The Second Sunday of Lent
March 16, 2014
Our newborn daughter, Lydia, is now over three months old. I can’t hardly believe it. Maggie has now gone back to work part-time, and so on Tuesdays we have a babysitter come over to the house. Janet is her name. And Janet is awesome. See, when we first hired Janet, we thought she would just take care of Lydia. But we got so much more than we bargained for. Janet will cook us dinner. She will do the laundry. One day I came home, and Janet had scrubbed our bathtub. Janet is awesome.
And Janet wears a small cross around her neck. So one day I asked Janet where she goes to church. “Oh,” she said, “I really don’t go to church anymore.” Now, usually when somebody tells me that, I wait for some story about how the church scarred them or how the pastor they knew was some scoundrel or some other horror story. So I braced myself, and I asked her why she doesn’t go to church anymore. And her answered shocked me – she said, “We don’t go to church anymore because there were too many committee meetings.” Committees for this, committees for that. Her church even had a Committee to coordinate the committees.
And while we laugh about it, I find Janet’s story incredibly troubling. Here is the church, the Body of Christ, the visible sign of God’s action in the world, and they were spending their valuable time in committee meetings.
Think of what we’ve just read in the Gospel of John. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish, but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” That is what God is doing in the world. God’s spirit is active and alive, and intent on loving the world. The Son has come to us not to condemn us, but to save us. But rather than participating in God’s love for the world, the church is wrapped up in committee meetings, spending our time with one another rather than with the world that has chosen to love. I think what’s missing here is the full sense of what it means that God loves the world.
It doesn’t say, “for God so loved the individual who happens to be reading this right now.” It doesn’t say, “for God so loved the church.” It doesn’t say, “for God so loved everybody who does the right thing.” It says, “for God so loved the world.” The cosmos. So it’s not only you and me, and the Baptists down the street. God loves every person, every tree, every mosquito, every dinosaur, every distant galaxy. Of course, you’re included in that. Don’t ever forget that. It doesn’t say, “for God so loved the world as it was in the first century…or as it was in the sixteenth century…or as it was in the 1950s…or as it was in the 1980s.” For God so loved the world. And we are stoked that God loves us, but are we okay with God loving the world?
Historically, the church has not been willing to live with the consequences. We’ve burned heretics at the stake. Communities have split over whether the priest should face the wall or the people. And what’s worse, the church is usually in the news for the times when Christians stand up and condemn someone. Change the names and faces over the centuries, and the story is the same. God loves the world, God does not condemn the world, and we have not been willing to live with the consequences.
The church has been reluctant to love the world as God loves the world because loving requires risk. Look at Jesus. He loved the world so much that he was crucified for it. That is the image of love and risk right there. And we don’t like risk. Sure, we like a little bit of risk when it comes to our retirement portfolios. But rarely do we see churches take risks for the sake of Jesus. Rarely do we see churches bold enough to step out of their old habits, their old ways of doing things, and love the world.
You can see where I’m going here. Churches are afraid to love because love requires risk, and risk means that we have to change. Yep. I said it. The “c” word. We would probably rather talk about money than we would change. But here’s the reality, like it or not. The church has to change. We just have to. Think of that one time giant of American industry, Kodak. In 1976, Kodak held an 89% market share of the photography industry. It’s even entered our lexicon, the “Kodak moment.” Yet Kodak was unable to make the leap into the digital world. And what’s happened now? Well, Kodak filed for bankruptcy. They didn’t risk, they didn’t change. Or take the Rotary Club. I’ve gone to the Rotary Club once in my life. And what I saw was an image of a world that no longer exists. I saw the world in which churches gathered for committee meetings, rather than stepping out into the world and loving the world.
The church just has to change, and I know it’s scary. But in the next ten years, I imagine that there will be more home-based churches. More church communities will be formed that only meet in coffee shops or online. The emphasis of Sunday morning worship will change as people explore other ways to gather. Will God bless these endeavors? Of course, because God loves the world. And I sincerely believe that Holy Comforter and the Episcopal Church are perfectly suited to lead these efforts. We have our ancient traditions that we will not abandon, but we also have enough flexibility to partner with God in loving his world. I think Holy Comforter is already on the cutting edge of some of these changes, and I am incredibly proud of the work you are doing. Drive-Thru Ashes was part of this, that was meeting busy people where they are and sharing the love of God. We have an online Bible study that has, so far, been viewed 377 times. And think about it – as a congregation we are going to make some big changes, and totally re-envision our entire campus. We are taking risks. Because we want to be God’s partners in loving the world.
Look, I know these are high level changes we’re talking about. But I’ve got a little project for each of you. It’s a way to take a risk for God on a small-scale. And yes, it will change our church. I ask each of you to invite one person to church. To love one other person enough, to share God’s love with them. Now, just a few points. I’m not asking you to drag someone to church. You make the invitation, and let the Holy Spirit do the rest. Easy. Second, this is not about “making our church bigger.” This is loving someone else enough, that you would share the love of God with them. Will it make our church bigger? Maybe! Again, that’s the Holy Spirit’s work. But if God is out to love the world, are we going to stand on the sidelines, or are we actually going to get out there on the playing field?
Now, you might be nervous about asking someone to church. That’s fine, I understand that. But I have just come across two statistics that should be enlightening. First, out of a survey of people who do not attend church, three out of four said they would attend church, if only someone invited them. That’s not on them, that’s on us. The second statistic, and you might want to brace yourself for this one: the average Episcopalian invites someone to church once every thirty-seven years. So the bar is really low. I mean, really low. It’s not going to be hard to beat the average. And remember, we only do this becuase God loves the world. And as the world changes, we must always be adapting so that God’s message can be heard.
And that brings us back to Janet. Yes, I have invited her to Holy Comforter. How the Holy Spirit works on that is not my business. And I have not invited her because we need more people to be on more committees. No, we make these invitations, we take these risks, because “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish, but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”