St. Paul’s Congregational Church, September 8, 2019

Jeremiah 18:1-6, Luke 14:25-33; Proper 18-C

Rev. Cynthia F. Reynolds

Let us pray: may the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

It seems that churches are obsessed with counting sheep. How often do you hear church members asking each other about the size of each others’ congregations? Comparing how many are in worship on Sundays, how many children in their Sunday School classes, how many students come to the youth group meetings, how big is your confirmation class – and, of course, how many pledging units do you have? Don’t we get impressed when we read reports of weekly attendance at the mega-churches? I know when I gather with colleagues in ministry, the first question is often – how big is your church? And don’t we all feel good when we have a big crowd on a baptism Sunday, Christmas Eve or Easter – we wish it were like that every Sunday. A large crowd at a worship service is considered a success.

And we spend so much time in meetings or side conversations fretting about the numbers at not just Sunday worship but the special services during the year, how many people participate in various activities, serve as liturgists – numbers mean something. And every church says they want to grow – there are lots of books that list a myriad of ways to help the process – but what does growth really mean and why do we want to grow anyway?

In our reading from Luke this morning we hear that “large crowds were travelling with Jesus.” Now, if Jesus were a good church administrator, he would have sent some of the apostles to get everyone’s name, phone number, email address, home address. He would have made sure everyone felt welcome. Maybe he would have worked and reworked his sermons, making sure that each one was a practical, uplifting message that the crowd would come back for more again and again. If they were singing the psalms, he would have made sure the tunes were easy to sing and appealing to the largest group possible. Now, maybe all this is good to remember these days– but is it the most important?

Well, Jesus wasn’t a good church administrator – because Jesus wasn’t calling crowds. Here’s the thing: Jesus was calling disciples. Jesus wasn’t concerned about being popular – he was concerned with helping people transform their lives. Jesus knew that no matter the size of the crowd, it was all temporal anyway. It didn’t matter in the larger scheme – Jesus was leading people to eternity, not things like material success as we so often measure that.

When Jesus sees the crowds, his instinct is not to wow them – his instinct is to make each person aware of the cost of being his disciple – for it is this awareness of the journey that leads to transformation. He tells the crowd that unless they can detach completely from everything they are holding onto emotionally and physically, they can never really be his disciples. He tells them and us that we have to detach from our family systems, the importance of our stuff, detach from our very lives as we know them. We have to be ready to take up a cross.

The gospel message this morning is tough – harsh even. But we need to be reminded of all this. We’ve gone from the lovely images of radical hospitality, entertaining angels unaware of last week to a much more difficult passage. Maybe Jesus knew his time was running out and needed to “tell it like it is” urgently. In any case, he was putting out the very real costs of discipleship to those crowds following him.

Jesus is calling us to again to consider the cross. For when we don’t, then we are like a builder who makes no budget for a project or a king who makes no contingency plans for battle; we are bound to lackluster results and frustration.

This is a familiar message to Christians, isn’t it – we know that this is what Jesus keeps telling us but when we get too overly concerned with our institutional success – counting the sheep – we lose sight of the heart of the matter: and that’s discipleship.

When we consider the cost of following Jesus, then we will deepen our spiritual lives. We will hold in the front of our prayers our call to make disciples, not increase membership in an institution. When we make discipleship and not the size of the crowd the number one priority of our life together as a church, then we are about making disciples, not growing membership rolls.

When we are counting the crowd and not the cost, we get into the dangerous habit of thinking we are in control of the movement of the Holy Spirit. We begin to think that we can grow the numbers. We become proud of our attempts to draw and keep a crowd instead of trusting God with our whole hearts as we walk this journey together. We can also get trapped in our frustrations at not being able to draw and keep a crowd. This worry, this frustration becomes the major focus of our life together as church – not our efforts to be open to where the Holy Spirit might be leading us.

God sends Jeremiah down to the potter’s house to make a point. God is the potter. We are the clay. We and our attempts to be the church are in God’s hands. We are not called to manipulate and manufacture the outcome. We are called to be faithful as baptized ministers of the gospel.

