Dear friends in Christ, grace, mercy and peace, from God our Father, and His Son, our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
In his book The Kingdom of God is a Party!, author and pastor Tony Campolo tells the story of the time he flew to Honolulu for a speaking engagement. Because of the 8 hour time difference, Tony found himself wide awake at 3:00 AM and hungry for a donut. He walked about a block from the hotel and found an all night diner, and he sat down and ordered a cup of coffee from a waiter named “Gus.” He hadn’t been there very long when a small group of brightly dressed women entered the diner and sat in the booth directly behind him. He realized instantly that these were “ladies of the night.”
Tony couldn’t help but eavesdrop on their conversation when he heard one of the women say that tomorrow was her 30th birthday, and her friend caustically said “So, what do you want, a party?” When the women left, Campolo asked Gus about them and he was told that they come in every morning about this time. “What about the one in pink?” Tony asked. “Oh, her name’s Rachael.” Tony said to Gus “Well, tomorrow Rachael’s going to turn 30. What do you say we throw her a party?” Gus thought it was a great idea, and the next evening at midnight, Tony showed up with crepe paper and streamers, and Gus had made a cake, and he had also invited everyone in the neighborhood. And at 3 o’clock, when Rachael arrived, they all jumped up and began singing “Happy Birthday.” And Rachael just stood there and wept. Campolo heard her say to one of her friends “I am 30 years old, and this is the first birthday party I have ever had.”
As Tony Campolo was leaving that diner, Gus took him aside and asked him “Tony, what do you do for a living?” Tony wasn’t quite sure what to say, but finally answered “I’m the pastor of a church…a church that throws birthday parties for hookers at 3 o’clock in the morning.” Gus studied Tony’s face for the longest time, and then said “No you aren’t, because I would go to a church like that,”
On one hand, Gus’ comment was a wonderful compliment to Tony Campolo, for being a compassionate, creative and crazy guy! But on the other hand, Gus’ comment was an indictment on the 21st century church, because Gus could not fathom that any Christian church that he had ever known would ever reach out and care for a woman like Rachael. Somehow, Gus knew that churches were for righteous people. Churches were for the religious. Churches were for the respectable people in our culture, and therefore, certainly not for hookers, the homeless, and late night waiters. And if I were to make that point in 50% of the churches in North America, I would get a resounding grunt of agreement. But not in this church. Not among the people of Our Savior’s Lutheran Church. Because you know that the Church was never intended for only the righteous, the religious and the proud. It was created for people like us; people who are well acquainted with sin and selfishness and imperfection. That’s the church we have in our hands in this place, and you know that it’s true.
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The gospel lesson from Luke today tells of two churches that existed in the time of Jesus, and that still exist today. The first one appears when the disciples come to Jesus and ask him to increase their faith. They give evidence of a church that is all about faith and following. There has been criticism throughout the ages that the church is always about itself…a private club…if you will. We sing together. We pray together. We fellowship together. We drink coffee together. And then we go home and do it all over again next Sunday. We’re a little bit like the tavern called “Cheers” where everybody’s knows our name, and everybody’s glad we came, and everyone’s problems are all the same. And we like it that way! There is a sense of community when one is a member of a congregation…a sense of belonging and caring, and we value it deeply. But the critics are right; for often, church is all about us, and not about others. “God, give us greater faith, and greater blessings, and greater fellowship with our friends.”
But when Jesus tells the disciples a parable, he describes another kind of church. It is a church where the people work. They work at feeding the hungry, and clothing the naked, and visiting the sick and the imprisoned, and reaching out and touching the untouchables of our world. And these churches do this, not simply because they are compassionate people, but because they believe it is expected of them as followers of the Crucified One. Remember Jesus’ words in the parable? “The slave doesn’t think he or she can come in from the field and sit down for a dinner. Rather, the slave comes in, puts on an apron and serves the master. So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say ‘We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done.'”
