Do you ever get lost? If it weren’t for the GPS in my phone I might be lost all the time. Unlike some people, I have no natural sense of direction. Most times I couldn’t tell you north from south, east from west, and odds are if I tried, I would be exactly 180 degrees wrong. It’s just how I am.
Growing up in Madison, IN on the Ohio River, you just always had an innate sense of where the river was - it was a natural and obvious landmark.
The river was ALWAYS south. And with the streets of that historic old town almost exclusively laid out in a grid of numbered streets that ran east to west and named streets that ran north to south, you ALWAYS knew where you were. It was nearly impossible to get lost.
As a teen, I had to drive myself to a doctor’s appointments in Louisville, KY, about an hour away. The first time I went - well before GPS or Google Maps - I made my way without any trouble, saw the doctor, and prepared to make my way home. Knowing where the river was - that natural and obvious landmark - I began my trip home. It was forty-minutes later, as I saw signs for Ft. Knox, KY, that it dawned on me that in KY, the river was ALWAYS north, not south, and that I had driven nearly an hour in the wrong direction. It was the first of MANY such occurrences for me over the years.
In the scripture passage April read for us earlier, Jesus tells two stories about “lostness:” a shepherd who loses one sheep and leaves the 99 behind in order to find the lost one, and a woman with 10 coins who loses one, and did whatever necessary to find it. And Jesus compares the joy that each of these felt in finding what was lost to the joy felt by God when a person experiencing “lostness” is found as well. Then he tells another story, one that is familiar to all of us. We know it as the story of the prodigal son.
Jesus said, “A certain man had two sons. The younger son said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the inheritance.’ Then the father divided his estate between them. Soon afterward, the younger son gathered everything together and took a trip to a land far away. There, he wasted his wealth through extravagant living.
“When he had used up his resources, a severe food shortage arose in that country and he began to be in need. He hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs.
He longed to eat his fill from what the pigs ate, but no one gave him anything. When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have more than enough food, but I’m starving to death!
I will get up and go to my father, and say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.
I no longer deserve to be called your son. Take me on as one of your hired hands.” So he got up and went to his father.
“While he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was moved with compassion. His father ran to him, hugged him, and kissed him. Then his son said, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son.’ But the father said to his servants, ‘Quickly, bring out the best robe and put it on him! Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet!
Fetch the fattened calf and slaughter it. We must celebrate with feasting because this son of mine was dead and has come back to life! He was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.
“Now his older son was in the field. Coming in from the field, he approached the house and heard music and dancing. He called one of the servants and asked what was going on. The servant replied, ‘Your brother has arrived, and your father has slaughtered the fattened calf because he received his son back safe and sound.’
Then the older son was furious and didn’t want to enter in, but his father came out and begged him. He answered his father, ‘Look, I’ve served you all these years, and I never disobeyed your instruction. Yet you’ve never given me as much as a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends.
But when this son of yours returned, after gobbling up your estate on prostitutes, you slaughtered the fattened calf for him.’ Then his father said, ‘Son, you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad because this brother of yours was dead and is alive. He was lost and is found.’”
So, do you know what the word “prodigal” means?
PRODIGAL - characterized by profuse or wasteful expenditure; recklessly spendthrift
Well, that certainly describes the son doesn’t it. He was wasteful and reckless with his money and with his relationship. Here’s what I mean by that.
The father’s assets weren’t sitting in a bank somewhere; he didn’t have a money market account, a 401k, or stocks and bonds. The son’s inheritance would have been tied up in his father’s land, crops, and livestock.
In order to give his son his half of the inheritance, he would have to have sold off half of what he owned. So, there’s that difficulty. But even worse, in telling his father that he wants his inheritance now rather than when the father has died, he’s basically saying to him, “I wish you were dead.” Nice kid, huh?
But wait - there’s more! Because that’s not the complete definition of prodigal - there’s a second part: yielding abundantly, luxuriant, extravagantly generous. That sounds like how the father treated the son doesn’t it? He was certainly extravagantly generous towards this son who had rejected him, dismissed him, even wished him dead. In this story, the son represents us, the father represents God.
