September 8, 2019 - Rev. Michael Ralph
The Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Text: Luke 14:25-33
25 Now large crowds were traveling with him; and he turned and said to them, 26 “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. 27 Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. 28 For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? 29 Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, 30 saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’ 31 Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? 32 If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace. 33 So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.
I found myself amused this week by a photo that has been making the rounds on social media lately. It’s old picture, from the 1940s, of the church sign at St. Thomas Catholic Church, near Bardstown, Kentucky. The sign advertises a Satanic exorcism for the evening of August 7. But that’s not all... underneath that was yet another announcement. Apparently, St. Thomas was doing some fundraising around their Satanic exorcism because they also advertised all-you-can-eat fried chicken for just 50 cents. Evidently, you come for the exorcism... but you stay for the fried chicken. And that, my friends, is what is known as church marketing. Church marketing asks the question, “how do we best advertise this wonderful thing we have here... and get more people to come?” And make no mistake about it, church marketing is a multi-million-dollar business. Particularly in this era of declining church attendance, many churches are desperate to attract new members... new members with new money... just to help keep their doors open. So church marketing tries to appeal to a person’s sense of need in order to make the inside of the church a little
more appealing. Church marketing makes all kinds of promises in the hopes that if ten people come into a church to visit... maybe two or three will actually stick around... and then, presumably, sign a pledge card. And there are all kinds of ways to advertise for a church. Most churches can’t afford television ads but there is also radio, there is newsprint, there is the internet, and now there is social media. And you may have noticed how many churches these days love to use slogans that are short and pithy... in order to incur the interest of today’s consumer mentality. And here is a just a random sampling of church slogans I saw online this week. “A place for everyone.” “Living hope for real people.” “Biblically based... family oriented... dynamic fellowship.” “Transforming lives and building dreams.” And my own personal favorite... “Large enough to serve you... but small enough to really know.” Now I ask you... how could anyone resist such a powerfully seductive pitch?
So is that the key to being the church in the 21st century? To try to appeal to people on a very emotive level? To create a sense of need and then promise the hope of a church that will deliver the goods... all with no mention whatsoever of any personal cost to prospective members? To hit people with all the warm and fuzzies without ever mentioning anything of our own investment? I was thinking about all that this week as I looked at this Gospel account from Luke. In this Gospel we’re told that large crowds are now traveling with Jesus and his disciples... and for very good reason. Jesus is already well known as a healer and a miracle worker. And there are many people who are hoping against all hope that he is, in fact, the messiah who has been promised them. And since their own lives as a subjugated people living under Roman rule aren’t exactly a walk in the park, they begin following Jesus and hanging on his every word. And what does Jesus do with this new attention? Does he promise them the moon, the stars, health, and wealth? Does he implore them to bring their friends and neighbors along to try to create a larger following? Does he tell them that he, and
he alone, is the only way they will ever find that ever elusive happiness? No. Jesus tells them that if they want to follow him, they need to do a few things. They need to hate their families... they need to pick up and carry the implement of a torturous death... and then they need to give away all of their worldly possessions. And that, Jesus says what it takes to be one of his disciples.
Wow... apparently Jesus never really studied church marketing, did he? Now, I’ll be the first person to admit that this particular Gospel isn’t exactly tailor made for the delicate sensibilities of twenty-first century Christians. Hate my family? Carry a cross? Give up all of my wealth? Are you kidding me, Jesus? Folks, even conservative Christians don’t want to take this scripture literally. And to be sure, Jesus is clearly using hyperbole to make a point. But what is that point? Well, I think the answer is right in the middle of the passage when he talks about building a tower without estimating the cost or going to war without considering whether the war can be won. Folks, Jesus is
looking at all these people who are looking at him and saying, “Look, I know you want to be happy... and I know you all need something to believe in. But you also need to think about investing yourselves. You need to consider the cost of actually following me and living like me.” I think that is what this Gospel is really about. See, I think that most of us don’t really want to think about all of that. We all want peace and we all want happiness... all at little to no inconvenience to ourselves. So why can’t the church just promise that and then give it to us just like in all those wonderful church slogans? Well, what if I told you that following Jesus is not always convenient? What if I told you that the highest end of the Christian faith is not happiness. What if I told you that the goal of the Christianity is actually learning... learning to live like Jesus... it’s about growing spiritually... and then it’s about being a little bit helpful to the other poor slobs we meet on this happy road of life. That is Christianity. Unfortunately, none of that really appeals to church marketing. None of that looks particularly good on a t-shirt or a bumper sticker. But here’s the thing... when we do live into our faith by
striving to learn, to grow, and to be helpful... we soon find the happiness and peace just happen to be natural by-products of this revolutionary way of life. It’s really quite miraculous... and counter-intuitive. And for me to promise that the church is going to fill every single hole in your life and make you all smart and pretty would be a lie. I don’t really care what Joel Osteen tells his folk. I am not interested in making empty promises in order to fill up these church pews. The truth is that we do have to consider what Jesus Christ asks of his disciples. The truth is that the Kingdom of God is not built around our comfort. Now, does Jesus really want to you to hate your family? No. Does he really want you to die a painful death? No. Does he really want you to bankrupt yourself? Absolutely not. But what Jesus does want is for all of us to consider what we can give. Fact is that there are people who have left their families behind for the sake of the Gospel. There are people who have died while serving Jesus. And there are Christians who have given all their possessions to help others in need. So at the very least, we can ask if there is something we can give of ourselves.
We can make a personal investment. We can learn to live the way that Jesus lived. We can grow spiritually. And we can be a little more helpful to the people we see around us. That is the life that Jesus Christ calls us to. It’s not happiness and wealth and convenience. It’s a Christ-centered life... it’s spiritual growth... it’s a life of service. But oddly enough, a natural by-product of all that is a little bit of peace.
So here we are on this last Sunday of our summer schedule. Next Sunday we will begin our program year. There will be an eight o’clock service, a 9:15 service, and an eleven o’clock service. And then, just to make things really interesting, come October, we’re also going to add a 5 pm Saturday evening service to give people every opportunity to come to St. Luke’s. And what I’d like for you to do is ask yourself if there’s anything that you can do to give of yourself to the ministry of this church. Where can you serve. Consider it. Think about it. Pray about it. I’m not going to promise that St. Luke’s is going to make all of your dreams come true if you do serve here because that would be an
empty promise. But what I will tell you is that I envision this church as a vehicle for you to learn to live a Christ-centered life... to grow spiritually... and to be a little bit helpful to people in need. That is why the church exists. And those things connect us to Jesus Christ which is the highest end of any church. We’re here to meet Jesus Christ in the bread, the cup, and each other. So I will invite you to come to the altar today to touch the hand of the one who did pick up his own cross willingly. And consider how you can offer your time, your talents, and your treasure. And then give of yourself in small ways and in large ways. You might be surprised at the freedom you find when you unshackle yourself from the cares of this silly little world. There’s a great big kingdom of God out there just waiting to be embraced. And if that doesn’t lead you to a little bit of peace... maybe we can try a Satanic exorcism and all-you-can-eat-fried-chicken-dinner! After all, we’ll need something to do after Octoberfest! Amen