24 Pentecost Proper B28
Rev. D. K. Schroeder
Hebrews 10:11-25 Sermon
November 15, 2009
Hymns (from The Service Book and Hymnal):
208 "Christ Whose Glory Fills The Skies"
376 "Jesus Thy Blood And Righteousness"
437 "Ye Watchers And Ye Holy Ones"
326 "I Love To Tell The Story"
CHRISTIANS WILL GATHER TOGETHER
TEXT (vs. 23-25): "Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another--and all the more as you see the Day approaching."
It's been some years back, on an Easter Sunday afternoon, that I picked up the newspaper as I began to unwind after the morning service. I have to confess that I usually check out the funny paper as one of the first orders of business when I look at the Sunday paper.
Now I don't remember which comic strip it was, but I do remember the content. It began by showing a little boy and his family getting ready for church, and then driving there in the car. The little boy was all smiles as he held the hymnal and sang the hymns. And when it was time for the children's sermon, he went up front and eagerly listened as the pastor spoke.
As the family was walking out of the church and approaching the pastor (who was now within earshot of the little boy), the boy said quite loudly, "What? You mean this place is open every week? So why do we only come here twice a year?" The parents were shown to be quite red-faced and openly embarrassed by their son's remark.
The cartoonist was making a point, and a very good one at that. He was taking a shot at those people we commonly call "C and E Christians," or those people who only attend church on Christmas and Easter.
The proverbial "C and E Christians" have a different way of looking at things. They figure that they are showing up a couple times a year "just to please the man upstairs." I've often wondered if these same people would complain if their adult children living away from home would call or visit them only a couple times a year "just to keep mum and dad happy?"
Occasional or marginal members, or those who haven't darkened the doorway to a church in a long time have been the bane of pastors and congregations for years. It's indeed a problem, and it has been handled in many different ways by different people.
Probably the most common way this is handled is by implementing an arbitrary time table. If a person hasn't attended, communed, or contributed in a certain period of years, then they are moved to "inactive" status, and remain there in a type of limbo. Sometimes a church will send out a form letter informing the person that they are now classified as being inactive, and nothing else happens.
One of the reasons a congregation will go through the membership roster and weed out the inactives is because of finances. Some congregations pay a per-member apportionment or subscription to their synod or parent church body (something that isn't practiced in the AFLC). Since they don't want to be paying for a lot of people who never contribute or attend, they start culling out people from their membership list. It's really sad when inactives are relegated to mere dollars and cents.
In our Epistle lesson for today, we are dealing with a strong exhortation. Verse 25 of Hebrews chapter 10 captures what God's thoughts are on the subject of church attendance: "Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another--and all the more as you see the Day approaching."
The first thing this passage is telling us is that inactive and marginal church members were as common back then as they are today. The same attitudes toward church attendance have carried on down through the generations, and it doesn't seem to be getting any better as time goes on. Satan loves to create a lackadaisical and passive attitude amongst God's people; and when you look at the statistics that report 86% of the people in the United States believe in God, and only about 35% of the people attend church regularly, then you can see what Satan is doing with the other 51%.
Various pastors and congregational leaders have even stated that if everybody on their membership roll were to show up all at once, their facility would be too small to hold them all. In fact, if larger congregations can get 40% of their members to show up for weekly worship, they are considered to be doing well.
Today we are dealing directly with one of God's commandments. The third commandment simply says, "Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy." The proper explanation of it is summed up by Dr. Luther when he says, "We should fear and love God so that we do not despise preaching and his Word, but hold it sacred and gladly hear and learn it."
It's at this point where I want to be absolutely clear about one thing, and I don't want anybody to misunderstand where I'm going with this. I know full well that there will be those times when we cannot attend worship for one reason or another. People have conflicting working schedules; that happens often. People go on vacation. People have to be out-of-town for some reason. People don't feel well. People have a scheduling difficulties. People will want to participate in a weekend activity. Emergencies come up. There's a whole lot of legitimate reasons that occur where people will have to miss worship. That's the way life is, and we have to be practical and understand it will happen.
The issue here is not whether somebody is warming a pew on Sunday, but rather it's the attitude people have toward God and his Word. The way Luther puts it, we should be asking ourselves the question: Am I despising God's Word and the preaching of it, or am I gladly hearing and learning it? Just because somebody has to miss worship certainly does not mean that they're despising God's Word and the preaching and teaching of it. It would be ridiculous to think that way.
But then there's the attitude that a great many inactive church members have in common. They figure that if their name is in a church record book someplace, then they're automatically in the Lamb's Book of Life. They've gotten the idea that on Judgment Day, God will open every dusty church register that ever existed and start ushering people through the pearly gates on that premise alone. But we know that's not true, because Jesus says in Matthew chapter 7 verse 23: "Then I will tell them plainly, 'I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!'"