It’s not a comfortable image for Christian people, and perhaps that’s why this is not one of our most loved parables. We don’t like to think of ourselves as “worthless slaves;” we prefer to see ourselves as “special lambs.” But we cannot ignore the obvious expectation of Jesus in this parable; Jesus calls Christians to pack a lunch pail, put on a hardhat, and spend themselves by serving others.
Two churches, two different agendas. One church sees its mission as to care and be cared for by the members of its congregation. The other church sees its purpose as to reach out to a world in need; to be the hands and lips of Jesus in every age. So which one is it? Are we called to care for one another in our congregation, or are we called to reach out and care for others? Yes. Yes. The Church is called to do both, and the Church becomes unhealthy whenever its focus drifts toward just one or the other.
In 1991, a Gallup Poll survey learned what the average American needs in their life. Among the things that made the list of needs are the following:
— There is a need for shelter and food. No surprise there. If you know anything about Maslow’s hierarchy, you realize that these basic human needs must be met before anything else can be considered. This is why the mission of Habitat for Humanity has taken on such a dramatic role in our society today; because it concerns itself with the most basic needs of humanity.
— There is a need for community, a sense of belonging that can only be met when people are in intimate contact with one another on a regular basis. Gallup reported that nearly 1/3 of Americans admit that they have been lonely for a long period in their lives, without close friends or a sense of community.
— We need a sense of purpose; we believe that life is only meaningful if we have a reason to get out of bed in the morning. Albert Schweitzer was a brilliant theologian, he was the greatest authority of the music of Bach in North America, and he was an accomplished physician, but his life did not find its meaning until he traveled to Africa and spent his years caring for lepers in a leper colony.
— And we need to have faith in something or someone larger than ourselves. We want to know that there is a Grand Designer of the cosmos, and that even though the world seems at times to be spinning out of control, we need to believe in a God who is still in charge. And we need practical help to grow in this faith; it is not something that any of us can do on our own.
That survey speaks loudly to the Church of the 21st century, because those are our needs too. The list is not simple and one-dimensional; rather, it is complex and multi-dimensional. Every Sunday morning, we have people entering the doors of this church with those desperate needs on the front burners of their lives. And every Monday morning, we drive by countless homes and schools with people who weren’t here on Sunday, but they have the very same needs. If we only care about ourselves, we stand indicted of being an exclusive club where membership has its privileges. However, if we only reach out to others, we discover that the affection and the accountability we share as a congregation can become quickly undone. The discussion as to whether we should be a church of warm hearts or a church of calloused hands is a moot question. We must be both. In order to be healthy, we must be both. And I believe we are.
Last Sunday I had the privilege of gathering with a roomful of adults who were considering joining our congregation, while another large group of their children was being entertained in the nursery. I always tell these prospective members that there is only one good reason for being a member of a church. It’s not so I can look at you and say “You’re a member of my church.” It is so that you can drive by 1616 W. Olive Street and say “That is my church.”
When the response forms came in, a few people decided not to join. That’s okay; I always tell them that there is never an obligation to join Our Savior’s. On Tuesday morning, one of those who had decided not to join was in the workroom when I came in, and she said “I’m joining.” I gave her a hug and said “Welcome! What made you change your mind?” And this is what she said. “I came to the New Member class determined to not join. But on Monday morning, I got a call from my nephew whose wife just had a baby boy, who was in the intensive care nursery with serious complications.” She said “I hung up the phone and fell apart, and thought ‘I’ve got to call someone to pray for him,’ and I realized that the only place I could call was Our Savior’s. This is my church!”
The church in our hands, the congregation in this place, is a vibrant, growing Body of Christ. But now is not the time to circle the wagons and celebrate our accomplishments. There are people within these walls whose needs are great. And there are people beyond our walls who are dying to find out if Christians really walk their talk. You people of warm hearts…you people of calloused hands; don’t give up, don’t ever give up being the Church that God has called you to be. Thanks be to God. Amen.
— Copyright 2004, Steven Molin. Used by permission.