A sermon for All Saints based on Ezra 3
On Thursday afternoon this week, I found myself in what you might describe as a ‘sour mood.’ Or, as my wife likes to put it, I was ‘man-strating.’
First, early on Thursday I received an email from He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named here in the congregation, my own personal Caiphus. For some reason, he felt the need to email me to dispute Dennis’ sermon from last Sunday.
You know, the sermon that was written by and preached by NOT ME. I mean if I’m going to start getting blamed for Dennis’ sermons too then he’s got to step up his game. Specifically, He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named wanted to dismiss the Pew Trust statistics Dennis shared with you, about the percentage of people in their 40’s and 30’s and 20’s for whom church is not relevant to their lives at all.
His email was succinct: “I come to church every Sunday. If other people don’t that’s not my problem.”
That’s when I started manstrating.
Right after reading his email, I got in my car where I discovered that every single radio station was playing a campaign commercial, the kind explaining how this Tuesday is the most critical date in the history of human civilization and unless Barack Obama/Mitt Romney wins the earth will stop spinning, America will cease to exist, and the Death Star will reach full operational capacity.
Driving in my car, my mood worsened.
When I got home Thursday afternoon, my phone rang. And rang. And rang…don’t you love phone calls this time of year? Barack Obama’s campaign called me 3 times, asking for my vote and my money. Mitt Romney’s campaign called me 2 times, asking for my vote and my money. George Allen and Tim Kaine followed with robo-calls of their own, asking for my vote and my money.
So when my phone rang for the 8th time, I was full-on manstrating.
‘Is Jason Micheli there?’ the voice on the other end inquired.
‘No, he’s not here,’ I lied, ‘can I take a message?’
‘My name’s Matt. I’m calling from Princeton Seminary.’
‘Oh,’ I said, ‘this is Jason.’
‘But I thought you said…’
‘Never mind what I said. How can I help you?’
He then explained that he was a seminary student and that he was calling on behalf of the Bicentennial Campaign, soliciting gifts…and testimonials from alumni.
He tried to grease the sale by telling me all the new things going on at my alma mater, and then he asked if I would make a gift to the campaign.
I said sure. He said great. I said okay. He asked how much. I told him.
And he said: ‘Times are tough, huh?’
That’s when my mood turned truly foul.
‘Look kid, maybe no one’s told you yet what you can expect to make as a pastor but I’m not Bill Gates. Besides, you should’ve called earlier. I’ve already given money to Barack Obama, Mitt Romney, George Allen, Tim Kaine, NPR and the Rebel Alliance.’
He sounded confused.
‘Well, um, would you like to share any thoughts about how your seminary education prepared you for ministry? We’d like to compile these and publish them in the alumni magazine.’
And instantly my mind went to that email from He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, sitting in my inbox, still waiting for a reply.
And I knew this was one of those moments where a grown-up could choose to bite his tongue and not resort to petty sarcasm. But I’m not one of those grown-ups.
‘Sure, Matt, I’d love to share my thoughts. Here goes: Princeton Seminary prepared me exceedingly well…to maintain a church for church people.’
I could hear him typing my response.
‘In fact, Matt, why don’t you suggest to the trustees that they can slow down, delay the Bicentennial for several decades, because based on how Princeton taught me to do ministry it must still be 1950.’
‘That’s not the kind of feedback we were looking for’ Matt said.
‘Of course not, but its what you need to hear.
Princeton Seminary taught me to pray the kinds of prayers church people like, to preach the kinds of sermons church people like, to plan the kind worship services that church people like, to manage the kind of church that church people like.
But seminary didn’t teach me how to do any of those things in a way that makes church relevant and life-changing to an unchurched person.
And that’s the future, Matt. And the clock’s ticking. It’s ticking faster than any one in church wants to believe.’
Those Pew statistics Dennis shared with you last week- about how with each new generation the church plays an ever-shrinking role- those aren’t just numbers.
They’re people with names and stories. People God loves.
That’s why this week I sent our youth director, Teer Hardy, out into Alexandria and DC, to find some those people behind the numbers and hear their side of the story.
I wish I could show you the video he shot. If we were in the National Cathedral, I could show you the video. But since we’re in this sanctuary, you’re just going to have to listen. Here’s one of the responses (Cue Audio)
My name is ___________________.
I’m 33. I’m married and have a 1 year old boy. I work full-time.
As a 30-something, how relevant is the Church to you in your life?
At this moment, not very much. I guess it’s been almost five years since I worshipped in a church, besides a few weddings. Some of my earliest memories are of going to church during Advent.
I miss that element in my weekly life, of worshiping and belonging to a community. Part of me would like to have that resonance of faith in my daily life, but most churches don’t seem to have someone like me, someone my age, in mind. Your question could easily be turned around, couldn’t it? How relevant is someone like me to your church?
When you hear the word ‘worship’ what comes to your mind?
The word ‘worship’ doesn’t immediately lead me to think of institutional religious practices.
To worship, to me, is to reframe my attention away from everything I typically pay attention to as a full-time working mother, and turn to God, experience awe, gratitude, connection to other humans. I could attend a formal church service and never experience any of those things, but I do experience them in other ways and places.
What assumptions or habits do churches have that are an obstacle to someone your age?