We are to be the kind of ministers who put aside our past grudges and our need to be in control, to refocus on making disciples, not just growing the church. We are called to begin anew – and what great timing for this message. Next week is Celebration Sunday, Re-Covenanting Sunday – the beginning of our Sunday School year, the beginning of our new program year – wouldn’t it be wonderful to stop counting sheep and start feeding sheep in new and profound ways.

It’s our spiritual and religious task to become good, pliable, usable clay and let God make the pottery. We become good usable clay when we put scripture and discipleship at the core of our community. We gather to study the Bible – the teachings that are as important today as they have been for thousands of years – we gather in worship to center ourselves in prayer and praise, looking to God to use us to serve wherever we are called. When a community places these things at the center of its common life, it can’t help but grow – to be fashioned into a beautiful and sustainable piece of pottery made by the Creator. When a community feeds the sheep, not just counts the sheep – discipleship grows.

We also become workable clay for the potter when we worship in community, work and play in community, so that we can hear and experience other points of view, get to know our brothers and sisters in Christ more deeply. This makes us grow inside; and as we grow inside our discipleship blossoms. As our discipleship blossoms, we become more and more attractive to others. We become pieces of art made by our Creator that others admire and wish to become a part. We have good news to share.

If we work primarily on our discipleship, then we will be prepared to minister to the crowd. Then we have something to offer. Then we will begin to imitate Jesus. In Matthew’s gospel we’re told that Jesus sees the crowd and has compassion for them. He sees that they are helpless and harassed like sheep without a shepherd. He reminds the disciples that the harvest is plentiful but the laborers are few.

We need that reminder too – we’re called to be those laborers. We are called to reach out to the crowd with compassion. And when we encounter the crowd, we let them know that we are offering them the Good News. God in Christ has reconciled us to each other, to God, and to all of creation. We are new creation. We are the priesthood of all believers. And we invite the crowd to join us on our pilgrimage. We show them, not just tell them, how our lives have been transformed by the gospel and by the sacraments we celebrate. Each of us becomes an apostle. This is the cost of our discipleship. Drawing a crowd this way takes time. Many will turn away. But those who engage will engage deeply and profoundly. But we have to invite them. We have to show them. We have to welcome them.

Think back on your own history of discipleship – who invited you? Who showed you? Who welcomed you? There’s always a cost isn’t there – but it’s priceless when you think about the joy and peace that comes from following where Jesus leads us.

Maybe then we can stop asking each other about numbers and start sharing with others the depth of our discipleship. Maybe then we stop counting the sheep and feeding the sheep.

Jesus is calling us out on a great adventure. It’s an adventure that’s full of tension, healing, bold thinking, and new life. It goes way beyond our Sunday morning worship out into our everyday lives. So, indeed, we seek out the crowds not to count them but to have compassion on them. Counting the crowd doesn’t make them stay engaged. Showing the crowd our transformed lives brings them to Jesus.

Let us go forth, fully aware of the cost of discipleship, but also fully aware of the awesome joy and peace of discipleship – let us allow ourselves to be transformed and then show that good news to others.

So may it be. Amen.

Let us affirm our faith as we pray together the United Church of Christ Statement of Faith found on the back cover of the hymnal:

United Church of Christ Statement of Faith in the form of a doxology

We believe in you, O God, Eternal Spirit, God of our Savior Jesus Christ and our God, and to your deeds we testify:

You call the worlds into being, create persons in your own image, and set before each one the ways of life and death.

You seek in holy love to save all people from aimlessness and sin.

You judge people and nations by your righteous will declared through prophets and apostles.

In Jesus Christ, the man of Nazareth, our crucified and risen Savior, you have come to us and shared our common lot, conquering sin and death and reconciling the world to yourself.

You bestow upon us your Holy Spirit, creating and renewing the church of Jesus Christ, binding in covenant faithful people of all ages, tongues, and races.

You call us into your church to accept the cost and joy of discipleship, to be your servants in the service of others, to proclaim the gospel to all the world and resist the powers of evil,to share in Christ's baptism and eat at his table, to join him in his passion and victory.

You promise to all who trust you forgiveness of sins and fullness of grace, courage in the struggle for justice and peace, your presence in trial and rejoicing, and eternal life in your realm which has no end.

Blessing and honor, glory and power be unto you.

Amen.

Our hymn is Be Now My Vision - #451 in the black hymnal, #451

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