Dear friends in Christ, grace, mercy and peace, from God our Father, and His Son, our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
A year ago these days, I was in Scandinavia. My time in Wittenburg, Germany – Luther’s Town – had ended, and my sabbatical moved into the vacation stage, as Marsha joined me and we drove our tiny Volkswagen through Denmark, Sweden and Norway. What a time we had!
In Stockholm I found 3 pages of “Molins” in the local phone book, we viewed “The Changing of the Guard” at the royal family’s palace, and we visited the Nobel Museum, home of The Nobel prizes for Science, and Literature.
In Oslo, we attended a Lutheran worship service for street people on the plaza in front of the train station; we communed with them in Norwegian, but we learned that forgiveness and grace is the same in any language. Also in Olso, I ventured out to pick up some dessert for Marsha and me late one night and I was propositioned three times along the way. It would be important for you to know that three times, I declined!
In Bergen, we learned that lutefisk is not eaten or sold in Norway, and they laughed in the fish market when I asked to buy some! (“Vat is dis ‘lutefisk?’”)
But it was at the airport in Copenhagen, as we were boarding our plane for home, that one of the major highlights occurred. Standing in line with us were about 100 young boys dressed in various athletic outfits. They were soccer players, all bound for Minneapolis to play in the Schwan’s Cup Soccer Tournament held in Blaine every year. There were Norwegian boys, and Icelandic boys, and Finnish boys, and Danish boys, all speaking in their native tongue. But I had my eyes on the group from Sweden.
You see, they each was wearing a hat like this; it says SVERGE on it (which is “Sweden” of course), and it has the tre’ kroner – the Three Crowns that is the national symbol of Sweden. And I decided that I had to have one of those hats. I loved their hats! But how could I get one? They were probably a part of their uniforms. So I developed a strategy; I would begin chatting with the boys in line, and then just before we got to the check-in window, I would offer one of them $20 American for their hat.
But meanwhile, Marsha had struck up a conversation with one of the Norwegian players. Oh, this is just not going to work! I took Marsha aside and said “If I’m going to get one of those Swedish hats, you can’t be talking to the Norwegians! It’s unSwedish!” And just as we were about to check our luggage, I offered one of the boys 20 bucks, and, in a heartbeat, he said “You got a deal!” And he yanked the $20 bill out of my hand, and placed the hat on my head.
About a minute later, Marsha said “You know, Kyle went to Gustavus, and their logo is three crowns, and you know he’s going to want that hat, and you know you’re going to give it to him. You better try to buy another one.” So I turned around and bought a second SVERGE hat, but the second boy was much more shrewd than the first, and this one cost me $25.
I expect that there are some here today who were intrigued, if not flat out upset about the title of this sermon, “Don’t talk to the Norwegians.” As I told that story, you who have recently celebrated Sytendemai Day were aghast that I would ever tell my wife not to talk to the Norwegians. Most of you know me well enough to know that it is not my style; that it is out of character for me to exclude, or to ignore, or to ostracize anyone. But I had to do it, because this hat was important to me!
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In the gospel text today, Jesus is beginning to send out his disciples two-by-two in order to spread the word of his ministry. “Heal the sick” Jesus tells them. “Feed the hungry, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, and seek the lost.” But don’t talk to the Norwegians! Don’t talk to the Swedes or the Germans or the Danes or the Italians. In short, Jesus told them, don’t speak to the Gentiles; don’t even go into the non-Jewish villages. And aren’t you a little bit surprised? Don’t you think that is out of character for Jesus? Don’t you wonder why the Son of God, who came to take away the sin of the world, would instruct his followers to ignore and exclude one whole segment of the world’s population? Why did Jesus say that?
It was because of a hat. This hat. (Put on yarmulke). The yarmulke is the national symbol of the Jewish people, and these are the people whom Jesus wanted to focus on first. You see, Jesus had a strategy as to how his ministry would unfold on this planet. The Jews were God’s Chosen People – in fact, they are STILL God’s Chosen People – and God would not abandon them in order to expand his kingdom in this world. Many in our world are amazed that the Jews are God’s Chosen Ones. “Isn’t it odd that God would choose the Jews?” But he did, and in this gospel text, Jesus commands his disciples to pass over the Gentiles, and first go to the lost sheep of the house of Israel because he loved them so much. And the last words spoken by Jesus before he ascended into heaven reiterated this strategy;
“And you shall be my witnesses,
in Jerusalem, in Judea, and Samaria,
and even to the ends of the earth.”
