A sermon by Andrew Philip Long
The First Presbyterian Church of Enid, OK
February 17, 2019: Epiphany 6
Jeremiah 17:5-10, 1 Corinthians 15:12-20, Luke 6:17-26
Some of my greatest memories are from my childhood when I served as an altar boy in the Episcopal church where I baptized and confirmed. I can remember carrying the communion elements down the center aisle during the doxology on Sunday, just barely able to see through the congregation, both because I was short and because the church was packed. I can remember on Christmas Eve, almost every year without fail, all of us altar boys would have to hustle across the church campus to grab chairs from the fellowship hall to set up in the sanctuary because we had run out of places to sit. I can remember the sound of high holy days and on Christmas and Easter when the voice of the congregation almost drowned out the organ. And I remember times during communion when my mother would slip out the back door of the sanctuary to go across to the grocery store to buy more bread because we had run out before everyone had been served.
I’m sure you have memories like mine, of church sanctuaries filled to the bustin,’ not just on holidays but on regular Sundays, too. One of our elder saints in this church, Peggy King, has told me over and over how when she and Jean Mabry were serving communion in the balcony one Sunday, Jean told everyone to take a half a piece of bread because they were about to run out. I’ve looked through our church’s history books routinely since the day I started as your pastor and I’ve read about worship attendance in the three, four, and five hundreds. I’ve read about and seen pictures of the youth group that at one time needed several buses to go on ski trips and mission trips. I’ve also read the Session minutes where it was common to have ten or fifteen baptisms on Easter Sunday each year. Those were the glory days, weren’t they?
The prophet Bob Dylan was certainly right when he sang that the ‘times they are a changin.’ The times, they are a changin,’ and have been in the church for a while now. The Pew Research Center, which studies religion in America, was recently forced to add a new category of people to their studies. This new category is ‘none,’ as in when they ask someone what their religion or religious practice is, the person responds with ‘none.’ In the past five years, the ‘nones’ in America have continually outnumbered every other category 10, 15, and sometimes 20 to one. The Pew Research Center finds that religion now ranks at the bottom of the list of things that influence how Americans think and act, below things like social media trends, civic and non-profit group ideologies, and advertising and publishing. It used to be that the majority of Christians in Americans turned to Jesus when stuff got tough—now, if the research is right, Facebook has more of an impact on our common life than faith.
For the institution of the church itself, the picture is troubling. Simon Bauer, writing in the Journal of the Scientific Study of Religion, found that in 2006 there were roughly 414,000 individual Christian congregations in America. By 2012, Bauer found that there were 384,000 individual Christian congregation in America. In six years, 30,000 Christian churches in America shut their doors. We can venture a guess as to why these churches shut their doors, but we know that two things are necessary to keep a church open: people and money. If the trends continue, if the people and their dollars continue to go elsewhere, it is reasonable to expect 60-70,000 more Christian congregations will close their doors by 2030. And that qualifier, ‘Christian,’ is significant because while Christian churches are closing, houses of worship in other faith traditions are opening at a rapid rate.
We could blame this trend on a shift in culture. We’ve taken a quick and sharp turn in the last two decades. We were once a society built on relationships and interdependence. Now we’re so isolated that mental illnesses like depression and anxiety could one day surpass heart disease as the number one killer of Americans. We could blame it on the schools and sports teams who insist on meeting on Sunday. We could blame it on the Enlightenment that is still slowly taking faith apart piece by piece. We could blame it on the manufactured threat of radical religions and the narrative that they are lurking just beyond our front yards. But I bet if Jesus were here today, and if we were to ask him what has happened to his church, I don’t think he’d point us to any of these things. I think he would ask us to look first in the mirror.
The greatest threat to Jesus’ church has never been who and what lurks outside, but who and what sits comfortably in its pews. Consider for a moment the Presbyterian church’s five-decade-long conflict over marriage and ordination. Whether you think that same-sex marriage is compatible with the Bible or not, folks on the outside looked in and watched us locally and nationally debate the issue and beat each other bloody with our sacred texts. In this debate, the world watched us give up the fruits of the Spirit such as gentleness, kindness, peace, love, and self-control. Whether you think LGBT persons should be elected into ordained ministry or not, men and women who were earnestly looking for God, for holiness, for a better life watched as we turned away and denied and demeaned the children of God and so they went elsewhere. For a place that uses words like love, compassion, peace, justice, and mercy, there have been huge expanses of time in the church where none of that has been present. The ‘nones’ noticed and they found their sacred spaces on soccer fields and at swim meets.
Someone asked me recently if the events of 9/11 had any impact on church growth and attendance in America. The answer is a resounding ‘no.’ The greatest period of church growth and attendance in America was after World War II. The war and the incomprehensibility of the Holocaust drove people into church like never before. They were searching for answers. How could a good and gracious God let something like this happen? Whether or not those found answers isn’t really of consequence because the seekers stayed in the church and raised their families there. The opposite happened after 9/11. In the months after 9/11 TV preachers like Pat Robertson and John Hagee capitalized on our national tragedy and began to stoke the fires of Islamophobia. Pat Robertson even said once that 9/11 was God’s punishment on us for gay people, interracial marriage, and the lack of prayer in public schools. These TV swindlers preached hate of Muslims, unwavering support of the U.S. Government and Israel, and issued a call to arms against that terrorist that is lurking outside your front door. If you fail to do these things, they told the masses, you are neither a Christian nor an American. Those of us who came to age after 9/11, inside and outside the church, heard this and called foul. Some of us stayed—I’m glad I did. The vast majority left. There is enough hate, ugliness, and untruth in the world—who needs that at church?
