As usual, it’s been a week. In the news, and in our lives.
Whatever you’ve got going on in your own life, I just want us all to take a deep breath. [breathe]
Believe it or not, it’s been three years since the 2016 election, touted as the most divisive in modern American history. You know, except for all the others.
On that day three years ago, we all gathered in this place and read this Gospel text.
“When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said, ‘As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.’”
And I told you one very simple thing: whether you are happy about the election of this President or whether you are afraid or angry or whether you are utterly indifferent, the message of the Gospel lesson is this: no institution, and no President, will save you.
Now, three years later, I read this text and I think not of elections and government, but of the institution of the church.
Here in New England, there’s a lot of fretting about the future, and with good reason. Take a drive through this Valley and you’ll find plenty of church buildings that are now functioning in many ways: day care centers, gyms, libraries, and even one now-defunct barbecue joint. We, here, fear the future and what it will bring for our small and mighty congregation, even as we today continue to function at an incredibly high level. If you question this, ask me about my schedule for today. We’re doing a lot, including feeding people on the street at Cathedral in the Night and helping people here in South Hadley restructure their financial lives at Financial Peace University. And, of course, we’re still doling out the word and the sacraments.
And that’s just today.
Later this week, though, I’m going to go to our synod’s convocation and listen once again to all of our fears about the future. I’ll hear my colleagues wonder if they deserve a living wage, since their churches can’t or won’t pay them one for fear of the future. And I’ll once again give thanks for you, even as we have our own fears about what the future holds.
“Jesus said, ‘Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is near!’ Do not go after them.”
Anyone who says they have the silver bullet answer to how to save the church is lying. The church only has one Savior, and I am not him. If you are hoping that I will be the one to grow the church into what it used to be, I have hard news for you. I am not the savior; I am only here to lead you, together with the other leaders of the church, into whatever future our actual Savior holds.
Not only will the institution of the wider church not save us, most days, I’m not even sure the institution itself can be saved.
“This will give you an opportunity to testify.”
The good news is, we worship a Savior who was raised from the dead.
The Isaiah reading for today is full of words spoken to a people who were far more hopeless than we could ever be. They weren’t afraid of budget shortfalls and closing churches; they had already seen their place of worship desecrated and destroyed by enemies. Their religious life together was, but for the small remnant of people, over. But the Hebrew people has always been small and mighty, not unlike a group of Lutherans that I know.
And what does God say to them?
“[My people] shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit. They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat; for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be, and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands. They shall not labor in vain, or bear children for calamity; for they shall be offspring blessed by the LORD– and their descendants as well. Before they call I will answer, while they are yet speaking I will hear.”
I am not the Savior. The Savior is my boss.
When Christ said, “On this rock I will build my church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it,” he didn’t add, “Unless you don’t have enough people in worship and have budget shortfall; then it’s over.” These promises, my friends, are eternal.
It has been said ad nauseam that every 500 years or so, the church undergoes a giant shift. The Protestant Reformation was our last one, and that occurred 502 years ago this year. It’s time.
The church of the future will not be like the church of the past. And no one person will build it. We will build it together. Yes, it will be hard. But this will give you an opportunity to testify.
I say to you exactly what I said last week. Whatever you are feeling hopeless about — whether it is the state of the church or the state of the nation or the state of your own life — hope is there.
Last week it was the religious leaders and today it’s the disciples who miss the resurrection there, in their midst, in the person of Christ. The disciples are impressed by this giant building, built for God. But they miss God, who was standing there in the flesh right beside them. That impressive temple would eventually be torn down, and to this day, it has not been rebuilt. But the Jewish faith lives on, and Christ lives on, here, with us, in this place in bread and wine and in all of you, gathered here, small and mighty.
My little flock, do not fear. Even if not one stone is left upon another of this building tomorrow, hope will survive as long as God is with us.
We are Our Savior’s people, and we will always be. So let’s look to the future with hope. Because institutions rise and fall all the time.
“But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.”