ELEVENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
Prayer of the Day: O God, eternal goodness, immeasurable love, you place your gifts before us; we eat and are satisfied. Fill us and this world in all its need with the life that comes only from you, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
“Grow up!” That’s the message of our lesson from Saint Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians. The apostle has no patience for immature, simplistic faith that can be boiled down to pious platitudes suitable for bumper stickers and refrigerator magnets. Nor does he tolerate a church that produces biblically illiterate disciples with shallow, incomplete and therefore erroneous understandings of Jesus and the reign of God he proclaims. Paul does not envision a church of passive members employing professionals to do the work of ministry. In his view, the work of ministry belongs to the whole church. Proclaiming good news to the poor, the oppressed and the sinful; prophetically speaking truth to power; healing the sick; casting out demons-this is not the sole province of the “clergy.” It is the ministry of all the baptized people of God. The job of apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers is “to equip the saints [the whole people of God] for building up the body of Christ until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature adulthood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ…” Ephesians 4:11-13.
I don’t have to tell anyone deeply involved in the life of the church that most congregations are precisely the inverse of this Pauline vision. Sadly, all the churches I have served fit this perverse description to some degree. Moreover, I must confess that I have too often encouraged passive membership by my own well meaning efforts to be a “good pastor.” For example, my response upon receiving word that a member had been hospitalized was, more often than not, “I’ll be right over to see her.” Of course, that did a lot to convince the messenger that I was a prompt, caring pastor ready to meet the spiritual needs of all my congregants. But quarry, would it not have been more Pauline for me to respond, “Gee, I will make sure to get her on the prayer list. When do you think you can get over to see her?” It was expected in my congregations that, as Pastor, I would be ready with a prayer or blessing whenever the occasion called for it. So, when asked, “Pastor, would you lead us in grace for this meal,” Perhaps I should have responded, “Why don’t you lead us this time.”
I suspect that my suggested responses in both cases would have been perceived as dereliction of duty. After all, pastors get paid for providing these services, don’t they? Actually, they do not. As Paul just pointed out, we are called to equip our people to do the work of ministry though preaching and presiding at the sacraments. If we are doing our job well, our departure should not constitute a crisis. Visitation of the sick, comfort to the bereaved, education of the young, ministry to the poor, hungry and oppressed should continue without missing a beat. Every church member should be comfortable offering prayer. Every baptized believer should know the scriptures and liturgy well enough to lead a devotional study, offer a brief meditation or lead a short worship service. Every believer should be competent, confident and willing to testify to the good news of Jesus Christ and how s/he has witnessed the transformative power of that good news in his or her own experience. There should be no need to call the pastor when such opportunities for ministry arise.
Unfortunately, we have created an ecclesiastical culture based on the model of a voluntary association providing services to its members. It’s all transactional. I attend church more or less regularly and contribute more or less generously (most likely less). In return, I am entitled to have my children baptized, confirmed and married. I am assured of pastoral care and visitation when needed and burial services when my time comes. Heaven, of course, is also an added benefit. Furthermore, because the church is all about me, my needs and my wants, I am free to switch my membership whenever another congregation offers me a better deal. Churches guided by this consumer mentality are not likely ever to “grow up.”
Changing the culture of a congregation from a consumerist outlook into a community of disciples committed to spiritual growth and mission is a daunting task. Yet there is reason for hope and it comes from the last place you would expect. There has been plenty of consternation over the last few decades about the decline of the mainline churches and, more recently, the loss of support among the so-called evangelical congregations. If the present trends continue, the consumerist model of church may simply no longer be sustainable. With ever fewer members contributing ever less in terms of time and money, we may soon be unable to continue supporting the institutional machinery necessary to carry on the professional work of mission and ministry. Circumstances will force us to change. Of course, we can deal with all this by merging smaller congregations together, closing those that are no longer able to support a pastor and reducing denominational staffing accordingly. But the task of downsizing is far more complicated and fraught with difficulties than might appear from graphs, pie charts and statistics. More to the point, it is only a rearguard defensive strategy making room for a somewhat orderly retreat and temporary reprieve. It is rather like applying to grad school after college in order to avoid the anxiety of having to find a job. To put it in Pauline terms, it is a refusal to “grow up.”
