Monday, January 28, 2013

The Annual Report

This past Monday on Martin Luther King Day we had a day working with women from the women for women coalition.
This organization was organized to help women who are African refugees/immigrants in New Hampshire.
One of the women was sharing her experience of going into a church here in New Hampshire.
She had grown up her whole life as a Christian and attended church regularly in Africa.
When she came to New Hampshire she went to worship and she was not talked to or acknowledged in anyway by the people of the congregation.
She told us, “It has nothing to do with a language barrier; it has to do with love. Church is supposed to be a family and a place where you go to be loved by others in your family.”
I have been unable to shake her words this week.
They have stayed with me.
“It has nothing to do with language it has to do with love.”

As we hear reports about our ministry here at Concordia.
As we hear about how well our Sunday school is doing.
How well we are doing financially.
We are going to hear how much outreach we are doing.
How many new people are coming to worship with us.
What good shape our facilities are in.
When we hear about how wonderful our worship is, how talented our choir is.
When we think about our ministry together and what a success it has been, let us remember that it all means nothing without love.
Everything we do here at Concordia is about love.
It is about the love we have for each other, for the community, and for the world.
It is about reaching out to spread and share love.

I am not always sure what make a church successful.
Is it preaching, solid doctrinal teaching, good music, well run children’s ministry, outreach to the poor, is small groups, good organ music, praise music.
I don’t know any one thing that makes a church successful.
But I do know what makes a church unsuccessful.
A congregation that does not have love will be unsuccessful.
If there is no love for people who are going to walk through that door the first time we cannot succeed.
If there is no love for the people that we are serving than we cannot succeed.
If there is no love for the person sitting with you in worship this morning we cannot succeed.

We hear this morning Jesus give us in Luke his inaugural address.
In John Jesus ministry begins with a wedding party.
In Luke it begins with a mission statement.
Jesus in the synagogue is given the scroll of Isaiah.
Then he reads it and says this is what I am here for.
I am here for the poor, the captives, the blind, and the oppressed.
I am here to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

Often when we hear sermon’s on this text we are then encouraged to go and do what Jesus does.
We are encouraged to help those in need.
However, this is only part of this story.
Because we too are the ones in need.
We are also the ones that Jesus has come to save.
What are the ways that we are poor, captive, blind, and oppressed?
When are able to see these things inside ourselves it is easier to feel compassion and mercy for people out there.

We are all broken people.
Despite our efforts to keep it all together, underneath everything we are the ones needing saving.
The problem is that without that understanding we are not doing things out of love, but out of some moral crusade.
I cringe sometimes when I hear good meaning preachers get up and pound their fist for justice like it is merely an intellectual exercise.
Justice flows from us knowing someone and loving them so much that we are willing to risk our own well being and lives for their betterment.

I have always said that justice flows for me from good pastoral care.
I can’t say that I care about your life unless I care about the entirety of your life.
When people come and see me who have been handed a bad hand, or who need help I can’t merely slip them some money and send them on their way with a prayer.
I feel I must work to bring about change to the system that is failing them.
Acts of justice without love are never going to get you far.

And a church without love is doomed to failure.
St. Paul knew this well.
He wrote his letter to the church in Corinth because it was a congregation in turmoil.
There was fighting in the congregation about who was greater, there was inequality as some of the richer people would horde food and keep it from others in the community.
St. Paul did not use the image of family, but of the body.
I think this is even more powerful.
In theory you can get rid of people in your family.
You can get in a fight with your sister and not talk to her for twenty years.
But all the pieces of your body are connected to one another.
You can’t get rid of any of them without doing real harm to yourself.
That is how connected St. Paul thought we should be.
Jesus thought that too.
We should be so connected that nothing keeps us from each other.
Not economic status.
Not Physical deformities.
Not outside forces.
Not nationality.
Not language.
Not race.
Not sexual orientation.
Nothing separates’ us from each other in the body of Christ.
In fact, it is our differences that bring us together.
Our differences are important because those are the things that make us whole.
I need you and you need me.
I can’t do what you do, and you can’t do what I do.
God has brought us together to be this body as one.
“If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.”

I don’t know if there are statistics for that kind of thing.
But what I do know is that it is vital for a congregation.
It might not be explicitly stated in the annual report, but it is the subtext of it.
We are all in this together, and we need one another to make this body run.

So more important than anything is that we have love for one another, for people walking through those doors for the first time or the forty second time, we have love for the people who are not yet here.
We have love for the people that we serve at the friendly kitchen because there but the grace of God go I.
We have love for the refugees who use our building for ESL classes, because this congregation was founded by Swedish immigrants who wanted a church to feel connected to each other in love.
We have love for the AA groups that meet here because we too are addicted to things other than God.
We have love for the blind because our bodies are frail too.
We have love for each other, because we are all in this together.
When one of us succeeds we all rejoice together.
We have love, because Jesus Christ crossed boundaries of race, ethnicity, economics, sin, to show us God’s love and care for us.
Jesus crossed those boundaries to make the words of the prophet come true.
Today we sit here together as a recipient of that love, and also as an ambassador of its spreading.
I have seen our congregation share that love.
I have seen it in action.
“Hope, faith, and love abide, and the greatest of these is love.”
May that always be the most important annual report we give.

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