Rev. Tom Sorenson, Pastor
September 8, 2002
Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
Our culture has a hang-up on size. For us, size does matter. Except perhaps in the world of some consumer electronics (where things keep getting smaller and smaller. I think soon cell phones will be so small youíll have to have miniature hands to operate them), for us Americans bigger is better. Detroit keeps building bigger and bigger SUVs; and we keep buying them despite the fact that they wonít fit in a parking space (or even in the garage) and they never saw a gas station they didnít love. Everyone wants the biggest big screen TV that will fit in the house, or maybe theyíll even remodel the family room to make a bigger one fit. Big chain stores drive out small local businesses. We equate success with size--more people, more money, bigger buildings, bigger vehicles. Yes, to us Americans, size matters.
Our culture sees churches the same way. Ask most people which churches are most "successful" these days, and most people will tell you it is the conservative, evangelical churches, especially the community mega-churches that have gotten so much press attention in the last several years. I can tell you from experience that even church people in mainline denominations like ours tend to apply secular standards of success to churches. Thus, a successful church is seen as one that is growing in size, the faster the better. I know of UCC pastors who seem to see their job as being exclusively, or nearly exclusively, to bring new people into the church. One day, I Sunday not too long ago in a UCC church with someone the pastor of that church knows to be a longtime member. When I was with this person, the pastor paid no attention to me. Then, the person I was with went into the restroom, and this pastor saw me standing in the narthex by myself. All of a sudden youíd think he had discovered a long lost friend. Clearly, when he saw me apart from his longtime member, he didnít remember me being with this other person; and he obviously thought I was a prospective new recruit. Youíve never seen such glad-handing in your life. My friend tells me heís always that way. He pays little attention to his faithful regular members and gives all of his attention to any newcomer he spots in the crowd.
Now, obviously thereís nothing wrong with a pastor warmly greeting newcomers. I hope that I do it myself. I try. The problem is that this pastorís passion for growth has gotten in the way of his performing his primary pastoral duty, namely, caring for the people of his church, the people who are already there. His passion for growth is getting in the way of his being faithful. Seeing ecclesiastical success in secular terms, that is, in terms solely of numbers, gets in the way of the church being faithful to its true calling.
It wasnít always that way. The earliest Christian churches were very, very small groups of people. They were house churches. They didnít consist of more people than could meet in the living room of a single house. When we see in Scripture Paulís letters to the church in Rome, or Corinth, or Ephesus, that is, to the churches of the great cities of the Roman Empire, most of us, I suspect, picture in our minds large groups of people who are a major force in their societies that were attracting new converts at a rapid pace. Nothing could be further from the truth. In a recent book, Professor Rodney Stark, a sociologist at the University of Washington who writes church history using the tools of contemporary social science, has estimated that at the end of the first century CE there probably were no more than something like 2,000 Christians in the Roman Empire. If that estimate is close to correct, no one of the churches could have had more than a couple dozen people. By first century standards, we are a big church!
And look at what those little communities of Christian people did. They produced one of the greatest bodies of religious literature the world has ever known, the Christian Scriptures. They kept alive the story of Jesus and the Gospel of Jesus Christ in the face of implacable hostility from the Jewish faith from which Christianity sprang and the Hellenistic culture through which it spread. They not only kept them alive; they spread the new faith throughout the breadth of the Roman Empire, reaching even the great city, the seat of Empire, itself. And in the end they conquered the greatest empire the world had ever known. They defeated Paganism not with the sword but with the Word, not by force of arms but by the force of the Holy Spirit.
Christian Scripture has many references to this idea of the power of a small group of faithful people. We all know Jesusí statement, at Matthew 5:13, that "you are the salt of the earth." But just what does that mean? Well, think of it this way. Youíve made a big pot of stew. Youíve cut up the meat and browned it. Youíve cut up a rich harvest of vegetables--potatoes, carrots, celery, onions. Maybe youíve added other things as well--peas, parsnips, in short, any good thing you could find to add flavor and character to your stew. Maybe youíve even added some spices: bay leaf or rosemary or, or whatever else strikes your fancy. Youíve simmered the stew for hours. Yet when you taste it, somethingís missing. Itís a little bit flat. Itís not bad, but it isnít what it could be. So you add just a little bit of salt. Compared to the bulk of the other ingredients the amount of salt is insignificant--a tiny little bit, a couple of pinches of little white crystals. They dissolve. Youíve canít even see them any more. Yet they transform the stew. They bring the flavors of the other ingredients alive. They complete the masterpiece. In size the salt was insignificant. In effect, it is irreplaceable. Thatís the way small groups of faithful people can be in a society.
