Sunday, March 20, 2016

March 20, 2016
Palm Sunday
(Sermon III of a series of IV)
A Colorado pastor tells of being in a grocery store one day and encountering a woman she hadn’t seen in a long time. “It was awkward for both of us,” the pastor said, “as she had suddenly stopped attending church and we never learned exactly why.” 

After the two exchanged pleasantries, the pastor said, “We miss you. Is there anything that our church can do for you?”

The woman replied, “Yes, there is. You could stop asking for money all the time.”

The pastor doesn’t indicate how she answered that woman. Perhaps the woman’s response caught her by surprise and the pastor didn’t have time to organize a reply. But she continued to think about it, and she eventually presented her response in the form of a sermon to her congregation. She started by acknowledging that the church is always asking for money, but she went on unapologetically to defend that practice by enumerating all the ministries and missions churches engage in. 

The pastor acknowledged that some people grow weary of being asked to give but said that perhaps they would prefer the sort of church she’d read about recently where the members aren’t asked for money. Instead, they take turns doing everything in the church, including cleaning the building, providing the music, preparing the bulletin, doing the preaching and teaching, and spending a year each on the mission field (because they have no money to give to missions). In winter, they dress very warmly for worship because they don’t run the furnace. They offer no child care, no children’s church and no youth ministry. The pastor concluded that example by saying, “A church that needs no money wouldn’t be much of a church at all. I’m glad to be part of a church that always needs money. It means we’re doing something, going somewhere, making a difference.”

The pastor made some additional worthy points in her sermon and then concluded by saying, “It’s a good thing the church is asking for money. What kind of church would the church be if it wasn’t always reaching out to help others in need? And the local church is unarguably the best place to open our pocketbooks.”

It was a good sermon and a good response to the complaint that the church is always asking for money. We should recognize, however, that it isn’t the whole response. The argument that the church should be asking for money because of all the good stuff it does has merit, but any worthy charity can make that case. The church isn’t simply a charity with a religious sheen on it. Christians aren’t simply do-gooders who also pray. 

In fact, doing good for others, often expressed biblically as “love your neighbor as yourself,” is the second of the two great summary commandments Jesus spoke. The first of them is “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37). For Christians, giving out of what we have has as much to do with the first great commandment as with the second one.

To say it another way, we should give not only to do good for others but also because it’s necessary for our own spiritual well-being. It’s part of the way we love God with all our heart, soul and mind.h

The apostle Paul gets at that in the first letter to Timothy, when he addresses the negative impact money can have on our souls. In our reading, Paul speaks of the gain that comes to us “in godliness combined with contentment” and goes on to mention the basics — food and clothing — as sufficient. But then he warns about the dangers that the desire to be rich can bring, stating, “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains” (1 Timothy 6:10).

Paul next addresses Timothy specifically, calling him “man of God” (which is an ancient title for a prophet). Paul tells him to “shun all this.” In other words, some threats to our spiritual health — including the love of money — are so subtle and so powerful that the best way to deal with them is to stay away from them.

Obviously, we live in a world that runs on money. We cannot have a decent existence without money, and Paul is well aware of that. But he also recognizes that the lure of money and the acquisition of possessions it makes possible are so dangerous to our souls that we have to defang them. And one of the best ways to do that is by opening our hands and giving some of it away.

Thus, further on in the same chapter, Paul addresses Christians “who in the present age are rich.” He tells them not to allow their wealth to make them “haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches.” Rather, Paul says, they should set their hope “on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.” And lest they miss the point, he spells it out: “They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life.” 

Notice he doesn’t say they should be generous and ready to share because that’s good for others, though no doubt Paul would agree with that. No, he says they should be “rich in good works, generous, and ready to share” because by so doing they “take hold of the life that really is life.” They should be generous because it’s one of the things that makes them, the givers, spiritually healthy.

