As many of you will know, I love to tell stories and the following story talks about our faith and the way we treat people by meeting them where they are. It also reminds me of the way I have always wanted to practice ministry albeit I won’t be riding a Harley. There was a bloke called Tom who had been in ordained ministry for more than forty years and served as a small church Minister in a smallish town. Tom had heaps of experience in ministry, but he was not a traditional minister. Tom was a tall, lean man with a weathered face and hands that have known hard work.
Tom was more at home in a pair of blue jeans and a t-shirt than in a three-piece suit. He almost always wore a pair of scuffed cowboy boots, and in cold weather, wore a leather jacket. He drove a Harley-Davidson motorcycle and had an infectious laugh. Tom loved a good story or a joke better than just about anyone. He is not what most would think of when they think of a Protestant minister of his age and experience. The most wonderful thing about Tommy though, and what made him such a wonderful preacher, was his love of people.
Tom never met a stranger. Many wondered at Tom’s ability to get to know people he encountered. It doesn't matter where you went in town—a restaurant, the dry cleaners, or Coles or Woolworths—Tom could greet almost everyone by name. At some point in the past he had introduced himself, asked their names, and often learned a little bit of their stories. Tom recognised that all people’s stories were important and took the time to get to know each person he encountered.
He met people wherever he found them, and he offered them friendship. Tom was seen spending time with truckers, nurses, cashiers, and young mothers. He was heard laughing with them and was seen crying with them. He had prayed with them. These people hear about Jesus, and most important, they see Jesus, although many of them have never attended the church where Tom had been a minister. He meets all of them where they are in life.
Tom's ministry reminds me of Jesus' ministry. This week’s Gospel account from Mark 1 about Jesus’ calling of his first disciples is striking in its simplicity. Mark tells the story very briefly. There aren't many details about the conversation between Jesus and these potential disciples. Jesus simply gives an invitation to follow and they respond. We don't learn much information about their backgrounds, their motivations, or any questions they might have had for this itinerant preacher. Jesus speaks, and they follow. We can speculate all we want to about how Simon, Andrew, James, and John came to be disciples, but the one thing we know for certain is that Jesus met them where they were that first day.
Jesus met the people he called where they were in life, and he made them an offer. "Follow me and I will make you fish for people." What a wonderful connection Jesus made. He didn't ask or expect them to be anything other than they were when he met them. They were simple fishermen, but Jesus invited them to join him in work that would change their lives forever. Jesus' ministry is filled with stories of people he encountered along the way.
Jesus didn't seek out important people who held positions of power but spent most of his time with ordinary people. He didn't wait in the temple or synagogue for the people to come and hear him speak of God's kingdom. He walked among them, and told stories about sowers and seeds, things lost, and things found. He ate with prostitutes, tax collectors, lepers, the lame, and the blind. Jesus' entire ministry was centred on meeting people where they were in life. He went to find them, not the other way around.
Jesus shared God's love with all those he encountered. When I think about my hope for the church, I think about how wonderful it would be if we embraced Jesus' model of ministry. All of us encounter people in the course of a day who are hurting, alone, lost, and discouraged. They need someone to be the presence of Christ in their midst. People need someone to share the gospel of hope with them.
People need someone to talk to them using their own language. They need someone to engage them in conversation about ultimate things. Many of these people may never darken the doors of a church or a house of worship. I confess that as a Minister, far too often, the temptation is to stay within the walls of the church, waiting for people to come and see me. All Christians not just myself need to be more like Tom, taking the church into my community. I hope we all seek not to miss the opportunity to be like Jesus, to meet people where they are in life.