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.