The congregation is gathered at the beginning and commissioned at the conclusion of every Sunday liturgy. After the benediction and closing song, from the back doors, I cry out, “Go in peace and serve the Lord!” They respond, “Thanks be to God!” Then people get prayer for healing and a million other things. They make commitments. They catch up. They do a little business. They hug. They linger. Some take off as quickly as possible. I miss that — all of it. I miss the introverts plotting their getaway. I miss the extroverts who don’t take the extinguished candles and turned off lights and me standing by the security touchpad as hints that it is time for lunch.
The back doors of the church are holy, like the font and altar and pulpit are holy. All are encounter places where God meets the world. That is why I stand by those doors and cry, “Go in peace and serve the Lord.” Serving the Lord happens on both sides of the stained-glass windows. We worship and give our offerings and our thanksgivings inside. But God is the one doing most of the serving in there. Forgiving sins. Freeing captives. Revealing love. Washing, feeding, and speaking. But when we move outside, it is as if God says, “Now it is your turn.” In our down-to-earth vocations, God resources us to meet real-life needs. Teaching, healing, longshoring, defending, first responding, grandparenting, filmmaking and 80,000 other vocations in San Pedro’s 12 square miles all serve the world in unique ways.
One group that I really miss is a residential recovery group from Providence Little Company of Mary Medical Center San Pedro. Sometimes one or two and sometimes six, they walk up the alley and into the sanctuary, and God serves them the same thing he serves the rest of us — forgiveness. Sometimes it seems like they treasure it more. They have a holy vocation too. They have been called to freedom from addiction for their own sakes and for the sake of the people around them. My favorite preaching compliment came from one of them.
Usually when I’m standing by those back doors, I get some feedback about my preaching. “Great sermon, pastor.” “I wish my spouse was here; they really needed to hear that.” “Pastor, that was more of a hostage situation than a sermon.” I’m working on tightening up my too-often-too-long messages. Often, I share out of my own vulnerabilities. The Apostle Paul said, “In my weakness, he is strong.” (2 Corinthians 12.9-11) That Sunday, as the congregation was sent out with the “Go in peace and serve the Lord,” one of the recovery folks pulled me aside, winked at me and said, “You’re a drunk too, aren’t you?” I wish I had something more clever to say. But I responded, “Pretty much.” Takes one to know one.
It isn’t the bottle or the syringe where I’ve looked for salvation. But that doesn’t mean I haven’t looked many other places, drunk with desperation. So, yes, I’m a drunk too. But like the woman at the well, I have tasted from the One who says, “Whoever drinks what I give will never thirst again.” (John 4.14) And I relate to Martin Luther who said, “We are all mere beggars showing other beggars where to find bread.” Or, like the twelfth step in recovery, “Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.” Thanks be to God.