I still remember a conversation I had with a friend at a backyard barbeque party, years ago now when I was in my early twenties.
And it was about suits.
The right kind of suit to wear, to an upcoming university graduation or convocation or year-end party; or some such event like that – I can’t remember for sure.
But I do remember the passion and intensity with which she was talking – teaching me the subtleties of fashion, arguing that only a dark double-breasted suit would work (it was the 90’s).
At the time, I had a double-breasted, light-tanned coloured suit. And I was wondering if that would be good enough.
What do I know? I’m no fashionista, that’s for sure.
But she was adamant only dark would “work.”
She said these words to me: “If you don’t wear the `right’ suit, it’ll be really obvious that you don’t know what you’re doing…”
Looking good, getting noticed, having the right appeal, meant everything to my friend … and to many of us in today’s world.
The whole question of the importance of `first impressions’ … having an `attractive presentation’ … `getting noticed’ … having the right `appeal’ …
…these are strong values that come up again and again in our consumer, competitive, looks-are-everything world we live in.
Many churches these days are preoccupied with the question:
How can we get noticed?
How as a faith community, can we be as `attractive’ to the general public as possible?
By having nice landscaped properties?
By having multi-generational programming for people of all ages?
All for the sake of attracting people into the doors?
Makes sense. I get it.
And what about God?
Does God care, if at all, about surface, first impressions?
Does it matter to God if we come off looking attractive, `perfect’, appealing in the eyes of others?
Genesis 17 begins with an absolutely astounding detail in that first verse.
Abraham was 99 years old. Ninety-nine years old!
At that age, God approaches Abraham and Sarah to promise them an amazing, adventurous future; a future in which they’d become ancestors of a “multitude of nations”, in a new, promised land, in an everlasting covenant with God.
To a child-less, frail, elderly couple nearing death, God promises ancestors as numerous as the stars in the sky!
Surely there would’ve been better options for God to choose!
A younger couple, for example; more fit, more years of life ahead…
And yet, as the Biblical texts reveal, it’s through the absurd scenarios, the improbably pathways, the unlikely people, that God works out God’s good intentions and purposes on earth.
A similar dynamic plays itself out in the Gospel text today.
The disciples had been thinking that Jesus was indeed the Messiah, the Chosen One of God sent to overthrow the oppressive Roman regime, imagining in their minds what a strong, powerful leader would look like:
…possessing military might at his fingertips.
The disciples were hoping Jesus would be that kind of leader.
But again, God’s ways are strangely, surprisingly, counterintuitively different than the world’s ways.
To his disciples, Jesus speaks about the need for him to be tortured, and then to die on the cross, suffering humiliation and defeat at the hands of the very Romans others were hoping Jesus would overthrow.
No wonder Peter objects to all this `negative’ talk.
What? Suffering? Dying?
This is no way to get noticed, to attract more followers, to appear strong, appealing, and acceptable.
But as it turned out, Jesus’ way of the cross eventually won out, resulting in resurrection, in God’s life and love as the most powerful forces in the universe.
Surprisingly, absurdly so, it’s through vulnerability and weakness that God’s good purposes somehow get worked out.
So, for churches, maybe the way to get noticed, has not so much to do with dressing up outdoor landscaping, or offering up a smorgasbord of exciting, glitzy programs …
… but more to do with relationships; connecting in genuine ways with people in the neighbourhood directly around our church building,
… on a level of human need, of human vulnerability, in ways that show care and love:
… offering friendship, companionship, a sense of belonging, and feeling that they’re not alone in whatever they’re going through.
Then we’ll `get noticed.’
Noticed and known for the care and love we have and show.
Noticed for reflecting the care and love of God in Jesus, who meets us at the level of vulnerability and weakness; a love which goes way beyond any surface impressions, or what the world deems as “attractive.”
There’s a true story of a Pastor who one day was called to the hospital.
Mary, a member of the church, wanted to see the Pastor because her child had just died.
He had a vague memory of Mary- she had joined a small group at the church some years ago – but had never known that she had a child.
When he got to the hospital, he found Mary just outside of her son’s room.
They greeted each other, and then Mary told him the heartbreaking story of her son, Jimmy.
Jimmy had been born with multiple and far-reaching physical and mental challenges.
As they spoke, they entered the room where Jimmy’s body lay. All the tubes and wires were still connected to him.
And there Jimmy was.
He was tiny, much smaller than a typical seven year old boy.
His face was unusually misshapen, and his body bent and malformed in certain places.
At first glance, especially if you didn’t know Jimmy, it was hard to look at his body without wincing.
But not Mary.
She looked upon her son with eyes of uncompromised love.
She touched his face, and spoke quietly to him, even though he couldn’t hear anymore.
She tenderly kissed his cheek many times.
Mary told the Pastor how much Jimmy had meant to her, and how much she would miss him.
Others might see Jimmy as sadly disfigured and compromised in physical and mental ability.
Mary saw Jimmy as a beautiful, lovely human being, upon whom she lavished undeserved, unabashed, unquenchable love.
Others may see us – and we may see ourselves – as unlovely, unspectacular and unappealing.
We may question: Who’d ever take notice of us?
But the wonder of it all, is that God notices us, and sees past the surface impressions, straight to our heart, and there sees in each of us, a beautiful, lovely human being, upon whom God lavishes undeserved, unabashed, unquenchable love.
And because we know God embraces us in our own brokenness, we can finally accept and embrace ourselves, as well as others in their brokenness.