Dear Friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
It is said that “You never get a second chance to make a first impression” It was a part of a 1980’s Procter and Gamble marketing campaign. The campaign was effective because it fit our understanding of the world. You only get one chance to make that first impression. It takes just one quick glance, perhaps only three seconds, for someone to evaluate you for the first time. In this short span, the other person forms an opinion about you based on your appearance, your body language, your demeanor, your mannerisms, and how you are dressed. You may not even have chance to open your mouth and speak. That first impression can be nearly impossible to reverse or undo. And so whether you are in your career or social life, it’s important to know how to create a good first impression.
Jesus was aware of the importance of first impressions as well, even in his own home town of Nazareth. According to St. Luke gospel, this was Jesus’ first public appearance as a preacher. It was his keynote address, inauguration ceremony and installation service all rolled into one. The friends of the family, co-workers in the carpentry trade, and old neighbors would all be there to hear what their favorite son would have to say. Surely the choice of the reading was not accidental for Jesus. Oh, it’s true the worship assistant handed Jesus the scroll of Isaiah, but then Jesus found the place where it was written and read these particular words from the prophet Isaiah. A good first impression would be important as he outlined his three insights into ministry- following, leading and setting great goals. And ever since then, churches have struggled to do the same.
Unfortunately, Christian communities around the world have been challenged with changes brought on by the Covid 19 pandemic that they could have never imagined possible. We are often being judged solely by first impressions. And sometimes those first impression are simply virtual- a sound bite of a sermon on YouTube or the angle of a single camera lens. We never get to the point of redirecting broken lives.
Yes, it is too bad that we are so limited by our first impressions. What I have learned throughout the course of this pandemic is that people today actually are filled questions and doubts, and they are seeking a place, not simply where they can affirm their identity and belong, but they are searching for a place where they can be fed and accepted- even with their questions. They don’t want a church where they are judged and turned away before they even walk in the door. Curious visitors join us every Sunday for worship either in person or on-line- sometimes not even entering the doors. But surprisingly, through the gift of music and technology we are making the church and the gospel of Jesus Christ known, and people are finding their way to hear God’s word and to receive the gifts of his holy table here.
No pastor could have foreseen the challenges of leading and shepherding congregations over the past two years. There are lots of professional guides for clergy. “Seven Habits of a Successful Pastors,” or “Four Patterns to Healthy Congregation.” But nobody has written “Shepherding through a Pandemic for Dummies.” It’s true for the Christian life for all of us. We are all being judged by the first impressions we make, and the judgments we make of others.
For pastor and churches today, one of the great challenges is knowing when you should follow, when you should lead and when you should set great goals. Pastors don’t always have to lead. Church members need to learn this as well. But like in ballroom dancing, someone does have t. Most of us pride ourselves on being self-starters, self-motivated, independent workers. Our supervisors and colleagues appreciate these traits. Pastors too are often natural leaders, but like other professionals, we don’t always know when to follow? I am reminded of a conversation I had years ago with a college registrar. He had the responsibility for the recruitment and selection of incoming freshmen to his small, liberal arts college. As a part of the application process the students were required to write an essay answering the following question, “Are you a leader or a follower?” He read countless essays, but he wrote one letter of acceptance to a young man who answered honestly. “Congratulations and welcome to our school. It is good to know that in our incoming class, we have 300 leaders and one follower.” The best leaders and followers need some idea of where they are going. Perhaps, that is why Jesus located the verse in scripture he chose to read. He was setting a direction to lead and for his listeners to follow.
He then he set before them great goals, for they had moved beyond first impressions. Unfortunately, the worshippers in Nazareth were startled by Jesus words and his goals. “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” What does he mean to bring good news to the poor? Proclaim release to the captives. Recovery of sight to the blind, and to let the oppressed go free. They’re great goals, they thought. But does Jesus truly mean that we are to strive to accomplish them?
My friends, I would like to challenge you this day to consider that Jesus truly meant what he said. Perhaps it is the mission of our congregation when we move beyond the comfort of first impressions. Jesus meant that the church should preach good news for the poor-the homeless ones still on our streets, those who are often hidden to make life more pleasant for the rest of us. Jesus that meant that we should preach not simply about the poor, but that as a church we should do something about it. Jesus truly meant captives, including those imprisoned in our own time. He spoke of refugees and migrants, not simply in principle, but in reality. Yes, Jesus truly meant that his followers should do something for those oppressed even in our own society today, those who are treated unjustly. A church’s good first impression, you see, need not be limited to words, but it also can be made known in acts. The Norwegian literary giant Henrik Ibsen once wrote, ” A thousand words will not leave so deep an impression as one deed.”
As the members and friends of Lake of the Isles Lutheran Church you and I are being called to follow, and to lead, and to set great goals- even in the waning days of a pandemic. You and I are being called to make a good first impression in the world. “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” We only have one chance to make a good first impression. But it is making a good impression today, that others may come to know the presence of God is alive and active and changing lives.” Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.