Monday, December 3, 2012

Churches That Use People: What Does Jesus Think Of Our Institutional Agendas?

It is very good to be back with you at St. Matthew’s.
I continue to be grateful for your faithful ministry.
Your deacons have been the ones most involved
         in our efforts to organize Nevadans for the Common Good.
You have taken up the work of Communities in Schools
         as well as any of our congregations, better than most.
You do good ministry here and I am grateful.

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 has stripped the lesson
         of its point.
I think the Church may actually be hiding the point.
I intend to set that straight

But first, I want to tell you the story of my new friend,
         Pastor Theodis.
I met him this week 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 to know each other,
         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 get along.
So instead of getting a medal, Pastor Theodis
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 let’s talk about 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  . . . 
and say long prayers.”
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 of the Temple,
         and pronounced God’s judgment on it.
“Not one stone shall be left upon another.”
God will not have a Temple built 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 down.

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 potluck’s to plan, and it’s 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 human relationships.
We take vows to be there for each other.
That’s a good thing.
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.
If we have children we need someone to teach Sunday School.
If we don’t have children, we need children to reassure us
         the Church will live on.

So we use people for our institutional agenda
         Instead of supporting them in their lives in Christ.
But what did Theodis say?
         “A church exists to support the community,
         not to get the community to support the Church.”

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 ways 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 here
         to be 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.
We don’t use people for our institutional agenda.