In 2001, popular author Stephen King gave the commencement address at Vassar College. Though King is known for horror fiction, many readers have noticed explicitly Christian themes in his novels, and he has even acknowledged that in interviews. In any case, in the Vassar speech, he made some statements that mirror something Paul said in this letter to Timothy: “[F]or we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it.” 

While walking down the road one day in 1999, King was struck and severely injured by a minivan. In the speech, he referred to both his accident and to the earning potential of the graduates, saying: 

Well, I’ll tell you one thing you’re not going to do, and that’s take it with you. I’m worth I don’t exactly know how many millions of dollars ... and a couple of years ago I found out what “you can’t take it with you” means. I found out while I was lying in the ditch at the side of a country road, covered with mud and blood and with the tibia of my right leg poking out the side of my jeans .... I had a MasterCard in my wallet, but when you’re lying in the ditch with broken glass in your hair, no one accepts MasterCard. ... We all know that life is ephemeral, but on that particular day and in the months that followed, I got a painful but extremely valuable look at life’s simple backstage truths: We come in naked and broke. We may be dressed when we go out, but we’re just as broke. ... And how long in between? ... Just the blink of an eye.

King went on to discuss what the graduates could do with their earnings in the time they had in that eye-blink: 

... for a short period ... you and your contemporaries will wield enormous power: the power of the economy, the power of the hugest military-industrial complex in the history of the world, the power of the American society you will create in your own image. That’s your time, your moment. Don’t miss it. 

But then he added

Of all the power which will shortly come into your hands ... the greatest is undoubtedly the power of compassion, the ability to give. We have enormous resources in this country — resources you yourselves will soon command — but they are only yours on loan. ... I came here to talk about charity, and I want you to think about it on a large scale. Should you give away what you have? Of course you should. I want you to consider making your lives one long gift to others, and why not? ... All you want to get at the getting place ... none of that is real. All that lasts is what you pass on. The rest is smoke and mirrors.

Finally, King mentioned a specific local charity called Dutchess Outreach, which helps the hungry, the sick and the homeless. He said he was making a $20,000 contribution to it and challenged audience members to do the same. And here’s one more thing he said: 

Giving isn’t about the receiver or the gift but the giver. It’s for the giver. One doesn’t open one’s wallet to improve the world, although it’s nice when that happens; one does it to improve one’s self. I give because it’s the only concrete way I have of saying that I’m glad to be alive and that I can earn my daily bread doing what I love. ... Giving is a way of taking the focus off the money we make and putting it back where it belongs — on the lives we lead, the families we raise, the communities which nurture us.

I would say that was a good sermon

Devotional writer Evelyn Underhill would likely have agreed with King. I am currently reading a Lenten devotional that is a collage of some of her writings and she once said that the saints she knew personally were so generous that they were often unable to keep anything for themselves. Some Christians have taken this to the point of vows of poverty. Such vows clearly aren’t possible for most of us, but that increases our spiritual need not to hold onto wealth too tightly.

In the church, we often refer to certain practices as important for our growth in the Spirit. They include prayer, Bible study, confession of sins, worship, submission, service and others, and we sometimes refer to them as “spiritual disciplines.” The disciplines help us avoid superficiality in our faith, which Richard J. Foster, who has written a book on the disciplines, calls “the curse of our age,” adding “the doctrine of instant satisfaction is a primary spiritual problem.” He explains that the spiritual disciplines “call us to move beyond surface living into the depths. They invite us to explore the inner caverns of the spiritual realm.”

Generosity is also a spiritual discipline, which means it’s one practice that helps us avoid superficiality in our faith. In fact, someone has said that when we present the offering plates at the altar after the collection has been taken, the gist of our offertory prayer should be, “No matter what else we say or do here this morning, O Lord, this tells you what we really think of you.”

So yes, the church is always asking for money. But it’s also always asking you to pray, read the Bible, confess your sins, do good deeds and attend worship. All those things are good for our souls and help us go deeper into our faith. 

