June 16, 2013
As I start to wrap up nearly six years of preaching here before my sabbatical begins in July, I’ve been think about what’s important to me and what I want to leave with you to reflect on while I’m away.
A couple of weeks ago I encouraged all of you to receive God’s gift of rest, to find some “Sabbath” restoration in the months ahead.
Last Sunday I reminded myself and those who were here that even when we are “away” we are not away from God, whose accepting love surrounds us like the waters of baptism.
A week and a half ago, as I was thinking about this morning and not sure what I wanted to say, I noticed that front-page story in the Cedar Rapids Gazette. Maybe you saw it. You know, the one with the headline that read: “Eastern Iowa Churches Are Losing Faithful.”
That’s the kind of report that always gets my attention.
I have to admit, it wasn’t very informative—maybe that was your sense as well. To the clergy that the reporter spoke with—a Presbyterian in Marion, a Baptist in Coralville, and a United Methodist denominational staff person—the causes of this loss are something of a mystery. Some blamed what the article called “consumer-type shopping” for a church. Others thought that the growing number of people labeling themselves as “spiritual but not religious” are avoiding organized religion. And, of course, when I hear that I think, “Well, that’s good. We’re not an organized religion. We’re a part of the United Church of Christ!—about as disorganized as you can get.”
This article was really nothing new. People in mainline denominations have been worrying about declining numbers in our congregations for the last thirty to forty years. Right about the time I started to think it would be a good idea to become a minister—or as we say, about the time I sensed a “call”—people of my generation started leaving churches in droves. As with the weather, we’ve talked a lot about it but haven’t done much about it.
I don’t know. Maybe this is especially a Cedar Rapids problem. As the article noted, a recent study listed the Cedar Rapids/Waterloo area as the fifteenth most “post-Christian” city in the United States, well ahead of Madison, Champaign-Urbana, and even Des Moines.
Of course, if you look closely at the criteria for being “post Christian”—for example, disagreeing that the Bible is “accurate,” not attending Sunday School in the past week, not participating in a house church in the past year—you might think that we are a post Christian congregation.
I want to be clear. I think that strong, growing, mainline congregations are good. They are good for their members, they are good for the communities in which they are based, and they are good even for the health and well-being of our nation.
Some in the mainline, even in our own denomination, would seem to rejoice in the decline. For years, even decades, they’ve tried to make the argument that our declining congregations are some kind of faithful remnant—smaller but stronger—and that we should embrace our new marginal status.
That’s nonsense, of course and I’ve never bought the idea. Underlying much that I do as a minister is the conviction that healthy, growing congregations are a vital part of our society—which is why it is such a joy to serve this church.
After all, a growing number of college students have been finding us in recent years, discovering a place of welcome and acceptance, support and challenge.
And a growing number of young adults looking for a good place to raise their children keep coming here because they want to pass on to a new generation the liberal faith that they share with this congregation.
A growing number of older adults also find this a church home where they can live out their faith in a God whose love is unending and whose mercy is never-ceasing.
People keep finding us and staying around and affirming the covenant of our congregation as official members. We are growing at a healthy rate. With vital programs of Christian education and music, vital worship, warm and welcoming people, and a strong and faithful presence in this community, our congregation attracts people. And we’re keeping them too, getting new members involved in the life of this church. So, thanks again for being a great congregation!
The additional good news is that members and friends have been very faithful and generous in their giving to support the ministry and mission of our church. I want to thank you for that as well. Your giving funds our programs of Christian education and music. It keeps our building in good repair as it is used by community groups such as Narcotics Anonymous and Local Foods Connection as well as by us. And your giving touches the lives of people around the world through our mission spending, providing everything from help to tornado victims in Oklahoma to education for ministry in South Africa. Your faithful stewardship makes a difference in the lives of countless people.
It’s not that we go out in search of members and money. The members of this congregation and the financial resources that we have are the fruti of a congregation that seeks to be faithful to God in our belief and our doubts; a congregation that seeks to show God’s love in our community and in the larger world; a congregation that seeks to welcome all people and speak up for their basic human rights.
None of this is necessarily easy or to be expected. It is right that we should give thanks when we see such signs of health in our congregation. It is really something to celebrate.
What makes a difference here, I think, is memory.
In some sense, that memory is deep in this building. One member tells of coming here to worship for the first time and feeling in this space the unmistakable sense that this is a place where people have actually worshipped in the presence of God for decades. I’ve heard that when the pews were refinished some years before I came, the tops of the pew backs were left just as they were, in honor of the many hands that had been placed on them in prayer over the years.
