(I preached the following sermon on Oct. 25, 2020, Reformation Day. It was in response to Jeremiah 31:31-34.)
A couple of weeks ago, I included part of a synod council report from Pastor Richard Jorgenson, our Synod Director for Evangelical Mission, the person who focuses on new mission as well as redevelopment of congregations within our synod. In this report, he offered his observations about emerging trends throughout the wider church. Here’s a little of what he observed:
In person gatherings in our congregations will not return to pre-Covid 19 levels even after a vaccine becomes available. Currently, in person gatherings tend to be between 15-40% of pre-Covid numbers. We anticipate after a vaccine is widely available, we might see perhaps 70% of our pre-Covid in-person attendance.
At the same time, online ministry will remain essential as we move into the future. The online platform will expand our mission in some exciting ways.
We will see widespread burnout, depression and anxiety among both rostered and non-rostered leaders in the church. And we anticipate the largest wave of clergy retirements since post-WWII as a direct result of the pandemic.
At the same time, we will see emerging new mission possibilities that will require greater collaboration among congregations and other ministries.
And finally, there will be increasing conflict within congregations, as people are faced with competing options and viewpoints for paths forward in ministry.
This is on top of the 70+ year larger trend of declining religiosity in America from its high point in 1959. Or maybe more accurately, religiosity is readjusting to more long-term historical levels.
So where are we headed? That’s the question we are asking. The question we desperately want to have an answer for.
Today’s selection from Jeremiah starts this way – “The days are surely coming, says the Lord.” Humans have been wanting to know where they are going for a long time. God knows this and declares where we are heading.
The days are surely coming, says the Lord. When God declares that the days are surely coming, it’s time to listen. It’s time to pay attention, because God’s up to something and we are along for the ride.
The days are surely coming, says the Lord. When we hear that, it means things are about to change. Everything that we held onto as safe and secure and predictable and in our sense of control are about to be rattled and shaken. The old church line of “this is the way it always has been” is about to meet up with God declaring that the days are surely coming.
When God speaks, it’s time for us to listen. And sometimes the message that God gives is not one we want to hear. Jeremiah knew that well. The Lutheran Study Bible summarizes how Jeremiah and his message was heard by his contemporaries. It says, “Most of Jeremiah’s listeners thought he was a heretic who opposed the popular religious understandings and practices of the day. Some people thought he was insane. His friends and family stayed away. Religious leaders called for his death. Jeremiah was depressed, angry, and insecure.”
Martin Luther knew all about this too. He was declared a heretic, had a death sentence on his head, and was exiled in a castle. Why? Because of what he was declaring – the Good News about God’s grace being an unearned gift. This message shook the very foundation of the established Church to its core.
If we are honest, it’s not a message that people really want to hear – or rather, it’s really difficult for people to hear and really take hold of it. Our human inclinations and preferences are towards transaction, rather than covenant. In a transaction, we offer something in exchange for something else. We are equals. We deserve what we pay for. But with God, that’s not how it works. God doesn’t work on a transaction basis. God doesn’t give us what we deserve. We don’t earn God’s grace. We are given it. And we have a responsibility to live it out. We are called into Jesus’ mission in the world, in our neighborhoods, and in our relationships.
The days are surely coming, says the Lord. This isn’t a clarion call to look back to the past. God isn’t interested in going back. God is always going forward. Reformation is not about getting caught up with what happened 500 years ago. At its core, reformation is forward looking because the days are surely coming, says the Lord.
Christianity is forward looking. Christianity is about a goal – a journey and a destination – an ending. That ending and the journey along the way is about God and what God is up to. We are heading in the direction of the fulfillment of history. We’re not about looking to the past to re-create the past, to recreate some kind of supposed greatness of the church from the middle of the last century. We are called to go forward from where we are today because the days are surely coming, says the Lord. We are called to leave behind the desire for the packed pews of the past, but also leave behind the reality that high attendance in worship didn’t automatically translate into a living faith and discipleship for some. We are called to leave behind the nostalgia for the church being the center of the culture. That was something that came with a high price – that the culture manipulated Jesus into just a nice guy and that faith was about being nice and not rocking the boat, rather than getting our hands dirty in caring for the poor and outcast, seeking justice, and silencing or worse yet, losing our prophetic voice out of fear of being treated like Jeremiah. We are called to adopt new models of being church that fit the circumstances and challenges of today and to leave behind models that don’t work anymore because things have changed. And to recognize that such models in some places were actually abusive of the pastor and to some of the congregation.