And Jesus’ point in telling this story is that is how God is with us. Regardless of how we’ve treated God, regardless of what we’ve done with the gifts we’ve been given, regardless of how wasteful we’ve been with the blessings we’ve received or the relationships with which we’ve been blessed, God is abundant, luxuriant, and extravagantly generous in how God treats us, in how God loves us. No matter how lost we’ve become in how we’ve lived our lives - God will welcome us home, prepare the fatted calf, put rings on our fingers and bells on our toes to show us how much God loves us IN SPITE of how we’ve treated God. THAT is prodigal. That is the nature of the God who is love. As Paul said in Romans, “there is NOTHING, NOTHING, that will separate you from the love of God. NOTHING! No matter how LOST, how far south in life you may headed or how lost you may feel, God will not let you go. God, in God’s grace will always, always provide the landmarks you need to find your way home and greet you with open arms. And what is the most prominent of those landmarks? God’s people; the church.
Christian pastor and writer Vernon Fosdale says the role of the church is to lead the greatest rescue mission ever conceived. We live in a world that, by most accounts, has lost its way. If you don’t believe me all you have to do is watch the news. This is a world that, in so many ways, is lost.
The message we find in these three stories from Luke’s gospel is that the church, as the disciples of Jesus Christ, as the hands and feet of God, is called.
But more than called, we are compelled, to pursue the lost with the same or greater urgency that we would exhibit if we had lost our sheep, our coin…or our cell phone. Think about that - most people, if they lose their cell phone, or their wallet, or their credit card, will immediately stop what they’re doing, wherever they are, and upend their home, their car, their office, wherever, until they find that lost phone, wallet, or card. The role of the church, Jesus suggests, is to be just as driven, just as urgent, in reaching out to those who have lost more than a piece of technology or a piece of plastic - but have lost their joy, who have lost their sense of blessing, who have lost their family, their friends, even their faith. We don’t have to be a raging sinner to be lost. Maybe you’ve just lost your job and your world is upended. Maybe you’ve lost your spouse or a child and you’re totally lost about what life looks like now. Maybe you or someone you know is newly divorced, have recently relocated, or have just received a difficult diagnosis - there’s all kinds of “lostness” in the world. And the mission of the church is not to judge, but to reach out to the lost and welcome them in.
So, understanding that the prodigal nature of God is to pursue the lost at any and all cost, and that God’s plan for the church is to do that work, let’s put this into the context of our larger series. Last week we considered what is OUR why. If we look at Simon Sinek’s Golden Circle diagram, the church’s WHY, it’s vision, can be clearly seen in this passage from Mark 12:28-31, where Jesus is asked,
“…Which commandment is the first of all?” 29 Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; 30 you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ 31 The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”
The WHY of the church is found in what we know as the Great Commandment - love God and love neighbor. WHY do we do what we do? Because we love God and we love our neighbor. Now, some would say, no, it’s the Great Commission, to go and make disciples of all the world. But that’s not the WHY, that’s the HOW. We show our love of God and neighbor by going and making disciples BECAUSE we first love God and love our neighbor, and we love them both too much to leave out those mired in “lostness.”
And you remember, the outer ring of the Golden Circle, the WHAT, well these are the details, the things we do. Where can we find those? Well, from Luke we learn that we’re to be as extravagantly generous with others as God is with us. And in Matthew 25 Jesus tells us that we are doing that when, as he put it,
“I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’
And when his followers pushed back about when they saw him hungry, and thirsty, and sick he replied,
‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’
That, my friends, is the WHY, the HOW, and the WHAT that we are called to as the church. And I share this because many, many churches seem to have forgotten God’s WHY of loving God and loving neighbor and instead have fallen into a divisive way of deciding who’s in and who’s out, who’s deserving and who’s not - like the older brother. And as a result, the church is dying. And that’s not just my declaration. I shared with you last week that several of us attended a workshop a few weeks ago where these statistics were shared about the church at large:
- 85% of churches in the U.S. are either stalled or in decline.
- 14% of churches are growing only by transfers. That is, people leave one church and go to another.
- Only 1% are growing by new people coming into a relationship with Christ. 1%.
- And that equates to 96 churches closing in the U.S. every week and 50 pastors leaving the ministry EVERY DAY. 72% of the U.S. population holds a secular worldview, not a spiritual or religious worldview. That is, nearly 3 out of 4 people have no faith tradition of any kind that impacts how they live and look at the world, a figure reflected in our immediate community as well.
So, what are we to do about that? If our mission is to reach those who are in some way lost, and they make up 70+% of the people immediately around us, how are we to do that? Well, what if we tried doing what Jesus did, and what the early church did?
I’ve shared with you twice now what theologian John Dominic Crossan said about how Jesus spent his time: either feeding people or healing people.
