Tuesday, November 20, 2018


Something bothers me     
            about today’s Gospel lesson.
It’s the way the folks who do the lectionary
         have separated this piece of the Gospel
                  from what came right before.
Taking it out of context strips the lesson 
                 of its point.
I think the Church may actually be hiding 
              the point.
I intend to set that straight

But to make it clear
              I need to tell you the story 
              of my friend, Pastor Theodis.
I met him awhile back at a training 
               for community organizers.
Theodis grew up in a small rural community 
             in Arkansas, 
an innocent place to be a child.

But when he was a teenager, 
      Theodis spent a summer 
in Los Angeles.
There he got into all sorts of mischief 
         that was just unavailable back home.
Today, we’d call it gang activity.
But his parents got him home 
          and he straightened out.
He went to college on a football scholarship,
         and married a lovely upright woman
         from a poor neighborhood 
         in a Western city.

Today, Theodis is the pastor 
       of an evangelical African-American          
       congregation in that poor neighborhood
  where his wife grew up.
When they moved to her hometown, 
they found the neighborhood
          torn apart by gang violence.

So Theodis set out to befriend the gangs.
Before long, he was having meetings 
         of the gang leaders at the Church.
When the gang leaders got better acquainted,
         they lost interest in killing each other.
Friendships formed.

After one year of this ministry,
         drive-by shootings went down 
         by well over 40%.
You might think the police 
            would have been happy.
But they weren’t.

They didn’t trust having a formidable 
          African American man gathering 
         gang leaders and teaching them 
         to cooperate.
Instead of getting a medal, 
         Pastor Theodis was investigated.
He has been in the cross hairs 
             of law enforcement.

But he hasn’t stopped.
He believes this is what God called him to do.
He believes God put his church 
        in the neighborhood they are
for a reason – to serve that neighborhood.

Pastor Theodis said something I took to heart.
He said, 
      A church exists to support the community,
not to get the community to support 
the Church.

Now to our Gospel lesson:
Right before the verses we read today
   is the passage where Jesus sees the widow
   putting her last two cents into the collection.

Jesus is in the Temple.
He has just said:
         Beware of the scribes . . . . 
    They devour widow’s houses  . . .  
The next thing we hear 
         is the story of the widow
         giving the Temple all she had to live on.
She gave all she had – for what purpose? –
         the upkeep of the Temple.

We usually like to preach on that 
           for stewardship.
Wasn’t that widow generous!
We should all do the same thing!!

But what did Jesus think of the Temple 
soaking a poor widow 
out of her livelihood?
He got up, walked out,
         and pronounced God’s judgment on it.
Not one stone shall be left upon another.
God will not have a Temple sustained 
        by bilking widows.
Jesus isn’t praising the widow’s generosity.
He’s saying she got ripped off 
              by the religious establishment.
So God took the religious establishment 

Let me be clear.
I love the Church. 
I don’t love some abstract universal idea 
            of the Church.
I love the real Church with its water bills 
          to pay,
         it’s potlucks to plan, 
         and its budgets to meet.
I love the institutional church, 
        organized religion,
         with services on Sunday 
        and all that goes with it.

But we had better take warning 
         from this lesson.
And we’d better listen close 
        to Pastor Theodis.
A church exists to support the community, 
not to get the community 
to support the Church. 

The Church is a good thing.
It’s a network of committed relationships.
We take vows to be there for each other.
That’s all good.
But the Church, like most institutions,
         is prone to forget its purpose.
The Church is apt to forget its mission
         and get obsessed with its own survival.

Too often, the Church uses people.
We need someone to serve on the vestry,
         be the treasurer, head up building 
         and grounds.
We need more pledges to meet the budget.
We need someone to teach Sunday School.
We use people for our institutional agenda
         instead of supporting them 
         in their lives in Christ.

The Church is like the Sabbath. 
Remember Jesus said,
The Sabbath was made for people,
         not people for the Sabbath.
Well the Church was made for people,
         not people for the Church.

Instead of looking at the way we always 
         do things and pressuring people 
         into doing them,
         the Church’s job is to find out 
         what people need
         and help them do those things 
         for each other.
See the difference?

It isn’t about saving the Church, 
       building the Church
 or growing the Church. 
It’s about helping each other live
         fuller, happier, holier lives.

But we don’t just exist for the sake of those 
         inside these walls.
Archbishop William Temple said, 
The Church is the only organization that exists for the benefit of its non-members.

We are here for each other.
But we are also here for the world 
            outside these walls.
We are here for our neighbors.

At first that sounds like a contradiction.
We think we have to decide 
         whether we are a mutual support group
                  or a servant to outsiders.

But the truth is those are two sides 
           of the same coin.
When we engage our members 
          in helping our non-members,
         it is good for both of them.
It is good for us to serve others, 
          good for us to care
         about the whole community 
        where we live.
It makes us more whole. 
It makes us more human.
Today’s Gospel challenges us to make sure
         that everything we do at Church,
         we do for people.

Grace has made the greatest strides 
         of any English speaking church 
         in the Diocese
         in terms of your internal strength,
         your education, pastoral care,  
          attendance, stewardship, etc.
You have also made the greatest strides
         in mission beyond your doors
-       hosting refugees, Family Promise, 
-       Nevadans for the Common Good, 
        to name a few.
You turned out more people 
than any Church of any denomination
for our candidate accountability action.

You have the greatest growth internally
         and the greatest growth externally. 
Do you think that is a coincidence?
I assure you it isn’t.
But, on both fronts, you’ve only just begun.
There are more missional projects 
         Grace might yet take on.
And many of you in the pews have not yet 
         found your place in the Church’s
         mission to the wider world.   

Brothers and sisters, 
           I invite you to be the Church.
I invite you to give generously of time, 
       talent, and treasure,
but not for the sake 
of a religious social club.
I invite you to really be the Church,
faithful to the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer,
The Church is only the Church 
when it exists for others,
not dominating but helping and serving,
It must tell (people) of every calling 
what it means to live for Christ, 
to exist for others.
That is the path to the liberation 
          of both the Church
         and each of our hearts.