A Sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian Church in Boise, Idaho
November 25, 2012
Today is Christ the King Sunday. In the church calendar, it is the day we mark the end of the church year. Next week we’ll begin a new year with the First Sunday in Advent, which is the four week season that prepares us for Christmas.
So at the cusp of a new church year, it is appropriate to look back at where we have been, to consider where we are going, and to ponder where Jesus is in the midst of it all.
And Paul, in his letter to the Philippians, is in a similar spot. He hails from a great tradition. He lays it all out for us. Tribe of Benjamin. Hebrew of the Hebrews. Pharisee. Zealot.
But then he met Jesus of Nazareth. And everything changed. He walked away from everything he knew to be a missionary for Jesus.
But change is, as we all know, difficult. For Paul and for the churches he visited. And he tries to comfort people who are living in the tension of what happens when everything they thought they knew changes.
For the Philippians, for the first generation of Christians, good and faithful Jews left the synagogues and started house churches, walking away from organized religion as they had known it. And then they invited gentiles.
Egads. The horror.
Social barriers that strictly defined the culture were wearing down. Jews and Gentiles eating at the same table?
And then there were all the divisions. People suggesting that if you don’t share their pedigree, or their politics, or their theology, then you might as well just go somewhere else.
And when we are beset by anxiety about change, often we look to the past, to the good old days, when being from the Tribe of Benjamin meant something! We circle the wagons and surround ourselves with familiar, with comfort, with memories of the past, all in an effort to keep the change away.
Remember when being a Hebrew born of the Hebrews was important!? If we could just go back to that time, if we could just do what worked then, and do it better than we have done lately, all would be well.
So what are we to do if we fear our better days are behind us?
What are we to do if we fear we do not have what it takes to navigate this new landscape?
What are we to do if we fear losing our religion?
Paul was facing that too. Everything that he thought he knew about how to follow God was changing. He had the pedigree, being a Hebrew from the Tribe of Benjamin. He had climbed to the top of his educational training and become a Pharisee. He was zealously supporting the Tradition, as it had been given to him, so zealously that he persecuted the followers of this crucified criminal, Jesus of Nazareth, who had clearly not paid attention in Hebrew school.
And then one day he encountered Jesus on the road to Damascus.
This same Jesus who the Romans had killed a number of years earlier.
And his encounter with Jesus changed everything about him. He walked away from his successful job as a Pharisee, walked away from his health plan and pension, and became an itinerant street preacher, intent on sharing the good news of Jesus Christ.
Paul had to lose his religion, his traditions, in order to follow Jesus.
What are we to do when our Call to follow Jesus of Nazareth makes us wonder if we too need to lose our religion, some of our traditions as we have known them in order to follow him into the future?
One of my favorite bands is REM. And they put out a song many years ago called “Losing My Religion”.
That’s me in the corner
That’s me in the spotlight
Losing my religion
Trying to keep a view
And I don’t know if I can do it
When I hear this song, I want to give the Michael Stipe, the lead singer, a hug. He is carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders. “Trying to keep a view and I don’t know if I can do it.”
And here is the good news, friends.
We don’t have to do it.
The future of the church is not in our hands.
We are losing our religion.
And it will be okay.
Paul reminds us “whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ….I regard them as rubbish in order that I may gain Christ, and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own…”
We don’t need our own righteousness. Thank God.
We don’t have to save the church. Thank God.
We just have to let go of what needs to be set down so that we are free to pick up what God has placed for us on the path.
I’m not suggesting we shouldn’t care about tradition. For all that Paul called rubbish, he never abandoned scripture. He viewed it differently in light of Jesus, but it was still an important part of who he was. He never gave up his love for God.
But tradition became one way he knew God, not the only way he knew God.
I am thankful for the tradition that has formed me, and that has cared for me, taught me, loved me and nurtured me. I’m not saying we should change each and every little thing we do as church.
But we are more than our traditions. We are people seeking Christ. And when the traditions point us to Christ, great. But when they don’t, we quote Paul and say “rubbish”.
Gustav Mahler is credited with having said, “tradition is tending the flame, not worshipping the ashes”.
Paul reminds us not to worship ashes. “For the sake of Christ I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ.”
Rubbish. Rubbish. Rubbish.
I was at a Presbytery education event last weekend in Caldwell. One of my professors from Columbia Seminary, Rodger Nishioka, spoke with us about trends about how the church is changing. It was a great weekend.
Rodger, and many other contemporary theologians and sociologists are suggesting that we are currently in a turning point in history. Many of them think that in years to come, people will look back at our era the way we study the Reformation. The church is changing so much and so rapidly that we are going to be an era of history needing to be studied.
Because we are at a moment of history where the fastest growing group of religious identity is that of “none”. 20% of the American populace say they have no religious affiliation. Atheists and Agnostics have remained fairly stable in that number. But the people who say their religious identity is “nothing in particular” is sky rocketing. 30% of people under the age of 30 identify this way.
And generally, I don’t feel too “gloom and doom” about church statistics because I see such life in our midst here at Southminster, but the declining numbers are causing real pain for some of our brothers and sisters at other churches.
Our church is growing, although our budget is not, which suggests that as we move into the future, we will have to find ways to make do with less money.