We see Jesus eating in the homes of tax collectors life Matthew and Zacchaeus, and feeding thousands of people in those miracle stories, and we remember that two travelers’ eyes were opened to who Jesus was after a journey to Emmaeus when Jesus broke bread with them. Acts chapter 2 tells how the church, after Pentecost, grew and spread throughout the known world as a church that met, not in sanctuaries but in peoples’ homes, gathered around tables. The early church, in the Apostolic era, the time of the Apostles, was a dinner church that gathered around tables as Jesus had, and told people the stories of Jesus. People gathered, they had dinner together, heard Jesus stories from the Apostles, prayed, sang songs, and shared in the Eucharist. In the Apostolic era the church reached out, went out to the community to spread the love of God.
It was only hundreds of years later, after the church had grown from a few hundred to a few million people, and became the official church of the Roman Empire in what is called the Christendom era that the church began to resemble what we now know as church, with huge, ornate church buildings and the model moved from one of being sent to an attractional model of church. The early church, the simple church, the church as it was first created, was built around dinner tables and Jesus stories.
We’ve hosted a community meal here at Crossroads for many years. And for a time it was a well-attended monthly outreach mission to our community. And we have many volunteers who have given much of their time, talent, and energy into supporting that ministry.
But if you look around our community there are meals like that all over the place. And because of that, in part, attendance at our meal has diminished over time. Some weeks, the volunteers outnumber the community members at the meal. Several volunteers, in fact, have come to me in recent months and said, “we need to do something about the community meal.”
Our vision and mission statement as a church is printed on the top of page 3 of your worship folder and on the screen. Would you read that with me, please.
Our mission is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, by feeding all God’s children - body mind, and soul.
WHY? Because we love that prodigal God and we love our neighbor. HOW do we show that? By making disciples of God’s son Jesus Christ, so that this world sinking in “lostness” might be transformed, so that those who feel lost know that God is desperately seeking God’s beloved children. WHAT do we do to achieve that? We feed people, body, mind, and soul.
The workshop that I have referred to several times over the last few weeks was called The Dinner Church Encounter, and it was all about reaching out to the lost in our own community by going back to the basics, to the very birth of the church in the Apostolic era, and learning from them. I’m excited about this, I think our team is, and I hope you will be as well. Our community meal, as we have known it, has ended. But with every death comes resurrection - that is a core belief of Christians. What is being birthed will help people understand our why, because people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it. Say that with me: people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.
Beginning on Wednesday November 7th we will be hosting a monthly, “Dinner with Friends at Crossroads Cafe,” our new dinner church experience.
Unlike the community meal, this will not be an outreach ministry like the Community Meal, it will be a new worship experience based on Jesus’ table model that the church first used over 2000 years ago. We will still feed bodies here, just as the community meal did so well for so long, but at the same time we will also seek to feed minds and souls by sharing together in the stories of Jesus with our neighbors as we reach out to share the love of Jesus with them as it has been shared with us.
A typical evening will open with a prayer, then we’ll gather around the table for a full meal together, we’ll have live music, maybe some art being created at the same time, we’ll have a time to share a story about Jesus - not a sermon, just a story and some thoughts and questions for reflection and sharing around the table. We’ll have something special for the kids as well. We’ll take time for prayer, sing a song or two and then share in communion. Initially we’ll gather monthly as we work out what this new thing looks like, but our hope is that sometime after the first of the year Dinner with Friends will become a second weekly worship service focused on reaching out to the 70% of our neighbors who don’t currently have a church or a church family.
This is Jesus’ desire for us as a church as well.
In Revelation 3:20, Jesus says,
20 Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me.
We will love God and love our neighbor by feeding all God’s children, body, mind, and soul. This is the first of the two new ministries that I told you last week that we are excited about. Next week I’ll share with you about the other. They are related to one another, while being distinctly different at the same time. As I said, I’m excited about both of these and I hope you will be as well.
As we seek to hear and live into God’s call, our WHY as a church, next week we will also invite everyone to prayerfully consider how we will live into our WHY as disciples through how we support the mission and ministry of the church with our financial giving for 2019. We don’t believe that we need a long, drawn out stewardship campaign with guest speakers and all of that to inspire you to support the work of the church. We’ve been doing good ministry here for a long time, thanks to your generosity. And I trust that, thanks to your ongoing and growing generosity, that we will continue in even better ways.
Jesus desires to meet us at the table. Today, World Communion Sunday, we come to the table with our brothers and sisters in Christ from around the world to celebrate and remember the extravagant generosity of the prodigal God who loves us more than we can ever know, who seeks us out in our lostness, and calls us to seek out others in that same gracious love with which we have been welcomed. Let us prepare our hearts and minds to be cleansed and to be fed by the God who is love. Amen.