So what is the proper procedure for handling inactive church members? Certainly there needs to be some investigation into the matter, but the end result is that such people are breaking the third commandment. And where a commandment is blatantly being broken, then a sin is being committed. Despising God's Word is as much of a sin as stealing or committing adultery. In fact, it is even more difficult to deal with since it involves one's attitude toward God, and is not as obvious as a person committing a sin against another person.
Pastors have dealt with this in different ways. One pastor I knew just simply erased the inactive person's name from the membership roster and let it be at that. That may have been the easy way out, but it certainly didn't accomplish anything.
Pastor Robert McMiller is somebody I knew about. He took the third commandment very seriously. When a person became inactive in his estimation, he followed the order of church discipline according to Matthew 18. He first went and saw them, one-on-one. If that didn't do any good, then he took a couple of people from the church council with him. And if that didn't do any good, then the matter went before the voters of the congregation, and a letter was sent. And if that didn't do any good, then they were officially excommunicated from the congregation.
The way he figured it, they weren't coming to church anyway, so he had nothing to lose. At least they would know that they were willfully breaking a commandment, and he could rest easy knowing he did everything in his power to get them to repent.
Even though Pastor McMiller's tactics were technically correct, I think he was a bit extreme in the way he went about things. I'm also aware that things backfired on him and got him into trouble with the synod, but that's a different story for a different time.
Otherwise, I'm not sure how successful he was in bringing people back into the fold, but I do know that the threat of the law doesn't motivate anybody. I also know that in the congregations he served, there was absolutely no "dead wood" on the membership roster.
One of the important things that we learn about in our Epistle reading for today is that church attendance is for our benefit, and not God's. We don't come to worship every week just to show God how good we are, and how we deserve to be rewarded just because we kicked ourselves out of bed on Sunday morning so we could warm a pew. People who think that way are completely missing the point.
Verse 24 of our Epistle today says, "And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds." Just by coming together as Christ's family, we are able to build each other up and enjoy fellowship with each other.
The atmosphere of the body of believers is one of love, acceptance, tolerance of our human frailties, forgiveness, strength, and hope. The list of positive adjectives can include so many things. What we have through faith in Christ our Saviour is something we can all share in together.
Our Epistle lesson for today very clearly describes the Gospel message; that is, what Christ has done for each and every one of us out of nothing but pure love. He sacrificed himself for our sins, and opened the door to heaven for you and me and all who come to him in faith. Verses 16 and 17 say, "This is the covenant I will make with them after that time," says the Lord. "I will put my laws in their hearts, and I will write them on their minds." Then he adds: "Their sins and lawless acts I will remember no more." Verse 22 continues, "...let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water."
Being an active part of God's family is a beautiful thing indeed. We gather around Word and Sacrament for our benefit, and for the benefit of each other. When we do come together in God's name, he promises that he will be here right along with us, and that he will bless us.
When people are inactive church members, they are missing out on so much. Inactive church members are really no different than anybody else that's unchurched. One pastor commented to me, "I treat my inactives as prospects, because that's what they are."
Oh yes, I think that I've heard almost every excuse in the book as to why people don't attend church. All the church wants is my money (no, we want you and God wants your soul)...the church is full of hypocrites (if you mean full of sinners in need of forgiveness, then yes)...I don't believe in organized religion (Jesus certainly did)...I can worship God just as well by myself in nature (when's the last time you did that?)...I get enough church by watching TV preachers (Is that keeping with what God asks when he says that Christians are to gather themselves together?)...or, I can read my Bible just fine by myself (do you even know where it is, if you have one at all?)
When it comes to excuses, people will come up with just about anything; unfortunately there's more holes in those stories than a country road sign used for target practice. But people still convince themselves that they're legitimate.
This morning I'll leave you with a good "church excuse" story, one that was told to my class by the president of our seminary when I was a student.
A husband and his wife got up one Sunday morning, and the wife dressed for church. It was just about time to leave when she noticed her husband hadn't moved a finger toward getting ready. Perplexed, she asked, "Why aren't you getting dressed for church?"
He said, "Because I just don't want to go, that's all."
She asked, "Do you have any reason?"
He said, "Yes, I have several good reasons. First, everybody there hates me. Second, the sermons are long and boring. And third, none of my friends ever come. I just don't want to go."
The wife sighed and replied, "Well, honey, I have several good reasons why you should go. First, everybody there doesn't hate you. There's only a couple of bullies and you just have to stand up to them. Second, the sermons mean a lot to many people. If you actually listened to them, you'd be surprised at how much good they do for people. Third, you have lots of friends at church. They are always inviting you over to their house. And finally, you have to go, you're the pastor! Now get dressed."
Psalm chapter 122 verse 1 says, "I was glad when they said unto me, let us go into the house of the Lord." Gathering together in the Lord's name is a happy occasion that will benefit us. That's what God wants for us.
Therefore let us be encouraged with the inspired words Paul writes to the Colossian congregation, chapter 3 verse 16: "Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God."