I recently read an article in the Christian Century called "Fibbing about Church." (Christian Century, June 11, 2014, p. 7). The gist of the article was that, when surveyed, people lie abut their church attendance. "On any given Sunday, even those with strong connections to a church might well miss worship." Weekly worship is a thing of the past and "the days of full pews are behind us." So why do people falsify their worship attendance, when asked?
In person by phone, people are more likely to claim more frequent church attendance than if surveyed online. The gap between the two surveys is attributed to social desirability bias, or the tendency to say "the right thing" or what you think a person wants to hear. The article suggests that the survey is hopeful in that fibbing about church may mean that people who attend church infrequently may actually want to attend more frequently. "Some of the people who aren't at church think they should be." The article suggests that some of the responses are motivated by aspiration and not obligation. Some people who do not participate, would like to be part of a church community.
This morning at our regular bible discussion, we talked about attendance. In a small church, absences are noticeable and make a difference in our life together. Planning for children in worship is challenging when some Sundays 20 kids are here and some Sundays 2 or 3 kids are here. We have seen many people's attendance habits change over the past 9 years. And for those who still participate weekly or more frequently, seeing other people come and go and disappear from the community can be troubling and sad. So then, we read the parable that Jesus' told some people about participation in the Kingdom/life/ mission of God. What we read has implications for how we understand ourselves as church in this present context.
Today's BS text: Luke 14. 15-24. Jesus said, "Someone gave a great dinner and invited many. At the time of the dinner he sent his slave to say to those who had been invited, "Come, for everything is now ready." But they all alike began to make excuses...So the slave returned and reported this to the master. Then the owner of the house became angry and said to his slave, "Go out at once into the streets and lanes of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame. And the slave said, "Sir, what you have ordered has been done and there is still room." Then the master said to the slave, "Go out into the roads and lanes, and compel people to come in, so that my house may be filled." What does this mean?
1. God desires a "full house", all are invited and welcome.
2. Anyone and everyone is to receive an invitation to the dinner. Include those who are naturally left out, ignored, overlooked, and forgotten.
3. Excuses and absences do not cancel the event. There will be a dinner and there will be guests.
So, out of this emerged a way of thinking about faithfulness. Faithfulness is not showing up when you're invited. It is not characterized by right behavior,i.e, proper participation. We think of the faithful as those who come to worship and participate in the life of a congregation. The faithful are "the givers." But authentic faithfulness, in this text, is demonstrated by the slave. In obedience to the master, he or she invites people, any people, all people, poor people, blind people, wealthy and distracted people, I'm-too-busy-for-this people. Church, at its best, is people gathered at table to be fed by God's abundance. And it is invitational, open, welcoming, hospitable to those who are typically uninvited. WE are this Church! The good news is found in the food we share around one table. God, like the bread we bread, is for everyone. Period. This is what it means to be saved by grace. Unearned. Prepaid. Free. No strings. You show up, you get fed. If you are hungry in any way, you're invited. You can make excuses. But, in the end, you'll still be hungry. So, stop making excuses and come to the table.
As for the church, we are not the church if we are not---before every gathering---inviting others to join us at the table. Invitation is our task. God does the rest. Church is a people and a place where the hungry are fed. And God is found. Or maybe we are found by the God who is never absent, always present. And always making ready to receive you. YOU are the guest at God's banquet. Not because you are right, worthy, well-bred, rich enough, important enough, or good enough. You are the guest because God has said so. And it is by invitation and participation in the meal that we are church. Nothing more. Nothing less.
So, we gather for dinner together. And we receive the Eucharist. We break bread and Jesus is revealed to us and we are forgiven, healed, freed, and made ready to serve others.
So, church, let us exercise the sort of faithfulness embodied by the slave in Jesus' story. Invite. Compel. Invite. For everything is ready. And the food is good. Amen.