September 2, 2018 15th Sunday of Pentecost
Song of Solomon 2:8-13 James 1:17-27 Mk 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
Today our Gospel tells us about one of the encounters that Jesus had with the Pharisees. Often these encounters involved the Pharisees, who are the keepers of Hebrew law and tradition, challenging Jesus or his followers who are not keeping the laws and traditions as strictly as the Pharisees would like. This was part of their campaign to discredit Jesus as a spiritual leader.
To be fair the Pharisees always tested any Jewish spiritual guru who cropped up in Roman-Palestine. If you were a person who was gathering a following among the Jewish people a few Pharisees would seek you out and confront you to see how truly Jewish you were. Okay, let’s go see if Mr. Levi, who has a considerable following in Bethlehem knows his Jewish stuff. I’ll quiz him on holiday protocol, you quiz him on theology, you try to see how smooth he is on scriptural references, and you see if he remembers his daily traditions. By demanding that people demonstrated their religious credentials it kept a lot of people from forming weird cults, which were rampant in the first century. And it reminded people to keep their traditions alive in an occupied country, with overlords who were trying to impose their culture on them.
The problem was the Pharisees had become so tradition bound that they couldn’t accept any other teachings other than the ones that they believed was right. In Jesus’ time they were turning into a classic case of a system and ideology that had been right for so long that they couldn’t see how they could be wrong. They were so concentrated on following and enforcing the rules that they forgot that the rules were created to help humanity, instead they acted like humanity was created to follow the rules.
But of course most of us would never get so wrapped up in rules and protocol that we would fail to do the right thing. Lord, have mercy on us! Most of us would never get so swept up by conventional thinking that we wouldn’t question the worth of what we do. Christ, have mercy on us! And most of us would be able to recognize the value of the gifts and graces that we have been given at this time and not worry too much about the fads of the world and making ourselves look good with our neighbors. Holy Spirit, have mercy and guide us!
Those are very easy slopes for us to slip down. It’s why James tries to distill the action of our faith in the world down to: Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world. That’s a little bit of a narrow definition for our day and age, but essentially James is saying: Care for those who need caring and don’t worry about what the world says you should do. Don’t worry about the rules of protocol; don’t worry about conventional thinking; don’t worry about fads and making yourself look good with your neighbors. Take care of the people who need to be cared for, that is the essence of your Christian service to God.
Don’t worry about the big world. Concentrate on your small faith and big things will happen.
But we are human. And humans tend to get caught up in the “If bigger then better” ideology. If I have a bigger house then I will be happier. If I have more money then my life will be better. If I get a promotion then my job will be easier. If our company is bigger then we won’t have so many problems.
The problem with this thinking is not just the illusion of happiness, but also that we tend to look upon the small as being inferior and the large as being superior, and the largest as being the standard of excellence. This illusion of inferiority/superiority is insidious because it distracts us from the value of what we are, and what we have, right now in our lives.
And do you know where we in America have done the most damage with this inferiority/superiority illusion? In our churches.
I would like to read you something that blew a few light bulbs in my mind this week. It is from the book The Grasshopper Myth: Big Churches, Small Churches and the Small Thinking that Divides Us, by Karl Vaters. Rev Vaters says: For the last several decades, the church leadership culture as a whole has despised Small Churches. Years ago, I attended a pastoral conference where the keynote speaker was the pastor of a mega-church. After two days of often helpful and inspiring advice about how to overcome church growth barriers, mostly taken from anecdotes about the spectacular growth of his church, he took questions from the audience. One of the first questions was from the pastor of a small, struggling church. “I’ve heard a lot of good things in the last couple days about overcoming obstacles and bringing numerical growth to the church,” he said. “And I’ve been trying to apply these principles in my church for years now. What I was wondering was, is there anything wrong with a church being small?”
“No,” answered the mega-church pastor, “not for two weeks.” The Small Church pastor chuckled uncomfortably, then waited for a smile, a “just kidding” or some further explanation from the mega-church pastor. It never came. The Small Church pastor turned and walked away. Another person came to the mic with another question. The conference went on.
This message of: The bigger church is the one that has it all together and the smaller churches are the ones that aren’t functioning properly, is a lie. 93% of American churches (membership under 350) are small, while 80% (membership under 200) are very small. If size equals success, then 80% to 93% of churches in America are failures. I’m sorry, that CANNOT be right.
The founding of America had Small Churches at its core. The band of Pilgrims who left England for religious freedom, were escaping a politically compromised big church system. Much of the impetus for the growth of America up to and beyond the American Revolution came through the theology, relationships and sermons of small churches. Most of the great drives for freedom in America were started and/or sustained through Small Churches. The eventual overturn of slavery was sparked in Small Churches and Small Churches provided many of the vital links in the Underground Railroad that ferried runaway slaves to freedom. Later on, the right of women to vote was largely sparked by sermons preached from the pulpits of Small Churches. The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s was led by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the pastor of a small congregation called Ebenezer Baptist church.
Jesus said, “I will build my church.” He didn’t say, “Fill the world with just mega-churches.” Mega-churches are fine in large communities of concentrated populations. Mid-sized-to-big churches are fine in the communities that fit them. But the majority of churches are small way-stations of faith tucked into nearly every community around the globe. And when small churches concentrate on nurturing people in their faith then big things happen in those communities.
Just look at what is going to happen at the end of this month in our community. We will have our annual crop walk and the majority of the organizations doing the sponsoring for that are our churches. Churches are the majority contributors to the local food banks. And both of our Methodist churches open our doors to meetings to help people cope with substance abuse.
The point is not to be a big church – the point is to be a healthy church that serves its community with the love of God. Jesus got mad at the Pharisee not because they were following the ideals, but because the ideals had replaced following God and helping humanity. James cautions his parishioners to be: doers of the word, and not merely hearers . . . We need to stop hearing that small churches aren’t enough and do actions with our faith that serves God and Christ in the world.
Let’s recognize that in our small church we stand with the Faith of Christ and the Love of God. We are 93% strong and we are vital to the labor of God in this country. Let’s take our Faith and believe that, with Christ by our side, we can and will do big things in His Glorious name.