Plymouth United Church of Christ

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“Invite a Friend!”
Sermon, Year C, Lent 1, February 17, 2013
Plymouth United Church of Christ, Eau Claire, WI
© Rev. David J. Huber
Focus Scripture: Luke 4:1-13

As I was meditating on this Luke passage this week, I found myself yet again – as I always do when I read this passage – found myself yet again lamenting that I do not have the capacity to come up with snappy answers like Jesus does. He is sooooo good at these comebacks. And they’re all scriptural comebacks that he quotes back at the Devil. And then when the Devil prooftexts back at him, Jesus has yet another scripture passage to hit him with. So good, Jesus is, at coming up with these comebacks, so good at coming up with a reason to avoid these temptations. And not just any reason, like “Oh, that’s not good for me” or “Oh, that’s bad for me”, but faith reasons. Reasons of faith to avoid these temptations. And I found myself lamenting that there ought to be some kind of special power that comes with ordination, or even that comes with baptism, some kind of extra power that comes with it, even if it is one as mundane as just being able to come up with these right answers so quickly. So perfectly. At the time they are needed.

But it is not so. They do not come. It comes only through practice, through reading scripture, thinking about it, living through these things.

And so, I didn’t want to make myself feel too bad and stopped thinking in that direction to start thinking about temptation itself. And how there was, in that previous thought, the temptation of wanting to have power of my own. I thought of temptation, and specifically the kind of temptation that churches can fall into. Not just we as individuals, though we have our many temptations. But institutions have temptations as well that they can fall into. Even churches can do so.

And I haven’t often thought about that, I am not even sure if I have ever preached on it or talked about it much. But I thought about it this week. There are temptations that we as groups of people can fall into. I’m thinking specifically of the church. Thinking as mainline Protestantism has declined over the last forty or fifty years, how all the denominations have suffered loss in membership even as the country’s population has gone up. Religion itself has been on the decline in this country. Although I think spiritual yearning has been on an increase. But Church membership has been declining, and some of these temptations have come forth. And some of the decline is because churches have succumbed to some of the temptations that are out there that do tempt us as churches.

As I have read books on church development, and the state of the church today, some of these have come up. Some have been recognized. These traps that we fall in to. One of the big ones is one that we have joked about for a long time. Some of these jokes go way, way back. Such as, “How many (whatever denomination it is) does it take to change a light bulb?” And the response is, “Change?!”

There is a temptation to say “We have always done it this way”. And the corollary, “We have never done it that way.” Getting stuck in “We have always done it this way, we have never done it that way.” The temptation for the status quo. The temptation to raise the tradition and the method above the mission, which is to spread the Gospel and make disciples of the nation. To take the Gospel message outside the walls of the church into the world. We have often thought that the method how we do that is more important than the mission itself. We don’t like to rock the boat, or make waves, or go out of our comfort zone. And that is perfectly fine when everything is working really well. You don’t want to throw away that which is good just because you’ve done it for a while. If it works, stick with it. There is nothing wrong with the status quo and the tradition as long as it works. But when it is not working any more it is time to let it go.

There is the temptation to hold on. To keep doing the same thing even when it doesn’t work so well. And there can also be this temptation to leave the ministry of the church to the clergy and the paid professionals, or maybe a few very committed volunteers. This is something I have read about, and we have seen it in the last 50 years. Probably even in the last 200 years. This sort of professionalizing of Christianity. Of leaving the ministry to the clergy and to the church staff, and not so much to the laity. The laity becoming less involved in the ministry of the church. Maybe involved in the leadership and some things within the congregation, but not as much in the community or outside. And some of this has been for good reason. We have over the years seen the need to have not just a well-trained clergy, but that having clergy that are trained in Christian Education is really helpful, or in elder care, or in chaplaincy, or youth ministry, or even some churches now have ministers of technology and social media. We have seen the recognition that there are many fields of ministry and are training people into that. But the thing we have lost, I think, is that lay people have become then less involved. Not so much that the people in the church have said, “Oh, good, I don’t have to do anything in the church now, we hired someone” but more the fault of the people who are the professionals who say, “I’m the one who does this. Let me do it.”

There is some temptation there. And with that is a temptation to believe that the church exists only for the people who are already in that church. We do have a commitment to one another, and are called to care for and nurture one another, but we also have a call outside the walls. We have this call to take who we are out into the community.

Jim Griffith is a church consultant, and he’s done some work here in the Wisconsin Conference and spoke at our annual meeting a couple years ago and I’ve had a chance to speak with him. Jim has talked about church growth, church vitality, and he has told this story a couple times that, as he sees it, since the post-World War II time when the mainline churches saw a big explosion in numbers and in members, he saw at the same time a continuing constriction of the mission field for the clergy of those churches more and more to be only the office and not the community. And I think there is some truth in that. That is also an easy temptation to fall in to. Part of the “ministry to those that are here, not to those outside the walls who maybe need to hear what we have to offer.” I think especially here at Plymouth, we have a LOT of good things to offer. This is a great church. A good congregation. Faithful, on top of things, work well together, lots of laity involvement. We have something really special here. Something that people ought to know about. And that people would enjoy once they come in.

