Sunday, September 23, 2012

Pentecost 17B

Click here to listen to the sermon

“Don’t worry about the young people, pastor,” he told me, “After they have kids they’ll return to church to have their children baptized. They always do. It’s the cycle of life.”

That’s the common wisdom. And I hear that a lot.

While that may be true this morning as we welcome Chase into our family of faith through the sacrament of holy baptism, it is becoming less and less the case overall. And that presents us with a challenge as we look ahead into our future and try to discern God’s vision for us as a church.

I’ve been a pastor for 13 years and over that time I have seen the declining numbers accelerate. And while there are blips of growth here and there, the overall trend is downward. We fear for our future. And we look around and we wonder where all the young people have gone. We ask why they don’t come to church like people once did.

And so we dig in our heels, get angry and resentful about an insecure future. We blame the media for what we think is bias against people of faith. We blame the government for an increasingly secular culture. I’ve even heard some pastors blame immigrants for bringing their “foreign religion” to our so-called “Christian country.”

So we ask, why is this happening? Why are we in this place? How did we get here?

Even in our darkest moments, we look at our own children and other members of our families, and see how they’ve abandoned church, and we ask, “What did we do wrong? What could I have done better in the past so that my family would still attend church today?”

Here’s the answer to those questions. You have done nothing wrong. You were working with the tools that you were given.

I have the opportunity to talk to lots of people about faith and church, and about how they believe or how they don’t believe. And most people who have wandered away from the church point to a time or a place where they’ve been hurt by church folks.

The point out the long, tedious, pointless sermons that wasted their time and insulted their intelligence. They tell me about the mean Sunday school teacher who yelled at them for asking hard questions. They tell me about the nasty aunt who lectured them about the bible, and how they didn’t measure up to God’s standards. They’d tell me about the loud mouthed preacher who demanded that they vote the same way he did. I’d hear about the pastor who wouldn’t baptize their baby because the child was born out of wedlock.

I could go on but you get the idea.

And after hearing those stories, I think two things:

If I were in their place, I wouldn’t want anything to do with church either.
The church that has loved and nurtured me throughout my life, was nothing like what they described. If I were I wouldn’t be here. I’d be like them, watching football on Sunday morning rather than getting up at an inconvenient hour to sings old songs and read ancient stories.

The church at its best, hears what Jesus says in today’s gospel reading with deadly seriousness.

“Then they came to Capernaum; and when Jesus was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” 34But the disciples were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest...”

They argued about who was the greatest.

It’s when we argue, as a church, about “who is the greatest,” we hurt people. We hurt them with our ambitions. We hurt them with our demands that people live and believe exactly the same way we do. We hurt them when we shoehorn our way into their lives, passing moral judgment, making us feel big by making others feel small. We want to be the greatest among each other. But in doing so, we often push people away from church. And even away from God.

Some may push back on me and say, “Pastor, we need to have standards! It’s our boundaries that define us. We can just adopt a ‘live-and-let-live’ attitude, then we’ll be just like everyone else! Doesn’t the bible tell us that we’re supposed to live differently?”

To all of this I say: Yes! And Jesus sets those standards in the rest of that reading, he shows us what it means to live differently:

“Jesus sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” 36Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, 37“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

“Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all...”

Boy, that’s hard isn’t it? Especially when you really ponder its implications. Jesus isn’t making it any easier to grow the church if he keeps saying stuff like that.

And maybe that was his point.

I’ve been thinking about confirmation class recently. Mainly because we have our orientation meeting on Wednesday at 7:00 pm for both students and parents. I’ve been thinking about what we want to accomplish in confirmation class, and of course there are some basics.

Learn bible stories
Learn church history
Learn Lutheran doctrine
Learn Christian spiritual practices, etc.

But as I got thinking about all those traditional areas of confirmation study, they seemed to me, only part of the goal. Confirmation class is about our young people preparing to confirm the promises that were made for them when they were baptized. And we heard those promises this morning when I asked those speaking on behalf of Chase, “Do you promise to help your child grow in the Christian faith and life?” and the answer was “I do.”

But what is the Christian faith and life? The baptism liturgy sums it up this way: “To proclaim Christ through word and deed, care for others and the world God made, and to work for justice and peace.”

This is just another way of saying what Jesus did: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all...”

This is God’s upside down kingdom. We will be teaching our young people to be citizens in that upside down kingdom. We will be training them to agents of justice and peace wherever they find themselves. They will learn how to be God’s healing presence in the world. They will learn that the greatest among us are those who serve.

That’s a lesson on which we all could use a refresher. Because that learning never stops. It’s a daily remembering that who we are and whose we are. And what it means to live in Christ.

Today Chase began that life. This morning Chase has been received into full citizenship of the kingdom of God. He has been named and claimed as God own child through his baptism into Christ. And because of that Chase has been given a job to do:  To proclaim Christ through word and deed, care for others and the world God made, and to work for justice and peace.”

Just like each one of us here who have been washed in these waters. You are a child of God, empowered for great things in God’s eyes. As you have been adopted into the royal family as sisters and brothers of Christ, you are a people of peace. You are a people of justice. You are a caring healing presence.

And you will grow more fully into who God wants you to be.

So what does this mean for the future of the church? It’s hard to say for sure. But I do know that it means this:

It means that where peace and justice is honoured and lived, there is the church. Where mercy and forgiveness flourish, there is the church. Where care for others and all of creation are offered with open hands, there is church. Where promises of life abundant for all people is believed and received, there is church. Where greatness is defined by what we give rather than what we get, there is church.

And it all starts with a little bit of water.

May this be so among us. Amen.


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