Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, July 4, 2010: Time After Pentecost – Lectionary 14

Texts:  Isaiah 66:10-14 and Psalm 66:1-9  •  Galatians 6:(1-6), 7-16  •  Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

 

jesus-knocking-on-door Those of you who are part of the St. Luke’s community know that I’m not the sort of preacher who begins every sermon with a joke. I knew some of those preachers in seminary, and mostly what amazed me about them was how many jokes they knew. I’m always nervous when I’m out with friends and people start telling jokes, because I can’t remember any of the jokes I hear. That said, I’ve got a joke for you:

What do you get when you cross a Lutheran with a Jehovah’s Witness?

Someone who goes door to door and doesn’t know what to say.

I had the occasion to tell that joke recently at a meeting convened by the bishop of the Metropolitan Chicago Synod of the ELCA to discuss the topic of evangelism and the development of new witnessing communities. “New witnessing communities” is what we’re calling “new church plants” these days, because it seems pretty obvious that the cost of a new church plant, with full-time staffing and a bricks-and-mortar church is more than the church can sustain. While our individual congregations may be experiencing some growth and revitalization right now, the story on the national level is quite different. The mainline church is shrinking, and I think it’s both because we’re not going door to door, AND we don’t know what to say.

When Bishop Miller talks about evangelism, he actually goes right to this story of Jesus sending the seventy out in pairs to the surrounding community. He asks us to imagine what sorts of questions the people who opened their doors to the disciples might have had, and then he groups those questions into two categories – the “who are you” questions, and the “why are you here” questions.

In answer to the first question, who are you, he suggests that as people who have adopted the name “Christian,” we are people “who know to the marrow of our bones that all that we have and all that we are comes by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.” Further, that this knowing is so deep that it is more than an idea, more than a rote answer given in response to a question on a pop quiz, but that the goal of Christian disciplines of worship and prayer, service and sacrifice, is to internalize this identity at the deepest of levels. He then goes on to give some functional definitions of these ideas of grace, faith and Christ.

“All that we have and all that we are comes by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone” is an identity that requires us to know that:

· Grace is the love of God accepting us as we are, and grace is the love of God calling us to be more than we have ever been before. We need to hear both sides of this definition of grace – that it meets us as we are, and transforms us into more than we have ever been – and we need to hear them in this order because “a love that accepts us as we are without calling us to transformation is cheap grace, and a love that expects us to change ourselves in order to become acceptable to God is a Christ-less moralism.”

“All that we have and all that we are comes by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone” is an identity that requires us to know that:

· Faith is a relationship based on surrender of ego to the love and power of a God I cannot fully comprehend. Jesus says, “not my will but thine be done.” He sets his face toward Jerusalem and he makes death on the cross the focal point of a ministry grounded in feeding and healing hurt and hungry people. Faith is a relationship with God, not the acceptance of a set of idea or beliefs about God, that gives us the strength we need to follow Jesus into the hurt and hungry places of this world for the sake of bringing new life to people and places left for dead.

“All that we have and all that we are comes by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone” is an identity that requires us to know that:

· Christ is both the path to God and the fullness of God. Christ is both the destination and the journey. Or, as scripture puts it, Christ is “the way, the truth, and the life.” (John 14:6) This is, perhaps, the most difficult part for contemporary Christians to deal with sensitively and intelligently. The gospel of John has Jesus declare, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” We have heard this passage used in defense of some of the worst of Christian behavior towards those who do not share our religion, and in a pluralistic, inter-religious, global society we have to do the work of finding a way to affirm the centrality of Christ for Christian faith without degrading the ways that God has made God’s self known to the rest of the creation that God so dearly loves.

So, as modern day disciples, sent out in pairs – maybe even sent out as paired congregations – we have to notice that the first action required of us is that we leave. That we get out of our sanctuaries and begin to meet the people who live in our communities. That may mean door knocking, or direct mail campaigns, or special events – but it definitely has to mean leaving our sanctuaries and taking the initiative to open up conversation with those we do not already know, prepared to answer the questions, “who are you” and “why are you here.”

If answering the first question, “who are you,” makes us a little uncomfortable, then look out – because the second question has the potential to do so even more. “Why are you here” is a question that calls for an honest response – not only ethically, but practically. We live in a consumer society, in a media savvy age. People are being hit with commercials and sales pitches all the time. When a person asks “why are you here,” what we really probably ought to hear them asking is, “why should I care?” If you are lucky enough to have a conversation with someone who will listen to your version of who you are, they are now wondering “how does this have anything to do with me?”

This means that if you say, “I am here to bear witness to the love and power of Jesus; and to call you and those you love into a relationship with God through Jesus; and to dismantle the barriers that prevent you and others from being fully embraced by the love and power of God in Christ Jesus” – but what you really mean is “our church is shrinking and we need you to come and save us from ourselves” – they will immediately know this, and the conversation will be over before it has even really begun.

I know it’s really discouraging to hear, but the thousands of people who are moving into our neighborhoods are, for the most part, not looking for a church to join. They’re not looking to join a church, because as far as they can tell – church isn’t doing anything for them. Jesus sends the seventy out into the countryside with the following instructions “eat what is set before you, cure the sick who are there, and say to them ‘the kingdom of God has come near to you.’” By and large however, the mainline Protestant churches have not
eaten what was set before us – we picked and chose among the peoples God planted us among, trying to find people most inclined to help us continue our forms of community and cultic ritual, rather than being transformed by grace into more than we have ever been before. We haven’t been half as concerned with understanding the hurts and hungers of our new neighbors as we’ve been with hoping that they would supply the bodies and dollars to heal our hurts and anxieties about the future. We have not boldly declared to them that the reign of God is coming near – we have hoped that they were, in fact, the second coming of God to save us from messes of our own making.

So we have to be honest with ourselves, and with those we are witnessing to, about why we are there. We have to take the time to understand the hurts and hungers of those Christ has sent us out to heal and feed, otherwise we are simply looking to convert new neighbors into giving units, and that is not a mission that is in the least bit compelling to hurting, hungry people.

For quite a long time now, the mainline church has focused too much on the last half of this reading from Luke, “whenever you enter a town and they do not welcome you, go out into its streets and say, ‘Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off in protest against you.” We have wiped so much dust off our feet that our sanctuaries have become littered with dust bunnies, and they look more like empty closets than feeding and healing stations.

This morning we are called to start back at the beginning. Hear the commission, “after this, the Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go. He said to them, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”

Lord, this morning, we pray not only that you would gather us in – but that you would send us out.

Amen.

 

My thanks to our bishop, Bp. Wayne Miller, for his vision and leadership on this topic.  Many of the words I use this morning come directly from his address to the Metro Chicago Synod at this year’s synod assembly, which can be found online at: http://www.mcselca.org/assets/Bishop%27s_Report_Text_10.pdf

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