Luke 5, 25-32
I came this close to eating lunch with Gordon Cosby, a regret I will carry with me the rest of my life. It was when I was in seminary. A professor friend knew Gordon, and she knew how much I admired him, so she had arranged for us to meet. We were going to meet at the Potter’s House. The Potter’s House is a mission-coffee shop/restaurant Gordon himself founded in downtown DC and run by a mission church he also founded. The day of our meeting, though, Gordon’s wife, Mary, took sick. He had to cancel. And then I was busy and he was busier, I am sure, and we never were able to find another date that worked.
As I said, a missed opportunity I will regret the rest of my life. I won’t get another. He was 95 years old when he died in 2013.
If you have never heard of Gordon Cosby, I’m not surprised. He kept a low profile. Even so, if you Google him, which I did this week, you will find that he has his own entry in Wikipedia, and he was featured on NPR at least once.. He was a star in clergy circles—that is mainly, I think, because he stood out. That is, right after WWII, when church building campaigns took off--and a church’s success was directly related to the size of the sanctuary and the number of members on the church rolls, Gordon’s idea, was to keep church-size small.
Not that it’s really possible to keep a church small. Gordon was a dedicated servant of God; he inspired people, and so his church grew. When there were too many church members and visitors to fit in the worship space, Gordon asked people to leave. Not maliciously—but he asked them to found an offshoot. In preparation for that, Gordon trained lay leaders that would organize, manage and generally run that new offshoot. Both churches stayed loosely connected, and both were under the umbrella name, Church of the Savior.
At some point in his long career, someone in Gordon’s orbit gave him a building. A BIG building, in DC, where real estate prices are in the clouds. Here was a chance to unify! Here was an opportunity to be that mega church! Gordon accepted the gift, and we who knew about the gift, held our breath. Would Gordon cave? NO. He sold it so that he and his flocks could establish more mission churches. Gordon continued to believe, and this is a quote from Gordon:
To really belong to one another and to depend on one another–to really share a common destiny–is difficult for a community that wants to be diverse. It is also the community’s only hope of survival. Whether or not we will be honest with each other, whether or not we will let ourselves be truly known, determines everything.”
You focus on being intentionally intimate, you stay small. As I said, Gordon has passed on. A lot of mega churches die when their founding member dies. Church of the Savior’s nine mission churches are continuing to thrive
Being truly known—It doesn’t happen at big churches, much—or so it has been my experience, and I have been a member in large churches and have served both large and small. When I am not worshiping with you, and before you, Ebenezer and before Ebenezer, Cove Church, I worship at Westminster Presbyterian in Charlottesville. Big church. I have friends who attend Westminster and for good reason. Great choir. Good preaching. You know what I really dislike about Westminster, though? And if you know people who attend worship at Westminster, you can tell them this. I really dislike Westminster’s sharing of celebrations and concerns. That’s because no one does it. Think of that! Big church, that should mean LOTS of celebrations and concerns, right? It’s counter intuitive. One Sunday at Westminster when celebrations and concerns were asked for, and no one said anything, I suddenly had the urge to stand up and say, “Come on people! Someone must have something for us to celebrate or pray about!” Nada. Nothing.
Now, compare that with us. We aren’t overly dramatic here, but I hope that we share some at least, of what is on our hearts. At Ebenezer, where I preached for 3 ½ years folks did that too, as also at Cove.
In fact, one Sunday at Cove, sadly, before I became a pastor there (I would have loved to have been part of worship that day), a member really bared his soul. He is a large man, huge actually, this way and this way, a former college football player, who has built a successful career for himself in the wine industry. I’ll call him Richard. His wife, is/was (she may be retired now,)his wife is/was a well-respected professional in the community, too. Whether by fate or purpose, they have no children.
During celebrations and concerns in worship one Sunday, Richard, then pushing 40, stood up and as a celebration, relayed the story of a high school romance. How his high school sweetheart had disappeared their Senior year and they had never re-connected. Had the family moved away? Had she switched schools?
Remember way back when, there was a lot of shame associated with out-of-wedlock pregnancies. Women and girls who were unmarried and pregnant, went to “homes,” to deliver their babies. That is what had happened to Richard’s sweetheart.
She delivered their son at a “home.” That son was adopted and raised by a good and decent family. But his son was curious about his real parents. Behold! The Saturday before the Sunday Richard told this story at church, that son knocked on Richard’s door. No surprise, really, Richard’s son is a big man, both this way and this way, who played football in high school. As Richard told the story in church I understand that his tears streamed down. “It’s a blessing from God! I have a son!” he announced. Richard may have been the first to cry, but it soon became a cry-fest. People passed the tissues along with the offering plate!
Bet something like that has never happened at Westminster!
“Whether or not we will be honest with each other, whether or not we will let ourselves be truly known, determines everything.” I think what Gordon Cosby meant by that was that our sharing with each other our joys and heartaches has everything to do with our individual and common spiritual growth. Church isn’t just about socializing, singing hymns and reading scripture together, although nothing wrong with that—but in church we have a common purpose which is to grow in wisdom individually and collectively and to learn to love God and each other, better. We do THAT by sharing in each other’s lives—and when do we do that? Well, hopefully we do that all the time, but also during celebrations and concerns in worship—and where does that sharing happen best? In small churches.
So we have yet to talk about our story for today which is from Luke. Jesus called Levi. Levi was a Jew, his name is the give-away. The name derives from the name of one of the twelve tribes of Israel. Levi was employed by Rome to extract taxes from his fellow Jews. He worked at a toll booth, probably a lot like toll booths today. You use a certain road you have to pay to use it. It was common practice for Rome to employ local people to do the tax collecting. There was opportunity for local tax collectors to skim off the top of that which they collected—and they did. So tax collectors like Levi were perceived to be, and in fact were crooks, and traitors—crooks because they skimmed, and traitors because they worked for and with the enemy. Levi, then, was despised and lonely.
We aren’t told what words are exchanged between Levi and Jesus, but we can assume, because we know how Jesus operated, that at the end of their verbal exchange, Levi felt understood and loved without judgment. What a load off! Suddenly he knew himself to be a man richly blessed. Levi WOULD have shared his blessing during celebrations and concerns in a small church, had there been small churches back then. Instead, he invites people to his home so that he can announce his good news.
In a book entitled, The Small Church Is Different, arguably THE expert in small church life and growth, Lyle Schaller, underlines the fact, that “The small church is [primarily] relational.” He goes on to say that in a large church, people are identified by the function they serve in the church community. So for example, you ask, “Who’s that?” and someone will say, “Oh, that’s Barbara She is the chair of the Christian Education Committee.” But in a small church, people are identified by their relationships: “Oh, that’s Barbara. Barbara and her husband are the parents of two teenagers. Her husband is the tall man who helped collect the offering. Barbara has lived in Scottsville all of her life, and her parents went to our church, for many years until they retired and moved away. Barbara had appendicitis last year. She gave us a scare. But she is fine now.”
It is also true, and I KNOW this from personal experience, in a large church, you ask who someone is, you get a sound bite, in a small church you get a monologue!
I will end this sermon with a quote from David Murray. Rev. Murray is the pastor at a Free Reformed Church in Scotland. Like most Reformed Churches in Scotland, his church has fewer than 50 members. He says this:
When I tell Americans that most congregations in Scotland have less than 50 people, they’re not only surprised, they usually pity us. But increasingly I’m inclined to say, “Weep not for us, but for yourselves and for your children.”
Amen to that. In fact, Let all the people say, “Amen!”