A young adult surprised me in a local funeral home today. I was there for a funeral visitation. Somehow I had gotten confused and showed up an hour early so I was the only one in the room. Until the young woman caught me and asked if I was related to Trinity United Methodist Church.
When I said I was one of the pastors, she turned to me and said, "I need to ask you a question? Why did your church throw me out when I was off at school and still keep as members people who are in prison?"
I was surprised. I've been here for fourteen years, you see, and I had never seen the young woman in worship.
I commented that my own sons had their names removed from the membership list at the United Methodist Church they attended in high school. I explained that when we become members we promise to support the church by our prayers, presence, gifts and service. And that when we stop coming, when we disappear, when we walk away from our promises, then the church will remove our name because we've gone away.
That didn't soften her anger...still bubbling over after having been gone from Trinity for more than ten years.
"Have you been in worship at any point in the last fourteen years?" I asked.
"Why would I want to go there," she snapped, "since my family left. And how can you have terrible people who have done terrible things as members?"
"Do you know about our faith?" I asked. "Do you understand what Jesus does with those who sin, who fail, who make a mess of things? Our faith says God doesn't give up on us even when everyone else does."
She was still seething. "I don't get how you could throw me out of church!"
"We didn't throw you out," I said. "You walked out. You left us."
"Whatever!" she said with a toss of her head and she disappeared down the hall of the funeral home.
It was an interesting moment. Which raised all kinds of questions for me.
Did I take seriously her anger and sense of having been hurt? Did I go on the defensive too quickly?
And, Why does church membership matter to some people only when it is taken away? I sometimes hunch that for some people church membership is God's "seal of approval." It is evidence that they are okay with God. A sort of eternal insurance policy. They don't really seem to be pursuing a relationship with God but when their membership is removed it feels like even God has rejected them.
Or, Can you get thrown out of a place when you have already walked out the door?
Or, Did I miss an opportunity to say "Are you telling me you would like to be a part of a Jesus community? Are you missing something...and do you know the door is always open?"
We live in a culture where the promises we make to God seem easily ignored. And we're shocked when the Jesus community, in the most gracious way possible, holds us accountable. We're not used to having people say, "Do you remember the promises you made to God?"
It was an interesting...surprising...unsettling conversation. Walking away I thought again about the importance of telling young people the Jesus way isn't easy. The Jesus way is going to demand their best...everything they have. The Jesus way involves a cross. And if you aren't serious about this then don't sign up. Don't treat becoming a Jesus follower as some kind of rite of passage...like getting your driver's license or going on Spring Break with your friends for the first time at eighteen.
So this was one of the moments in my day.
And I find myself tonight thinking about the story of the lost sheep. It's in Luke 15. You can look it up.