When the Pennsylvania State University was conceived, the legislature determined that it should be in the geographic center of the state. State College is indeed a beautiful and pastoral location. If you are among the 95,000 fans converging on Happy Valley for a fall football weekend; however, the traffic congestion is pure frustration. The quip is often heard that Penn State is equally inaccessible from everywhere.
The issue of accessibility also applies to people. I suggest we look at the life and ministry of Jesus Christ from the standpoint of accessibility and approachability.
In our text from Mark 10, we read that some in the crowd brought little children to Jesus in order that he might touch them. The disciples, acting as bodyguards and protectors, scolded them, "Get out of here! Can't you see he is too busy, too important, to be wasting his time with little ones. Come on, move back."
Jesus is indignant and rebukes his disciples -- "Let the little children come to me -- do not stop them -- don't you understand, of such is the kingdom of God."
If you examine the Gospels from the perspective of the accessibility of Jesus, you quickly realize that people of every station and situation in life felt at home in his presence. We read that the common people heard him gladly. "Then drew near to him." You often find that phrase. Even children, who could not grasp his teaching, felt at home in his presence. Jesus lived without pretension. He never presumed on his position nor projected on his image. His ministry was marked by mutuality. At a formal wedding reception, a dinner in the home of friends or sinners, or out on the dusty roads of Palestine, he was at home with people and they were at home with him. No wonder he could say in John 10; "I know my own, and my own know me." To be known is to be open, vulnerable, approachable. Many people in our modern age are extremely knowledgeable in their vocations, but they conduct themselves in a closed, competitive, clandestine fashion. They are hardly accessible. They refuse to be known.
There are still too many Christians whose airs and attitudes turn people off rather than let them in. As they thunder against easy virtue they are guilty of a hard righteousness. They are good in the worst way. Their moralizing, impenetrable, self-righteous way of proclaiming the Gospel is counter-productive. It travels a one way street. They may be right, but hardly loving -- virtuous but hardly vulnerable.
I am privileged to preach from a high pulpit in a venerable cathedral church. Its placement keeps me insulated and isolated from the people. The example of Jesus also brings me down to sit on the floor during Children's Time. "Will they feel at home with me? Am I approachable? Am I accessible?" I cringed when I read the results of a survey in our denominational magazine. Readers were asked to respond to the question, "What advice would you put inside a fortune cookie for your pastor?" And here were some of the replies.
"Get down off the pedestal and be a saved sinner like the rest of us." "You're not God, Jr." "Be what you are, not what you think you are." "The church is the Lord's house, not yours." "Be human and humble, show that you, too, are vulnerable." "Relax a little, and don't be so serious." "If God were looking for perfect pastors, he wouldn't have picked you." "Share your humanness." "Let us know you, too, have doubts." It makes you easier to identify with." "We don't care how many degrees you have -- the only degree that matters is a degree of caring." "No one cares how much you know, until they know how much you care." "If you love your family show them love. Don't show them off."
The issue of accessibility and approachability comes through loud and clear. How do you think others would rate your church when it comes to accessibility? What is the message of its architecture? A colleague visited me in a previous parish. I was anxious to have him experience our warm and welcoming congregation. He only saw the gate around the property and the lack of signage for newcomers to find their way. It was hardly visitor friendly.
What are the access points in your congregation? Is it a community of faith where newcomers could risk being known? Is it a safe place -- a sanctuary? Is it marked by mutuality and vulnerability? Is the message clearly, "In the name of Jesus, Come"?
Hospitality is a major theme in the Bible. Back in the 16th century William Tyndale translated Romans 12:13 in an interesting fashion. "Be ye of an harborous disposition." That is hardly the way we would translate that verse today. Think of it, however. A harbor is a port in a storm. It is a safe place. The hospitality of Christians is to provide soul shelter for any and all who seek refuge from the troubled seas of life.
People who come to see me usually do not seek information -- they need affirmation. The Christian faith is not prescriptive -- it is redemptive. Be accessible! Be vulnerable! Let them in! Give them a glimpse of the one who said, "Let the little children come to me. Come to me all who labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest." Refuge! A harbor in the storm!
We can risk being vulnerable, being known, because God became vulnerable for us in Jesus Christ. He became known, and gave himself for us. So we can love, because he first loved us. We can open ourselves to others, because of his open and outstretched arms on the Cross for all of us as his children.
Wallace Hamilton was the preacher at Pasadena Community Church in St. Petersburg, Florida. I met him at Silver Bay in New York State one summer. He was so warm and welcoming, so open and approachable. In one of his books I recall a modern parable of the Last Judgment based on Matthew 25. Let me share it with you in closing.
"At the end of time all the people who had ever lived were brought together to be judged by God for their life on this earth. They were assembled on the grassy plain before the great throne. But they were not a happy group -- not at all. They were grumbling among themselves, not at all sorry for the wrongs they had done on this earth
One of the groups was Jews -- millions of them who had died in concentration camps and gas chambers. How could God judge them? What could God know of the suffering they had endured? Who was God, they asked, that he should presume to be their judge?
Another of the groups was slaves -- black men with brands on their brows -- hosts of them who had suffered indignities at the hands of them who call themselves God's people. How could God judge them? What could God possibly know of the suffering they had been through?
There were refugees driven from their lands who had nowhere to lay their heads. There were poor folks who never could make ends meet on this earth. There were hungry people -- sick ones -- hundreds of groups and each of them with a complaint against the Almighty who sat on his throne presuming to judge them. Oh, how lucky God was to live the protected life of paradise -- no tears, no hunger, no inhumanity.
From each group a leader was chosen and a commission appointed to draw up the case against the Almighty. The verdict was simple. Before God could be qualified to be their judge, he must endure what they had endured. So instead of God judging them, they judged God.
And the verdict was that God should be sentenced to live on this earth as a man with no safeguards to protect his divinity. And here was the bill of particulars -- let him be born a Jew, let him be born poor, let the legitimacy of his birth be suspect. Give him hard work to do and poverty that he might know the pinch. Let him be rejected by his people. Give him for friends only those who are held in contempt. Let him be betrayed by one of his friends. Let him be indicted on false charges, tried before a prejudiced jury and convicted by a cowardly judge. Let him be tortured, and finally, let him die at the hands of his enemies.
As each group announced its sentence on God great cheers of approval went up from the vast throng. When the last had finished there was a long silence. One by one those who had pronounced the sentence got up and left quietly. No one uttered a word or made a sound. There was silence in heaven. For everyone knew that God had already served that sentence."
And the Word became flesh and dwelled among us -- among us as a Good Shepherd who could say, Come to him children of God! Come! Amen.