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
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
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.
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
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.
A church exists to support the community,
not to get the community to support
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
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
it’s potlucks to plan,
and its budgets to meet.
I love the institutional church,
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
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.