Thus, one blessing of attending church is that it provides us with an opportunity to give generously, for our own good.
Sermon’s done, now for a tiny bit of catechism. You will notice a couple of statements made by the priest at the Mass in regard to offerings. Obviously, in the early part of my sermon you heard of the many things that your offerings go to. Cleaning, keeping the lights on, etc. However, as Catholics, it is a teensy weensy more than that. 
Immediately after the collection, you notice that prayer is said with the offerings at the altar: “for all things come of thee, and of thine own have we given thee.” This is from the Scriptures, I Chronicles 29:14. Does God need our money? No. He’s omnipotent and can do all things and has not need of it. But, God does call us to do His work on earth and spread the Good News. That said, we offer to Him a small portion as our participation in this, to continue His work on the earth in the form of the Church.
Later in Mass, you here the priest say to you: “Pray brothers and sisters, that my sacrifice and yours may be acceptable to God the Father Almighty.” Once again we acknowledge the gifts and tithes, but this time in the form of bread and wine. This bread and wine we offer to God almighty sthat He may miraculously turn these elements into the Body and Blood of our Lord, Jesus Christ. 
Because we, as Catholics, believe in this miracle and the necessity to partake of the Body and Blood of Christ, our offerings take on an additional meaning, for said offerings purchase the required items for the Eucharist each Sunday. And so, we offer our gifts up to God twice; once as general offerings and again later as His Son in the form He will take in appearance as that of bread and wine. Since the Eucharist is of extreme importance to Catholics, as it brings our Lord truly present each Sunday, our offerings become especially important.
Stay tuned next for our fourth, and final, installment of Why Church?: 

March 27 (Easter Sunday): Why Church? Reason 4: Mentors
Let us pray.
Father God, help us to always remember that when we give to the Church, we are giving to You in order to carry out Your continued ministry here on earth. Help each of us to consider and understand all the many aspects that go into the operation of Your  physical ministry.
Dear Lord, we ask You to help us to be grateful givers of our time and resources. As the adage goes, help us to not give until it hurts; but give until it feels good. Help us to see that often times we spend more on our hobbies and prideful things than we give back to You, so that we can see that what we give to the Church does not seem so large after all, but still helps in great ways. Through Christ our Lord. Amen 
God Love You +
The Most Rev. Robert Winzens
Pastor – St. Francis Universal Catholic Church
San Diego, Ca.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

March 13, 2016
The Fifth Sunday in Lent
Passion Sunday

It’s probably the single biggest reason people say they don’t go to church. In fact, according to UnChristian, a book based on surveys done by the Barna Research Group, among people with no religious affiliation in the 16- to 29-year-old bracket, 85 percent say one reason they don’t go to church is because Christians are hypocritical. So, we shall talk about “real people” as my second in a series of why we should attend church. 

And it’s such an easy dodge. One word: hypocrisy.

Someone has suggested the best response might be, “There’s always room for one more.” That probably won’t change anyone’s mind, but, of course, there’s a kind of truth to what they’re claiming. If you’re looking for a group of people who always live up to their highest values and who never say one thing and do another, you’ll need to look elsewhere — though we doubt you’ll find a group of any sort totally free of inconsistency anywhere – at least on this planet.

But although it can be a healthy thing to acknowledge the contradictions between our profession of faith and our daily actions, it’s also useful to qualify our confession a bit.

In the New Testament, the only time Jesus hurled the charge of hypocrisy was when people were doing something deliberately to appear outwardly different from what they were inwardly. For example, he spoke about people who gave to charity “so that they may be praised by others” (Matthew 6:2). Further, he spoke against those who “love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others” (v. 5). He also scolded the scribes and Pharisees for putting on appearances, saying, “For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth” (Matthew 23:27). Jesus called all of those people hypocrites, and the Greek word that’s translated “hypocrite” actually means “actor” or “stage player.”
In today’s Gospel, he essentially gives the Scribes and Pharisees an option – Be your typical hypocritical selves or walk away. They chose, for once, the best course and walked away.

