Membership Has Its Privileges

First Presbyterian in Lafayette, Louisiana
November 14, 2010 – Commitment Sunday – Ordinary 33 C
Isaiah 65:17-25
2 Thessalonians 3:6-13
Luke 21:5-19

Well, it’s that time of year. All the shops are putting up their Christmas decorations, asking for the pledge of your commitment for their goods and services. Some have been asking since before Halloween. Advertisers are hitting us from every angle they can, and the church seems every bit as hungry for the almighty dollar.

On this Sunday, as we make our commitment to the church, we have to ask ourselves, “Why is our commitment to the church any different than our participation in the economy of this nation?” Maybe that seems like an odd comparison to you, but a lot of people (from inside and out) treat the church as a purveyor of goods and services. We all have assumptions about the church, whether we admit it or not. We have feelings connected to the bricks and mortar. We have expectations and hopes for the results of our investment.

That is not a bad thing. It is natural for us to make emotional connections with the people and places where we have shared experiences, especially those experiences that are meaningful to us. But I am afraid that is not the purpose of the church, and that is not the gospel of Jesus Christ. That is not the privilege we are given through our affiliation with the church. It is instead what they call lagniappe. It’s gravy. It’s extra. It’s not the real prize.

Do you remember that old American Express tagline, “Membership has its privileges”? They wanted you to believe that if you used their card you would have something others do not have. If you used their card you could get things that others could not get, gain access to places others could not go, and experience peace of mind others did not have. Some churches treat faith that same way, but I do not believe that is the gospel of Jesus Christ either. Nothing we buy into, pledge to, or commit to can offer salvation, not even the church.

If you don’t believe me, ask the good people from Jennings. This week the Presbytery met in this very sanctuary to elect an administrative commission to dissolve the Jennings church, if that is their will. It was a tender, honest, and prayerful conversation. There were those that spoke for and against it, but what was clear was that some form of death must occur before resurrection is possible.

When asked how they got to be where they are, the Jennings representatives said, “Our parents, the greatest generation, did a phenomenal job building this church and educating their children. The majority of the children are gone now, and somehow we neglected the opportunity to fill in those ranks. We have been in denial for a long time, and now we are out of time.”

More conversation revealed that although they were out of time as the Jennings church, they are more concerned with the opportunity to move forward in a way that proclaims Jesus as Lord. Holding on to their old ways and their beautiful, old building was simply getting in the way of that. The building is probably the greatest place of regret, because it is a symbol of what once was rather than that which is to come.

Take that temple and add homes, businesses, and communities to that and we can approach the situation that Isaiah is responding to. Isaiah’s words of hope had to sound like pie in the sky. Do you know where that phrase comes from, “Pie in the sky”? It comes from the labor movement of the early 1900’s. Joe Hill wrote a parody of the spiritual In the Sweet Bye and Bye as a challenge to the idea that salvation was not connected to suffering.

I believe that suffering is so significant that it opens us up to experience God’s presence in a way that nothing else can. Suffering is not something any of us want, and we resist it when it comes our way. When we do experience it, we want it to mean something. We want to justify it and make sense of it. That’s the way they reacted to Jesus telling them that the temple will be destroyed.

“What?” they said. “This marvelous place will be destroyed? Prove it. Tell us what to watch for. Give us a sign.” Then Jesus talks about wars and natural disasters and the fact that none of this will help you to know anything beyond the fact that you are in the midst of suffering. The events of the world are the events of the world. They are not signs, and they have no meaning. Except for this… the difficult times offer you a greater opportunity to proclaim the goodness of God!

That is our privilege and our greatest joy. That is the work that Paul’s disciples are so concerned about in Thessalonica. Salvation through Christ is not a “get out of Hell free” card. It is an invitation to a life filled with conflict and suffering that still has meaning and purpose beyond surviving. Christianity is not about surviving. It is about dying and rising over and over until we see God face to face.

Following Jesus is not simply a religion, as we often treat it. It is a way to continue becoming what you were always meant to be. Like Clem told me a few months ago, he’s always getting better. Through Jesus Christ, we are called into lives of service to one another. In the past I have suggested that this lifestyle of mutual servant hood offers healing for our lives. I still believe that is true, but I have come to see that, too, as lagniappe.

There are some wounds that do not heal. There are some things in life that are beyond our control. That is actually a good thing. It is hard to imagine the destruction of the Temple, or the Jennings church, or even First Presbyterian of Lafayette as a good thing, yet it calls to question our ultimate system of value. It calls into question our center of worship and the actions that follow. Do we worship God, or a building, or a generation, or even our traditions?

In the letter to the Thessalonians we get a stark reminder of the importance of tradition, but the interesting thing is that these traditions are by no means an expectation to do the same thing in the same way. These traditions are about work. I think that one of the reasons the church is in decline today is because we use our traditions to take the work out of faith. No sense re-inventing the wheel, right?

Maybe not, but the reality is that not all wheels are created equal. As we move forward into this new year, we will have to decide what matters to us. We will have to decide what we value again and again. We will have to do some things that we have always done, and we will have to do some things we have never done before. We will have to look for opportunities to die and rise again. We will have to look toward a future that is so subversive to our present that we forget the events of our past, because that, friends, is the gospel of Jesus Christ.

The gospel of Jesus Christ is this: through attending to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus we may experience God’s presence in suffering and in joy. We will be pushed into lives of servant hood. We will find hope and meaning through God’s presence with us, and we will find even more opportunity to express and experience God with us in our difficulties. In the light of this truth we have hope. In the light of this truth we make our stand. In the light of this truth we see and live in a kingdom without end, and to God be the glory both now and always. Amen.
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