Of birthdays and the hopeful church

(The as-prepared text of a sermon delivered at First Presbyterian Church, Morgantown, WV, on Sunday, May 24, 2015)

Old Testament:          Ezekiel 37:1-14
New Testament:         Acts 2:1-21
Gospel:                      John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15

538px-pfingstwunder_wolfeggHappy birthday, Church!

Yes, even for us dour Presbyterians, it’s OK to celebrate birthdays, and today – the 50th day after Easter – is Pentecost, the birthday of the church.

But some may be wondering: “What do we have to celebrate?”

A Pew Forum Religion and Life study released just a couple of few weeks ago certainly didn’t seem to have much in it for Christians to celebrate.

“The Christian share of the U.S. population is declining, while the number of U.S. adults who do not identify with any organized religion is growing,” the study said. (Pew Research Center 2015)

Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones.
Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones.
Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones.
Now hear the word of the Lord.

This is affecting everyone: Between 2007 and 2014, Mainline Protestants like you and me have dropped 3.4 percentage points to only 14.7 percent of the population, good for fourth place. Even Evangelical Christians declined, although not much, so when you want to argue about how all those big, bustling non-denominational churches are who we should emulate – that’s not necessarily the case.

“Unaffiliated” went from 16.1 percent of the population, jumping over both Mainline Protestants and Catholics to 22.8 percent, second now to only Evangelical Protestants.

Interestingly, non-Christian faiths grew to 5.9 percent from 4.7 percent.

In case you’re interested, in West Virginia, 78 percent of the population still identifies as Christian – 29 percent Evangelical Protestant, 29 percent Mainline Protestant and 6 percent Catholic. Only 18 percent identify as “Nones.” That compares to only about 71 percent Christian nationally and about 23 percent “None” nationally.

OK, no more statistics, I promise. But the study has some very intriguing data sliced and diced many ways. If you’re interested, just go to PewForum.org and navigate your way to the study.

This is a visible change. As we look around our own sanctuary, we see empty seats where friends used to be, and attend more funerals than we do baptisms. We struggle to see where it’s all headed.

But our faith has been here before.

Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones.
Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones.
Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones.
Now hear the word of the Lord.

You heard Mavis read from the prophet Ezekiel, who was writing to the Jews exiled in Babylon. Even though they had been removed from their beloved Judah and Jerusalem, Ezekiel reminds them that there is hope, through God.

Listen for another reminder of the hope that we have, this time in the Gospel of John, chapter 15, verse 26, through chapter 16, verse 15. Listen for God’s word:

When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf. You also are to testify because you have been with me from the beginning.

I have said these things to you to keep you from stumbling. They will put you out of the synagogues. Indeed, an hour is coming when those who kill you will think that by doing so they are offering worship to God. And they will do this because they have not known the Father or me. But I have said these things to you so that when their hour comes you may remember that I told you about them.

I did not say these things to you from the beginning, because I was with you. But now I am going to him who sent me; yet none of you asks me, ‘Where are you going?’ But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your hearts. Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. And when he comes, he will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment: about sin, because they do not believe in me; about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; about judgment, because the ruler of this world has been condemned.

I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.”

In the next few verses Jesus thoroughly confuses his disciples by telling them that “in a little while,” they will no longer see him, but that he will return. True to what we’ve come to expect from this bunch, they don’t get it and wonder among themselves what he’s talking about.

Clarity arrives in the second chapter of Acts, the first 21 verses, the familiar story of Pentecost and the birth of the church. Listen for the word of God:

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs – in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”

But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:

‘In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams.
Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
and they shall prophesy.
And I will show portents in the heaven above
and signs on the earth below,
blood, and fire, and smoky mist.
The sun shall be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood,
before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.
Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved

So yes, our faith has been there before, seemingly disgraced, hijacked, ignored, ridiculed, dismissed, laughed at – how many ways can we say it?

Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones.
Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones.
Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones.
Now hear the word of the Lord.

But what always seems to happen when we hit those low points? God happens.

“Prophesy to these bones,” God tells Ezekiel, “and say to them: ‘O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord.”

I believe I have heard the word of the Lord lately. Now don’t start shaking your heads, and looking sideways at each other. I’m not talking about nighttime visions, and big booming voices that only I can hear.