However, let’s be fair, how many church attendees do you suppose get up on Sunday morning and think, “I’m going to go to church so I can pretend to be righteous and appear to be holy”? Doubtfully many.

No, when we church people admit to being hypocrites, we aren’t usually confessing to playacting. More often, we mean that we failed to follow through on our good intentions or that we can still see the gap between the people we feel called to be and the people we actually are. But we aren’t trying to deceive anybody; we’re seeing where we still need to work to bring our behavior up to the level of what we really believe.

To get some perspective on this, there was a recent pole for Homiletics magazine, of all whom are involved in ministry in one way or another, to ask when they’d heard the complaint that Christians are hypocritical. 

The results were revealing. While they’d all heard the hypocrisy charge from people outside the church, they had almost never heard anybody who was leaving a congregation say they were doing so because of hypocrites. More often, those folks explained their decision to depart in terms of what they perceived as somebody’s failing: The congregation was too insensitive or didn’t have enough activities for kids, the theology was different from their own, the sermons were boring, they didn’t like the new pastor (or his/her sexual orientation) or they had a small issue that was never addressed, which, after a lengthy period of festering, had become an irreparable riff. 

One told of losing a member because he was disappointed that the pastor hadn’t attended a family member’s wake. The pastor also had someone leave because of not feeling “fed” by the sermons, but hadn’t had even one person say he or she was leaving because of hypocrisy in the church. 

After everyone had responded, one team member wrote, “The perception of the nonaffiliated [about hypocrisy in the church] makes me think that it may fall mainly into the category of ecclesial myth, which is not to say it isn’t a real perception but that perceptions aren’t necessarily the same as realities.”

It appears, then, that when somebody is outside the church and has no intention of coming in, it’s easy for him or her to say it’s because of hypocrisy in the church. And because there are some gaps between our best intentions and our follow-through, the person can no doubt find an example of inconsistency in the behavior of a Christian. But church insiders are more likely to see those gaps differently.

In other words, if you really get involved with members of a congregation, you are less likely to see problems in the church in terms of hypocrisy and more in terms of human failure. And when you’re talking about human failure, it’s easier to include yourself in that category. In fact, many people stay in the church because, though they recognize imperfections among both fellow attendees and themselves, they also see it’s a place where we’re called higher. And if you pay attention in church, you’ll often see people who are working very hard to follow Jesus faithfully.

Thus, one good reason to come to church is because it puts us in company with other people who also see that gap between their profession and practice, and care enough to want to narrow it. In church, we find people who aren’t that different from ourselves and who are on faith journeys similar to ours.

Of course, the church has its share of wing nuts and disordered personalities here and there and even realhypocrites. But those terms don’t describe the general population of the church. For most of the people we meet at church, a description Jesus gave is more on point.

Luke 16 includes Jesus’ parable of the dishonest manager, a guy who’s such an outright rascal that we would never point to him as a model churchgoer. We can’t call him a hypocrite because he isn’t playacting at anything, and he doesn’t appear worried that he isn’t living up to a call from God. He’s simply looking out for his own hide, and he’s quite straightforward about it. Still, his employer, whom the manager is cheating out of expected income, can’t help but be impressed by the manager’s resourcefulness. We can imagine the employer speaking to a friend about the incident, saying, “That guy cost me a bundle, but you’ve got to hand it to him for his shrewdness. If only he’d put that kind of effort into the work I hired him for.” Yes, we can admire his cleverness, but we don’t go to church hoping to find people like him as Christian models.

As Jesus draws out the implications of that parable, he says, “Whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much.” Clear enough. That fits the manager in the parable, so part of the point is “Don’t be like him.” But Jesus also states the application positively: “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much,” and in those words is the description of most of the people we actually meet in church — people who are working hard at being consistent in their approach to both minor and major matters. Sure, even the most sincere Christians don’t always hit that mark; but many of us don’t. Nonetheless, it is good for our souls to be among people who keep striving to be faithful disciples of Jesus Christ. 

