Stop Saying the Church is Dying (a sermon for the Rocky Mountain Synod Assembly)

Stop Saying the Church is Dying (a sermon for the Rocky Mountain Synod Assembly) May 10, 2014

Inside a cave church in Cappadocia with Sara Miles.


A week ago I was fortunate enough to be standing near a cliff in Cappadocia, Turkey taking in the view of hundreds of caves carved from volcanic rock in an alien looking valley. My friend Sara asked what I was thinking about. When I confessed that I was worrying about preaching at my Synod’s assembly next week, Sara didn’t hesitate to remind me sarcastically,  “Oh, you mean that little text on how Jesus tells us not to worry?”

So, yeah, nothing like worrying about preaching a sermon on how Jesus says we should not worry to make ya feel like a schmuck.

As today got closer and closer I would tell myself  “don’t worry, just come up with a plan”. I’d read the text, call my preacher friends, pray, repeat. And I am here to say that I did not, by worrying, add a single sentence to my sermon. Not one.

But I did become curious about what worry really is. And I began to realize that, on some level, worry is nothing more than fear.  Fear that either I will not get something I want or fear that something I have will be taken away.  And both of those fears seem to be centered on finitude. The fact that nothing lasts forever.  That everything comes to an end. And Jesus says who by worrying can escape this reality? But also, worry is kind of all about scarcity…. because I don’t know about you, but I have never once worried that I would have more money than I need next month.  I have never once worried that I might be happy and healthy and live a long life.

And we come by this fear honestly in a society in which a perceived state of scarcity is what drives the free market economy.  But I think Jesus points here to a bigger reality than that.  A reality he calls the kingdom of God. A reality he always seems to describe as being like things around us that are common, and small and insignificant and unimpressive.

Which is as good a time as any to talk about the Lutheran church. It’s no news to anyone here that there is a lot of hand-wringing these days about the longevity of the Lutheran church.  And yeah – to be sure, we used to be bigger, more significant and more impressive.  Sure, we used to own more property, have more members, bring in more cash and leverage more power than we do today. It’s hard to argue with numbers. But the thing is, buildings,  numbers, money, power – and other aspects of worldly success may indeed be signs of A kingdom, but brothers and sisters, they are not necessarily signs of THE Kingdom.. I mean, were this denomination of ours a company, then for sure, investors would be scurrying for cover. But, people of God, maybe now is the time for us to take a hard look at the ways in which the church has tended to judge our success on a set of values that perhaps we had no business buying into in the first place.  Namely our society’s free-market corporate American values of what success looks like.

If that is the case, then I repeat – we came by it honestly. Swept up as we were into having banked so much cultural currency in America.  But those days have gone.  They’ve gone.

And so, what are we left with if we are no longer the Lutheran church of 1964?

We in the year of our Lord 2014 have moved our bishop’s office from a fancy office space surrounded by PR firms and media companies in the seat of Denver’s power grid and into a slightly run-down church building in an unimpressive part of town. To some this may a sign that the “church is dying” but to others it is a sign that the church is living. Perhaps our definition of success can shift more toward what is foolishness to the world and yet life to those in Christ. Buildings and budgets and social currency will fall away. But what stands is the kingdom of God. Which Jesus tells us is the Father’s good pleasure to give to us.

Society will still have the Fortune 500 for profits, and non profits for service and day care centers for children and the ELKS Club for socializing and Starbucks for overpriced coffee and many other things we may not ever be. But we should never judge ourselves as the church according to these things because you know what the culture around us will NEVER do? Preach the Gospel, administer the sacraments and proclaim forgiveness of sins. You know why? That’s OUR job.  That’s our main job and while we are free as the church, to participate in any number of other activities in the world that seem bigger and more impressive let’s remember:  We are those who have been, and continue to be, entrusted with nothing less than the Gospel.  And what I’m about to say is a shamelessly prideful (and being shamelessly prideful is, I have been told, “not Lutheran”) but in a world where people are constantly being fed spoonfuls of nonsense and told it is Jesus …we have a better Gospel.

So given what we’ve been entrusted with, we cannot be distracted any longer by a corporate American Empire version of success.

So let me be the first to say, if in your congregation, regardless of size, prestige or property, if the Word is preached and the Eucharist shared and water poured and forgiveness of sins received, then congratulations, your congregation is a success. So when the numbers crunchers and church consultants say the church is dying…may I suggest that we only say this when we forget what the definition of church is.

And when we forgot whose the church is.

Because as the prophet Isaiah said, the Word will do that for which God purposes it and people, regardless of what happens to institutions, and trends and property and budgets…even when the president of the United States stops inviting us to the White House Prayer breakfast – Even if there is never any such things as a White House Prayer breakfast and old church building are more often condos than centers for worship, God will be praised.  God will continue to send for the Word which God has always sent forth.  So let us step back from the worry of how the church is dying, because long after we have gone, the WORD will remain.  Long after the ELCA is gone, even when my beloved House for All Sinners and Saints is gone, the church will not be dead because people will continue to gather in the name of the Triune God, hold up bread, say it is Jesus and that it is for the forgiveness of sins. Just as we will do here tonight so will it forever be done until the time in which we gather around the throne of the Lamb.

But let’s remember this, people of the Rock Mountain Synod, that the Gospel is not just entrusted to you for you to proclaim, it is, to be sure, also intended for you to hear. So since we Christians are a forgetful people – and need to be reminded of that for which the church was even created in the first place – so…

People of God, do not worry because we have this Word-

That there is a God who created us and all that is, this same God spoke through prophets and poets, claimed a people to be God’s own and freed them from the shackles of slavery. This same God led those people through the wilderness to a land of milk and honey, and told them to always welcome the stranger and protect the foreigner so that they could remember where they came from and what God had done for them. Then in the fullness of time, and to draw ALL people to himself, God came and broke our hearts like only a baby could do and made God’s home in the womb of a fierce young woman as though God was saying, from now on this is how I want to be known. And as Jesus, God the Son kissed lepers and befriended prostitutes and baffled authority. Jesus ate with all the wrong people and on the night before he died, he gathered with his faltering friends for a meal that tasted of freedom. He held up bread and told us to do the same thing and he promised us so much: that he would be with us, that forgiveness is real, that we are God’s, that people matter and that death is done for and that after a tough resurrection, grilled fish makes an awesome breakfast.

Which is to say, God chose to enter the finitude we fear– enter into the uncertainty and danger of mortal human existence in order to point to something bigger.  Bigger than what is fleeting and finite.  In the incarnation God has given us nothing less than a small measure of eternity through the birth, life, death and resurrection of Christ.  And made us an Easter people – not people who vapidly pretend that everything’s ok – but people who live in the Christ reality of death and resurrection. People who live in the reality of a God who brings live things out of dead things.

I say this as someone who a week ago was hiking in those desolate valleys of Cappadocia, a land that for 1,000 years was populated with Christians and now is not. That is to say, we are not the first group of Christians to worry about the decline of Christianity.

Sara and I would climb up into caves and look around at ceilings filled with Byzantine Christian iconography. A thousand years of Christianity and now only ruins left. Yes, the big, impressive, successful Byzantine Empire fell, and yet the church of Jesus Christ did not die, if it had, how could 2 middle aged women stand in old cave church 600 years later and sing Christos Aneste? Christ is risen. A song that no matter what, will continue to be sung, because worry not, the tomb is empty, and God will be praised. Amen.

Browse Our Archives