No, I’m talking about the word of the Lord, delivered by such people as E.J. Dionne, the unabashedly liberal columnist for The Washington Post. People like Phyllis Tickle, a Presbyterian-turned-Episcopalian and author of several books on what she has dubbed the “emergent church.” People like Jonathan Aigner, music director of a United Methodist congregation in Houston and a Christian blogger. People like Rachel Held Evans, a 33-year-old Christian author and commentator.

Within the past couple of weeks, simultaneously with the release of the Pew study, and in some instances because of it, this wide variety of people, along with many others, have all written hopefully about the future of our faith.

But don’t be mistaken, that future does not look like the past.

Which can be pretty disconcerting for someone like me. If you know me at all, you know I like to think I’m a pretty flexible, go-with-the-flow kinda’ fella’. And I generally am: one of the things I tell the folks I work with is to break any rule they want to – just know what the rule is and why they’re breaking it. (‘Course, when you’re talking about writing, mostly, a few broken rules aren’t going to have terrible consequences.)

Yep, I’m pretty flexible, except, I confess, when it comes to church. There, I’m stodgy. I like Bach, Beethoven and Brahms. I like worship done a certain way. I’m a proud member of God’s Frozen Chosen. (Now I believe I can defend all that, but that’s not the point for today.)

A lot of the debate lately about the decline of the Christian church has centered on worship styles. We need more life, they say. We need hipper music. We need to get a band. We’re tired of a bunch of old songs by dead white guys. We need to be cooler.

The young folks won’t come unless we jazz it up, we hear. Maybe we need a coffee house! I know, let’s change the name of the church so it doesn’t have the word “church” in it because, you know, that puts off so many people.

But this is not a sermon about worship styles, even though that is a symptom of the larger issue.

No, it’s a sermon about being true to ourselves, and to God and Jesus.

Listen, for example, to Jonathan Aigner, writing in United Methodist Spirit:

I love the theology, but I hate the expectations of pseudo piety.
Love the gospel, hate the patriotic moralism.
Love the Bible, hate the way it’s used.
Love Jesus, but hate what we’ve done with him.
Love worship, but hate Jesusy entertainment. (Aigner 2015)

Aigner was brought up in the church, and as I said is today a church musician, but many of the friends he grew up with have left, he says, because:

(T)hey grew keen to the bait-and-switch tactics. They’ve left because they didn’t fit in, and couldn’t pretend anymore. They left because the Jesus preached from the pulpit didn’t look much like the Jesus of Nazareth. They left because all the bells and whistles and hooks and marketing rang hollow.

They left because they had been constantly catered to, constantly kept busy, but had never been taught how to be a part of the church.

The programs won’t bring them back.

The coffee won’t bring them back.

The show – the lights, fog machine, the contemporary worship that we think is essential – nope, that won’t do it, either. (Ibid)

What will?

Well there are several things, from authentic worship – “Don’t give us entertainment. Give us liturgy.” – to not being treated as targets, but the most important thing, the quote-unquote “tactic” that will be most effective, and this observation is repeated in one way or another by almost all of the people I’ve been reading, is this: start acting like the Jesus we say we follow.

So no more three points and a take home. No more self-help. No more marriage and parenting advice. No more anger management pointers. We don’t need you to be our therapist, we need you to be our church. We need you to show us how to be the hands and feet of Christ, to struggle with us in making it more on earth as it is in heaven.

It’s not too late, church, but your tactics aren’t working.

It’s time for a new strategy.

It’s time to be uncool. To be radical. To be different.

It’s time to be yourself. (Ibid)

It’s perhaps a little unfair to speak to this congregation about “acting like Jesus,” because we certainly do a better job of reflecting the inclusiveness of Jesus than many others. And that inclusiveness is not just on the hot button issues of the day, but extends to our own members While as a congregation we have staked out a position on those issues, we know there are those among us who do not necessarily agree – in one degree or another – with those positions.

Nevertheless, with all this congregation has experienced in the last 10 or so years, we are together – despite our differences, despite our hurts, despite even in some cases our anger – because I like to believe we see ourselves as children of God, as one family – and you don’t get to chose your family.

But there are many other examples of Christ’s flock out there less reflective, I submit, than this one. Some of the hate and viciousness that spews from their pulpits, their leaders and their members is disturbing beyond measure.