When I talk to people outside the church walls, whether they are atheists that have no interest in religion, or people that have been turned off the church or abused by the church, or that are yearning for something spiritual but all they know of the church is what they see on TV or hear in the news; when I talk to them, they often know what Jesus said. They know enough about Jesus to know that he talked about loving our neighbors. About sharing. Showing compassion. having mercy on one another. Being considerate and kind. And all those things. Even if they have not been in the church, they know enough about Jesus to know that. And they tell that they know that about Jesus, but what they see in so many churches, and see from Christians, is not that. They see so many doing the opposite, or not doing that at all, and it really turns them off. And it bothers them. They see judgmentalism, and hypocrisy, and meanness. If you have a Jesus fish sticker on the back of your car, or a “I (heart) Jesus” bumpersticker, or if you see someone driving around that kind of car and they’re driving crazy, flipping people off, and putting people at risk, that gives Christianity a bad name. And I have seen that. I’ve seen that. And I think, “Wow, you’re not helping our mission at all by doing this! Please don’t do that!”

And I can see why people get upset at the church, and don’t want to come in. That is one thing that we are fighting against in our culture. These many that call themselves spiritual but not religious. Because they have either been abused by the church, or they just see bad things that happen in the church. And when I talk to them, in many ways I have to agree with them. I have to say, “Yeah, you’re right – those people are out there. But a) we’re all human, and even in the best of churches you will find people who sin, who make mistakes, who do things we shouldn’t do, who fall into temptation and do what we ought not to do. And b) there are many churches like Plymouth, like the United Church of Christ, that are very much trying to be faithful to those words of inclusion of love and compassion.”

And I take that opportunity to say that there are a whole lot of us out there who are doing good things and serving their community. We have our street ministry, our st. Francis Food Pantry support, serving at the Community Table. Part of it is that we don’t shout it out, because part of our Christian tradition is not to trumpet oneself too much or blow one’s own horn. So it gets done, but it gets done quietly, and people don’t see it. Which makes it all that much more important, when you have the opportunity to say something, to say it! To speak out. To tell the person you are talking with, “Wow, that is not my experience. Let me show you a church that isn’t that.”

And then invite them.

Invite them to come and witness. Invite them to see what we have here. And don’t just invite them and leave them on their own to get here. Offer to drive them. Offer to pick them up and bring them in. Offer to take them to lunch afterward. We said earlier, it’s really hard to say “no” to an invitation to food. Even if the prelude is sitting through worship with me. To do that, and take out for food afterward. Make it easy for them. It’s easy to say “No” if someone invites you to their church, or whatever, and also says, “And you can get there on your own, and get your own ticket.” But if you offer to pick them up – to bring them, and then take them out for food... that makes it very easy for them to come in.

Imagine if we all did that. Even if it is just one person over the next year. If we all did that, brought in one person over the next year, we would have twice as many people. The Gospel would be delivered to twice as many people. And we would have twice as many ambassadors out in the community.

There are these temptations. Jesus was tempted by three things, that I think also tempt the church. One was the temptation for comfort and ease. To turn the stone into bread. To have food in such plenty that he wouldn’t have to trust in God’s providence nay more. Wouldn’t have to trust in God to provide. That temptation to think that we don’t need God. That we can do everything on our own.

And he was tempted by power. Power to rule the nations. Which one would think would be awfully tempting, but in Sunday School this morning we all kind of came to the agreement of, “Wow, what a pain. I don’t want that much power.” So I don’t see that happening here. But there is temptation to power. To not have to recognize our powerlessness compared to God. The temptation to believe that we can be our own God.

And he was tempted by something I will call self-0righteousness, though that is not a good word for it. The temptation to jump off the pinnacle and that God will save. The temptation to think that whatever we do God blesses. Instead of doing what God has blessed. That God has to conform to our will instead of us conforming to God’s will. This was very much the sin that Israel had fallen in to before falling to Babylon. A thinking that said, “We are God’s chosen nation, so we can do whatever we want. Because whatever we do is automatically God’s will. It must be! We’re God’s chosen nation, God’s chosen people. I am God’s chosen individual.” That temptation.

Stuff that we all fall for. Stuff that the church falls for. And things that lead us to forget that we have the Holy Spirit behind us. The power that was given to us at Pentecost, that gives strength to the Church. The Holy Spirit. That if we’re doing what God wants us to do, it is going to get done. God guarantees that we will have whatever we need to do what God wants done. Part of the difficulty is to figure out what God wants done, but once we figure that out, God will make sure that it gets done. So maybe we don’t have the snappy answers at the tip of our tongue ready to go at a moment’s notice. And maybe at our baptisms and ordinations we don’t become superheroes. But we do get the power of the Holy Spirit. We will talk about this at the Wednesday night Soup and Scripture. We get the power of the Holy Spirit that can move mountains of despair and overcome hopelessness and drag us out of the wilderness into the Promised Land. And it can also give you strength for daily living, for your Christian life, but also give you strength to speak when you hear people asking about what Christianity is, what is the church, what is faith. The Holy Spirit can give you strength to offer an answer, to speak out at that time. And even give you the strength to invite someone so that they can come and witness the miracle of the Holy Spirit that takes place inside these walls.


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Plymouth United Church of Christ
2010 Moholt Drive
Eau Claire, Wisconsin, 54703

Webpastor: Pastor David