The days are surely coming, says the Lord. Where are we headed? What days are surely coming for the church? What covenant-like plans does God have for us? What is God calling us to? How is God calling us to serve New Kingstown, our literal neighbors of this church building, and beyond? Do we even know the names of the people who live around the church building? I confess, I’m guilty that I don’t. I haven’t been a good neighbor in that regard. But it’s never too late to start because the days are surely coming when we will get to know our neighbors.
We gather as a church, not to hide away in a fortress or to avoid the world around us. Luther’s famous hymn, which we heard earlier, reminds us that God is our mighty fortress. We are called to reside in God, our mighty fortress, and to go out into the world, fortified and ready to face the world. We, the church, are the scouts who go out into the mission field to see the needs and also what assets already exist around us, the ambassadors who relate with strangers and represent Christ among our neighbors, the proclaimers who declare Good News for all to hear, and the physicians who tend to those who are hurt.
We gather as a church to be fed so that we can go out and feed. To be reassured so that we can re-assure those around us and the world. To draw strength in community in order to strengthen the community in which we reside in. Because the church is the people, the body of Christ. The church isn’t a place walled off from the world and the community, it is a beacon for all to see. The church, you and I, declare that the days are surely coming, says the Lord. And what are those days? They are days of forgiveness and peace, grace and mercy – so says the Lord.
The days are surely coming when the kingdom of God will be fully unveiled and implemented. We live in the time of the inaugurated Kingdom of God – it’s already started, but it hasn’t been fully completed yet. That is where we are headed and what we declare.
The days are surely coming when all peoples will be released from bondages that hold people hostage. The days are surely coming when racism, poverty, homelessness, addictions, greed, fear of differences, oppression, mistreatment, abuse and more will end.
The days are surely coming, says the Lord. What are those days for us church? How is God calling us to rethink our congregation in this new time and new reality? How is God calling us to use the resources that we are stewarding for God? Including the finances, the building, the land, and yes, the field? The committees and structure of the church?
How is God calling us to live into the days that are surely coming as individual disciples, followers of Jesus? How is God calling each one of us into opening Scripture and studying it and engaging with it? How is God calling each one of us to live out our faith in public ways through service and advocacy? How is God calling each one of us into pastoral care for each other, our neighbors, and our community? How is God calling each one of us to deeper spiritual practices and prayer?
We are not alone in this endeavor. We are walking on a path that we journey together. We are headed to the fulfillment of the Kingdom of God.
Reformation isn’t just something that happened 500 years ago that we can look back at and say – that was great – and then go on as if it doesn’t have any impact in our lives, our congregation, and our community today. Reformation continues. The church is always in need of reformation. So are our lives. So is our community. So is the world. Because the days are surely coming, says the Lord.
I don’t know about you, but in spite of the trends I shared with you at the beginning of this sermon, or maybe because of those trends, I am hopeful. And I hope you are too. I am hopeful because we are entering a time in which God is calling on us to be creative, to relearn how to share the story of Jesus with our neighbors in ways that connect us with them. God is active and alive and in our midst, right here and right now. God is calling us to dare to do great things, not get caught up in the great things that happened in the past. Not to be Christians who settle for mediocre and being content with just surviving and keeping the doors open for just a bit longer because we somehow might believe that our best days are behind us. They aren’t. God isn’t a god focused on the past. God is the God of right now and where we are going. God has amazing plans that are already inaugurated for this congregation, St. Stephen Lutheran Church, and for each one of us. That means you, and you, and you, and all of us – together. Why do I know this? Why am I so confident of this? Because the days are surely coming, says the Lord. And reformation continues. That’s why. Amen.