RCL Year C, Proper 18
Well, this is certainly not the Jesus of church growth. There’s no user-friendly, entry-level, all-are-welcome kind of tone to today’s gospel, is there? If this really matters to you, Jesus says, you’ll sacrifice for it. So consider whether you’re willing to do that before you follow me. And by the way, give up all your possessions.
There’s also no family-friendly tone to Jesus today. This is the Jesus that puts all the talk about ‘family values’ on the shelf. Right there with all the other ideas we cherish but Jesus doesn’t, like ‘wealth is a sign of God’s favor,’ or ‘do the right thing and you’ll be rewarded.’ It’s curious that we keep clinging to these things when Jesus so often throws them out the window, but there you are. Too tempting to keep making God in our own image.
I want to think some more about those family values, though, in part because today at church is meant to be an especially family-friendly day. Sunday School began today, and Susie made a big effort to send out postcards and emails and reminders to get families to come. And we’re having a BBQ after the service today to welcome all of us in the ECA family back for the fall. We want all you families, of all ages, here. So what’s with this gospel reading?
Well, here’s a family question for you: How many of you raised children to adulthood here at ECA? How many of those children went on to attend church as adults? Not very many. (Doesn’t feel good, does it?) Those kids were perhaps the last wave of kids from families who went to church because that was just what people did – though I’m guessing that even they probably had more peers who didn’t attend church than you did when you were a kid. The culture has shifted, a lot. Most people in our area don’t go to church and don’t see any reason why they should bring their kids to church. It’s completely not a part of their world. Even people who grew up here at ECA are part of that change. Why? What happened that drove them away? What did you do to them?
Well, of course, it’s not really about something you did to them. In most cases it’s not even about something the church did to them. As Elizabeth Drescher taught last spring in her class on the ‘Nones’ (people without any religious affiliation), most people who left mainline churches did so because they just didn’t see any reason why they should stay. They weren’t angry or hurt. They weren’t made to feel guilty. They didn’t even most of them find fault with the beliefs they had been taught. They just had other things to do that were more compelling. And so they left.
So now here we are: the church as a whole is statistically and demographically a group of older folks who have been coming to church forever and don’t see why they should stop, and younger folks who are for some reason making a concerted effort to swim against the tide. Some scholars of religious trends make the point that it was really only in the 1950s and 1960s that church membership grew, people coming to church because it was the socially acceptable thing to do. Their point is that the Christian faith was really never well designed to attract the masses. Teachings like the one we just heard today are not universally appealing. The church was and now is again a community of die-hards and seekers, perennially at odds with the culture around them. There’s probably a lot of truth in that analysis – though to allow that be an excuse for not welcoming new people to church would be taking it the wrong way.
But just why is it that churches all around the country have shrunk? Every kind of church, mainline Protestant and evangelical and Catholic alike. Do churches ask too much? After all, Jesus is saying in today’s gospel, sacrifice your family connections and status, sacrifice your wealth and possessions, sacrifice what makes you comfortable, in order to follow me. Not an easy message. But we sacrifice things all the time. Many parents sacrifice their weekends to their children’s sports. Athletes sacrifice their sleep and late nights out so they can get up and train early in the morning. If we’re prudent, we sacrifice some pleasures now so we save money for the future. We all make sacrifices for what is important to us, in other words. In ways big and small, we set aside things that make us comfortable, sometimes things we dearly love, in order to focus on something we place as a higher priority.
Well, Jesus’ point is simple: make God the highest priority. Commit more to God than to anything else in your life – even your family and loved ones. Because your relationship with God is the foundation of everything else.
I wonder what kids growing up in the church would learn if they saw that level of commitment and sacrifice in their congregation. What they would learn if they saw their families placing a priority on God in personal and family life, in work, in all things. I think it would teach them that this matters – this path of following Jesus, of being a friend of God, is worth something. Worth more than every other demand on our time and energy, in fact.
Today we begin our ministry fair month, where we celebrate all the different ministries happening here at church. This year we begin with Education and Outreach. Teaching, learning, serving others. How do you see these ministries? Is education simply something to do with the kids who come to Sunday School, or the folks who come midweek to Bible Study? Is outreach something for the valiant band of workers who cook for Montgomery Meals, or for those who write a check to charity? Or can’t we all be learning and serving others, and teaching our children and loved ones to learn and serve others, in everything we do?
The thing is, Jesus doesn’t ask us to throw everything out the window. As Susie illustrated last week with her boxes, our challenge is to find out how to serve God in every aspect of our lives. How can we love God first, in our families? How can we follow Jesus in our work and at our school? How can we put our money towards God’s priorities instead of ours? How, in other words, can we remind ourselves, and show others, that this matters?
I hope you will join me in these questions this year. If faith in God is worth anything at all, it’s worth everything. Too much to ask? I don’t think so. Because really, it’s why we’re here. May God lead us in the path of wisdom and love in everything we do. Amen.