Denominational decline is not the worst consequence of failing to grow up. As Paul points out, the spiritually immature are likely to be “tossed to and fro and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the cunning of men, by their craftiness and deceitful wiles.” Ephesians 4:14. They are ripe pickings for the likes of Franklin Graham, James Dobson, Robert Jeffress, Tony Perkins, Pat Robertson and the like whose weird mix of end times hysteria, sexism, homophobia, American/Christian nationalism and subliminal white supremacy strike a chord resonating with so many folk fearful of a future that looks dark and threatening and who are ready to grasp any straw that promises to make sense of it all. Some of this low hanging fruit has been plucked from the midst of my own congregations. To many men and women we have baptized and confirmed are very much in thrall to these charlatans and they are not happy when we publicly call them to account and dispute their ideologies. In the recent past, I called for an ecumenical Barman like declaration from our bishops and theologians condemning specifically these distortions of our faith and reaffirming with boldness and clarity the good news of Jesus Christ confessed in the ecumenical creeds. While there have been no shortage of ecclesiastical statements condemning one or another of our government’s recent policy decisions, there has been no widely subscribed confessional declaration naming what I can only characterize as the heretical perversions of our faith undergirding the present reign of evil.
I can sympathize with our leaders. It is hard challenging the consumerist mentality of a congregation. People who have for generations believed that the church to which they belong is their church and that the length of their membership and the significance of their contributions entitle them to a degree of influence inevitably feel that something is being taken away from them. Members who have ingrained upon their psyches the assumption that faith and patriotism are two sides of the same coin and that the church exists to shore up a particular notion of American cultural values will have a hard time adjusting to an understanding of church as a counter-cultural community that sometimes must question, criticize and even oppose the dominant culture. I have experienced all of this first hand and have the scars to prove it. I can only imagine how difficult it must be for a bishop charged with unifying the church facing the prospect of schism within a denominational body already under stress. There is a real danger that a lot of individuals and congregations will be driven away by a clarion call to repentance, faith and a radical change of ecclesiastical culture. But I must ask our leaders-and all of us-what is the alternative to growing up?
It seems we are coming to a crossroads. We have reached the point at which a faith seamlessly woven into the fabric of white American middle class values that demands nothing from us and promises little more than helpful programming can no longer witness effectively to the world. We have reached the point where a church that ministers globally but is peripheral to the lives of most of its members is no longer sustainable. We cannot pretend that going on with business as usual is a real option. We need to recognize the poverty of our faith, acknowledge our need for conversion and be prepared to embrace the costly grace of discipleship whatever the consequences. In short, we need to grow up.
Here’s an anonymous poem featuring the kind if preaching that just might put us on the path to growing up. It’s obviously directed to non-believers, but as none other than a Lutheran seminary president once remarked to a group of us pastors, “Our biggest problem is that our own people remain unconverted.” Can we find the courage to tell that hard truth to ourselves?
The Street Preacher
Hey there, you!
With the Floresheim shoe!
And your Brooks Brothers suit,
And your wallet full of loot!
You with the skirt half-way up your hips
And the ruby lips
And the long blond hair
With your nose in the air!
You on the grate
With your dingy little plate
Full of quarters and dimes,
Guess you’re seeing hard times!
You with the sack of books on your back
Stopping by for a snack
In the Starbucks shop
Where the Yuppies like to stop!
You all may think that you got no soul,
That you got no need to be made whole.
But whether you wanna believe it or not,
And eternal soul is what you all got.
You can lie to yourself and pretend it ain’t there.
You can tell yourself that I’m full of hot air.
But I don’t care what you say about me.
I got peace with my soul and that makes me free.
You can say I’m crazy and that’s OK.
You can say “Drop dead” or just “Go away.”
I’m speaking today in the name of the Lord
And what you’re hearing is His Holy Word.
He’s here to tell you that you got to get right.
You need to get you some inner spiritual sight.
Cause when you see you got a soul and the shape its in
The truth is gonna make your head spin.
See, your soul was made holy and pure and good,
But you done dragged it all through the mud.
You got a stain on your heart, filthy thoughts in your mind
And evil and sins of about every kind.
Yea, you can scrub your skin till it turns all pink.
You can stand in the shower but your soul’s gonna stink.
If you don’t let Jesus in to clean it out,
Come judgment day the Lord’l throw it right out
Into outer darkness to burn with the trash
And with the wicked forever your teeth you’ll gnash.
God loves ya too much to let you go where you’re going.
That’s why the wind of the Spirit is a blowing.
It’s calling you child, to come back home.
You’ve had enough time now to wander and roam.
Giving your body to men for pleasure,
Piling up money, too much to measure,
Lying and cheating to get on top
You ain’t going nowhere. It’s time to stop.
Let Jesus into your heart today.
He’s calling you brother, don’t turn away!
He’s come to make your filthy soul clean.
He’s come your whole life to redeem.
Go to him! He calls you! You can’t refuse!
Your life’s a wreck! What you got to lose?
You give him your shame, your sin, your strife
And He’ll give you eternal life!
That’ a deal, my man, you can’t pass up.
Come here and die, let him raise you back up!