Essentially, Jesus was saying “Start with the Jews and go out from there.”
This is why, in the gospels, whenever Jesus enters a new town, he stops by the Temple to pray. He joins the worshippers on the Sabbath day in the synagogue. He celebrates the Passover meal with his disciples, just as faithful Jewish people had done for centuries. Does it mean that Gentiles were unimportant to Jesus? No. It meant that first he would reach out to the Jews, and then the Gentiles would be grafted in later. I doubt that he used the buzzword of 21st century marketing, but the Jews were his “target market.”
Two thousand years later, there is a church in Stillwater, Minnesota, that is comprised almost entirely of Gentile Christians. This ought to be proof enough that the strategy of Jesus worked; that while much of the early church was Jewish Christian, today our church is filled with Gentiles who love Jesus. But it does beg the question, “Who or what is the target market of the 21st century Christian Church?” I realize this is not a question that keeps most of you awake at night, but I think about it a lot, and there is a small group of us who are trying to plan the future of this church through the year 2010, so it’s a question that has concerned us.
And here is the dilemma of establishing a target market for ministry; if you focus on some, you may exclude many others. If our target were the young families of Stillwater, we automatically exclude people my age, people who are single, and people who live in Bayport. If our target market is people who grew up Lutheran, we pass over a whole generation of folks who grew up Catholic, or grew up Methodist, or grew up Italian. If we say that we are especially seeking people who are wealthy, or people who are educated, or people who are straight or gay, or people who moved here from Sheboygan; if that is whom we seek, we actually exclude many more people than we include.
The bright minds of the long range task force landed on what I think is the perfect target market for Our Savior’s between now and 2010, and this is it: “Our target market is those people who need Jesus Christ in their lives.” It’s brilliant! It includes all of the above, and excludes no one. Well, it does exclude one group of people; it excludes those who are already have Christ in their lives, and are actively involved in a church somewhere else. Our target market is not members of Trinity who are unhappy. They can visit here; we will warmly welcome them, but we’re not down on 4th Street, evangelizing Trinity’s members. Our target market is not members of St. Mike’s Catholic, or Bethany Covenant, or First Presbyterian who are upset with their pastor or priest. They can worship with us; they can even join Our Savior’s, and many have, but they are not our target.
My friend, Dave Wall, started a mission congregation in Woodbury 20 years ago, pounding the pavement, knocking on doors, and asking a singular question: “Do you have a church home?” If the people answered “Yes” Dave politely said “Thank you” and he walked away. If they did not have a church home, Dave simply asked if he could add them to the mailing list of this new church. Mission pastors know what most of the rest of us pastors have forgotten; that the purpose of ministry is not to fill the pews with people, but to fill the heart with faith. The purpose of ministry is not to fill the pews with people, but to fill the heart with faith.
Why do you and I need to know this? It is because most of us who are actively involved in church spend most of our time talking to the Norwegians. That is to say, we talk to people who are like us; who think like us, and believe like us, and worship like us, and sing like us. We don’t venture outside our comfort zones to share our faith with those who have none. Ironically, we don’t invite unchurched people to join us in church, we invite those who already have a church home. If our purpose is to fill hearts not pews, then that is a rather unproductive activity.
Perhaps you already know this; research shows that 80% of church-shopping is done in the summertime. When school’s out, when people move to new neighborhoods; that’s when they are also most likely looking for a new church. And yet most churches practically shut down in the summertime. Think about that: “Hi, welcome to our church, but in July there’s no Sunday School, no adult choir, no third service, no bible study, and our senior pastor’s on vacation until Labor Day!” There is an awful lot missing from most churches in the summertime, including our own; but do you know what IS here? You are? You are a better display of ministry and welcome than any old senior pastor, or even the best adult choir. Whether your welcome invitation happens in the narthex, or the parking lot, or over the backyard fence, you are the best attraction this church has to offer.
There is a world around us that needs to know Jesus, and then find a church where they can explore their faith. And yet, we are so busy with our own strategies, talking Norwegian language, or Swedish language, or sports language, or corporate language, and we are reluctant to speak the language that people can understand. You are God’s ambassadors! You have been called to speak and live God’s language of love. So go! Go and tell the Gentiles in your world that there is a God who loves sinners, and we know it’s true, because he loves us. This is the message we have been sent to tell. Thanks be to God. Amen.
— Copyright 2005, Steven Molin. Used by permission.