Saturday, June 11, 2005

Pentecost 4 - Year A

Recently, Business Week ran a story on the phenomenon of megachurch marketing. Many religious commentators made a huge deal over the sheer size and scale of some of these churches. The biggest of them all: Lakewood Community Church in Houston, Texas pastored by Joel Osteen, expects weekend attendance to top over 100 000 souls by this July. According to the article, Osteen is laying out $90 million to transform the massive Compaq Center in downtown Houston -- former home of the NBA's Houston Rockets -- into a church that will seat 16,000, complete with a high-tech stage for his TV shows and Sunday School for 5,000 children.

The article goes on to say that the three biggest churches in North America are, right now, in the midst of building campaigns, with the total cost for three new facilities running almost a quarter of a billion US dollars. That’s a lot of money for three buildings. Of course, none of these churches are Lutheran so it’s easy for us to look down our noses at such excess.

But in the interest of full disclosure, I use many resources published by these megachurches. Many of these pastors have written books that I’ve found helpful in my ministry.

Having said that, after reading the Business Week article, I felt like I needed a shower. Church as Big Business. God for sale. Jesus as a marketable commodity. One pastor goes so far as to label worship at his church, “the product.”

But still, something inside me was a little envious. It’s easy to get caught up in the trap of worldly success. Most pastors dream of huge church packed to the rafters. Size equals strength.

The gospel doesn’t live in a vacuum. The gospel needs a vehicle, and the vehicle that these churches use is the consumer culture of the affluent suburbs. But I have to be honest, upon hearing testimonies of people whose lives have been transformed by the power of gospel through the ministry of these churches, people who testify of relationships healed, addictions brought under control, the lonely finding community, I have to say that God working powerfully through these ministries.

Yet, I also have to ask myself if they’re missing a second step. At what point do we use culture, and at what point do we challenge culture? If we distance ourselves too far from our culture we run the risk of becoming irrelevant, an island unto ourselves speaking a language no one can understand. But if we use too much of our culture, we risk losing our distinctiveness, our prophetic witness to the alternative way of living that Jesus call us to. Either way, the results will be the same; we will become irrelevant.

I wonder if we Lutherans can fall into the same traps set for us by the world that surrounds us. What makes us different from the rest of the world? Are we a “counter-culture” that lives in sharp distinction to the rest of the world as many of the theologians suggest, or is our faith merely an accessory to compliment our lifestyles? How do we live our faith that proclaims the good news we have received in Jesus Christ? Is our common witness to the life-altering, world-changing power of God evident in how we live our lives as a congregation? Do we use the resources that God has so graciously give us on ourselves or do we share abundantly with a world outside our doors, a world starving for grace?

Today’s gospel asks some of these same questions, although not explicitly, but underneath the surface. Jesus calls his twelve disciples and sends them out to do his work, giving them these instructions,

“Go…to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The Kingdom of God has come near.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment. Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff…”

Travel light, Jesus says. Take nothing with you but the power of God. Do the Kingdom’s work.

When Martin Luther made his pilgrimage to Rome he was disgusted by its excess, hedonism, and worldliness. He saw the worst of political maneuvering displayed among the people called to lead the church. He saw hordes of ecclesiastical flunkies building their own little empires instead of shepherding God’s people. He saw the universal church turned into a marketplace where money from his hard working parishioners went to extravagant palaces and ornate cathedrals. Luther wondered how these people could justify their bloated lifestyles when they say they follow poor man Jesus and confess to walk in the footsteps his apostles, the ones who walked dusty roads with nothing in their hands but the message of the Kingdom.

It was Luther’s experience in Rome that planted the seeds of the Reformation.

Luther knew the perils of power and the temptation of treasure. “For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but lose their souls?”

Today’s reading is a hard one. But I think its message is to haunt and challenge us. At least, that’s what it does for me. Sometimes I let my dreaming, my ambition, my hunger for influence and status in the world, distract me from where God wants me to be. I often get caught up in how my life will impact the world I forget how God’s world will impact my life. When I mark an achievement in my life, this text reminds me of how fleeting worldly success is. When I hear the siren call to worldly power and status, this text calls me to greater humility. When I am tempted to wonder if the grass is greener in another pasture, this text calls me to stronger commitment among the people I am called to serve.

I think, for us, as a family of faith, God is asking us ponder what it means to be people of God for these days. Gerald Daring from the St. Louis Center for Liturgy asks his people, "What difference does our practice of Christianity make in the lives of people? Are the suffering and dying comforted because we follow Christ? Are the hungry and homeless finding their lives improved because we follow Christ? Do children have a brighter future because we follow Christ?"

In many ways, we can answer “yes” to those questions. But we have room to grow.

Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd is a congregation of deeply committed and joyously faithful disciples of Jesus. There is much we can and should be proud of. But I’m always wondering where our next step should lead us. How can we build on the strengths we have so carefully nurtured? How can we be more effective witnesses to the Kingdom of God, the presence of the Risen Jesus alive in our world?

This work is not easy, perhaps because it is never finished. There will always be illness and suffering; a need for healing and forgiveness. There will always be poverty and pain; and the need for food and comfort. There will always be war and death, and the need for forgiveness and resurrection.

But because we have the courage to begin, we have been promised an abundant harvest.

May this be so among us. Amen


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