Saturday, December 28, 2013

Service . . . Who Do We Serve? (Luke 16:1-13)

     Our story this morning is about what is important to us.  A business manager gets called on the carpet for not taking care of his boss’s wealth . . . in fact, he gets accused of squandering his boss’s possessions.  The result?  He gets warned that things had better changed or he is finished . . . done . . . fired!  Knowing himself well, the business manager realizes that he really cannot afford to lose his job . . . losing his job would be the worse thing that could happen to him . . . he’d starve to death out on the streets.  It is then that he decides that “something is better than nothing.”

     The business man decides that he would call in all those who owed his boss . . . connive a deal . . . and, then see what his boss thought then.  Of course the deal is based on “something is better than nothing”, and with that philosophy he begins cutting the debtors bills.  In this way he figures he would get something from the debtors to show his boss, and—in the same scheme, he would find favor with those who owed debts.  Basically he would come out looking like a good guy, find favor with those he has helped, and avoid starvation when he lost his job.

     Now, Jesus does not tell us whether or not the business manager lost his job, but he does tell us that the boss was impressed with the actions of his business manager.  The boss was not dumb . . . he knew that the business manager was only looking after himself . . . but, he was pleased that he got something back in return.  He commends his business manager . . . but, we honestly do not know whether or not he lost his job.  From there, Jesus basically talks about who people work for . . . for God or for something else.

     Yesterday, Lena, Peggy, and I attended the Fall Harvest gathering in Worden where the topic was hospitality.  It was an interesting time of learning, fellowship, and worship . . . lots of interesting conversation around the topic of what it means to be hospitable as a church.  For the most part, it was a good conversation about hospitality . . . yet, at the same time, I felt an underlying frustration throughout the conversation . . . something just did not sound right or feel right about this topic of hospitality.

     After an interesting bible study about hospitality it dawned on me that the whole dialogue centered on showing hospitality to those who come to our doors as congregations and churches.  Hospitality is our reaction to those who seek us out . . . that is what is expected from those of us who are the followers of Jesus . . . we are hospitable to those who come into our world . . . who come into our journey.  It is a “reaction” to that which is presented to us.  I doubt if there is anyone among us who would disagree with that understanding of hospitality.  Shoot, the church has been doing that for generations.

     My bone to pick with that understanding of hospitality is quite simple . . . this is not what Jesus asked us to do as his followers.  He did not tell us to sit back and wait for people to come to our doors wanting entrance; no, he told us to go out into the world, share the good news, and make disciples of those we encounter.  In the most general understanding of hospitality that most congregations embrace, the hospitality is not to serve others, but it is to serve the congregation.  Over and over again yesterday, I kept hearing the phrase about “entry level programs” to attract people into the church . . . bible studies, youth programs, child care programs, women’s and men’s groups, book studies . . . just about anything you could name to attract people to come and be a part of the congregation.  It is a model we have used for a long, long, long time . . . and, unfortunately, with very little success.  The numbers show that churches are not growing, they are slowly dying.

     With this model of hospitality the only person or organization or group that we are serving is ourselves.  Oh sure, we put a BandAid on the problem, but we do not solve the problem . . . we take care of ourselves and hope a little of it rubs off on the congregation or church.  That is exactly what the business manager does in the story that Jesus tells . . . he really does not care whether or not his boss recoups his losses.  He is only concerned with saving his own hide . . . he is looking out for himself.  Even the boss sees this . . . understand this . . . and, commends the business manager for his shrewdness of business.
     Is this what Jesus called his followers to?  Is this what we understand is the business we are to be going about for Jesus as a congregation?  Who is it that we are called to serve?

     This is one of the biggest issues that is confronting the church today in its decline . . . who is the church to serve?  It is one of the biggest reasons for the church’s decline . . . for too long we have focused on ourselves as a congregation and church in hopes that we can survive.  What we are learning is that this is the death sentence for any or all congregations or churches that embrace this understanding of hospitality.
     So who is it that we serve?

     Jesus summed it up quite simply when he told us that we are to love the Lord, our God, with our whole being . . . and, that we are to love our neighbor as we love ourselves.  God and others—that is who we are called to love and serve . . . to do God’s will as demonstrated by Jesus himself.  It does not begin with us, but with how we relate in life with others.  Hospitality is not about ourselves, but others.

     With this idea, then, we need to do some serious discernment about who we are as a congregation and a church.  First, we have to understand that the church is not a building . . . it is about the relationship between people . . . how we care for one another.  A church does not need a building—no matter how nice it might be—to be the body of Christ.  Jesus, himself, stated, that wherever two or three are gathered in his name, he was with them.  It is not about brick and mortar, but about relationships . . . meeting people where they are in the journey of life.  Until we can accept this fact . . . embrace this fact . . . nothing will ever change.  We will continue to die a slow death.  So it is that we need to broaden our understanding of what a church is . . . it is the people involved.

     Secondly, we need to change our understanding of what it means to be a participant in the life of the church.  What is it we say to something that we have not seen in worship on Sunday mornings—we missed you at church this week.  We missed you because you were not there to pass the litmus test of what we think “church” means . . . you weren’t in church when it counts.  That is a self-serving understanding of what it means to belong . . . The problem is that there are other things that go on in any church . . . there are fellowship groups, bible studies, play groups . . . and, on and on and on.  This is a numbers game that only serves the church.  It is self-serving.

     Church is not about numbers and to focus completely on what happens on Sunday mornings between 10:00AM and noon . . . well, it is wrong.  It is discouraging and a little snobbish to discount someone’s faith because he or she did not attend worship on Sunday morning.  What about that bible study they attended during the week?  Doesn’t that count for something!  I think so . . . . I think so because our health of any congregation does not depend upon a number for worship, but about relationships . . . relationships that are not found on Sunday morning in the sanctuary of the church, but in the daily living of life.
     Thirdly, hospitality is not for our benefit but for the benefit of those we encounter.  Hospitality is not about our comfort, but the comfort of those that we encounter.  It is not about us, but of the other.

     The business manager was only out for himself . . . he did not really care about those he was dealing with.  That was just a nice aside . . . primarily he was concerned with saving his own hide.  We are not about saving our own hides . . . we are about being the presence of Christ . . . the body of Jesus . . . in this world.  It is not about a building, not about numbers, and not about our survival.  It is about how we relate to others and God.

     So, who do we serve?  Amen.

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