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.

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