Theologian, professor, preacher, and author Lovett Weems of Wesley Theological Seminary and the Lewis Leadership Center said, “We (the mainline Protestant Church) have an approach to the Gospel that really matters. We have an approach to the Gospel that would reach 21st century people. We have a great approach to the Gospel that will make a difference—if we could only remember it.”
I hope this quote sounds familiar. After all, I’ve shared it the previous two Sundays. And I’ve done so because as a church we are in a time where church has become unimportant to many people, and many believe this to be true because we the church have forgotten how to proclaim, share, and live out the Good News of Jesus Christ in ways that will speak to and reach 21st Century people.
I have been intentionally emphasizing this because next Sunday we kick-off a new year in the life of the church after the summer slow-down—although I never really know when the slow down happens.
Still though, next week, we go back to regular worship hours, Sunday School resumes, Youth Group kicks off, Teams and Committees are meeting again, our Scouts are back in the building, our new Preschool opens; Chancel Choir, Bell choirs, and Children’s Choir resumes rehearsals; we are saving dates for October, thinking about World Communion Sunday; the Stewardship Campaign; Thanksgiving; Advent; Search for the Christ Child—before we know it, we’ll be lighting the Christ candle on Christmas Eve.
Church is about to get back in full swing again. And it is good and right to make sure we are ready and focused for the faithful labor it will require— of us all. Labor not just within our church building, but beyond as well.
Because it is an imperative that we are ready. And I’ll tell you why…
There is a growing group of people often referred to as the non-religious, the nominally religious, the “dones” and the “nones”, who say, “I’m done with religion,” or, “Religion? Who needs it?” or, “Yeah, I used to go to church, but it’s just not for me anymore.”
Those who make up this group are growing in numbers each and every day.
And it’s this group that is in critical need of our faithful labor as followers of Jesus Christ.
The last two Sundays, after worship, we had what I called, “Church Chats.” At the first Church Chat we talked about what is threatening the church, our faith, and our culture. We then discussed opportunities to further the presence of the church—beyond the walls of the church—and further a Christ presence to others.
At the second Church Chat we discussed what the needs of our world, country, and community are. Followed then by what are we, First Christian Church of Stow, good at—what do we do really well.
Amidst all this I put out there the idea of a challenge a pastor made to his congregation where he asked them to make a pledge to do 100 intentional acts of blessing, kindness, compassion, justice, and love—in a year—all in an effort to begin depicting a more faithful picture of the church, of Christians, and of the Good News of Jesus Christ.
I hope you have been thinking about that challenge, because it’s one I hope we will all strive for.
What we didn’t get into was how meeting this challenge could be done, and so I want to share a story from the pastor who issued the challenge, of a time he saw how it can happen.
When attending a large church conference, this challenge issuing pastor went out for lunch at one of those trendy mall-like markets near the convention center where the conference was—not a mall per se, but one of those trendy conglomerations of small artsy shops, bodegas, and restaurants.
He got lunch at one of the little restaurants and right next door, just a few steps apart, was a doughnut shop. He decided to check out the doughnuts and perhaps get himself a treat for later. It was here where the pastor saw a group of 15 children led into the donut shop by their three counselors. It was summer time, and everyone was wearing the same t-shirt, and it turns out this was some sort of children’s day camp.
The pastor thought, “This is really cool they’re gonna buy doughnuts for all the kids.”
As the children looked longingly at the array of fancy doughnuts, the leader asked the shop employees, “How much for the doughnuts?”
Now apparently this gourmet/artisan doughnuts shop is pretty proud of their doughnuts. At Giant Eagle you can get a doughnut for around forty or fifty cents. At this particular doughnut shop the doughnuts are three bucks apiece.
With a look of bewilderment the day camp leader asked “Can I get just one doughnut?” Remember, there are 18 total people in this group.
This is when, with disappointment looming in the air, a gentleman walked over to the leaders of the group and asked, “Would it be OK if I bought your kids doughnuts?” The leaders of the day camp of course lit up with excitement and enthusiastically responded “Yes!”
