In the summer, my husband’s church hosts an evening at the ballpark to watch our local Major League Baseball team, and we always have extra food after our tailgate in the parking lot.
Each year, we try to give away our burgers, brats, salad, chips, and condiments to the passers-by, and each year we struggle to get takers. It never fails to amaze me, although it does make me feel better about preaching.
Sometimes I get the feeling that as soon as the Good News is out of my mouth, it goes through some kind of filter in the air that reverses the meaning. From the expressions and reactions of some of my hearers, you would have thought that I had said something totally irrelevant, or possibly forced them to swallow something sour, instead of delivering life and forgiveness of sins in the name of Jesus Christ. It’s not every person, or every time, but it bothers me nonetheless.
Watching those people at the baseball game react negatively to free food offered by smiling families makes me feel better, because I recognize the looks on their faces. We usually set up our gathering near the front of the parking lot, so literally hundreds of people walk by our grills. Some of them smile politely and say “No, thank you, we’ve just eaten.” Others pull their children away and avoid making eye contact. The ones who do take us up, oddly enough, rush around like they are on the clock, squirting ketchup as they are walking, and saying, “Are you sure this is free?” Some look like they’ve just gotten away with something, smiling like my two year old when I catch her in the act of trouble-making.
Standing in the parking lot, we have often wondered aloud if we’d do better trying to sell the brats, instead of giving them away. I’ve wondered the same thing about preaching. Is it the fact that it’s free that makes grace so hard to swallow? I suppose there are those who would rather provide for themselves and who think they can manage it, and there are others who are genuinely afraid of some hidden cost that they are certain accompanies something offered by the church. And there are those, no doubt, who believed their parents when they said, “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.”
These are all significant obstacles to overcome. However, one thing that usually makes a positive difference is when someone in the crowd recognizes our sign, has a connection to our denomination or community, or knows someone in our group. That moment of recognition, of trust, and of knowing changes the game. It is a good reminder to me that preaching is best heard when it is accompanied by service to neighbor, backed up by faith active in love, and served in the midst of genuine relationship.