The first church I served was surrounded by cornfields. It's biggest employers were a high school and two prisons. Most of the prison population was Black or Hispanic. The village was mostly white folks. Outside the prison, there were hardly any good paying jobs. A history of distrust and fear seeped into the community. Before I arrived little had been done to unite neighbor to neighbor. In contrast, my home church in Buffalo focused on their neighborhood, the struggles of neighbors, and on what Jesus had to say to all of them every day. It was an Open & Affirming church, not because it was trendy, but in response to the need. They started an after-school arts program, a peace camp, and organized neighbors to stand up to greedy landlords tearing their community apart. Today, my former home church is a multi-cultural ministry with a Spanish speaking, openly gay pastor. God's alive, directing them to respond to what's around them.
In contrast, the good people of my first pulpit had become a religious social club. Ask a member what their church did, and you'd hear all about the election day roast pork and sauerkraut supper. Which would be fine if that supper actually "fed" a defined ministry, and not just a building and a budget. But St. Paul's was an old line rural church, and this Pork'n Kraut church had lost the "way" of Jesus Christ and with it why the church still mattered.
In chapter five of his book, "Beyond Resistance," John Dorhauer talks about authority; what it means to be the church and how and why these things still matter. Dorhauer believes a clear sense of ministry is a center-piece to define a healthy and vital church. Authority in a ministry oriented church is far different than the way power's handled in the general society. First, the Church as Jesus envisioned it isn't responsible to its membership base. You heard me. Church is responsible not to its membership, but to its mission and ministry. Dorhauer says without a clear sense of ministry, Church stops being church. Without constant renewal of the "why" of our church, we cease to be relevant in people's lives. We cease to be the Church.
Jesus authorizes; calls a flawed group of powerless people together to find a new sense of collective power. It's the same today. In the Gospel Jesus is followed from village to village by a ragtag group of nobodies; the rabble of the ancient world. They draw close because they're powerless, and in Jesus they see a chance to grab some power. Jesus knows this. He also knows that any congregation can get so wrapped up in their internal power struggles, they forget their reason for being. Like the prophets before him, Jesus attacked a system who's authority is used to blame, shame, disregard, and exploit. Jesus' "church," his social order, doesn't just turn the tables. It calls for a completely new way. No longer will the well-born and well-to-do rule over the poor and weak. Not just a new pecking order; Jesus calls for the end of all pecking orders. He authorizes his church around an equal distribution of authority and power. Jesus calls men and women to lead as he himself led; meeting the most pressing needs of their day and to do so with everyone working together for the betterment of all.
For Dorhauer church authority isn't about role reversals; trading "their' power for "our" power. To be the church means embracing radical change. He says, "Jesus changed a church whose upper management, was so (in love with) its (own) power and the prestige it afforded them, (they had) lost sight of its core (reason for being)." When Jesus stops in front of the tax-man Zacchaeus he's saying this church/his church isn't simply about putting the poor in charge. When Jesus says to Zacchaeus, "Come down (from your tree). I mean to stay at your house this day" he's telling his followers, "Just because you've been kicked around (by the likes of this guy) doesn't mean it's your turn to do the kicking."
Zacchaeus recognizes the change. After all, as a Roman tax collector he not only took money the average person couldn't afford, he also took extra for himself. Zacchaeus makes an oath (a sacred promise); which in those days meant something. He swears to no longer cheat anyone. More than that, he'll pay back extra to anyone he's cheated. Such transformation's at the heart of Jesus' church. Jesus' doesn't just empower one group, he lifts up everyone; even enemies. Dorhauer tells us, God authorizes church calling and empowering pastors and everyday members not to get so lost in their buildings and budgets they lose the call to engage in mission that transforms everyone it touches.
Which brings us to what sets Church apart from charitable clubs, and causes...faith; a belief in something greater than ourselves and our own abilities.
In the Hebrew Testament at first Habakkuk sounds like he's whining about all the unaddressed injustice and terror. But a closer look tells a different story. After laying out his complaint Habakkuk says, "I will stand at my watchpost, and station myself on the rampart; I will keep watch to see what God will say to me and what I will be instructed to do." Habakkuk isn't just another in a long line of bellyachers who too often populate the church. Habakkuk knows God. He's experienced the Holy in his life. As a result, he can speak openly and cry out to God in his distress. Such a complaint isn't faithless. Far from it. On our bad days we can all lose a sense of God with us. But because we've known God on our best days, we the faithful can remain steadfast, like Habakkuk, awaiting a word from the Holy One. Habakkuk knows God and believes the intervention of the Holy will come if he's faithful. To make sure he doesn't miss a word of consolation, Habakkuk takes his place on the highest point of the city. Like a sentinel, he stands at his post ready to receive orders no matter how long it takes. Habakkuk doesn't demand, he prays; he speaks passionately and personally because he trusts God will respond and renew his spirit, as well as the spirits of all the people.