• It is good for our souls to be among people who accept responsibilities in the church — sometimes thankless and difficult ones — and show up week after week to fulfill them. 

• It is good for our souls to be among people who quietly go about their business on the days between church services and do their best to be faithful, honest and caring, whatever their duties are. 

• It is good for our souls to be among people who respond with unwarranted kindness to someone in need who unexpectedly happens across their path. 

Here’s an example. It’s a true story, but we’ll allow the pastor who tells it to remain unnamed: 

I stopped at the local library one day to pick up a book I wanted. Afterward, as I was driving out of the parking lot, a filthy, scraggly man in ragged clothes pushing a shopping cart filled with what looked to be nothing but junk shambled across the lot exit. As I waited for him to complete his passage, the front wheels of his cart caught on a crack in the pavement and tipped over. I heard some glass shatter as the contents spilled out. This mishap occurred right in the middle of the exit, so there was no way I could get out of the lot until the man picked up his stuff and moved on. But clearly, that wasn’t going to happen quickly because he seemed to be in a kind of daze and was moving as if he didn’t quite know what to do. So I sat there in my car, drumming my fingers impatiently on the steering wheel, getting more annoyed by the second.

Just then, however, the young woman who was in a car behind me got out and walked past my car to where the man was. In sharp contrast to him, she was nicely dressed, well-groomed and appeared to be in full command of her faculties. I wasn’t close enough to tell, but I was pretty certain she smelled a whole lot better than he did, too.

As I watched, she bent down and began helping this poor man put his items back into his cart, and she continued until everything was loaded. She then helped him get his cart past the crack in the pavement, and he resumed his shuffle down the street.

I have to tell you that never in my life have I felt more like the Levite and the priest who passed by on the other side while the Good Samaritan, in the form of this young woman, helped the downtrodden guy at the roadside. And here’s the irony: The book I had come to the library to get was one I wanted to consult for a sermon I was working on. But in that parking lot, I saw a much better sermon played out in front of me.”

We don’t know if that young woman was a church person. But anyone seeing her being “faithful in a very little” could reasonably conclude she’s someone who can be trusted to be “faithful also in much.”

That example is more dramatic than most, but coming to church puts us in the company of some people who are working at being as faithful in little things as they are being faithful in big ones. And that can inspire us to continue working at that as well.

If being faithful in a little thing can have that kind of effect, consider what effect being faithful in a big thing can have. Consider the grandfather of one of the five Amish girls shot to death in their Pennsylvania schoolhouse in 2006 by a gunman, who also seriously wounded five other girls. Standing next to the body of one of the victims, this grieving Christian turned to some Amish boys and said, “We must not think evil of this man.” There’s not a much bigger thing to be faithful about than forgiving the murderer of a loved one, so don’t you think that man can be trusted in little things, too?

In today’s Gospel, Jesus gave an example of not judging and for us to realize that we all fail to measure up in some way. In fact, in his application of the parable of the dishonest manager, Jesus gave us a good description of what the Christian life should be: working at being faithful in little things so we can also be faithful in big things.

Back in 1889, John Hunter, a Scottish Congregational pastor, penned a few lines about the gap between the Christian profession and practice, which he later published as a hymn. What’s encouraging about his treatment of the subject, however, is that it isn’t about a guilt trip but about continuing to follow the light of Jesus. His hymn is “Dear Jesus, in Whose Life I See”

Dear Jesus, in whose life I see 
all that I would, but fail to be, 
let thy clear light forever shine, 
to shame and guide this life of mine.

Though what I dream and what I do 
in all my weak days are always two, 
help me, oppressed by things undone, 
O thou whose deeds and dreams were one!

