5th Sunday after Pentecost [Pr. 8] July 1,2007 “Series C”
Grace be unto you and peace, from God our Father and from our Lord, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Let us pray: Dear Heavenly Father, we confess that we often try to adjust Jesus’ teachings and call to follow him to our life and expectations, when it is our lives that require change and transformation. Through the power of your Holy Spirit, help us to hear his Word with open hearts and minds, and grant us courage to follow him with greater faith and commitment. This we ask in Christ’s holy name. Amen.
On one of the web sites, to which I often submit my sermons, there are frequent advertisements describing various ways to spice up and improve our congregation’s experience of worship. These ads even suggest that if we use these products, they will not only enhance our worship, but have also proven to facilitate church growth – attracting more people to come to worship.
One of those items is a power-point machine, which projects the words of the lessons and hymns on a large screen so that we don’t have to follow bulletins. The key points of the sermon can be projected on the screen to enable the people to follow more closely. In addition, pictures of various scenes from the Holy Land, along with various artistic depictions of the events in the life of Jesus can be purchased so that the people can see what the sermon describes.
Unfortunately, on the two occasions in which I have worshiped where this device was employed, the huge screen on which all of this information was projected, became the focus of worship – rather than the pulpit, the altar, and the cross. And after the service had concluded, I left feeling that I had been entertained – but there was still a void.
Yet the truth is, some of the fastest growing congregations in the E.L.C.A. employ what is called Entertainment Evangelism. The concept behind this program suggests that what we really need to do if we want to be a growing congregation, is rather than investing in the new hymnal that has just been published, we should throw away our hymnals – especially the liturgy. The reason they give for this action is that most people simply don’t understand the liturgy, find it hard to follow and boring.
Secondly, the proponents of “Entertainment Evangelism” maintain that people living in today’s culture need and expect to be entertained. Why should they go to church and be bored, if they can spend time on the golf course, or go fishing, or sleep in on Sunday morning? Therefore they advocate that Sunday morning worship needs to be a really big show, if I might cop a line from the late Ed Sullivan.
Several years ago, Pastor Blair shared with me that he had attended a few Lutheran congregations using this concept while he and Betty were on vacation. The services were elaborately staged performances, utilizing bands and graphics and dancers and drama, etc. But he also noted that Scripture was not read, no sermon was preached, and communion seemed like a love feast, rather than a sacrament of God’s redeeming grace. “They may have had a lot of people in the nave,” Pastor Blair concluded, “but what happened to the church?” I have to agree.
In all honesty, adding numbers to the congregation’s membership role is not the same as evangelism. The word “evangelism” means to proclaim the Gospel, to bring people to faith and trust in the saving grace of God, revealed to us in Jesus the Christ. And when we lose that focus, we lose the core of our purpose as Christ’s disciples.
Of course, there are a couple of common sense things that we can do to enable a visitor to St. John’s to feel welcome. Simple things, such as warmly greeting them as the enter the narthex, asking them their name, introducing them to a few of the people nearby, and offering to sit with them to help them through the service offers a warm sign of hospitality. And following the service, introduce the visitor to the pastor, invite them to join you for coffee, take them on a tour of the building – all of which can let them know that we are open to have them share in our fellowship.
But this is not evangelism! It may be an outreach of our caring for others, and expression of openness, and a thanksgiving that others have chosen to join us in worship. And it may go a long way to encouraging visitors to return to worship with us again. But evangelism means proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus the Christ, to invite others to become our Lord’s disciple. And if I understand our Gospel lesson for this morning, that discipleship to which we are called and to invite others to join, does not sound much like entertainment.
According to our lesson, Jesus has set his face toward Jerusalem. In other words, Jesus will not be deterred from fulfilling his Father’s will. He is on his way to Jerusalem, where he will be mocked, beaten, and nailed to a Roman cross to die in atonement for our sins. He is resolute. He will not turn back. He is committed to give his life for our redemption.
And while he is on his way to Jerusalem, some people come up to him and say, “I’ll follow you wherever you go.” And Jesus turns to them and says, “You want to follow me? Let me tell you, I don’t even own a home. Even nature provides homes of security for the animals and birds. But I have nothing. And the life I have, I will give to God. Are you sure you want to follow me?”
To another, Jesus said, “Follow me.” This persons said that he would, but asked that he might first go and attend tot he burial of his father. After all, the commandments tell us to honor our father and mother. But Jesus responded, “Let the dead bury the dead. Follow me. Come and proclaim the kingdom of God. For I too will die, and bring new life to the dead.”
Still another person agreed to follow Jesus, on his road to the cross, to become his disciple, but asked if he might at least be allowed to let his family know where he was going, so that they wouldn’t worry. After all, family is important to any responsible person. But to this person Jesus responded, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God,” implying that to be our Lord’s disciple involved our total and undivided loyalty.
This sure doesn’t sound like entertainment evangelism to me. Even if we had a power-point projector and a big screen that covered the cross, I don’t think any of us would find this text entertaining. And yet, here we are, gathered on this beautiful Sunday morning, following the liturgy, the format for Christian worship that has existed for nearly two thousand years, seeking to commit ourselves to Jesus as his disciples.
The truth is, discipleship is not easy. Jesus is honest. The conflict, in discipleship, is not between choosing a self-evident good over a self-evident evil. The conflicts of discipleship are real because they are often conflicts between one set of good things and another.
Let’s give Jesus credit. He does not make the path of discipleship sound easier or less costly than it really is. Jesus is on his way to give his life in total surrender to the will of God, that we might, through his death, come to realize the forgiveness of our sins and our acceptance as a child of God. To follow Jesus, to become his disciple, means that we embrace the road he walked. It means that we surrender called to live our lives to according to the will of God.
I don’t find anything entertaining about Christ’s call to discipleship. Following Jesus is not always fun. Following Jesus is not always easy. Sometimes the choices he asks us to make are tough. Sometimes it is the choice between wanting to spend a quiet evening at home with your family, or going to visit a sick friend who has requested your prayers.
Sometimes we have been faithful to our Lord’s call. Sometimes we have not. Yet the good news is, God’s Spirit has led us to be here this morning for worship, to hear his word, and to examine and perhaps correct our lives as the Spirit leads us. For in the proclamation of God’s Word, and the celebration of the sacraments, God is present to us, to give us the courage to amend our lives and to know his forgiving grace. This, to me, is the meaning of worship.