Dorhauer's message mirrors our Scripture. No longer do we scrape and scratch so our little group can get "power over" some real or perceived other. If we accept God's authority in our lives we'll learn how to share "power with." Young men and women today who claim a spiritual center, but reject church as they've experienced it still stand watch for authentic community. Today's seekers search for what the ancient church wanted, a generation sharing the load and building a just and equitable society. This is the authority Jesus came to call "the church." Not power over, but power with.
There's a big vote happening...no, not Tuesday. But it's a ballot that's just as important. This one's a vote of confidence in the ministry and meaning of this church. It's called "a pledge card" and election day isn't coming, it's right now. For political candidates we measure their effectiveness on their ability to meet our personal needs. When we vote on a church we're taught not to be so selfish. Still, the standard measure of church success has been how many active members we have and how much money we bring in. Not that these are unimportant. But, today we've reached the point where these measures alone aren't nearly enough to gauge the health of a church. In fact, churches with decades of loses in members and money can still be quite healthy. Meanwhile, churches with larger member rolls and full sanctuaries can be poised for failure.
And right here is where we pick up our study in chapter six of John Dorhauer's book, "Beyond Resistance." Lake Edge United Church of Christ once boasted some 1000 members and some 400 or more givers. Today, our actual member base is some 225 with only about 200 actually supporting the church with their money and active presence. Dorhauer never suggests money and membership are unimportant, but the church today's facing a greater challenge to its existence than ever before, and dollars and fannies in seats aren't enough to gauge whether we're going in the right direction.
At this time of year we talk about "saints." For some, the saints are those members who've passed. But there's a truer definition of "saint" as it was understood in the early church. At the time of Peter and Paul "the saints" were those men (and women) who every day dedicated their lives to the Way of Jesus. In short, anyone who anchored the early church and followed Christ's teachings we're the saints.
In today's Gospel, Jesus lays out the exact qualities of God's saints: "Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of (me). Rejoice and be glad...your reward is great in heaven."
We've heard this one, but what's the real message here? First, we've got to define terms. At the time of Jesus the economically and socially poor where the vast majority of people. They knew their survival depended on an intricate connection to others. There was no time for being proud or independent. For the poorest, disconnection meant certain death. Jesus says, "Woe to all who are rich" and are isolated within their wealth and disregard for others. For they've already received all the pay they're gonna get. The poor, therefore, receive blessings not by the fact of their poverty, but by virtue of understanding that only in community is there life. What Jesus actually says here is "Blessed are those who connect with and work for the welfare of everyone. They understand what it means to be children of God."
The other "blessings" Jesus shares here follow this pattern. Everything points toward a common unity and shared purpose; the welfare of all people no matter who they are or where they are on their life's journey. Oh, yes, including our enemies. Such are the true expressions of God on earth. But woe to anyone who makes decisions solely based on what's best for them and their clan, or their 401k. For these people have missed the boat and sail instead on their own selfish winds. Everyone who drifts on their own power has received everything they'll ever obtain from this world, and are unfit for the world to come.
Dorhauer, and Jesus as well, would not argue against sheer numbers (whether in dollars or members) as an indicator of church success? They simply argue against such things as the only measures. When a bigger member base and the prestige and cash that go along with become "gods" unto themselves, both Dorhauer and Jesus warn, "Woe to us."
What Jesus is calling for, and Dorhauer is driving at, is a church that isn't distracted with dollars, donors, and Sunday attendees, but focused on how many people they touch with their mission through a life-changing ministry. Dorhauer says in this way a successful church is like McDonald's©. How many people do we serve? We've seen those "golden arches" signs all over town. Each one declares "one million" or more "people served," and the number's constantly updated. Wouldn't it be cool if that was our priority. "Welcome to Lake Edge UCC. This week 500 people were served." Here's where our General Minister and President feels the church has gone off the rails. He says, "I think we've gotten stuck imagining our health and vitality are measured not by lives served or changed, but (strictly) by money donated and members active." Of course, Dorhauer concedes we need members and money to fulfill our ministry and mission. But a singular focus on getting more of both is wrong-headed. Every church says they want a pastor to "grow our membership and our money." Jesus keeps telling us, "Fine, but you can't get either of these things if the Church isn't vital to people's lives."
Today people join the church not because of its size, or the glorious sanctuary and Sunday worship service, or the children's programming, or because we're nice and the coffee's good. People join a church, or more to the point even notice our church at all, not because our pews are filled and our bills are paid or we have a praise band or such. Dorhauer, and he's hardly the only one, believes people notice us and will check us out because of the number of lives we change. "The Church is the Church," says Dorhauer, "...when it inspires people to use their time, talent, and resources to serve the common good. It's the Church when it helps people love themselves, their God, and their neighbor." Every church loves to boast their entire worshipping community are ministers (point to sanctuary "Service Entrance" sign). Then we go off and hire a pastor and staff and expect them to do the work all by themselves. Remember, the "blessings" in the Gospel occur when all of us work together for the common good. The "woes" come when we don't.
Blessed are we who vote with our pledge dollars and our lives to serve others and build community, for that's the Kingdom of God.