That’s what Jesus does for us, and we come to church to keep our eyes on that light. But in church, we also find people much like ourselves, in whom we see glimmers of that light as we work together at being faithful in things both small and great. Sometimes the light of Jesus shows so strongly through their actions that it both shames and guides us.
A church is not a house of hypocrites; it is a house of believers trying to live the Gospel message with others struggling to do the same; coming together to help each other do better. If we were all perfect, we wouldn’t need to be here.
Stay tuned next and the following week for

March 20 (Palm Sunday): Why Church? Reason 3: Money Matters

March 27 (Easter Sunday): Why Church? Reason 4: Mentors
Let us pray
Father God, help those who exclude themselves from attending church to see the church, not as a place of hypocrites, but a house of believers who struggle to be faithful to that which they profess. Draw them to You and Your Church by helping them to see the truth of the “real” Church and become a part of a system that supports each other.
Lord, we all know we fail to make the mark, but by Your mercy we can always be assured that we can still receive Your grace within our lives. Help us to not be hypocritical, but rather people who are on a journey to You in full repentance of what we know we should and what we really are. Let us each, with open arms, help our brothers and sisters in this journey toward a more perfect union with You. We ask this, through Christ our Lord. Amen.
God Love You +
+ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens
Pastor – St. Francis Universal Catholic Church
San Diego, Ca.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

March 6, 2016
The Fourth Sunday in Lent
Refreshment Sunday
For many of moons now, I have been asked by a few people why I do not post my sermons on Facebook anymore. The truthful answer: I simple have a horrible case of absent-mindedness every Sunday and forget. Or on some Sunday’s, I actually remember, but I didn’t like the sermon for that day, so I simply do not post it. That said, today I thought I would do a series. I have done them on a few rare occasions in the past, and thought now (if I can remember when I get home) I would start posting them again starting with this series. 
The topic is a tough one. For multiple reasons. First, when discussing this topic in front of a congregation, one assumes those in the pews are regular attendees, and thus this topic is not “intended” for them. This would be partially true, but given all members make up what is called “Church”, those in attendance benefit from this message to help them help others make it to church. I also preface this by also saying, that it is not meant as a slight toward those who have jobs that keep them away.
Anyway, let’s see if I can keep this interesting for four weeks.
An old cartoon from the pen of Joe McKeever shows a lakefront shop named Anglin’ Sam’s that rents rowboats labeled “Little Green Chapels.” Out front, Anglin’ Sam himself is holding one of his green rowboats upright, with its stern resting on the ground and its bow pointed toward the sky. In that position, the boat does look a bit like the arch of a chapel, and Sam is explaining to a potential customer that the boats are “for those who prefer to do their worshiping on the lake.” 

The cartoon, of course, is a potshot at the explanations people sometimes give for spending Sunday morning fishing, golfing, going out for a leisurely breakfast or even sleeping in instead of attending church. The heart of that argument is “I don’t need to go to church because I can worship God by myself.” (Translation: “Who needs to get up, get dressed, drive in, be harangued and then be asked to pay for the experience?”)

Pastors typically respond to such explanations as if they are excuses or rationalizations. We point out, for example, that while it’s true you can worship God alone, and a slim few do, most people who make that argument don’t actually spend their alone time worshiping. When they’re climbing a mountain, walking on a golf course, sitting by a stream or lazing home in bed, chances are pretty good they aren’t thinking about God at all. And even if they are, we pastors protest, that it isn’t quite the same.

We pastors like to remind the absentees that these other activities place fewer demands on them than does coming to church. No one will pass offering plates among Sunday morning golfers. No one will bother Sunday morning joggers with pesky questions about how they’ll address the world’s hunger problem. And no one will tell Sunday morning fishermen that they must repent and believe the gospel.

In fact, all those pastoral arguments about why you should attend church have validity. The problem is that they sometimes have an undertone of either desperation or ambition. We pastors have a vested interest in not only the survival of the churches we serve but also their growth, so we get worried when attendance drops off. In that case — and that is the case in many places across America today — our arguments about why people should attend church can sound self-serving.

