As an introduction to this sermon, I will share that fifty years ago, when the congregation was founded it was given 10 acres of property here on the Cape. We use about 3 acres for our current ministries. Recently we have been discussing if might sell or lease some of that land as way of bringing our budget back into balance and following worship we will continue that discussion. So as I was preparing to preach this Sunday, I kept telling myself that I should leave the property discussion alone. You have to be certain that you are not influencing the discussion. The sermon isn’t the place for that. After all, I have an unfair advantage in that I get to talk at you for a while and just at the moment that I say, “Amen,” at that critical moment when you might stand up and say, “Hold on a moment, dear pastor,” at that moment we break into song.
Of course I have an opinion on the property issue as I assume most of you do. Hopefully we can avoid that passive-aggressive thing of letting others make the decision and then complaining about it later, where our true feelings only come out at the Men’s Breakfast or the Ladies’ Luncheon or the Gender-Neutral supper.
And yet as I went through the week I kept being drawn back to the property issue, weighing pros and cons, preparing the PowerPoint, thinking through outcomes. And one morning, as I sat in silent meditation, I had an epiphany about priorities, something that had been brewing for a couple of weeks since it is reflected in the written report I prepared for today. Namely, that for all the potential benefit of doing something with the property, and with all the potential conflict that might come in doing something with the property, and with the potential angst that will be raised by the process, our decision about the property is not the most important thing that we are discussing today.
Now I know that as soon as talk about this there are going to people who smile to themselves and think, “The pastor just doesn’t understand business. The church is like a business.” You are right. The church is like a business, but it is a simile, we have business-like aspects. We have overhead costs and maintenance. But the church is not a business. The church is a mission, God’s mission, that the business-like aspects support. We have a building to do the mission. We have a pastor and other staff members to help us carry out the mission. We have a budget so that we can do the mission. If we aren’t carrying out that mission, then all we have are the business-like parts and the church will feel more and more like a business whose primary jobs are to stay open and be profitable. The more the church feels like a business, the more misdirected we have become as a community. I’m not saying to ignore the business-like aspects. It is part of our stewardship to be mindful of buildings and budgets. But be sure to hold them in their place, that they are in service to the mission. Maintaining our buildings is not our mission. Balancing the budget is not our mission. The mission becomes much more difficult if we don’t balance the budget or maintain the buildings, but those are not the mission themselves and it is easy to forget that.
What is the mission? We define it in a number of ways depending on the congregation and the tradition. As a general statement we might say that our mission is sharing the good news of Jesus or spreading the kingdom of God. In the past few decades, congregations have adopted another practice that started in the business world, individual mission statements. Although we can point to a general mission for the church at large, it can be helpful for congregations to ask, “What is the mission of this community in this location at this time?” They have been a helpful tool for congregations to see themselves as having a specific role to play in the larger mission.
Last spring and through the summer we had several meetings here to discuss our own mission and we came up with a statement together, “Christ Lutheran Church of Falmouth seeks to be a community that is: serving through faith, centered in Christ, guided by the Word.” Easier said than done. Crafting a statement and approving a statement are much easier than implementing a statement. That work takes energy and attention. It takes people challenging the status quo, looking at our ministry and asking “How does that line up with our mission? How does that support our mission? Is that program or event distracting us from our mission?” If we don’t invest that energy and that time we will just end up like a myriad of other congregations who may have fine mission statements, but whose only purpose is to handle the business-like parts of the church: staying open and being profitable.
As I read the parable of workers in the vineyard for today, only doing the business-like parts is akin to standing idle in the marketplace. I’m not going to get into the whole, “Who worked the hardest and longest?” aspect of the parable. What I want to emphasize is that the workers are called. They are called out. They are called to labor. They are called to carry out the mission of the landowner.
Now this image may seem to come into conflict with our understanding of grace because we Lutherans get all squirmy when we might have to do something. But note, our job in the vineyard, our job in the mission is not to save people or get them to save themselves. Salvation is and has always been God’s job. God saves. Jesus offers wholeness and life. God makes us complete. Our job is to be living examples of what salvation means in the world: serving through faith, centered in Christ, guided by the Word. Our job is pointing beyond ourselves toward God. When we are focused on the business aspects of church we always end up pointing at ourselves, (“How do we get people to join us? How to we get people to notice us?”)and we are not that interesting. God is fascinating. God’s creation is fascinating. God’s love is fascinating. Individual congregations all think that they are special and friendly and interesting, but we are mostly interesting to ourselves. To people on the outside, we may be a curiosity, but when they investigate they determine we are a bit boring. We need to point to the God who is truly interesting.
And so my addendum to the parable is another class of laborer in the vineyard. There are workers who started in the morning and worked the full day. There are workers who got there at noon. There are workers who got there in the afternoon. They are squabbling over who should get paid what at the end of the day. But I believe there is another set of laborers. They are the ones who got to the vineyard, decided the work was too hard and too long and too inconvenient and wasn’t worth it so they went home and never got paid. They said to themselves, “This landowner always seems to be calling people. I’ll just go when it is convenient for me, when I feel like it. Maybe I’ll take a tour of the vineyard. That’s always nice.” And as time went by they noticed that the other laborers were better at the labor, because they had more experience. They noticed the other laborers seemed to have a deeper relationship with the landowner, because they encountered him every day. They noticed the other laborers became more invested in the vineyard and stopped seeing it merely as a source of occasional revenue; that they went from being day-laborers to full-time employees.
God is calling every congregation to serve the mission. God is calling every Christian to serve the mission, to point beyond ourselves to the God who is fascinating. God is calling all of us to work in the vineyard: serving through faith, centered in Christ, guided by the Word.