Sermon Archives

Church Business ~ Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10; Luke 4: 14-21

Rev. Lentz’s sermon begins around 24 minutes in.

Today is the annual meeting of the congregation and corporation, when we do the “business of the church.” Let’s ponder that together – what is the “business” of the church?

I have heard stories that in years past the congregational meetings were contentious – George Bodwell and others would raise issues of concern about the budget and all manners of things. And that is not a bad thing. Faithful people care; faithful people disagree!

We used to have these meetings on Sunday nights and cake would be served before the meeting. So we were all tired but with a sugar buzz! (I‘m glad we moved them to daylight hours!)

But today’s meeting got me thinking about church business. And don’t get me wrong—I understand and affirm the necessity for bottom lines, elections, and best practices, and accountability, for going over finances and salaries and for institutional order and fiscal responsibility. I get it.

But what is the business of the church? Why do we exist?

We don’t produce widgets. We don’t set out to make profits. We are not answerable to shareholders. Rev. Goines and I are Co-Pastors, not co-CEO’s.

The Elders that you will soon elect are called to discern the will of God for Forest Hill Church at this time. They are not a Board of Directors. The Trustees Ministry is not like any other non-profit board.

Some want the church to be more business-like. Well, I wish more businesses were church-like!

I want you to listen to this. It’s from our book of Order, Part 2 chapter 1 of the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church USA “The Mission of the Church.”

The good news of the Gospel is that the triune God – Creator, Redeemer and Spirit – creates, redeems, sustains, rules. And transforms all things and all people. This one living God, the Scriptures say, liberated the people of Israel from oppression and covenanted to be their God. By the power of the Spirit, this one living God is incarnate in Jesus Christ, who came into the world to die for the world, and be raised again to new life. The Gospel of Jesus Christ announces the nearness of God’s kingdom, bringing good news to all who are impoverished, sight to those who are blind, freedom to all who are oppressed, and proclaiming the Lord’s favor upon all creation.

The business of the church is to transform the world – change everything, risk everything for the Good News of Jesus Christ.

And listen to this:

F-1.0301 The church is to be a community of faith, entrusting itself to God alone, even at the risk of losing its life.

The church is to be the community of hope, rejoicing in the sure and certain knowledge, that, in Christ, God is making a new creation.

The church is to be a community of love, where sin is forgiven, reconciliation is accomplished, and the dividing walls of hostility are torn down.

The church is to be a community of witness, pointing beyond itself through word and work to the good news of God’s transforming grace in Christ Jesus its Lord.

Our bottom line is not being successful, it is being faithful. Even to the point of death.

Our job is to keep proclaiming. The optics may not be so good, but the wellspring of hope in the heart moves us. Even in the midst of the present madness in our country, we act as agents of faith, hope and love.

Our job is to point to ways that God is still speaking and acting in the world.

Our church business is to welcome everyone – particularly those who feel broken and oppressed; who have been told and have come to believe that they don’t have much to give.

Church business is unlike any business in the world.

Nehemiah was the Jewish governor under Persian rule right after the people returned from exile. One of his first tasks was to rebuild the city walls and to restore governance. And in chapter 8 we read about the first congregational meeting in Jerusalem when “all the people gathered together into the square before the Water Gate.”

Nehemiah read from The Torah scroll, in effect, reading the “mission statement” of the people of God. And a worship service broke out, with people lifting their hands and shouting out “Amen!” And this congregational meeting turned into a great celebration: people were eating the fat and drinking wine.

I want our congregational meeting to be like that! Maybe a Prosecco to go with the chicken!

A thousand years later Jesus preached at another congregational meeting, this time in Nazareth. He too started by reading a mission statement that had been first expressed by the prophet Isaiah:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

And the people were fixed on his words and were like WHOA – what was that.

Veronica, you will have to forgive me, but I have to tell this story. We were visiting someone in the hospital and Rev. Goines said a prayer at the end of the visit. It was a prayer among prayers, I was “fixed” on her words. And the patient was pretty impressed too. Because when she said “In Jesus’ name, amen,” the patient said “Damn!”

That’s the first time that ever happened!

That is what the people were feeling on that day – , that, “wow, we are not just going through the motions here but are part of something new that is witnessing to God’s power, and God’s presence, and God’s spirit.” And that should be a wee bit unsettling and make you feel a wee bit uncomfortable. But God is especially present at the intersection of your tensions.

The business of the church is preaching and living and pointing towards the good news of salvation.

And I know that “salvation” is a word, like “evangelism,” that sets some of you off.

I get it… but no wonder the mainline church is losing membership: we have lost sight of our main business, and given up our power to those who define things narrowly and in a limited way. We protect our building and our traditions and our styles.

But behold, God is doing a new thing and gives to us the business of salvation.

Salvation – being saved – is wonderful.

When you are drowning and someone throws you a life jacket… when you are oppressed and set free. When you can’t see and then you can. When you are, like that little infant, buried in the rubble, then found and saved. When you are those soccer players stuck in the cave with the waters rising, and then the divers find you. When you don’t know when the next meal is coming from, and you are sick, and then resources appear.

The definition that we usually focus on is salvation from sin – moral bad acts. Jesus died for your sins and you are saved which means you are going to heaven. If that works for you, go for it.

Yes, something happened on the cross that saved us. And if you are aware of your brokenness, and you have done things for which you are ashamed, and you are feeling cut off from the source and power of love – and then you hear the words and feel in your heart that you are forgiven and loved – that is powerful transformation.

But in the Hebrew scripture, there are two other events that become metaphors for salvation. One is the Exodus, when the people were saved from oppression and slavery and set free.

I just finished the biography of Frederick Douglass. There is one chapter on the impact of the Emancipation Proclamation It was nothing short of biblical prophecy coming true (even though it was only partial at the time and the slaves of Texas didn’t hear about it until June 19, 1865.)

Exodus as liberation. What a metaphor, what a reality. If you are or feel enslaved, or you have been addicted and then you work the steps and you are with a community – you have been saved.

A man was on death row for a crime he didn’t commit. Took 20 years of his life on death row. But finally, the truth was told and he was released and saved from death.

In the book of Nehemiah the people are celebrating a homecoming after exile. Homecoming is salvation. You are with your people. You have been saved from losing your identity.

It is like a reunion with an estranged parent. Like a moment of stepping out of the closet and saying: “I am gay and I am proud and God gifted me this way!” I am Brown, I am Black, I am White… we are community! We have been called home and saved. And nobody is going to take that away. I am not cast out, I am not alone.

So what is church business? Salvation – being Jesus in the world, challenging everything that keeps people from being free, being a community of faith, of hope, of love!

Let me close with this: I was sick in bed with the flu at last year’s annual meeting. Rev. Lois Annich moderated. I heard it was tense, particularly at the point when folks were asking about the Co-Pastor model: whether such a person even existed and could we afford it? Folks asking to know more than the committee was empowered to share.

What a difference a year makes! Here we are together, charting a new course for the church, witnessing to the power of God to “save us from weak resignation to the evils we deplore, Let the gift of thy salvation be our glory evermore!”

It may get messy. We will trip up. But along with the people of Jerusalem, I want to say: “Amen, Amen!” And lift my hands and bow my face to the ground! And do my happy dance!

My strength will come from my joy in the Lord!

As we do our church business of saving this world.

Thanks be to God!