Both worrying about survival and having the ambition to lead a growing congregation might make us sympathetic to the chaplain who accompanied a volunteer militia led by Benjamin Franklin back in 1756. To defend the Pennsylvania colony against Indian attacks, Franklin led his recruits in the building of a fort in the Blue Mountain region. Once established inside the wall, the chaplain — “a zealous Presbyterian,” as Franklin called him in his autobiography — complained that few of the men were showing up for his worship services. 

Franklin, ever the practical man, solved that problem by putting the chaplain in charge of the daily ration of rum. Franklin told the preacher, “It is, perhaps, below the dignity of your profession to act as steward of the rum, but if you were only to distribute it out after prayers, you would have them all about you.” 

The chaplain accepted that duty, and Franklin reports that thereafter, “never were prayers more generally and more punctually attended.”

That solved the attendance problem, but we might wonder just how much good those prayers did the soldiers under the circumstances. Although, I am quite willing to pass around shots of tequila if everyone thought it would work! 

While we certainly want our churches to flourish, such an incident reminds us that survival or growth of any particular outpost of the church — apart from greater spiritual concerns — shouldn’t be the primary goal of attendance and other involvement in congregational life. 

It’s better to remember that we all benefit from participation in church life. Community rules! Community rocks! A faith community provides instruction, support, feedback and accountability. It brings order to our lives. Attending worship is an important way of putting the events of our lives in helpful perspective. 

In support of the benefits argument, the pastor might trot out that hoary old illustration about the longtime church member who had always attended regularly but then suddenly stopped coming. After a few weeks, the pastor decided he’d better make a visit. He went to the man’s home and found him alone, sitting in front of a blazing fire. The parishioner invited the pastor in and directed him to a comfortable chair near the fire.

After an initial greeting, the two sat in silence, watching the roaring fire dance over the logs. Then the pastor took the fire tongs and picked up a brightly burning ember, which he then placed to one side of the hearth by itself. That lone ember’s flame began to flicker and eventually died. Soon it was a cold, gray coal, with no life or warmth whatsoever.

Then the pastor picked up that coal with the tongs, and placed it back into the middle of the fire. Within seconds, it began to glow, with light and warmth, ignited by the flames around it.

As the pastor rose to leave, the parishioner said, “Thank you for the sermon, Pastor. I’ll be back in church next Sunday.”

Who knows if that incident ever really happened, but the truth it presents is plain enough: Our individual faith gives off more light and warmth when kindred believers support it.

So we do church because it satisfies our need for community — and a faith community at that.

If pushing church attendance for the survival or growth of a congregation is a perspective from the pulpit, attending church because of the faith benefits it provides is a perspective from the pew. Yet neither reason takes into account the perspective of the One whom we worship when we do come.

Someone once asked a woman who faithfully attended church why she did so. Her only response was “because God said so.” 

For her, that settled it, but actually, it isn’t easy to make that argument from the Bible. Nowhere in Scripture does God say, “Go to church every Sunday.” Granted, the Bible has many texts in which God tells the Israelites to worship him. Consider these: 

• In 2 Kings 17:35-36, God says: “You shall not worship other gods or bow yourselves to them or serve them or sacrifice to them, but you shall worship the Lord, who brought you out of the land of Egypt with great power and with an outstretched arm; you shall bow yourselves to him, and to him you shall sacrifice.” But those verses are really talking about the ancient sacrificial system, which was something different from how we worship God in church. 

• In the fourth commandment, God said, “Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy,” but Sabbath-keeping is something larger than attendance at a public worship service. It is the devotion of a whole day every week to God and the life of the spirit. It includes lifestyle changes for that day and special family practices designed to remind one of one’s covenant with God. But the gospels document Jesus as one who sometimes broke the Sabbath rules, doing such things as healing people on that day. As he put it, “The Sabbath was made for humankind,and not humankind for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27).

