It seems that Christians are obsessed with counting sheep. How often do you hear Christians of all stripes asking each other about the size of each other's congregations? Often we hear folks asking, How many do you have on a Sunday morning? We marvel at so-called mega-churches. We feel good when we see a large crowd in church on Christmas or Easter and wish that it was like that every Sunday.
A large crowd at a worship service is considered a success.
In our gospel teaching today, we hear that large crowds were traveling with Jesus. If Jesus were a good church programmer, he would have dispatched some of the apostles to get everyone's name, phone number, and home address. He would have made sure everyone felt welcome. Perhaps he would have fretted over his sermons, making sure that each one was a practical, uplifting message that the crowd would come back for again and again. If they were singing psalms, he would have made sure the tunes were easy and appealing to the largest group possible.
Jesus wasn't a good church programmer. This is because Jesus wasn't calling crowds; he was calling disciples. Jesus wasn't concerned with being popular; he was concerned with helping people transform their lives. Jesus knew that no matter the size of the crowd, it was all temporal anyway. It didn't matter in the larger scheme. Jesus was leading people toward eternity, not temporal things like material success.
When Jesus sees the crowds, his instinct is not to wow them. His instinct is to make each person aware of the cost of being his disciple. It is this awareness of the journey that brings about transformation. He tells the crowd that unless they can detach completely from everything they are holding onto emotionally and physically, they can never really be his disciples. He tells them and us, that we have to detach from our family systems, from our very lives as we know them. We have to be ready to take up a cross.
This is a familiar message to Christians. We know that this is what Jesus keeps telling us, but when we get overly concerned with our institutional success, we lose sight of the heart of the matter: discipleship.
Jesus is calling us again to consider the cost. When we do not consider the cost, then we are like a builder who makes no budget for a project or a king who makes no contingency plans for a battle; we are bound for lackluster results and frustration.
When we consider the cost of following Jesus, then we will deepen our spiritual lives. We will hold in front of our prayers our need for discipleship, not membership in an institution. When we make discipleship and not the size of the crowd the number-one priority of our life as a church, then we are about making disciples, not growing membership rolls.
When we are counting the crowd and not the cost, we get into the dangerous habit of thinking we are in control of the movement of the Holy Spirit. We begin to think that we can grow the numbers. We become proud in our endeavors to draw and keep a crowd instead of trusting in God with all of our hearts. We also get trapped in our frustrations at not being able to draw and keep a crowd. This becomes the major focus of our life together as a church.
God sends Jeremiah down to the potter's house to make a point: God is the potter, we are the clay. We and our endeavors to be the church are in God's hands. We are not called to manipulate and manufacture the outcome; we are called to be faithful as baptized ministers of the gospel.
We are to be the kind of ministers that Paul is asking Philemon to be: putting aside our past grudges and our need to be in control. Paul is asking Philemon to begin anew with Onesimus. Paul asks Philemon to do even more than he is asking him to do.
It's our spiritual and religious task to become good, pliable, usable clay. God makes the pottery. We become good usable clay when we put scripture and tradition at the core of our community. We gather to study life-matters found in the gospel and the teachings found in our Catechism and Baptismal Covenant. When a community places these things at the center of its common life, it can't help but grow and be fashioned into a beautiful and sustainable piece of pottery made by the Creator.
We also become workable clay for the potter when we apply reason to our study. We study in community so that we can hear and experience other points of view. This will make us grow inside; as we grow inside our discipleship blossoms. As our discipleship blossoms, we become more and more attractive to others. We become pieces of art made by our Creator that others admire and wish to become part of.
If we work primarily on our discipleship, then we will be prepared to minister to the crowd. Then we have something to offer them. Then we will begin to imitate Jesus. In the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 9, Jesus sees the crowd and has compassion for them. He sees that they are helpless and harassed like sheep without a shepherd. He reminds the disciples that the harvest is plentiful but the laborers are few.
We are called to be those laborers. We reach out to the crowd with compassion. When we encounter the crowd, we let them know that we are offering them the Good News: God in Christ has reconciled us to each other, to God, and to all of creation. We are new creation. We are the priesthood of all believers. We invite the crowd to join us on our pilgrimage. We show them, not tell them, how our lives have been transformed by the gospel and by the sacraments we celebrate. Each of us becomes a catechist. This is the cost of our discipleship. Drawing a crowd this way takes time. Many will turn away. But those who engage will engage deeply and profoundly.
Maybe then we can stop asking each other about numbers and start sharing with others the depth of our discipleship.
This is where we are headed with Jesus: eternal life. Eternity is a long time. Eternity puts all of our anxieties about numbers on Sunday into perspective. Jesus is calling us on a great adventure. It's an adventure that is full of tension, healing, bold thinking, and new life. It goes beyond our Sunday worship out into our everyday lives. So, indeed, we seek out the crowds not to count them but to have compassion for them. Counting the crowd doesn't make them stay engaged; showing the crowd our transformed lives brings them to Jesus.