Sermon; 4 Pentecost/Proper 9C; Luke 10:1-11, 16-20
“How big is your church?”
I get asked this question on a semi-regular basis. There are many reasons why people ask, some more valid than others. But it seems to me that the number one reason for asking that question has to do with a quick evaluation: how do you compare to my church; are you big enough to be taken seriously; and, do you have or offer the programs I want? All too often it's a numbers game with people assuming the bigger the church, the better it is. Or, if numbers don't match expectations, I/we must be doing something wrong.
But this isn't always necessarily the case. My former parish in Montana has about 40 people and they are incredibly vibrant and vital. Numbers don't tell the whole story. And with the numbers game comes the inevitable comparisons. WE had twelve baptisms last year. WE had twenty. WE put in a coffee bar. WE hired a new band. WE'VE had to expand the building twice. WE added three more services. And on and on and on.
When we play that game we begin playing with the sin of pride. We begin thinking these are things WE have accomplished. Or maybe we begin thinking that God loves us just that much more. And when we play that game, we also begin seeing church as just another commodity, or as a transaction to be made, where if we sell enough religious widgets, we will be successful.
But we are not merchants. We are not out to sell the most religious widgets in Hagerstown. We aren't traders, offering this for that. We are not here to build the biggest church in the area. We aren't here to wow people with coffee bars and bands. We aren't here to say, “Look what we did.”
Jesus reminds us of this when he sends out those seventy disciples on a mission to proclaim that the kingdom of God has come near. He reminds us of this when he instructs them to carry no purse and no bag. These seventy are heralds of the gospel, they are not merchants. They are not to engage in trade. This is not a business.
Like those seventy, and like the twelve before them, we are here to proclaim the gospel. This proclamation has nothing to do with our ASA. It has nothing to do with coffee bars, bands, or expansions. It has nothing to do with how many religious widgets we sell. Because none of that – bars, bands, or widgets – makes us stronger in discipleship. None of that deepens our roots.
Like those seventy, and like those twelve, we are here to proclaim the gospel. That proclamation, coincidentally, has everything to do with our mission statement: Worship, Welcome, Serve, and Encourage. None of these four points requires a financial transaction. We have no need for purse or bag. And in none of these four points is it about us.
Worship is not about us; it's about giving our best to God. We don't welcome people in an effort to get them to donate. We don't serve people to stroke our egos. We don't encourage people to be like us. We do these things to proclaim the gospel and help people draw nearer to God.
But when we do those things well, and when we do them with God as our anchor, things will happen. We may need to add more services. We may baptize more people. We may do more with our music program. We may, like those seventy, proclaim that we have done wonderful things and that even the demons submit to us.
And here we need to be on our guard. Notice that when the seventy returned to Jesus excited about the demons submitting to them, Jesus refocused them. Yes, you have power over the enemy, but don't rejoice in that; instead, rejoice that your names are written in heaven.
Triumphalism is inappropriate. Reveling in our own power and greatness, even when we claim it is done in the name of Jesus, sends us off the mark. Another gospel put it this way: “On that day many will say to me, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?' Then I will declare to them, 'I never knew you, go away from me, you evildoers'.”
Our joy is not to be found in the great deeds we did, but in the knowledge that we are brothers and sisters in Christ and members of the family of God.
We do not measure our worth by our ASA. We do not measure our worth by the number of building projects, additional services, or baptisms performed. We do not measure our worth by coffee bars or worship bands. For this we do not need purses or bags.
What we do need is a willingness to be sent out and proclaim the good news of the gospel. What we do need is a willingness to be called, “Apostles,” for it is the apostles who were sent. What we do need is a willingness to worship, welcome, serve, and encourage. Because it is in these acts where we learn about discipleship. And it is in these acts where we can most truthfully and joyfully proclaim the good news.
“How big is your church?” is the wrong question. What we should be asking is, “How deep are our discipleship roots?”