Today in the church’s liturgical calendar is Festival Sunday – at least at St. Paul’s. Liturgically, summer is done. School’s started. Sheep that take off for the summer are returning. We welcome the Milwaukee Children’s Choir, leaders, staff and families, and other guests this joyous day. And all are invited to the festive garden reception. Your only cost – you have to listen to my sermon.
Some years ago, noted theologians and pastors wrote essays for a national a clergy journal “How My Mind Has Changed.” Over time, our minds and faith change. So does the church. Over the years, I’ve had many opportunities to be wrong, and I often took them. Some recalculations of my positions are self-imposed; others are forced. After seminary, I figured God wanted me to change the world. Lack of support for my efforts forced me to change my mind. I was puzzled. After all, I had a Masters’ degree in religion. Something must be wrong with them. I begin to learn I must get over myself. Festive – I would not have used that word at the time. Now I sense even in tough times, to know God is with us is cause to celebrate.
That may be what Jesus has in mind when he tells Peter off: “Son, you better get over yourself,” well something like that. Peter’s going to have to change his mind and heart – get over himself, to recognize God is in Jesus. And that’s just half the story. Jesus also says, “If you want to ride with me – here’s where you sit. I’m driving. You’re not. You’ve got to die to yourself, to illusions about the world, your ego, your false gods, your plans so you can be open to God’s. Only when you lose your life and wrong attachments – you’ll save your life.”
Have you noticed the mainline church in North America is unraveling? We’ve been trying to save our ecclesial life for decades, and we’re still dying. New tactics and strategies, programs and approaches, and church growth gurus promise to fix the church. We’ve evolved through being missional, organic, seeker sensitive. Some churches try “happy-clappy” music and “with it” worship. We reorganize, re-emphasize and then downsize. I tried many ways to re-vitalize church. It’s tough. Many churches and good Christian people remain in denial, burying their heads in the sand, praying people will join if they try harder to do what’s not working. Let’s admit it – it’s not. All that changes is a rise in collective anxiety. I suspect many churches will close within the next decade.
Some have come to believe the church is done. I don’t. I have great hope and confidence about our future. Here’s why. I keep telling you we are not in control of our lives – God is. That applies to the church as well. You’d think after running into the same wall time after time, I’d learn. I am letting go of trying to fix the church.
Instead I believe God is calling and has been calling us to new places. To get there, we’ll have to let go of ourselves – die to what we anxiously hold onto from the past – to be able to find where God is, and join God there – in the world.
Ever since the Garden of Eden, God has been snatching victory from the jaws of defeat. God’s people have been saying – “In God We Trust,” but not as much as we trust our new technologies, social media, innovations, Facebook and breakthroughs, I suspect. I am for all these. They make life better in many ways. Social media is the printing press of our day. It can help us communicate the gospel to many who won’t enter a church. But it’s a tool. It won’t save the church, nor will programs and strategies. God is in the saving business. We discern where God is working in the world and join God out there.
Our first task is to let go of our denial and the past. People are no longer busting down the church doors to join – you notice? They’re looking for God all right – but not in here. So we go where God is – in this neighborhood around the church – in your neighborhoods, in one another. For them Jesus is still a compelling figure, often in spite us. They find hope and meaning in Jesus. They look to see if we do, too, in our values and by how we live what we say we stand for. They believe Jesus really does forgive them, loves and welcomes everyone, the poor, the sinners, and even those who cling to the wrong things. They long for authentic relationships rather than irrelevant rules, for grace not judgmental-ism. Jesus offers the way they believe gives purpose to life. The church needs to get over itself to be with these people where God is. That gives life – when we connect where God is – in people we are yet to meet.
I invite any who wishes to explore this with me to join me – in reading a bit, talking, listening and discerning to discover what God is up to now. We may discover God is actually stirring in people we’d never consider. It’s risky. But God never calls us to be a chapel of ease. God is out there fixing the world – with or without us. Will this work? I don’t know. God doesn’t need a lot. God has been taking a few loaves and fishes, and – you know the story. God uses a cross, nails, death, ordinary disciples, whose greatest gift seemed to be messing up. And with such pathetic resources – well, here we are today. I am confident if we risk going to where people are – not to fix them, but to listen and love them, we’ll find God waiting. After all folks, what can we really lose? And if we die trying – at least we are faithful. You know Jesus said something about that, too. He’s more into faithfulness than success. To me, that is what’s festive this day. God sets a feast of persistent love for this world. Anyone interested to taste and see?