It looked like a postcard from the outside. The parishioners inside warmly greeted this blue jean wearing, scruffy stranger. It was awesome to sit with them in old straight-back wooden pews again and sing “Amazing Grace.”
Then the sermon started. From the beginning the pastor whacked us with the Law. Nothing wrong with God’s Law, it shows us the standard. The standard we can’t meet on our own.
As I waited to hear the resuscitating words of the Gospel, I realized they weren’t going to come.
With increasing intensity and sweat, the message was solely “do more, try harder, get your act together. God is tired of sinners! His patience is wearing out! You’re nowhere close to doing everything you can to please God!”
It was the elder brother from Jesus’ parable of the lost son(s) up on that tiny stage with a message that wayward little brothers and sisters have no right to any feast. No right to a warm greeting from a Father who joyfully runs out to greet sinners and welcome them back home over and over again. We hadn’t earned any of that.
Thundering Law. Not even a whisper of the Gospel.
A scene too often played out in worship services not just in the South, but across the world. In churches large and small.
Wounded and weary sinners waiting for an announcement of good news that never comes.
It turned out he was a guest preacher. The church was looking for someone full-time.
When he finally sat down after kneeling and wiping his brow, one of the elders stood up and said, “Now this is the kind of man we’ve been missing. Someone unafraid to tell us, and it, like it is.”
When it was over, I eased out of the pew, lowered my head and made a beeline to the parking lot, thinking I was the first soul to leave in such haste and wondering why I hadn’t gone for a nice hike instead.
When I looked up, I saw the pastor’s college-aged daughter already ahead of me on the way to their car. I’ll never ever forget the look on her face. The very picture of beaten-down. Not an especially embarrassed or surprised look—she’d obviously heard all this before.
Just weariness. Hopelessness.
I wish to this day I would’ve said something to her, although I have no idea what that would’ve been.
Maybe, on the day before Labor Day, just Jesus’ words from Matthew 11:29-30.
Take my yoke upon you and learn from me,Along with maybe the message we had all just sang—some in tears—but never heard spoken back to us. God’s saving promise of “Amazing Grace.”
for I am gentle and humble in heart,
and you will find rest for your souls.
For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.
The sound that revives. The sweetest sound.