Luke 10:1-9; Matthew 28:16-20
Good morning! This is such an auspicious day! As I said before, we have a lot going on in worship. Today we celebrate the sacrament of baptism, and then we will commission our youth mission team. These are important and exciting events in the life of this congregation. And if that weren’t enough, today is my first anniversary as your pastor. So, to celebrate our anniversary of one year together, I’m going to preach my shortest sermon ever.
As most of you know, I’m an only child, and as such, I’m tempted to use this occasion to talk about where we’ve been over this last year and where we’re heading. But, in the grand scheme of things, I’m not that important. You folks, you, the congregation of First Presbyterian Church are important; our mission as the Church, as the people called by God and sent out into the world, that’s important. When I’m at my best, I’m busy equipping you for that work. So today’s sermon is about the work that we’re called to do.
Both of our scriptures this morning are remarkably straightforward and easy to understand. In our reading from the Gospel of Luke, Jesus sends out seventy disciples to visit every town that Jesus intended to visit. Jesus instructs these disciples to offer peace—Christ’s peace—to every household they visit, and to tell the people they visit that “the kingdom of God has come near to you.”
It’s important to remember that there are more disciples than just the twelve who follow Jesus around the Judean countryside. This is a reminder that the work of the church doesn’t belong to a select few, it belongs to all of us. Jesus calls more people than his closest disciples—there’s too much work to be done and eleven or twelve disciples are not enough to do all the work. It takes all of us. And the work calls us to get outside of the church, meet people where we find them, and proclaim that the kingdom of God has come near to them, too.
In our reading from the Gospel of Matthew, the risen Jesus appears to his closest followers, the eleven remaining disciples. The disciples were there to worship Jesus, but Jesus reminds them that worship is not enough. He reminds them that they are called to go out into the world, to baptize and teach, to make disciples of all nations. Again, this is pretty easy to understand. Living into these two scriptures is the challenging part.
I read a very interesting blog post a couple weeks ago. It was written by the Rev. Dr. Jan Edmiston, who recently served as the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church USA. Her blog is called A Church for Starving Artists, and in a recent post, entitled, “When Has a Church Passed the Point of No Return?” she posed some difficult questions:
Churches grow and slow and some die and some find rebirth. Again—how do we know when a congregation has reached that point when nothing will bring them back to life—even in a new semblance of life? Here are some choices that seem to prompt certain death:
1. Leaders choose to keep more money in The Cemetery Fund than in the general fund for ministry and mission.
2. Everyone—and I mean everyone—has their own pet project/thing they love and they’ve stopped asking “What does God want from our church?” It’s become what we want and we argue about that.
3. The same people have been serving in the same leadership roles for over 10 years.
4. The surrounding area is brimming with new people, new commercial projects, even new public transportation options and the church is not growing.
5. The congregation does not look like or sound like the neighborhood and there are no efforts to change this.
6. Not one leader in the congregation knows the names of: the principal of the closest school, any of the cashiers at the closest stores/gas stations/diners, the names of the people who live in the house/farm/apartment building closest to the church building.
7. The majority of every meeting of the governing board is spent talking about Attendance, Building, and Cash.
8. Sunday morning worship is the #1 portal through which people participate in the life of the church.
9. Nobody prays out loud or talks about Jesus except for the pastor.
10. The majority of people are fine with changing things as long as it happens after their own funerals.
Those are some difficult observations, and even in this congregation, some of those charges ring true.
On a personal level, I don’t know the names of any of the administrators or teachers in the Freehold Township, Freehold Borough, Colt’s Neck, or Howell school districts. I only know the name of one of the cashiers at Shop Rite. As a congregation, we only look a little bit like the community around us. Though I have to say, this is the most diverse Presbyterian Church I’ve ever served. That said, when we look at Rev. Edmiston’s list, I think we’re moving in the right direction on most of those items. And as we move in the right direction, we are also living into what Jesus commands us to do in this morning’s scriptures.
Today we celebrate the sacrament of baptism for Micaela and Leia Bernuy. Their parents, Juan Bernuy and Marilu Santos, are not formal members of this congregation. They are originally from Peru, though they lived in New York City for many years. They haven’t had a church family since they moved to Freehold. There was a time when this congregation, and most other Presbyterian churches, might have refused their request for baptism because they’re not members.
I’m proud to say that our Session voted unanimously to celebrate the sacrament of baptism, even moving the celebration of the Lord’s Supper to next Sunday to accommodate the Bernuy family. As Barry Fitz said, “Jesus didn’t command us to baptize only the children of members.” Our job is not to put up stumbling blocks, our job is to welcome all to this table and this font. This is an integral part of our mission as the Church.
We also demonstrate our faithfulness to Jesus’ commands when we commission our youth and our adults. Our mission trip to Kentucky is a visible way in which we demonstrate God’s love for all of humanity. This is as important as worship and it’s more important than any single sermon you’ll hear from me or anyone else in this pulpit.
Studies have shown that most people only retain about ten percent of what they hear. Those of you with children may be shocked to hear that people retain even ten percent. Our service of worship today demonstrates how we live into Christ’s call to be the Church.
There’s a famous quote that’s attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, and I would guess that most of you have heard it: “Preach the gospel at all times. Use words only when necessary.” This is a great sentiment and something we should aspire to. But we must also remember Rev. Edmiston’s observation, that dying churches, the pastor is the only one who prays in public and talks about Jesus in public. We all have to share our experiences of faith; we all have to talk about Jesus.
Today, through the sacrament of baptism and the commissioning of our youth mission team, we preach and demonstrate the gospel. When we do this well, we build relationships and we create the space for conversations. Let us all work to create that space, and then, in that space, let us proclaim to loved ones and friends that the kingdom of God is near, so that we may bring them into the love and joy of the relationship with Jesus Christ. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Now, beloved, as you depart from this place, remember that we are called to be the Church in the world today. Remember that we are called to baptize and teach. Remember that we are called demonstrate God’s love for the entire world by preaching and teaching and talking about our love for the Lord. Go forth and be instruments of God’s peace and love and reconciliation. Do not return evil for evil to any person, but know that we are all loved by God, and that we are called to reflect that love to everyone we meet. In the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord, let all God’s children say, Amen!
 Jan Edmiston, “When Has a Church Passed the Point of No Return?” retrieved from: https://achurchforstarvingartists.blog/2019/06/04/when-has-a-church-has-passed-the-point-of-no-recovery/?fbclid=IwAR37m6o4pOY5owTOjMFLD9PU-pr0xL5wpFUAr4PTrVieJMIPLAHZa7uY24o