• If we count Sunday as the Christian equivalent of the Jewish Sabbath, there are important examples in the Bible for us about attending worship. Luke tells us it was Jesus’ custom to go to the synagogue on the Sabbath day (Luke 4:16), and Acts reports that Paul had a similar custom (Acts 17:2).

• Some of the first members of the early church apparently worshiped daily. Acts reports, “Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple ... praising God ... ” (Acts 2:46-47). 

• The closest reference to a command to attend Christian worship comes not from God but from the writer to the Hebrews, who said, “And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another ... ” (Hebrews 10:24-25).

Taken together, all those things give us a biblical basis for attending church, but none quite in the way that woman put it with her “because God said so” response.

Yet she likely had it right. And maybe the best place to see that is from a text not usually thought of as referring to church attendance: Jesus’ parable of the lost sheep. The shepherd has 100 sheep, but when one wanders off, the shepherd leaves the 99 (presumably somewhere safe), and searches for the lost one until he finds it. And when he does, he brings it back to the flock and then asks his friends and neighbors to rejoice with him.

According to the text, Jesus told this parable in response to some Pharisees and scribes who were grumbling because Jesus was welcoming known sinners to listen to him. In fact, he was even eating with them. So in the parable, the shepherd can be viewed as a stand-in for Jesus. And what does he do when the sheep wanders off? He hunts it down and brings it back to the flock. 

While finding the sheep was of some benefit to the shepherd, it was of even more benefit to the sheep, which, had it stayed apart from the flock, probably would’ve become a mutton-chop dinner for a wolf or lion. 

Can we draw from this parable something of God’s perspective on our church attendance? Maybe the main reason to be present in the flock that is the church is simply because that’s the place to which the Divine Shepherd drags wandering sheep. 

In the parable, the shepherd does nothing for the sheep beyond bringing it back to the flock. Of course, the sheep is only an animal, so the shepherd cannot seek a commitment from the ovine creature that it will obey the shepherd henceforth and not wander off again.

But it’s a parable, and so if the wayward sheep represents sinners, there are human applications. Yet the only one Jesus makes is that the return of the sheep to the flock qualifies as “repentance of sorts. 

And maybe that’s the point. Although we can enumerate benefits to our faith from being in church, the main reason for being here isn’t for the benefits but because it’s where God wants us to be. Yes, shepherds do go out after strays, but most of the work shepherds do with sheep is while they’re in the flock, and most congregational flocks are nourishing locations where God can work with us.

We can talk about why we should attend church in terms of the church’s survival or of the benefits we receive from being there, but it’s enough to notice that when we wander off and Jesus comes looking for us, he will likely push us toward a flock, toward a community, toward a place of safety, sustenance and nurture.

And when we get there, there will be joy in heaven. “Just so, I tell you,” said Jesus, “there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.” 
Stay tuned next week and the two following for:

March 13 (Passion Sunday): Why Church? Reason 2: Real People

March 20 (Palm Sunday): Why Church? Reason 3: Money Matters

March 27 (Easter Sunday): Why Church? Reason 4: Mentors
Let us pray.
Father God, often times we know that we should attend church, but we find excuses to stay away and one of those popular excuses is that I can worship God anywhere. Problem is, often times we do not, and even when a few of us do, we miss Yourteaching of doing so in communion with everyone else You created. 
Dear Lord, You created us to be social creatures, not introverted Christians. There is much reason for worshipping in a community. We ask this morning that You help those who have stopped attending or never have attended, to come to an understanding that we should all worship in a faith community, not only because You said so, but because a faith community builds a family of faith to support one another throughout the walk of life much like sheep protect and help each other. 
Give courage and perseverance to those who do attend regularly to be like the good shepherd and help the pastor seek out those who are lost – those not attending – to find their way back, so as You can nourish them with Your Word, mercy and Eucharist. We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.
God Love You +
The Most Rev. Robert Winzens
Pastor – St. Francis Universal Catholic Church
San Diego, Ca.