This Sunday, the 19th Sunday after Pentecost, I am at Ridges/Roxbury UMC and the United Methodist Church of Springdale (both in the Stamford, CT) area. The service at the Ridges/Roxbury church is at 9 and the service at the Springdale church is at 10:30. You are welcome to attend.
The Scriptures for this Sunday are Job 23: 1 – 9, 16 – 17; Hebrews 4: 12 – 16; and Mark 10: 17 – 31.
The common thought about the church today is that it is dying. But that is not necessarily the case. In many parts of the world, the church is doing quite well and it is growing beyond description. And even in the United States, there are churches which are growing and prospering, even in these economic down times.
But there are a great number of churches, because of where they are located, that should be growing and prospering but aren’t. And on the denominational level, the same is true. There are some denominations that are doing quite well and some, including the United Methodist Church, which are not doing well. Some will say that the reason for this is that the individual church and the church as an institution is getting old and old things die.
But the church is more than two thousand years old and it has survived famine and plaque, war and destruction, persecution and oppression. Why should it be dying now? It is dying, not because it is physically old but because it is mentally old.
Some twenty years ago I had the opportunity to meet Dr. Herbert C. Brown. Dr. Brown won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1979 for his work with compounds known as organoboranes. These compounds are composed of hydrogen, carbon, and boron (which coincidentally are Dr. Brown’s initials, something he quite enjoyed telling people). The nature of these compounds opened an entire new set of pathways for the synthesis of other compounds and offer low cost methods for such syntheses.
When I met Dr. Brown in 1988, he had been retired from active teaching for ten years but he was still active in research, publishing over 100 manuscripts a year. Now, as a doctoral student still two years away from graduation, to hear someone speak of 100 publications a year while I was still trying to get my first publication, was absolutely awesome. But it illustrated quite easily that being old is merely a state of mind, not a quality of the calendar.
And I say that because some four years later, I meet another individual who was some ten years younger than Dr. Brown but who was, for all intents and purposes, academically dead. And if he was not dead, he was certainly on life support, counting the time until his teaching and academic career was over. This individual, to the best of my knowledge, had not published anything since obtaining tenure at the university where we both taught and he had no interest, as far as I could tell, in learning anything new (he did not know how to operate a VCR or turn on a computer and this was in 2000). His intransigence and unwillingness to learn was a block to the younger members of the department who sought to breathe life into the department. Now, some ten years later, that department has survived and is doing quite well. But at that time, I saw a situation where the mental age of the department threatened the life and vitality of the department and its members.
The same is true in the church today. You see too many people who are not willing to try new ideas and who yet bemoan the fact that the church is dying. But they are unwilling or, at least, very reluctant to change the nature of the church.
The individual local church today is too often seen as a decaying relic of yesterday. It uses words that, while they may have meant something many years ago, are meaningless in today’s society and culture. For those who grew up in the local church, the church today is in sharp contrast to what they studied in Sunday school and confirmation class. And when those who grew up in the local church get a chance, they leave that church behind. Sometimes they find another church more attuned to their needs; often times, they just walk away from the church.
We are at a moment in time when everything that we believe, everything we have ever learned is being challenged. We are being told that to be an evangelical Christian is to be a conservative Christian. We are told that the only issues of importance for Christians are abortion and homosexuality.
But what do we do about the poor? What do we do about education or the environment? What do we do when the system that is in place ignores the little children of this country in favor of big business and greedy corporate interests? What do we do when other Christians tell the parents of gays and lesbians that their children’s sexuality is their fault, that they somehow have lived a sinful and wrongful life? How is it that we have allowed Christianity to become so judgmental when our own Savior never judged anyone? (From an interview with Tony Campolo posted on Beliefnet.com on 12 November 2004)
Now, these thoughts, while parallel to some of my own, are not mine. They belong to Tony Campolo, Baptist minister, sociology professor, and conservative evangelical Christian. But even with those credentials, he feels that the concept of evangelism has been hijacked by the political motives of the religious right. He feels that the Gospel message of reaching out to the poor, the sick, the homeless, and the oppressed, has somehow been lost in the politics of the times.
What I find interesting are his thoughts on the churches of today. One reason he feels that mainline churches are in decline is because they have been so concerned with social justice that they have forgotten to place a major emphasis on bringing people into a close, personal relationship with God through Christ. Pentecostal and evangelical churches, the churches that are growing today, are doing so because they attract people who are hungry to know God. These individuals are not interested in knowing God from a theological standpoint, as a moral teacher, or as an advocate for social justice. They want God to be a part of their lives, to strengthen them, to transform them and enable them to better deal with the problems they have, both socially and personally.
Christianity has two emphases. One is social, the other personal. It is the responsibility of Christians to impart the values of the kingdom of God in society – to relieve the suffering of the poor, to stand up for the oppressed, to be a voice for those who have no voice. But it also has the responsibility to help bring people into a personal, transforming relationship with Christ so that they can feel the joy and love of God in their lives. In today’s society, we see that fundamentalism emphasizes the latter while mainline churches emphasize the former. If we are not careful, we are going to find out that those who ignore the social ministry of the church are going to drive away those who seek God but they will have no place to go because the places that speak to the social ministry will have closed.
But where will they go? They are like Job in the Old Testament reading today. They know there is a God and they know that He is out there but they cannot find Him.
They cannot find Him in many of the local churches today. Instead, they find a church that has literally sold its soul to bring people in. They find a church that is in complete opposition to the words of today’s Gospel. Instead of a sacrifice, many churches today have adopted the mantra of today’s society that says materialism matters and it is what you have that counts. The rich young ruler in today’s Gospel reading would be gladly welcomed in many of today’s churches, for he would not have had to give up his wealth and his power in order to follow Jesus. In fact, he could have kept his wealth and power and he would have been told that Jesus will follow him. The message of many evangelists in many churches today is how God fits into your plans, not how you fit into His plans.