We are also in a time when technology is changing the way we interact with each other. Whether you welcome it or hate it, it appears that technology is here to stay. (Look at me, being all prophetic…)
I also read a story this week reporting that mega churches seem to be on the decline. Now, I don’t want to overstate that, because many of them still have many thousands of members. But there does appear to be a pattern of membership contraction, bankruptcy, and changes to what had seemed to be a meteoric rise of large churches at the expense of smaller churches.
And so while we pay attention to those things, it seems to me that these trends ought to call us to consider Paul’s letter to the Philippians.
Because we now live in a world where one in five people in our culture don’t know our story. We can’t presume that the traditions that have meant so much to so many of us will be easily understood by everyone. So we have to watch our language, and make sure it is inclusive and inviting. We have to provide translation about not only what we do in worship, but WHY we do it.
We have to pay attention to technology and see how it affects us all. As people become less connected to people in face to face ways and more in facebook to facebook ways, how can we help each other stay connected in real and true community, even if it looks different than it ever has before?
Rodger told a story about a young couple who left their family on the east coast and took jobs in Iowa. They visited a few churches, so they’d have a place to take their mothers when they came to visit, but they thought the churches were full of old people–nice old people–but old people who didn’t look much like them.
But then the woman got breast cancer. And in the hospital, she identified herself as Presbyterian. So the pastor from the Presbyterian Church they had visited came and prayed with them before her surgery.
And then, a few weeks later, when she was home and recovering from her treatments, there was a knock on the door which she tried to ignore. But it was persistent. So she opened the door to find an old woman holding a casserole. “I’m from church. I brought you dinner”, she said.
“What church?”, the young woman asked.
“The Presbyterian Church”.
“Thanks. How much do I owe you?”
“What? You don’t owe me anything. This is what church does.”
The woman put the casserole in the refrigerator and gave her directions to heat it. And then she looked around the house and said, “you look tired and your house looks dusty. You should go lie down and I’ll clean your house for you.”
The husband got home from work that night and said, “did you make dinner? Did you clean the house??”
“No. Someone from church did.”
“What church?”, he asked.
It went on like that. For months, this church cared for this young couple, so far from home, and facing serious illness. They had so much food, they invited friends home from work to eat with them. And these friends asked, “where’d you get these casseroles??!”
“From people at our church.”
So now this church has all of its old people and their casseroles. But it also has a group of 20-30 somethings who came because they witnessed this church being the gospel to this couple.
When first faced with her diagnosis, the young woman thought, “I have to move home. I can’t be this far from family and make it through this.” But after the church loved them so much, she told her family, “I might live for 6 months or 60 years, but I am never leaving this church.”
And I think we at Southminster are well placed for this time and place in history.
There are many things about us that are traditional. We have a pipe organ. We have a great chancel choir. We read the Bible. We have a great handbell choir. We have Presbyterian Women circles, and Sunday School, a printed bulletin in worship. We make casseroles. All kinds of things that have marked us as part of the Tribe of the PCUSA, Presbyterians born of Presbyterians.
But there are plenty of ways in which we are less traditional. We tend to be a casual bunch with a somewhat offbeat sense of humor.
You are used to having a woman lead you in worship. egads. The horror.
We have chosen to welcome all of God’s children, regardless of their sexual identity, trusting that God’s radical hospitality which extends to us, extends to all.
We seek to not confuse the gospel of Jesus Christ with the platforms of any particular political party, recognizing that the King we serve does not live in Washington DC.
You have expanded your understanding of Mission. While you still support traditional missionaries serving overseas, you also have recognized the school next door to us is in real need of our help, and have reached out in non-traditional ways, volunteering in classrooms, and helping them as needed.
Our house churches, which are smaller groups organized around mission, are actually a great illustration of old and new living together in good harmony. House Churches date back to the earliest church, gathering in people’s homes to worship God, study, be in prayer. Hearkening back to this old model of being church, we are making it fit our day and time, working for Human Rights, helping the homeless, and working toward Peacemaking.
And I wonder if the way we figure out the path ahead, how we navigate this journey, is by following Paul’s call to be willing to call it all rubbish in our attempt to know Jesus. Listen to his words…
“More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him”.
More than our traditions, more than our divisions, more than our identity as Presbyterian flavored Christians, we are called to seek Jesus. So we seek Christ, we continue to consider what it means to call a crucified Palestinian Jew our King and Lord. We look at the world around us and try to discern where God needs our presence, our witness, our love, and our gifts.
Sadly, Christianity seems to be defined in American culture by what we are supposedly against. You know what Paul would say to that? Rubbish.
As we live into this world, where everything we thought we knew is changing, it seems the best way the church can serve the Lord Jesus Christ is to spend more time doing what he taught us to do, and less time judging people who do it differently.
Day by day, as we journey together, as we devote ourselves to teaching and fellowship and breaking of bread and prayer, I am called to HOPE, to the excitement of knowing that together, we will press on toward the goal of knowing Jesus Christ. Thankful to be on this journey together. Hopeful about where we are being called. We may be losing our religion, but I am confident we are gaining Christ in the process.
My aunt Gail says that Faith is trusting the unknown will turn out to be loving. So let us live with such faith, and see where God is calling us.