So, if Jesus came to be with us today, and we asked him what has happened to his church, I’m certain he would point us to these things and many more. I’m also certain that he would point out that somewhere along the line we stopped be us, we stopped acting like his people, we stopped being weird. It isn’t about terrorism or Muslims or gay people or soccer moms or swim meets. It’s about how Christians gave up the weirdness of the Gospel in order to be like everyone else. If you don’t like the word ‘weird,’ swap it out with ‘peculiar.’ Jesus calls us to be peculiar, to be different from everyone else, and when we stopped doing that, we stopped being the church. When we stopped being the church, people went elsewhere to find the essential things needed for life. And until the time comes when we get back in line with Jesus and the peculiar way of life he calls us to lead, the church will continue to hemorrhage people and face an unknown future and possible obscurity.
Luke tells us that on a smooth place in the wilderness outside of Jerusalem Jesus preached a sermon about the peculiarity that marks his people. These words of Jesus in Luke are the inaugural sermon of the one we believe will save the world. Instead of hailing his power and ingenuity, and instead of making threats against his enemies and promises that will never be kept, Jesus has the audacity to say that the poor will inherit the kingdom, that the hungry will be filled, that those who weep and mourn will laugh. Jesus also has some nerve because he looks at the well-to-do, the satisfied, and joyful and warns them that their time is coming if they put all their faith and trust in what they have in their bank accounts and stock portfolios. In short, Jesus is announcing that in his kingdom things will be turned upside down and around, and everything wrong will be made right.
To follow Jesus is to lock into the peculiarity of his claims. To follow Jesus is to work so that the peculiar nature of his words becomes our way of life. Where there are hungry mouths, Jesus calls us to share from our abundance. Where there is poverty, Jesus calls us to work for fairness and justice. Where there is weeping, Jesus calls us to dry tears and proclaim a message of hope. Where there is hatred, persecution, and exclusion, Jesus calls us to imagine and then live big lives, inclusive and expansive. To follow Jesus is to believe that one day the right will win out against the wrong, that evil will be shattered by goodness, that the creeping darkness will never overcome the light. To follow Jesus is to do everything in our power, with every ounce of our being, to make these things happen even as Christ has promised to return and make it happen for real.
Can you see how this runs counter to our culture? Can you see just how peculiar Jesus calls us to be? We are taught to deny and lie and say that truth is relative or alternative; Jesus calls us to seek the truth, his truth, that will set us free. We are taught to protect the bottom line; Jesus calls us to use the bottom line to boost up the least among us. We are taught that our value is dependent on what we have and how much of it we have; Jesus teaches us that the only and most important marker of our worth is the image of God implanted in us. We are taught to listen to the loudest voices; Jesus invites us to consider the ways God’s speak in the still, small voices. We are taught that religion and politics should never mix, that pastors should never talk about the government or point out that politicians, yes even politicians, are sinners like the rest of us; Jesus mandates that we work for a better polis, a shining city on a hill, a light that will never be hidden under a bushel basket.
More even than any of this, our Savior calls us to have hope even when the signs are all pointing in a different direction. We serve a risen savior, not the Pew Research Center. While the research and the trends seem to be pointing in a very specific direction, the Lord of our Life appoints us to go into the world and be his weird people so that the world will be transformed into something entirely new. That is our daily task if we claim Jesus as Lord and Savior and love his church, which I know we all do. If we want this thing to continue, if we want God’s kingdom to ransack the sad and tired places of our lives, if we want something better tomorrow even than what we have today, we have to go, we have to live like he taught us to live, we have to be weird and live in such a way that folks will look at us say, “How peculiar!” And maybe, just maybe, they’ll want to follow us in here to learn why we’re just so weird.
My friends in Christ, the good news of the gospel is offering an invitation to us today. That invitation is to once again become the peculiar people of God. May today be a turning point for us all, a day when we give up the old ways and take up the ways of Jesus. When you leave here today, do something weird, something peculiar. Forgive someone, even if you think they don’t deserve it. Take time to learn something about someone you don’t know anything about—their history, their faith, what makes them tick—so that you can greet them with empathy instead of fear. Help someone without placing any conditions on that help. Put down your weapons, and take up the Gospel of peace. Confess the ways you’ve been sinful and complicit and take steps to make it right. Listen to someone, not to respond but to understand. Listen to someone who has been abused or traumatized and stop trying to protect the abuser. Remember that nationalism and Christianity are two very different things, and that both lose their power when we mix them together. Come to terms with the fact that God loves you, yes you, the miserable you, the sad you, the broken you, the beautiful you. Then come to terms with the fact that God loves your miserable, sad, broken, and beautiful neighbors, too. Have faith. Practice resurrection.
My brothers and sisters in Christ, in all things let us throw ourselves on the mercy of the One who has called us from death to life and has promised to bless us on our way. Let’s live today and every day for this One, and we’ll see that the glory days are not behind us but are in fact in front us, beckoning us on to life more abundant and wonderful than we could possibly imagine. Amen.