Psalm 139 selections ; Jeremiah 18
I want us to dedicate ourselves this fall to revitalizing our ministry as a church. I want our sights to be set much higher than just what we normally call “stewardship.” Revitalizing ourselves will involve encouraging each other to pledge our financial support of the church—naturally. It will involve a certain amount of “calculation.” But if we let our heads become mired in money and budgets—our own personal budget and the church’s—we will miss the true shape of Spirit-led revitalization. It will involve not just giving from our financial reserves but also giving ourselves to God. And it must be a giving to God that is at the same time a receiving from God. God has put an end to brute sacrifice. So we also will have to rediscover the joy we have in God—a joy that is given freely to us, and costs us nothing. It is incalculable.
You long-timers can probably guess why revitalization will be my theme for the fall. Maybe you hear something ominous in the reading from Jeremiah that hits home. His prophesy is about the conditional nature of Israel’s covenant with God. It turns out that God’s pledge of support for Israel is not guaranteed no matter what. If God chooses to build and plant a nation like Israel, but that nation does evil, then God says through Jeremiah that “I will change my mind about the good that I had intended to do to it.” So turn now, and amend your ways, warns God.
There are many reasons why this prophesy does not apply to us. But many of you probably hold sensible fears about the future of this church. You’ve heard a voice in your past warn, with the ominous tenor of Jeremiah, “This church will die!” / And to be sure, we’ve lost members for one reason or another over the years, and our youth presence seems a shadow of what it used to be. We see other churches like ours facing similar straits, and we’ve seen some of our neighbor churches close. Revitalization, you are probably thinking, is simply what we have to do to survive, lest we one day shutter our doors. And it’s what I have to do to keep my salary, you may be thinking to yourself.
But that’s not the way I look at it, in fact. Revitalization is not something we have to anxiously wring our hands about, as we wonder where we will get the motivation and strength to make our church mighty again. Oh sure, there are lots of initiatives we must undertake to help us work better as a human institution. These are the kind of interesting proposals that Church Council will be discussing on Sept 19th. We used to be in need of better practices in financial management and budget management, and I think we now have that in place—thank you, Trustees and Ginette. We still need more effective pastoral care and spiritual leadership, and our Deacons’ training on Sept. 10 will explore how to do that. We need a greater sense of participation in and shared ownership of the ministries of this church, and so I will ask our various boards will take turns presenting what they do during fellowship hour this fall, and listening to everyone’s ideas about how to best carry out their ministries. /We need to attract new people in our area to get to know us, and so we’re working on reviving our bread ministry, where we take the same bread we bake for communion to people who need it or are new to the area. /We need to bring our young folks into a full and nourishing sense of what membership in the church means, one that will shape their identities as adults who with us are children of God, and so Christian Ed is rethinking our confirmation process this year for the sizable class coming through; and we’ll start by meeting with parents and confirmands about what we all want to achieve together. There are other initiatives that we could take, and I know some of you will be leading the way on others to come; but that’s enough for me! I’m part time, remember?
But all of that is not the heart of revitalization, in the strange way I see things. Because the real church is not something we have to save. She is not some poor, helpless damsel that we must rescue (I almost want to rewrite the words to “Rise Up, O Church of God”). You see, the church saves us, not the other way around. Because the church is the reality of God at work in our midst. It is the kingdom of God, the body of Christ, or the Bride of Christ, to use the daring language of scripture. The church is the vessel of the Holy Spirit. It is not something we make or do. Of course we have to give the sermons and sing the music and convene the committees and pay the bills and maintain the building. But how do we know if all this activity is aimed in the right direction? How do we know we’re not just wasting our time? It’s because God’s Word, especially in the flesh of Jesus Christ, calls the church into being, empowers it, and judges it. God calls the shots in the church; and if I and you don’t heed God, we’ll end up shooting ourselves in the foot.
If we not only listen to God’s word, but allow God’s Word and Spirit to infiltrate our core being, our way of being with each other, our way of connecting to our community—then the church will happen among us, and she will save us. It is not for us to save the church. It is not our task to “save” this particular building, or preserve the “prestige” of this congregation in our community. None of that means anything in itself. Salvation is something only God can do, something only Jesus Christ has achieved, and we share in it by participating in his body.
Unfortunately, the word “salvation” throws us off. I’m not talking about saving us from hell; that language has done more harm than good. I’m not talking about a salvation that is floating around in the clouds with the angels; that’s fine, but our imagination is probably too small to grasp what our future with God will look like. Salvation that we can see for ourselves is life, here and now, upheld and directed by God. The eternal truth and power of God enters our lives and changes how we think and act and understand ourselves, even though we remain flawed and quite human. God’s power and truth enter us, but pretty much meet us where we are, because God receives us with grace. God does not demand that we stop being the human beings we are.
This is salvation; the word is useful, because it signals the contrast in our lives, the difference God makes. We are saved from something, and let’s call that state we are saved from—not “perdition”—but “small lives.” We are saved from small lives, from lives that go nowhere, that leave us stuck where we are. Despite being gaga about celebrities, our culture likes us to live small lives, because then we don’t cause much trouble. We keep to our own houses, amid a sea of houses. You come out from time to time to take part in small organizations that carve out some purpose for themselves. Then you get back home, wave to the neighbors, and go back inside. [close drapes] It’s not really that different from a coffin.