Then thereís our Gospel reading this morning. Itís mostly about procedures in the early church for dealing with a wayward member. On the one hand, it is a caution against any one person presuming to correct another member. But it ends with one of the greatest and most famous lines in Scripture: "Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them." Two or three, not two or three thousand or even two or three hundred. Just two or three. A tiny group. Two are enough. It doesnít take size. It only takes faith.
But you see, there is a requirement here that is different from a requirement of size. If two of us gather in our own name, to do our own will, to act by and for ourselves, Jesus isnít there. The Holy Spirit is not there to help us. But if we gather in Jesusí name, that is, for the purpose of trying to be faithful disciples of our Lord Jesus Christ, then He is there. The Holy Spirit is there with us. Now, the Spirit may be present where two or three thousand are gathered. Who am I to say that isnít possible? The Good News for small churches like our, however, is that it doesnít take two or three thousand. It only takes two or three. We have a lot more than two or three, so think of how much we can do!
And we are doing it. We are being a faithful Christian community. Look around at all the things we do. We are a worshipping community. Thatís the main thing. One of the great things about small churches is that nearly everyone participates in worship. Look at how many of us it takes to do our worship service and fellowship on Sunday morning. One of us opens, puts out our sign, and starts the coffee. This same person, Ken, is also usually the last one here, cleaning up after the rest of us are gone. Some of us are greeters and ushers. One of us acts as lay leader. Several of us sing in the choir, and one of us leads the music and plays the piano and organ. Some take the collection. Some of you engage in the ministry of hospitality by hosting the coffee hour. Some bring flowers. On Communion Sundays some of you prepare the elements and with others serve them. One of us even takes a stab at preaching. The word "liturgy" literally means "the work of the people." Here, at our church, it truly is.
We are busy on other days as well. Our bazaar is a local institution. Our menís and womenís fellowships are active and faithful. We are forging new mission links with a local church that serves low income Latino people in our community. We host various community groups, including the Monroe Co-op Preschool and the Evergreen Community Choir. Iím sure Iíve left many things out. My point is, we are doing a good job. Pride may be a sin, but we can take some significant satisfaction in the work we are doing.
Next Wednesday evening we will do something else that I think says a lot about us and about how we are and can be salt for this community. That evening, September 11, we will do a service of prayer and remembrance to mark the anniversary of the terrible events that happened on that date last year. So what, you may ask. After all, thereís a big community event happening at the same time at the high school organized largely by a local pastorsí group., so why, you may ask, are we doing our own little service? Well, I think its because of who we are, and it shows who we can be in this town. I donít mean to denigrate anyoneís motives. The fact remains, however, that although the big community gathering was put together primarily by group of local pastors, its theme is patriotic rather than Christian. It is a celebration of societyís values. Those values arenít all bad, but they arenít often expressly Christian. And a community service held at a public school can not be specifically Christian. It is far more likely to be something like a pep rally for our nation than a Christian service of prayer for Godís presence with all who suffer and for peace for the entire world. Thatís why I though we needed to do our own service, and I think it is why you accepted that suggestion.
Our September 11 service is a very clear example of how we can offer an alternative to this community, an alternative to religion in the service of secular values, an alternative to a kind of Christianity that tends to identify Godís will with the national interests of the United States. We need to build on this example. We need to define ourselves even more clearly as an alternative to the prevailing views and attitudes of our society. We need to be a beacon in this land, standing brightly for peace and justice, daring to take unpopular stands because they are faithful stands, daring to welcome those whom the church has always rejected, daring to call our nation to ways of peace and justice for all the worldís people and not merely for us.
And we have one great advantage as we dare to be this beacon. Weíre small. We are two or three dozen gathered in the name of Christ, and we know that Christ is with us. We are small enough that we can go in Christís way without fear of how the established powers of society will react. We are small enough that we can attract new people who share our vision of a just and peaceful world for all. Not hundreds of people perhaps. We donít need hundreds of people. If we attracted that many, it would surely change who we are in ways we wouldnít like and that would make it more difficult for us to be faithful, not easier. No, we need to attract not hundreds but maybe two or three dozen more. Thatís all. If each one of us would bring just one person into the congregation, weíd be set. Itís a challenge, sure. But we can do it. We can do it because weíre small enough to be faithful. We can redefine what it means to be faithful. Size doesnít matter. Faithful witness to Christís Gospel of peace and justice for all does. Thanks be to God. Amen.