There is even a movement among conservatives and fundamentalists today to remove the liberal bias of the Bible and show how the Bible justifies a free-market economy (see “Editing the Bible”). But the free-market economy that these individuals want is completely counter to the words, concepts, and meaning of the Bible. I have used the example before but it is worth saying again.
Jim Wallis speaks of his experience as a seminary student with the Bible:
I was a seminary student in Chicago many years ago. We decided to try an experiment. We made a study of every single reference in the whole Bible to the poor, to God’s love for the poor, to God being the deliverer of the oppressed. We found thousands of verses on the subject. The Bible is full of the poor.
In the Hebrew Scriptures, for example, it is the second most prominent theme. The first is idolatry and the two are most often connected. In the New Testament, we find that one of every sixteen verses is about poor people; in the gospels, one of every ten; in Luke, one of every seven. We find the poor everywhere in the Bible.
One member of our group was a very zealous young seminary student and he thought he would try something just to see what might happen. He took an old Bible and a pair of scissors. He cut every single reference to the poor out of the Bible. It took him a very long time.
When he was through, the Bible was very different, because when he came to Amos and read the words, "Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream," he just cut it out. When he got to Isaiah and heard the prophet say, "Is not this the fast that I choose: to bring the homeless poor into your home, to break the yoke and let the oppressed go free?" he just cut it right out. All those Psalms that see God as a deliverer of the oppressed, they disappeared.
In the gospels, he came to Mary’s wonderful song where she says, "The mighty will be put down from their thrones, the lowly exalted, the poor filled with good things and the rich sent empty away." Of course, you can guess what happened to that. In Matthew 25, the section about the least of these, that was gone. Luke 4, Jesus’ very first sermon, what I call his Nazareth manifesto, where he said, "The spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to preach good news to poor people" — that was gone, too. "Blessed are the poor," that was gone.
So much of the Bible was cut out; so much so that when he was through, that old Bible literally was in shreds. It wouldn’t hold together. I held it in my hand and it was falling apart. It was a Bible full of holes. I would often take that Bible out with me to preach. I would hold it high in the air above American congregations and say, "Brothers and sister, this is the American Bible, full of holes from all we have cut out." We might as well have taken that pair of scissors and just cut out all that we have ignored for such a long time. In America the Bible that we read is full of holes.
Today’s generation of new church goers are called the “seekers”. Many of them have heard the words of redemption and sacrifice that are the message of the Bible. They know the story of the rich young ruler and the call from Jesus to put everything aside in order to follow Him. But they also see those who today live lives of greed, self-righteousness, and arrogance. They do not want to be a part of that church anymore.
They do not want to come to a church and find that the clock and calendar have been turned back some fifty or sixty years. They don’t really care that the church was chartered and a part of the local community since 1828. It doesn’t matter to them that the budget of the church is $320,000 nor that the church has had ten pastors and thirteen organists in the past 40 years.
They don’t want to be a part of a church that works on the assumption that Sunday is for church and the rest of the week is for more important matters. They want to know that the words they hear, from the congregation as much as from the pastor, mean something. They would rather meet with their friends at a Starbucks or Barnes & Noble bookstore on Sunday mornings to discuss things that are important to them than drink coffee in a styrofoam cup after the service on Sunday.
The church they find may have “modern” music or alternative worship services; it may let the pastor dress casually so that they appear to be hip. But these churches have so embraced the ways of society that it is no longer what it once was or what it can and should be. And no matter how modern the church may appear or act, it still holds to words and actions that speak of the glory days long ago. It does not matter how modern the church appears or sounds when the words of the congregation espouse exclusiveness, rejection and discrimination, not an openness or welcoming attitude.
What people are seeking today, what people actually need is the answer to such questions as “Do you know God; do you have a story?” They want to know that people actually know God personally and not just that they know a lot about God.
Ben Campbell Johnson, of Columbia Theological Seminary, suggests that you ask people outside church "When has God seemed near to you?" There is nothing judgmental about this approach; it starts with where people are and it takes their experience seriously.
If you cannot or will not share your faith with others, it may be that you are in the midst of a crisis of your own. Often times, people use aggressive tactics because they themselves are insecure about their own faith and are anxious for others to believe and behave in the manner that they do so as to make their own faith more plausible.
The question then, is whether one believes in the efficacy of the Gospel — the Gospel that justifies so that we don’t need to earn our status before God or vie for position with others. It is the Gospel that gives shape and purpose to life, making us other-directed rather than self-centered. It is the Gospel of peace that can reconcile broken relationships and build communities. It is the Gospel of justice that advocates for the poor and the marginalized. The word “Gospel” means good news and how can one keep from sharing the good news?
The writer of Hebrews reminds us that Jesus Christ, our High Priest, is not out of touch with reality as so many churches are today. He has experienced everything that we have experienced (except for sin) and he is in a position to help us in these times, if we but walk up to him. Our challenge is two-fold.
First, we must open our hearts and our minds and once again welcome Christ into our lives. And second, we must ask ourselves some very tough questions.
Is the church, our church, closed, both in spirit and mind, to those whose lives or attitudes are different from ours? Or is the church, our church, open to all who seek Christ?
Is the church, our church, a rigid and inflexible relic of days long past that refuses to change and challenges any threats to its existence? Or is the church, our church, capable of absorbing the trials of society and still remain the source of hope, justice, and righteousness that was the promise of the Gospel message some two thousand years ago?
And finally, can you, today from the very moment you walk out of this sanctuary, through your thoughts, your words, your deeds, offer a Vision of Christ for the world today? Can you tell your story to the first person you meet when you leave this place today? That’s the question; what is your answer?