Sunday 10 November 2019
The Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 32C
I have been in the church my entire life, for forty years now. And for that entire time, people have been talking about how the church is dying. I have never been a part of a church that didn’t think it was dying. I have never been a part of a church that didn’t feel like it had somehow fallen from something that was bigger, better, healthier, more impressive that had come before. I know some of you have read Paul Nixon’s book, I Refuse to Lead a Dying Church. I have literally never been a part of a church that did not operate under the nagging fear of an impending death. If I had a dollar for every church meeting I have been in that someone made references to rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic, I would be a wealthy man.
And that’s true for a lot of people my age. Even in congregations that are pretty healthy, even in congregations that are growing, we all know what the trends are. In 1950, the constituent parts of The United Methodist Church had 9.7 million members in the United States, representing 6.5% of the US population. Up until that point, it had experienced more than 10% growth every decade since 1800 except one, and outpaced the growth of the US population in every decade except one. Ten years later, in 1960, there were 10.6 million United Methodists, but the growth was no longer keeping up with population growth. Membership stagnated in the 60’s, and by the 1970’s it was falling. In 2010, it was 7.8 million members, a decrease of 28% from it’s highest point. In that same time, The UMC has gone from being 6.5% of the US population to being 2.5% of the US population. I wasn’t able to find similar statistics for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, but similar trends of decline since the 1960’s have been experienced by all mainline churches.
And church decline has been the guiding narrative of how we understand ourselves for at least the last 50 or 60 years. I remember being a youth and hearing over and over that it was our job to shake up the church to make it more interesting and inviting for young people like us. We needed to bring young people back to the church. We needed to be the saviors of the church, otherwise it was going to die. And I remember going to seminary and being told that we needed to become the leaders for a new kind of church. If we didn’t make a cultural change within the church, then it was going to die. And I remember being a freshly minted pastor and hearing similar things. Oh, you’re a young pastor, so that means that young people are going to want to come back to the church. We used to have so many kids and so many youth, and we just need a young leader who can excite people and bring them back.
And then I go to Annual Conferences, to Synod Assemblies, to Bishop’s Convocations and District Colloquy and Order of Elders Retreats and Clergy Cluster gatherings, and we talk about the same things. We need to do something different or we are going to die. The world is changing. If we’re going to stay relevant, we’re going to need to be bold. We’re going to need to be transformative leaders who can solve this problem, who can make the new church for a new age, but always to do so within the established frameworks of how we do church. Our failure to grow is a failure of imagination. Our failure to grow is a failure of boldness and creativity. Our failure to grow is a failure of our leadership. Our failure to grow is because we are not in tune with the Holy Spirit, doing the new thing that God is doing.
I don’t remember the glorious time in the past. I was never there in the good times, when church was working how it is supposed to work. I never saw the good old days. In my experience, the church has always been looking backward in regret, but the glorious past is just a story to me.
This morning we heard words from the prophet Haggai. Before about a week ago, I didn’t know anything about Haggai. I’ve never preached from this book before. I’ve never studied it. I knew it was one of the minor prophets, but that’s all. I had to use the table of contents to find it in my bible.
So I’m guessing most of you don’t know very much about Haggai, either. It’s a short book. It has six separate prophecies in it. Very unusually, for the Hebrew Bible, each of the prophecies is precisely dated. This one starts out this way: “In the second year of Darius the king. On the twenty-first day of the seventh month.” That means we can say the exact day when Haggai spoke these words. In our calendar, it’s September 21st, 520 BCE. That’s crazy, right?
And we know what was happening in the world, then, too. I’m going to give you a few dates; just remember that since we’re in BC or BCE, as we move forward in time, the number of the year gets smaller. At the end of the 600’s, the Kingdom of Judah was under threat from the growing Babylonia Empire, based in what we now call Iraq. They started paying tribute to the empire in 605, and some of the Jewish people were deported to Babylon. In 598, King Nebuchadnezzar laid siege to Jerusalem, which led to a second deportation of Judean people to Babylon. In 588, Jerusalem was laid siege again, and this time the Jewish temple was destroyed. Again, many Judeans were moved against their will to Babylon. Most of them, and their descendants, were in captivity in Babylon for at least 70 years. Many never returned.
However, in 539 BCE, 48 years after the destruction of the Jerusalem temple, the Babylonian Empire was conquered by the Persian Empire, based in what we now call Iran. The Persians started to let Jews return to the land in 538, 49 years after the destruction of the temple and 18 years before our scripture this morning from Haggai.
