I think I gave my first real sermon in Ferguson. I had given a “practice” one in a preaching class in college, but that doesn’t count. It was for a grade, and delivered to a captive audience (other preaching students, who were also mostly concerned about their grade). Plus, I wore a lavender suit; I kid you not. Can anyone deliver a real sermon in a lavender suit?
But my efforts to take the message out of the classroom and into real life happened when I put together a sermon for the folks who lived at a nursing home in Ferguson, Missouri, where my dad was the chaplain. The name of the home? The Christian Old People’s Home; again, I kid you not. A person simply can’t make up questionable suit choices or nursing home names.
For nearly 20 years, my dad faithfully, lovingly, daily served the seniors that were spending their final days and years at that nursing home. And from my mom and dad, I learned that church includes people who are different than I am. I was young; they were, ahem, old. I was largely clueless; they had learned the hard lessons of life. Sometimes they slept through my dad’s services; I knew better than to try that. And some of the good folks at the COPH were black; I was (and still am) very white.
Some preacher’s kids grow up frustrated, hurt, shackled by the life they feel they have to live. I don’t think I ever felt that way. Because, from age 11 until my dad retired when I was 30, I got to learn from dad, and from the folks he worked with. And I got to experience church that was not about me, but included me.
I don’t think I realized the lessons I was learning then, but subtly, quietly, subconsciously, I believe the Spirit was sowing them in my life. Lessons that include the reality that the Church is for everyone, no matter our age, our gender, our race. That unity takes work. That grace is essential. And that we need each other.
I think about those things as I think about what has been happening in Ferguson this year. Michael Brown died less than 3 miles from where my father ministered to — and taught me to love — folks very different from us.
It is so easy to take sides, to argue with those who disagree with us when it comes to Ferguson — and so many other realities we face today. But I wonder: where would Ferguson be today if the Church really were more like the church I experienced with my dad at that nursing home in Ferguson? What would it look like if the Church were on the forefront of breaking down the barriers that separate us — be they race, or gender, or age, or the myriad other things that keep “me” from “you.”
I believe that the way this happens is when Christians lead in living out the peace that Jesus came to the earth to bring. When “peace on earth” is not simply a phrase we speak in church — but words that we live out, daily, as the Church.
In Ephesians 2.14, we are told, “For he (Jesus) is our peace, who has made us both one, and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility” (RSV). The goal of breaking down this wall? To “reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby bringing the hostility to an end.”
Whether it is Ferguson, or Pakistan, or Iraq, or your neighborhood or mine — couldn’t our world use an end to hostility? How does it happen? How can it happen? I believe that hostility ends when we encounter the Jesus of Christmas — and the Jesus of the cross. He brings us peace. You. Me. And changed by peace, real peace, we become peacemakers. The kind who recognize that peace only comes when we roll up our sleeves, and learn to love someone different than us. Someone for whom Christ died to bring peace.
How desperate the world is for peace. How desperate I am — and you, too. This year, Christmas can’t come fast enough. Because Christmas is the coming of peace, of the Prince of Peace. And is there anything we need under the tree more than that?
We are ready for you, Jesus. We are desperate for you. For without you, what hope is there for the Church? Without you, what hope is there for the world?