Expect a miracle. And
I knew a priest who inherited that sign. He was tempted to change it:
“Lower your expectations,” he wanted to say. But he knew that the sign
wasn’t about him.
a miracle. Not of your pastor. Not of yourself. But of God. I like
the sign because signs are reminders of what you think you have to
share. And this sign was a pointer to God.
may sound too simple, but I think that sometimes the best way to point
to God is simply to expect him. Expect a miracle. Expect God’s
presence. To behave in ways that only make sense if God has shown up,
bowing as you come up to the altar. A simple example. A good thing to
do, reverencing the presence of God. But only if God is present.
Otherwise it’s a superstitious twitch. Other things that only make
sense if God is present, I think: mercy and generosity. That is, giving
and forgiving. These are actions that allude to a deeper story, the
story of Christ crucified and risen; lives that have felt and received
the immeasurable goodness of God.
the best way to point to God is simply to expect him. To behave in
ways that only make sense if God has shown up, too.
like to imagine our lives as little signs on the edge of the street
whose actions point to the mystery and reality of the living God at work
in our lives and in the world.
course, if my life can be a sign that points to God, it goes without
saying that the sign becomes secondary to the thing it points to, the
presence of God. In business they have a saying, “Don’t love your
product, love what your product does.” So what I love about bowing is
not the angle of my head relative to the altar, but the presence of the
One my bowing acknowledges. What I love about forgiveness is that it
points to the presence of the God who has forgiven me.
the gospel this morning, the religious leaders get stumped by Jesus
when Jesus asks them about John the Baptist. Who sent him? Jesus asks.
John. If the leaders say, “eh, he’s just another guy,” the people who
mob them in their anger. If the leaders say, “God sent him,” they know
that Jesus will ask why they didn’t follow him. Jesus exposes them: the
religious leaders don’t actually believe that God is sending anyone
these days. They’ve gotten so good at waiting, they’ve stopped ever
looking for God to show up. They are signs without a point.
Jesus comes singing, “The Kingdom of God is come near,” and this is
Good News for the folks who don’t know better, who are expecting a
miracle, who are reaching out for the Kingdom, but the ones who do know
better are left with the sheer duty of it all, trying to keep the
promises that it seems God won’t, or maybe can’t, keep.
a kind of unholy religion the religious folks in the gospel are
maintaining: trying to cover for the God who appears to be shirking his
responsibilities. With no expectation that things will change. Keeping
a polished front, without connecting, like the tax collectors and the
prostitutes, to the one who now says he is the Messiah. Like the spouse
of the alcoholic parent, the chief priests keep the house clean and
make excuses for God - he’s probably working late, I don’t know why he
missed your game - covering, protecting, enabling an absentee god that’s
really an idol of their own making. Nobody is expecting a miracle.
Nobody thinks God will show up. They don’t have eyes to see or ears to
And I wonder if that ever still happens.
If keeping the signs ever becomes more important than the One the signs were made to point to.
groupies ask a question of each other each time they get together:
when, in the past week, did you feel closest to Christ?
That’s their way of trying to keep the signs of their lives oriented to the One they were made to point to.
But even with questions like this, we sometimes get turned around.
the child who came to church every single Sunday - a streak of more
than two years - with a determination that would rival Cal Ripken Jr.’s,
and every time he thought about how this made him better than the ones
who didn’t come quite as often. Or the man who didn’t come as often
because he was convinced that this showed how he wasn’t caught up in the
self-righteous games of the uber-religious. He’s not an institutional
sell-out like the rest of ‘em. Or the acolyte who studied the way to
light the candles without messing it up but didn’t even try to forgive
his younger brother for his pounding him last weekend. Or the member
whose tithe had become a badge of honor such that she could keep herself
certain that no one was as invested in the life of her church or the
Kingdom of God as she was. Or the priest who had decided that self-help
psychology was probably of more use than the Gospel because, while
psychology was of less long-term benefit, at least it didn’t always
require his embarrassing God to show up.
All of them, in their strange ways, keeping the signs, but not pointing in clear ways to anything of lasting value.
here’s the question for us, for you: what in your life is of lasting
value? What in your life is of lasting value that does not depend on
your self and your relative accomplishments - that is, your being better
than others at something - and your needing to keep up a good front?
This is the place of forgiveness and mercy, receiving the kindness of
shared with me that a Catholic friend once said to his Episcopal friend
that he thought it was interesting that Episcopalians take Communion
while Catholics receive it. I hope not, but that’s the question:
what ways are you pointing to God, not by your merit, not polished, not
fixed, but broken, simply by expecting to meet him? Receiving the gift
that is God.
religious folks are the quickest to miss it - that’s what Jesus tells
us. But it’s not too late. He’s still here. Not going anywhere. Ours
is an open invitation to join the tax collectors and prostitutes - if
they’ll have us - the ones who are enjoying their inside joke with
Jesus: that sins are forgiven, that lives are made new, that fear and
control are being replaced by God’s kindness and grace, the joy of the
Kingdom. That in the Kingdom of God, all signs point to ‘yes!’
the best thing about signs. Signs call you back to the thing you have
to share. O! to be made a pointer to the presence, the Kingdom, of God.