We wonder why the church seems to have lost influence. We wonder why the numbers are falling. We wonder why the “nones” grow in the Pew and similar studies. We wonder what’s behind this “spiritual-but-not-religious” trend.

But then we look at a place like Fountain Hills, Arizona, where eight churches, (unfortunately including one PCUSA congregation) have teamed up in a sermon series attacking progressive Christianity – especially as practiced by a local United Methodist congregation called The Fountains, which when you read about it sounds remarkably like our own. (Smietana 2015)

It is that kind of Christianity, which drives people from the faith. In fact, it recalls for me these words from the Gospel reading John:

Indeed, an hour is coming when those who kill you will think that by doing so they are offering worship to God. And they will do this because they have not known the Father or me. But I have said these things to you so that when their hour comes you may remember that I told you about them.

Indeed one of the things the pastor of The Fountains says is that all the attention has actually helped his congregation grow. Perhaps there’s a lesson in that for us – and in fact we have seen some of that already.

But there is more.

Phyllis Tickle is among those who have noted that about every 500 years the church – and everything else – undergoes a radical change.

Writing in The Presbyterian Outlook, Tickle says, “(a)bout every 500 years, give or take a decade or two, the cultures of the Latinized Christian world go through a time just like ours — an epoch or era of enormous upheaval in which everything from politics to economics, from technology to social structures, from intellectual pursuits to domestic configurations and back again changes. Everything … and that includes religion.” (Tickle 2015)

Tickle reminds us that the Protestant Reformation was one of these 500-year upheavals, challenging the established church of the day, the Roman Catholic church. But the Roman church certainly survived, didn’t it? And so will ours.

As Tickle concludes:

What does need to be remembered now — and perhaps even more frequently elaborated among us than has been the case recently — is the history of our faith, the long way of its growing over the centuries, the patterns and truisms of its experiences and the inviolate assurances of its ongoing thrust. We and our forebears have been here before, and it was good. Now it is upon us to so live and so pray that it will be again. (Tickle 2015)

Indeed, there are signs it is already happening. E.J. Dionne’s recent column in The Washington Post was headlined Something is stirring in the religious world. Dionne noted that he had recently participated in panel discussion on poverty that was unusual in that it included a sitting president of the United States, along with politicians and some religious leaders. It was remarkable, he believed, because it demonstrated that dealing with poverty actually can find its way into the political discussion, and that a religious group made that happen. (Dionne 2015)

Sounds like what Jonathan Aigner is suggesting, doesn’t it?

That’s why I am hopeful, because I see more and more of this. I look at the number of younger families and members who have gravitated to this and other similar congregations. As I look around the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), I see a growing number of younger, progressive pastors who get it. And I see them having an impact on their congregations, helping them see the new Reformation.

I have said for years that we worry too much about numbers, too much about declining membership – what we need to worry about is being faithful. If we do that, the numbers will take care of themselves. I sense that is now happening. I pray that I am right. That E.J. Dionne is right. That Phyllis Tickle is right.

Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones.
Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones.
Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones.
Now hear the word of the Lord.

Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.

The Spirit is breathing a new breath into the church. Not only into the church at large, but I sense a new breath in this particular congregation when the Rev. Monica Styron comes on board in a couple of weeks.

I have no doubt that Monica is the person God has chosen to lead First Presbyterian, Morgantown during this time in its ministry. She will bring an energy, a breadth of vision, a willingness to explore that will definitely put sinews and flesh onto any dry bones lying around.

It is cause for celebration and joy. It means that the church is alive; that the Advocate is at work; that we are indeed dreaming dreams and seeing new visions.

That we hear the word of the Lord, and that is worth celebrating.

And what do we do when we celebrate birthdays, we sing. Janna?

Happy birthday to you.
Happy birthday to you
Happy birthday, dear church
Happy birthday to

And many more.

To God alone be the glory

Please join me in prayer.

Good and gracious God, from the very beginning, You have been trying to tell us that the core of faith is taking care of your creation, in all its manifestations – human and otherwise. Sometimes, we do a better job than others remembering that core. Help us to take the spark that is flickering in your churches and nurturing it to a flame, of strongly inhaling the breath of the Spirit. We ask in the name of your Son, Jesus the Christ, amen.

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