Our memory leads us to announce the good news of God’s love that never changes, instead of defending an out-of-date view of the world and of humankind.
We remember that we were once strangers to the love of God and seek to include as many different people as possible here.
We remember that God loves us unconditionally and recognize that all people are equally loved by God and that we are called to love one another as we have been loved.
We remember that God forgives us unconditionally and know that there is nothing that we have done and nothing that others have done that God cannot forgive, will not forgive.
We remember that Jesus came that we might have life and have it abundantly and so we seek the common good and cherish the public life of our community.
It is memory that lets us within God’s graced rather than out of our own merit.
Perhaps, most significantly, what we remember is just who it is that we as Christians seek to follow.
Paul tells of this Jesus by quoting an early hymn—and if you look in most Bibles, you’ll see that his words are presented more as poetry than prose.
Christ Jesus, who though he was in the form of God
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself..
being born in human likeness.
and became obedient to the point of death,
even death on a cross.
It’s important for us to stop at this point to consider the astonishing message that we hear in these words.
To speak of Jesus “in the form of God”—of the “pre-existent Christ”—is an attempt to affirm the transcendence of Christ. The human Jesus is also the reality beyond all that is. In saying this, early Christians and Christians today announce the goodness of the world, of our bodies, and of life itself. Biblical scholars tell us that this is a hymn about kenosis. That is to say, this is a hymn about the pre-existent Christ “emptying” himself, taking on human flesh in Jesus. It is a Christmas carol of sorts—a song of the incarnation.
Now, this hymn offers no moral message. It does not tell us: “humble yourself now and later you will be number one.” At the cross, the future was closed. Karl Barth, reflecting on this hymn said that the door was locked; obedient service came to a bitter end. Or as another person put it, the grave was a grave, not a tunnel.
The Jesus of this hymn is the One who came not to be served but to serve. This Jesus is the One who came not to condemn but so that all people might have life.
Paul writes to the Christians in Philippi from prison. With deep affection for this congregation he writes out of his concern that the church is facing great outside opposition as well as internal conflict. He does not chastise or rebuke. Instead he reminds the community about the events that shaped them and that define who they are.
The incarnation and the crucifixion continue to shape and define us as Christians today. God invites us into full involvement with our world, involvement that means we work alongside other people rather than stand in judgment of them, involvement that means we work toward abundance of life for all rather than for those who meet some standard of worthiness.
As this ancient hymn concludes, the subject changes. God acts.
Therefore God highly exalted him…
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth.
Yes, it’s an old cosmology, this “heaven and earth and under the earth.” But it expresses the hope, both ancient and enduring, that the prophet Isaiah spoke of, that all the people of the earth might one day know the God who creates, redeems, and sustains all life.
This early Christian hymn calls us to humble service instead of judgment because that is the way of the One whom we seek to follow.
Paul suggests that when we have among us such a mind as was in Christ, we start to exhibit characteristics of healthy congregations:
Encouragement in Christ
Consolation in love
Sharing in the Spirit
Compassion and sympathy
The encouragement, consolation, sharing, compassion, and sympathy that Paul regards as hallmarks of a vibrant community of faith will show themselves today in ways that make sense for our time—which is why we can hear those words about “fear and trembling” as words of hope and encouragement.
To a healthy congregation, reminded of it heritage, Paul writes, “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling”—and, yes, that can cause us some consternation. We recognize that it is a terrible thing to fall into the hands of the living God. What we do has consequences.
But we also believe that, as Paul reminds us, “it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for God’s good pleasure.”
We each have our own work to do. Together as a congregation we have our larger work as well. And in all of our work, God is seeking to do a greater work of love.
We come together to remember that God is at work in us.
We go out to do the work that God is working through us.
We in the Congregational United Church of Christ, are descendants of the great Protestant reformers who challenged empires and reordered societies. The traditions we bear have continually fostered important innovation in meeting social needs. These traditions have produced powerful voices of prophetic judgment and have frequently given birth to great movements of moral protest—again, saying “no” but also saying “yes.”
In the past fifty years alone, it was Mainline Protestants who addressed such issues as racism and civil rights, welfare for children and families, nuclear weapons, Vietnam, the role of the U.S. in Central America, the Gulf War, the shifting line of separation between church and state, hunger and homelessness and poverty in America.
If we—or other mainline congregations are having difficult times, it is because, as Walter Russell Mead said, we live in difficult times.
In our time of cultural upheaval, we can embrace our liberal Protestant tradition and seek its renewal even as it renews us in this congregation.
In the months ahead, remember who we are—children of the living God who is with us always.