But if you live in God’s house, you live in a place where the windows are open to a light from above; where the doors are open to those who suffer and know hurt. And then even this house we call America is too small to contain us, for God’s house is a place of prayer for all peoples. God’s house is big, expansive—it encompasses the whole universe! To be saved by the church is to dwell in this expansive house of God.
This is the church we want to revive, which means that this is the church we need to revive us and our world. Too many people live and die small lives; I know my life is still very pretty small, hemmed in by what’s in it for me, by my insecurities and my foibles. I want to live a big, God-sized life. That doesn’t mean I want an even bigger head! It doesn’t mean that I become bigger by being a celebrity or making it big in the big city. It means I want to be a part of God’s life right here, in this life of mine, but I can’t do it alone. I want a life marked by doing divine acts with you, in the life we share, near-by on our streets. I want to be do the kind of things with you that Jesus did on the streets of Galilee and Jerusalem. And to keep glimpsing, here in worship, the bigger reality, the whole kingdom that God is bringing to our world, and even the eternal, infinite source of that bigger reality. That’s what we want to revive ourselves with. And only God can do that by uniting us with God’s own being through Christ and through the church. Isn’t that what you want too? And if not, why not? You’re too busy? It sounds like heaven to me.
Jesus could be so tender with the individuals he met along the way. At the beginning of the chapter our reading is taken from, Jesus healed a man with dropsy—that’s swelling in the legs and body. He has already healed a boy with demons, a leper, a paralytic, and returned a dead boy, alive, back to his mother. Imagine that!
But the message is different in our passage. It’s not immediately clear why. But we are told by Luke, “Now large crowds were traveling with him.” Large crowds are impressive. They suggest power and success. Some churches are very good at drawing large crowds, and perhaps some take it as a sign of divine blessing of their ministry. Perhaps it is. But large crowds are also a place to hide, to lose one’s sense of responsibility and authenticity; and to lose the personal connection to each other that allows us to really love one another and honor one another, as well as keep each other true to what we are. To become just part of the crowd. Jesus seems skeptical of large crowds. He never proclaims, “Look how many followers I have!”
So perhaps that is why he turns to them and powerfully brings home, to each individual in that crowd, the cost of discipleship. “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” We’re used to thinking of Jesus as commanding us to love, aren’t we? And we’re used to saying that Jesus is so welcoming. “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”
Jesus often says something outrageous and shocking one moment, and then something very commonsensical the next. I like that about him. He’s just told a large, adoring crowd that they must give up their loved ones and even perhaps their own lives to follow him. And now he illustrates that with some homespun illustrations which are eminently practical and sensible. Like I said earlier, God has this way of making an absolute, infinite demand on us, as if we were God’s equal partners, but then meets us right where we are. Jesus says, essentially, ‘For who sets out to build something without first estimating the costs, and seeing if you have enough to finish the job?’ Very practical. Now I’ve got the Trustees attention—am I right? Or what kind of general would set out against an enemy force twice the size, unless she (!) was sure she could win? These illustrations show ordinary people or at least familiar figures making careful, informed calculations before they undertake something. Sensible. And then the whiplash finish: “So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.” And we’re back to outrageous and shocking.
You know, if Jesus could get away with preaching such perplexing messages, why can’t I?
Let me try to make sense of all this, briefly. Thanks to what God has done in meeting us through Jesus, we Christians share in God’s presence on earth even while continue our lives in the ordinary world, in our same old bodies (that sometimes let us down), with all our personality flaws and lackluster resumes. Because God didn’t choose in Jesus the high and mighty, the gorgeous and the hot, the genius and the mastermind. God chose us, because God sees beauty in common things, and because common people can hold things in common without lording it over each other. So God takes us commoners and makes us God’s own agents in the world, God’s daughters and sons. That’s very big indeed.
As ordinary folk who continue to live in this world, we have lots of calculations to make. We weigh whether to participate in this organization or that, or to take more time for ourselves or for family. We have money and time in finite quantities, and much of our effort is taken up calculating how to spend our money and time. All of this is up to us, it seems, and we wearily set about doing our calculations.
But, like the Hyde to this Jekel, we are also the chosen ones of God. We are the church, the present kingdom of God that conquers the world. When Jesus’ disciples returned from being sent on their mission, he told them, “Blessed are the eyes that see what you see! For I tell you that many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, but did not see it.” What could be better than being God’s agent in the world? What is more desirable than divine privilege and power? What would you rather be doing? And anyway, it doesn’t matter, because you didn’t choose to be God’s agent. God chose you, and only chose you because God first chose Jesus Christ 2000 years ago to begin a new way of being human.
This is our strange and wonderful lot in life. We continue to be ordinary human beings with our little choices to make. Yet we have been chosen to be agents of God. There’s no easy way to make sense of it. And that, roughly, is why I think Jesus on one hand makes outrageous claims upon those who would follow him, and then turns around and says, like with anything, you have to calculate what you can do, what you are capable of, how committed you are. But by the way, if you want to follow me, it’s all or nothing.
Let’s dwell for a few weeks in this wonderful, vexing place, as we try to calculate what we want to do for our church, what responsibilities we want to shoulder on top of everything else we have to deal with, and how much of our financial resources we want to set aside for the church. Because we’re all still ordinary folk, and the choices are still ours to make. But let’s remember that we are calculating the cross—we are comparing various life options with our membership in an organization at the center of which is God’s fundamental act of life and death. Let’s not trivialize it. Because Jesus took the cross very seriously.