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The Old Church

It was an old church. The faith taught in it was old, and that was good, for it was the faith once for all entrusted to the saints. The building was old, but that was of no consequence, for those, now dead, who had first founded it had built it to last. All the people were old, and grieved that there were no young men and women to whom they could have taught what the years had taught them. The dreams of the church’s founders were old and withered with years that had not seen them fulfilled, and this was the real tragedy. There was an aching emptiness in the lovely sanctuary built to seat three hundred, in which Sunday after Sunday only twenty sat.

On a dreary Sunday morning when the emptiness seemed worse than ever, and there were only fifteen in the service because several of the congregation were sick at home, the door opened five minutes late to admit a girl in a yellow dress, whom no one had ever seen before. She sat down near the back.

The sermon was on Matthew 5:13-16 . The pastor was not a gifted speaker, and sometimes misinterpreted his text, but it was noticeable that he always got the most important things right. Today he had laid especial stress on Matthew 5:14: “You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden.” The words stuck in many of his listeners’ minds when the sermon was over. “We, the church, are to be a city on a hill. People should be drawn to our light, the light God has made us to be,” the pastor had said.

He was surprised when Mary Trady, an elderly lady who never missed a Sunday and also never asked questions about the sermon, came up to him afterward. “Pastor, why are we not more like you said?” she asked. “What are we doing wrong?”

“What do you mean?” he asked her.

“What you said in the sermon,” she said. “That the church should be like a city on a hill, and that people should come to its light. Our church isn’t like that.”

“Jesus meant the whole church, all Christians everywhere, when He said that,” said the pastor.

“But doesn’t that mean all Christians everywhere, every good church, should be like a city on a hill?”

The pastor looked to the back of the sanctuary. Mary followed his gaze. The girl in the yellow dress, the only visitor they had had for months, was gone. Both were inclined to end the conversation. The church was not like Jesus had said it should be, and that was that. It was an unfortunate fact of life that had to be accepted. “Let us pray,” said the pastor, fighting against his inclination in his longing for Jesus to have the kind of church He commanded. “Let us pray that we will be like that. Let us pray that she will come back – that others like her will come. I do not know what is wrong.”

Jenn Summers sat down on a park bench half a mile from the church. “Dreadful communication skills, stupid clichés, bunch of ancient relics,” she said aloud to no one. “The old-timer’s religion.” But she spoke harshly to defend herself, and she feared the defense was weak. For she, who had listened to dozens of perfectly delivered university speeches that said nothing, had a terrible feeling that that repulsively bad sermon had said something, and that she was about to be captured by it.

“You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden… …let your light shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your father who is in heaven.” That was part of what the pastor had read from the Bible. And what he said about that? “Now this light isn’t like a lighthouse – insert silly story about a lighthouse here – ” she mocked. “So a lighthouse shows ships how to go in the darkness, but not toward the lighthouse, or they would be wrecked on the rock.” She paused, mentally lashing the pastor with criticism again. “Stupid, to spend five minutes talking about a lighthouse only to say that it isn’t a good illustration of your point.” But, against her will, she found herself remembering what the pastor had said next. “The light is like the light of a welcoming house at night – a light you can come to. And what will you find when you come? The love of God. The forgiveness of sins through the blood of Jesus Christ. The sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit, so that you can do good works that show the goodness of God, your loving Father.”

Again her critical mind rebelled. “Fancy church-talk, that educated people in the real world stopped speaking a century ago. ‘Forgiveness.’ Try finding that word in a modern book. ‘The blood of Jesus Christ.’ A revolting idea. ‘Sanctifying.’ No one would dare say that word outside of a church. Stupid man. If he’s got such an important message, why doesn’t he say it in words people who don’t yet believe it can understand?”

The bare wood bench was becoming uncomfortable, but her thoughts were too important; she dared not get up yet. What had she just thought? “People who don’t yet believe it can understand.” Had she been thinking of herself as one who did not yet believe, who soon would? Horrors! And there was no use denying that she did understand. As a literature major at the university she had read too many old books not to know what the pastor’s words meant. In fact she had probably read more than one nineteenth-century sermon with almost the same message. Well? Why did it trouble her now, if it had not troubled her when she read it? Because she had been hit in the face with the knowledge that there were still people who really believed it. And with how beautiful it was, even if phrased in the ugliest language imaginable.

“It is like being lost in a cold night and seeing a lighted house,” she said, rephrasing the message as she understood it in her best modern prose. “When you come to the light you find that the light is God wanting to comfort you and make you well and happy and good. And you find that He can. He can take away the guilt of everything that you have done wrong, and make you good. So good that you, too, will shine the light, for others to see.”

She came back, shyly, the next Sunday, but did not leave immediately as she had before. A grandmotherly old woman told her she had been praying for her to come again, and God had answered her prayers. Jenn though that was foolish: she had come because she had chosen to, not because someone had prayed she would. But she accepted Mary Trady’s invitation to lunch. Old fashioned the old lady and her husband certainly were, and slightly scandalized by some of the things Jenn innocently said at lunch. But what Jenn was most aware of when she went back to her dorm was that, despite all difficulties in communication and understanding, Mary and her husband Bob had really wanted to make her feel welcome and happy.

Two months later Jenn was invited for the third time to late dessert after the evening service at the home of the pastor and his wife. She went. And under their guidance, though they both still used vocabulary and communication styles that made her cringe, she did something that was utterly inconsistent with her modern, cynical, sophisticated university education. She trusted Jesus Christ to take away her guilt by the power of the blood he had given when he died for her, and she gave herself into His keeping forever. The pastor and his wife rejoiced. And Jenn did not notice how poorly and stereotypically they expressed their rejoicing. Her own heart was singing too loudly for that, for she had found the One who is real. His love and truth, however badly His people had told her of them, had cut across all the flawlessly phrased emptiness that she had ever heard and captured her heart.

The pastor’s wife drove her home that night. Just before she got into the car, she turned to the pastor and said what she had not until then found the courage to say. “I will ask my friends to come to church, but for the evening service, not the morning, if you don’t mind. They will not understand the way you preach in the morning. I understood it only because I had read so many old books. And please…” she hesitated, not wanting to offend him, “…please talk to them in a way they will understand. Don’t use words like sanctification and forgiveness without explaining what they mean very carefully. And don’t tell stories unless they really illustrate the point you are making. Then they will hear what you say…and come to the light.” Jenn got into the car and closed the door, not giving him time to reply, for her strength was spent.

The pastor went back into the house and sat there, alone. He was hurt by Jenn’s words, for in his preaching he had been doing the best he knew. The implied criticism was like a heavy weight in his stomach. For a long moment he simply bore it. Then, long habit aiding him, he got to his knees and prayed. God gave him peace. When his wife returned they went to the empty church together, and walked among the empty pews praying that they might be full. Years before, when they had first come to that church, they had prayed such prayers, but years of disappointment had discouraged them. Now they prayed again, with new hope, and new dreams. When they had finished their prayers and were about to get into their car and go home, he looked back at the empty church and stood still a moment. “I will preach as Jenn has asked me to,” he said, making a promise to God, witnessed by his wife, “and I believe that we will see this church, old now in every way, reborn to be old only in the ways that are good.”