The pastor recounting the story goes on to tell how the gentleman then went over to the doughnut shop workers, handed his credit card to them and said “Hey I want to buy doughnuts for all the kids and the adult volunteers can you just ring it all up real quick and take care of this for me?”
The employee did so, the man signed his name, and then turned back to the adult leaders and said “You know I’m a pastor here in town for a church conference, and I saw your kids and thought—Jesus would want your kids to have a doughnut.”
And with gratefulness and excitement one of the leaders again thanked the man, then turned to the group of kids and said “Hey everyone, this guy is a pastor in town for a church meeting and he just bought you all doughnuts!”
The kids of course cheered. The workers of the doughnuts shop said, “That is the coolest thing we’ve ever seen. You’re the best customer we have ever had.”
The pastor responded “It’s nothing. I am blessed to be able to do this.”
That’s what it looks like.
It doesn’t have to cost you everything you got. For this guy it cost him $57. But it doesn’t even have to cost that much.
It doesn’t have to take a lot of time. For this guy he was already there and simply responded to the opportunity right before him.
But note what else he did. He included in it all a brief word regarding his faith. I’m a pastor. I’m at a church conference. Jesus would want your kids to have a doughnut.
In some ways this is a fishes and loaves story, but it’s more.
This guy could have not said he was a pastor. Could have not made it known he was part of a church. He could have not mentioned Jesus. And everyone would have said, “What a nice man.” “What a generous person.” “What a humanitarian.” And that’s fine. But there was a greater opportunity and the man took it.
The man was smart enough to say, “I’m a pastor.” “I’m here for a church conference.” “Jesus would want your kids to have a doughnut.”
He didn’t say, “Are you saved?” He didn’t say, “If you died tonight do you know if you would go to heaven?”
Instead he responded to an opportunity, and then he simply wove into it a short, simple statement about being a Christian who follows Jesus’ example.
So what does that do to those children when then think about pastors, or church people, or Christians, or Jesus?
It probably makes them think of doughnuts! But it might also make them think of kindness and generosity, and good works.
What do you think it does for those doughnut shop workers when then think about pastors, or church people, or Christians, or Jesus? It might make them think of kindness, generosity and good works. It might make them think differently about church, and church people, and Jesus.
Regardless of the specifics, it certainly gives everyone who saw this unfold a new picture of the Church, of Christians, and of Jesus—a picture that is accurate and faithful—and potentially life changing.
This story illustrates and reflects the dual movement of doing good works and sharing our faith.
It reflects a wholeness in a mainline approach to sharing the Gospel that was so important to our foundation as a church, and as a church denomination in the 1800’s.
And we have to remember this approach today. We have to reclaim this approach today. We have to implement this approach today.
We have to have this balance of doing good deeds and sharing our faith because it’s a both/and approach, not an either/or. Faith AND works.
There must be this balance, this combination of the two.
Now there are people who would remind me that it was Paul who preached and taught that we are saved by God’s grace through faith, and they will do so by quoting Ephesians 2:8 and 9. “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast.”
And that’s great. They’re right.
But too often those quoting Ephesians 2:8 and 9 forget verse 10. “For we are what God has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.”
Paul is telling us we were saved for something and that something is our faithful labor.
We were saved to be Christ in the world.
We are God’s strategic plan for bringing healing and wholeness to a broken and fragmented world.
As a church that’s our job—that’s our faithful labor.
It’s our job, our faithful labor, to show and tell people a message that their lives matter to God, that there is a love that will not let them go, that God is the God of second chances, that the Holy Spirit can change you from the inside out, that there is a hope that the worst thing is never the last thing.
This is our job as a church. And we must remember it, so we can do it.
On this Labor Day weekend, we take one last intentional break from our labors—and it is good, and right, and faithful to do so.
But come Tuesday we get back to work.
And the same is true for the church. We get must focus again on being the church and the Disciples God calls us to be.
So may we rest well, because soon, very soon, the world needs, again, our faithful labor. Amen.