It's always a really glorious moment in he Gospels when someone decides to try and trick Jesus - when someone thinks that they have come up with a loop hole or a way to get around the challenging teachings of Jesus. It's so wonderful, because Jesus always handles the situation so perfectly to turn it upside down and to teach the questioner what the Kingdom of Heaven is really about.
Today we are joining Jesus in His mission. We have been joining together these last few weeks looking at what it means and what it takes to be a vital congregation. As a missionary, I get to visit a lot of congregations - and I've been involved with the life of Methodist churches and church planting in many different countries. I've had the joy of working with and studying vital congregations, and the misfortune of walking into really terrible dead churches which will shut their doors soon.
Talking about vital congregations is a little bit like trying to capture lightning in a bottle. It's easy to point to the mega-churches in growing suburbs and try to make every country parish follow their example - but this denies the fact that God is missional and in mission we worship and serve in ways that fit the people. We here in Kane are different than people in Ukraine and we are different than people in the North Hills of Pittsburgh and what makes one ministry vital in one of these places might do nothing in another.
I'm going to start today by talking a little bit about the really terrible non-vital congregations - because they all have a few things in common. Here are a quick list of factors that all dead and dying congregations share:
- a dying church expects its pastor to be superman and to do everything that must be done in the church. When a dying church receives a new pastor, it's a little bit like a Miss America pageant as everyone comes out to measure up his or her worth - and in the end a dying congregation will always be disappointed. If we are waiting for our next pastor to be our savior, we will be sorely disappointed because our Savior is Jesus.
And here is something that is unique about the United Methodist church - our pastors are appointed by the Bishop and District Superintendents. People who love the church, our church, the pastors, and our pastors choose which people would fit which churches best. It's a messy process, but we believe that God's hand is at work throughout the entire process. This ensures that little churches in little villages always have someone serving them - where in churches that call a pastor can wait years before someone answers the call to serve there. But here is our end of the bargain, we choose to accept whomever God sends our way.
Rev. Sharon Schwab told me once that she used to ask churches what they wanted in their next pastor - but after hearing the same list of demands from every church she would ask - and would you prefer him to be taller than six foot three, or is shorter ok.
Usually they prefer someone taller than six foot three.
While visiting Madge Adams some years ago, she said that the problem in our churches is that everyone feels it's their job to judge the pastor. She said that pastors used to come and go at a much faster rate - and it never mattered who the pastor was, you always supported him. Some could preach and some not so much, but you never said a cross word about the pastor. You respected him and you understood that God had called him to this church for such a time as this.
I know of a vital congregation where every sermon the pastor preaches is a lead balloon. But the congregation just loves him and supports him and lay people just make up for it by making sure that the Bible studies are super. Dying congregations expect the world from their pastors and judge their pastors when he isn't Jesus Christ. Vital congregations take responsibility for their own congregations and pledge to make up for any of the pastors' perceived shortcomings.
If you want this church to be vital, don't ever let a cross word cross your lips about a pastor here. If you hear someone start, cover your ears and start shouting. You'll never hear another cross word.
- Dying congregations try to hold on to what was. Vital congregations wonder what God could have in their future.
-Dying congregations settle for less than the best. They allow their churches to fall down, to be dirty, to be outdated. Vital congregations work together to make the best of a bad situation. Grace UMC had wood paneling in every room and bright orange carpet, and room by room they are updating and renovating to become a cool place where people enjoy hanging out.
These are things that I wanted to share with you, because this is my home church and I love you all - and these are things that your pastor cannot say.
Did these last few minutes make you feel uncomfortable? Did they hit a little too close to home?
In our scripture today, a legal expert stands up to test Jesus - to try and find a loophole.
And from that question, Jesus begins what is perhaps his most uncomfortable parable.
And Jesus tells this story, a familiar story of a Jewish man robbed and beaten and left for dead along the side of the road - and with each character introduced - the people expect that that character will be the hero.
This is a story about being a good neighbor. A good neighbor does the right thing. First it's the ____________. And you can hear Jesus building up the suspense as the _____________ stumbles upon this man. And it's like the longterm boyfriend who keeps getting down on one knee in front of his beloved only to tie his shoe an get back up.
And then, certainly the next character will be the hero. The _______________ will certainly stop and help! The suspense builds. Jesus share a bit about this man's character. People think of their own beloved______________________ and they know that he will save the day - and like the football team that punts instead of going for the touchdown - he crosses to the other side of the road.
And then Jesus introduces the next character. The Samaritan.
When we share this story in Ukraine, we might retell it with a gypsy helping the young man. It is met with shock, disbelief, and horror - but in the states we don't have that guttural disgust of gypsies. I've heard this story told with someone from the opposing team's high school being the neighbor. But none of these capture the awkwardness and shock that fell from the slack-jawed mouths of Jesus' original audience.
The Samaritan's were half-breeds. They were muggles. They were in-bred, un-clean, and they missed the entire point of the Jewish religion - they mixed it and molded it until it became something else. You didn't go through their part of town. You didn't stop and ask them directions. The Samaritan is a person who strikes fear and disgust into the heart of the listener. For a racist this might be a black person, for a homophobe it might be a transgender person, for a church goer this might be an atheist.
But Jesus get's to this final character - the despised one - and when the Samaritan stoops down, the crowd assumes he is going to rob or beat the man some more. When the Samaritan lifts this man up, the crowd grows angry at this blasphemous insinuation. People yell. Jesus' piercing eyes ask the question, You want a hero - here is your hero. Your enemy.
Landa Cope, a mission theologian once said, "Do you want to know who your neighbor is? He's a muslim. He's a terrorist. He's queer. He's got AIDS. He's got a bomb strapped to his chest and he's walking toward you to blow it up. This is your neighbor. This is how Jesus defined your neighbor."
You can hear the anger in the man who had tried to trick Jesus. When Jesus asks who had been a good neighbor, he mumbles a lame reply because the man can't even bring himself to say the words "the Samaritan".
We talk about church vitality and what makes a church vital and what helps a church to grow. And this is it.
Vital churches have people in them who really believe what Jesus said about our neighbors and who really go out and love their neighbors.
When we as a congregation choose to join Jesus in His mission, we go to our neighbors. Our filthy, disgusting, no good, very bad neighbors and we offer them Christ.
Did you hear the directions I gave to the children during the children's moment? It's that simple. It's that hard.
This is what it will take for us to become the vital congregation God is calling us to become. Are you ready?
God forth this day and share the love of Christ with someone unexpected.