My husband Gary is a noodge. For those of you unfamiliar with this Yiddish term, it means “to pester.” Now, I know that our folks here at Grace know Gary as my helpful, clever, generous mate – and he is all of that- but he also loves to tease. Nothing makes him happier than to get a reaction out of his wife – and, as many of you might guess, there are a couple of topics that are pretty much guaranteed to get a rise out of me. That’s why his new favorite thing is to send me articles about how the church is dying – and then listen to me rant and rave about how anyone who has been paying attention knows it’s been going on for years, it’s only getting worse, and why does he want to upset me?
Gary isn’t really being mean. He’s trying to help. Many of these articles actually have some suggestions about how we can correct this downward trend. What is depressing is that no one can seem to find the energy and time to put some of these ideas into action. Most folks have enough to worry about in their daily lives. The recent political climate, ongoing concerns about illness despite living in an allegedly “post-pandemic” world, and the increase in violence both at home and far away have intensified those worries to the extent that rates of anxiety disorders went up by 25 percent in the first year of the pandemic alone. We feel like we simply don’t have time to save the church – and, let’s admit it – sometimes we wonder why we should. It’s a reasonable question – and one which is, I think, at the heart of both the declining membership of churches worldwide and the reason we don’t seem to have the drive to stop it.
The Christian church was formed and grew because the stories about Jesus and his example of living in harmony and service to others drew people together. They had shared concerns and dreams and the early Church gave them a way to share and work toward a mutual goal – a world in which all people had value and the right to live as they wanted. But our world is different. Our lives are different. We visualize Jesus as a poor, itinerant, semitic man wearing a simple robe and sandals. While we admire and love him, we can’t even begin to imagine what it means to follow him. And the institution of The Church is not always helpful. That’s because, in many cases, it has become a way of separating rather than uniting people. In this and many other nations, the church is not the province of the enslaved and oppressed, but of the powerful and rich. None of this means that we cannot or should not be Christians. It’s just a reminder that, unlike our ancestors, we are not so readily drawn to a religion built on sacrifice and sharing. We are the victims of our own privilege.
Lately I have been thinking about how much I have – and how inconsistent my lifestyle is with my calling to serve God. During the recent week of dangerous weather, I considered the fact that, while I prayed for those who were sleeping outside in the storm, I was praying, without regret, from the warmth of my own bed. I have also been noticing how many of my problems have to do with taking care of what I already have instead of insuring others have enough. I could argue that there are church leaders who are much worse – leaders who not only cling to what they have but actively steal from others. But I don’t think it matters how severe our hypocrisy is -it’s that we have consistently failed to follow the Lord we love.
And yet I know without doubt that we are still forgiven – that we remain loved and even desired by the God who created us and the God who saved us. We are no better – and no worse – than the legions of people who both loved and failed Jesus before us. Our actions and inaction do not doom us to a future of fire and brimstone. They do not make us evil. They remind us that we are human – something that God understands better than we do. From the creation of the world, human beings have chosen to separate ourselves from God and one another – to sin -but over and over again we have been given the opportunity to repent of our sins – to turn around -and to change. Through prophets, apostles, martyrs, and Holy Scriptures we have even been given instructions and examples of how to do it. And church gives us the reminder we need most - that we can’t do it alone. We need to gather in community to tell our stories, remember our promises, share our struggles, and work together to change ourselves and the world.
Those practices are the reason the original Christian communities formed and grew – and why it can grow again. Because those people, although vastly different than us, were desperate for the same things we are. The Jews who heard Isaiah’s description of the Saving Servant had been occupied, oppressed, and exiled, but they still believed in the one who would come and give light to the nations, release the prisoners, and bring forth justice. The first century Jews who were enslaved by the Roman Empire longed for the confirmation that Peter provides that everyone deserves to be accepted, free, and safe. All these people heard in the stories of Jesus the hope that they could live without anxiety, guilt, and fear.
The difference between us and them is that they knew they needed the way of Jesus, and we are no longer so sure. We worry that Jesus is not what we thought because human beings have manipulated his words to justify their own prejudices. Some believe that humans have evolved enough to find peace and harmony without God. Don’t believe it. Jesus lived among us so he could know us and walk with us, but he did not become like us, and we have not, for all our knowledge, become wise and compassionate enough to save this troubled world.
But we can save it, because we have already been given the understanding and means to create a community of justice, peace, and love. In today’s reading from Isaiah, we heard the beautiful description of God’s servant who would bring this vision to fruition. There has long been debate about who this servant is, with some believing that Jesus is the suffering servant and others viewing it as a symbol of all who endorse this dream. But I think what matters is not who the servant is, but what the servant does. The servant acts to recreate the world as God intended. The servant works for reconciliation and justice. The servant is Christ, but it is also the community that seeks to do his will. The servant is us.
This is why our members are baptized in community as Jesus was – because it is through baptism that we pledge to share with Christ in the work of salvation. It is through baptism that we commit ourselves to Christ and one another and are collectively blessed with the power and strength to heal, to free, and to transcend. By baptism that we are reborn as new creatures, better creatures – not once but each and every time we stumble, repent, and start anew.
We are a people of resurrection. Why then, should we fear death? The Church as we know it may die, but the truth and the power of the way of Jesus will never pass away. It will live on in all who believe in him and struggle to do his will. We are the church. What will we make of it? AMEN.
World Health Organization, 2 March 2022), “COVID-19 pandemic triggers 25% increase in prevalence of anxiety and depression worldwide,” https://www.who.int/news/item/02-03-2022-covid-19-pandemic-triggers-25-increase-in-prevalence-of-anxiety-and-depression-worldwide