By the time of Haggai in 520 BCE, there were many returned Jews living in Jerusalem, along with the Jewish people who had never left. But at the center of the city, Merced atop Mt. Zion, there was nothing but ruins. The temple had been destroyed 70 years before. It had created a major crisis among the people, because their entire practice of religion had been focused on the temple. For seventy years, that had been unavailable to them. They were left with no way to practice their faith as they had known.
Haggai gathers the people together on the site of the former temple, along with their leaders, and he shares a word with them. “Who among you is left who saw this house in its former glory? How does it look to you now? Does it look as nothing to you?” He’s asking them how many people are there who are old enough to remember the temple before it was destroyed. Do you remember back in the 80’s when we used to have a beautiful temple? Do you remember how people used to come from hundreds of miles to visit it? People came from around the world to visit the temple. They came with all kinds of offerings and gifts. Even people who weren’t Jews would come to see how beautiful it was. Do you remember? We were the talk of the world. But that was almost 70 years ago, and look at us now. No one comes on pilgrimage here any more. It’s not like it used to be.
Sound familiar at all? Do your remember 70 years ago when people used to come here to worship all the time? We could hardly handle all of the people who came to worship.
Like our churches today, the people of Jerusalem were dispirited with what had become of them. They had all heard the stories of their glorious past. Not all of them could remember it, though. Only a few had been alive long enough to have actually seen the splendor of the former temple, but everyone carried the image of that resplendent house of God in their minds.
In the midst of their discouragement, Haggai speaks God’s words to them. “So now, be strong, Zerubbalel, says the Lord. Be strong, High Priest Joshua, Jehozadak’s son, and be strong, all you people of the land, says the Lord. Work, for I am with you, says the Lord of heavenly forces. As with our agreement when you came out of Egypt, my spirit stands in your midst. Don’t fear.”
My spirit stands in your midst. Don’t fear. Haggai is trying to encourage the people to build a new temple, and he is ultimately successful. The second temple was not nearly as impressive as the first temple had been. It was not until Jesus’s lifetime, when King Herod commissioned a massive remodel, that the new temple would become the architectural match of its predecessor, and then it only lasted a couple of decades before it was destroyed again, never to be rebuilt.
Haggai was looking back to the old temple, trying to return to the way things were before. And while they did build a new temple, Jewish religious practice never returned to the way it was before. Jews had been spread all over the world because of the conquests of successive empires, and many lived much too far away from the temple for it to be a part of their regular practice. Instead, something new developed. This is the period when the use of scripture began to explode. Much of the Hebrew Bible was first written down in this period. The experience of the destruction of the temple and the deportation of the people meant that things could never go back to how they used to be.
But the story of God and God’s people did not end, it simply entered a new chapter. A new religious practice was born for a new age. No one knew that’s how things were going to happen. It wasn’t an intentional choice to increase the emphasis on written Scripture and to decrease the emphasis on a temple and burnt offerings. Over 4 billion people today worship the God of Israel. Almost none of them perform any kind of animal sacrifice like what used to happen in the temple. All of them read, study, and pray the sacred scriptures. We still worship the same God, but our practice and organization has been completely transformed.
We are in the midst of another significant cultural change. To us, right now, it seems like decline. And it is true that the institutions and patterns that we have known are in decline. Things aren’t going to go back to how they used to be.
But the story of God and God’s people is not over. God’s spirit still stands in our midst. We do not know what will emerge in the next phase of this millennia’s long story of God and God’s people. But we know that even if things change, the story will continue. We may not live long enough to see what emerges. There is no way to predict where that change will come from. And that can be hard for us, not knowing what is coming next or how to prepare for it.
But it is not our job to design the way the church will be a hundred or two hundred or five hundred years from now. God’s spirit is standing in our midst. God’s spirit will make the change. It may not even be our job to be a part of that new thing, though we may be a part of its beginnings.
In J. R. R. Tolkein’s The Fellowship of the Ring, Frodo tells Gandalf that he wishes he did not live in such a time of danger and change. And Gandalf replies, “So do I, and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
Our job is to be faithful in the time that we are, in the place that we are. Not to try to get back to the 1960s. Not to think that it is up to our creativity to save the church. Our job is to be faithful right now, to listen to what God is speaking right now, to answer the spirit’s call right now.
Because we know that even now, God’s spirit is standing in our midst. When we can’t see the road ahead, God’s spirit is standing in our midst. When all we see is decline, God’s spirit is standing in our midst. Even though the world may change, God’s spirit is surely standing in our midst. The story is not over. God will continue to lead God’s people. Gospel will still be preached. Grace and forgiveness will still be offered. God’s spirit is standing in our midst. Thanks be to God.