For the Least of These or for the Exalted of Us?

 

Debbie Berg finish

Luke 14:1, 7-14 NRSV

During the three three years that I took a break from local church ministry, I had a taste of what some of you refer to as “the real world.” You might say that was pursuing the American dream, chasing the almighty dollar.

I worked in the development office for a small university which meant that my job was to raise money. I was continually seeking to locate and to build relationships with some of the wealthiest people in the area with the sole purpose of getting them to freely and enthusiastically open up their checkbooks.

And then some friends and started a small business, manufacturing and selling products to the electrical construction industry with the same exact purpose, trying to get some of the largest electrical distributors in the United States to write us some very large checks.

So, for three years, I traveled the country, by car, pickup truck and plane, on a continuous quest, searching high and low, scouring the landscape, and at all times, during an economic recession, looking for the next prospect, that next big donor, that next big customer, that new big account, all with the purpose of growing, advancing, and expanding an institution or a company.

And during those three years, driving many a mile, flying in many a plane, and speaking with many a person, I had the opportunity to talk with others about, and to reflect on, the current state of the local church, which, like our nation’s economy at the time, was in sort of a recession of its own.

It is news to no one that local church membership in North America has been in a state of perpetual decline for most, if not the entirety of my lifetime. These days, people just don’t seem to want to go to church anymore. Consequently, many churches have simply given up trying to grow, advance or expand. They are just trying to survive. Hold on. Maintain. Keep the piano tuned and lights on.

And during my travels, I also had some time to reflect on the current role of the pastor of a local church, at least the way that I had always approached the role; which, quite frankly, was very similar the way that I approached business in the so called “real world.”

As a pastor, I had often been on a constant search, scouring the landscape, at all times, during a church membership recession, looking for that next wealthy prospect, that next big giver, that next new member who will come into the church, open up their checkbooks to help pay for our programs, fund some needed renovations, finance a new roof, and perhaps most imporantly, support my salary.

“What did I hear you say?  A doctor has moved into your neighborhood? Well, give me her name and address and I’ll be sure to pay her a visit! We’ll give her and her family free meal tickets to Wednesday night suppers for a month!”

“You say, ‘An attorney has opened up a new practice in town?’ Well, I need drop by his office this right away! Invite him to the next Men’s Breakfast!  I wonder if he has any children. More children with well-to-do parents will help us attract even more children with their well-to-do parents.  After all, we need to keep growing, advancing and expanding! Well, to be honest, we need them just to maintain, keep our programs going, keep the utilities paid, keep the AC on and our doors open. And we have to keep searching, keep seeking, keep inviting, keep persuading, keep trying to find people, and not just any people, people with some means, people with some resources, folks with some wherewithal!”

But then we read Jesus, and we quickly learn that he does not care too much for our real-world way of growth, expansion, and advancement, especially when it comes to building the Kingdom of God.

Jesus says when you are sending out invitations, don’t send them to the well-to-do folks that can offer you something in return. Don’t invite your friends and your neighbors, you know, the folks who look like you, dress like you, think like you, and have the same if not more income as you. Instead, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind. Invite even those who can in no way pay to support the church’s budget and donate to the organ fund.

The holy wind of the Spirit is calling, says Jesus: “Invite, welcome, include and love those society considers to be the least among us: the unfortunate and underprivileged, the ostracized and outcast, the deprived, downtrodden and derelict, the poor and the pitiful. Greet, accept and receive the stranger. Quench the thirsty. Heal the broken. Feed the hungry. Protect the bullied. Care for the dying. Befriend the friendless. Forgive the wrongdoer. Love the sinner. Be the embodiment of my Holy Spirit in this broken world.”

I have told you before, and I still believe it today. People are not leaving the church because they are leaving Jesus. I believe the vast majority of people love Jesus and I believe sincerely would like to follow Jesus. The problem is that when they come to church, they simply do not find Jesus.

Where then can Jesus be found? When does Jesus appear in our churches?  One day a crowd of people asked Jesus, “When did we see you.” Jesus responded, “when you loved and cared for the least of these” (Matthew 25).

Jesus says that if you want people to see him, we must welcome, include, accept and minister to the least, to those who cannot offer us anything in return. I understand that this is very difficult to hear, especially in the midst of a membership recession.

“Forget about yourselves,” says Jesus, “Forget about self-preservation, forget about reaching folks that might be able to help us with our programs, balance our budget, pay our utilities and support salaries.”  And notice that he even says that we might have to wait to be rewarded, not in this life, but at the resurrection.” There may be nothing more difficult than hearing this. Except for maybe doing this!

But here’s the good news. I believe that there are people everywhere, some may be your friends, relatives or rich neighbors, who are still searching for a group of believers that not only hears these words of Jesus, but actually has the courage to act on them. They have all but given up on organized religion; however, they are still hoping that there is a church that exists somewhere in this broken world that looks and acts like Jesus.

If you are my friend on facebook…and if you are not, you should be. And and if you are not on facebook period, opening up a facebook right now is worth it, just to be my friend to see some the things that I have been posting lately regarding Ainsley’s Angels of America.

Ainsley’s Angels are groups of runners that includes children and adults with exceptional needs in 5k races, 10k races, or even in marathons all over the country. Welcoming and including and sharing joy with children and adults with exceptional needs is such a holy work; it is such a pure mission, such a selfless act; it’s such a Christ-like grace… that guess what? People everywhere are asking how they can be apart of this!

Listen to this, because I can’t make this stuff up. Through just a through a few posts on Facebook during the last two weeks, we have raised over two thousand dollars and recruited a team of dedicated Angel Runners. Everyday our numbers keep growing. Runners are calling. Walkers are calling. Even couch potatoes, who now, because of what they have seen on Facebook, want to be runners are calling. And of course, parents of children with special needs are calling.

We had a funeral here a few weeks ago. When the funeral director saw the chairs designed to include children with exceptional needs we had displayed in our gathering area, he walked into my office and handed me a check for $500.

I didn’t call the Enid Civitan Club. They called me. They didn’t ask me to come and be the program for them. I am not sure if they even saw the chairs in our gathering area. But they called to say they wanted to donate $1,000.

And people are calling me asking me to be their programs. During the next month I have been asked to speak at 2 Ambuc clubs, the Kiwanis Club, and even the Corvette Club. And I didn’t ask to speak at any of those clubs.

With support like this, do you know what I think? I think I could start a church!

Simply because I am involved in something that looks like Jesus: Reaching out to, welcoming, including, sharing joy with, those society considers to be the least among us.

And everywhere church people are asking, “Why does it seem that people just don’t want to go to church anymore?”

However, have you ever thought that maybe people not going to church is actually a good thing!

Because maybe church is not some place to which we are supposed to go. Maybe church is something we are supposed to be.

So, instead of inviting others to go to church, perhaps we should be inviting them to be the church, saying: “Join us to be the embodiment of Jesus Christ in this broken world with a burning passion for the disabled and the powerless, for the left out and the left behind, for the poor and the bullied. Come and join us to be the body of Christ as we humbly seek to care more about ‘the least of these,’ and care less about ‘the exalted of us’. Go and be something and do something that is truly holy, pure and selfless.”

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