I think there is a risk of the pendulum swinging too far in the other direction. I think churches sometimes try to pander and make themselves appear relevant to a young audience. People my age and younger are a lot savvier now. We’re marketed to all the time; we can tell the difference between a sales pitch and a genuine interest in us.
This is someone who grew up in church and is open to being a part of another one.
But did you hear what she said?
People like her won’t return to what they left if it’s the same exact thing they left before.
Now it’s easy to write people like her off. You can say ‘it’s not my problem.’
I could steer you towards plenty of people who would agree with you.
You know where they’re all at this morning? That’s right, in dying churches.
And Methodism’s got plenty of those. Churches who love their way of doing things more than they love their mission to reach new people.
Churches where perpetuating how they do things is their mission. Churches who feel no urgency until the day comes they can no longer pay the bills.
But, just in case there’s still some of you who want to dismiss the statistics and not be bothered about the strangers in the street who don’t think Jesus can change their lives, we solicited some other interviews too.
My name’s _____________________. I’m 24 and work full-time.
What about how churches do worship fails to resonate with you?
I think everyone is at a different place in their lives and everyone has a different perspective. I know that my ideas and opinions about things have changed, and I would be amazed if they didn’t change again. Sometimes it feels like churches want new and younger people so long as we don’t come with our own opinions and needs. We’re expected to sign on to exactly how they like to do worship. In that sense, it’s not much different than children’s church when I was a kid.
It’s difficult for me to accept someone else’s preferences if I don’t get the feeling that they’re open to someone else’s way of doing things too.
This other response come to me by way of Facebook:
My name’s ____________________. I’m a Graduate Student.
I think my faith is in a transitional phase. In college, I found Christian groups to be radical and extreme and it made me doubt the beliefs I had learned my whole life in church and youth group. It left me feeling that the Church just isn’t all that relevant to real life.
Worship sometimes feels like a passive ritual to me. You show up, listen, then go home. It doesn’t impact my day to day life.
Those two people. Guess where they came from?
They grew up here at Aldersgate. They’re ours. Yours.
So, even if you think we don’t have a responsibility to reach as many new people as we can, at the very least you should agree that we have an obligation to people like these two.
After all, you’ve made promises to them.
Remember? When they were baptized- you promised to do whatever it takes to nurture their faith.
If we’re not willing to create the kind of church that will be relevant to them when they grow up, then, frankly, we should stop baptizing them when they’re babies.
If we’re not willing to adapt how we do church, we should stop baptizing children.
Because every time we baptize, we vow to do everything it takes to make them a saint.
Shirley Pitts can tell you- John Wesley understood this.
Remembering the saints is something we do. Once a year.
Producing saints, Sunday after Sunday, day in and day out- that’s our Christ-given great commission.
This is what you need to remember.
Dennis and I- one of our three goals for the coming 18 months is to raise the number of people in worship by 10%.
Round it up to 100 people if you want.
Before you nod your heads and say ‘that’s a great idea!’ remember the Ezra chapter 3 catch:
We can’t say we’re going to build a new temple and think we can do so by replicating how we’ve always done things before.
Because how we do things now will net us what we have.
We’re making worship our number one focus this year and our goal is 10% more people worshipping God with us.
To get to that goal, we’re going to have to be creative, take risks, value people over preferences, we’re going to have to examine all our assumptions, we’re going to have to get more basic/more essential, and change.
And if you think I’m talking about worship style or music style, you’re missing the point. For example:
Most of you would be very reluctant to invite an unchurched friend to worship with you. I understand that reluctance, but it’s got to change.
Many of you can’t talk about Jesus or use religious language in a normal conversation with your peers. I was like that; I understand that, and we’ve got to change that.
Many of our members are involved in all kinds of activities in the church without ever worshipping with us. I understand that’s an ingrained part of the church culture, but it’s a part of the culture that’s got to change.
Other than acolytes, we don’t have our children or youth involved in worship, serving communion, reading scripture, helping to plan, leading prayer or ushering. I understand that might sound chaotic. It’s still gotta change.
Many of you don’t know the names of the people you sit near in church every Sunday. I DON’T understand that and it’s definitely got to change.
Many of you think worship is something Dennis or I or Andreas or Jason or the band or the choir offer you, and you receive- rather than something we collectively offer our larger community on behalf of God.
And more than anything, that mindset has to change.
Look, I know change bothers people.
I’ve been at this long enough to have habits I’m afraid to change.
But what I want to bother you more, what I wish I got emails complaining about, what I wish I got emails complaining about, is how our community is filled with lost coins, lost sheep, lost children and how we’re not laser-beam focused on getting them here so they can embrace a Father who’s waiting for them.
I want that to bother you because Jesus made it very clear: it bothers God.
I was still on the phone with Matt from Princeton when another call beeped in.
It was probably another campaign calling me for my vote and my money.
But at least it snapped me out of my rant and Matt said:
‘That’s a good point Mr Micheli, but transitioning a church into the future- don’t you think that’s your congregation’s responsibility too? Don’t you trust that God can equip your people with the necessary gifts?’
I told him he must get very good grades in seminary, and he chuckled gently.
And then the little jerk asked me for more money.
But he was right.
Building on our foundation for a new future is a gigantic, God-sized calling. And it belongs to all of us. Together.
Ezra says the leaders who build the new Temple after the exile are the grandkids of the ones who remember how things used to be.
Ezra says, at first, everyone thinks their idea to build a new Temple is a great idea.
But Ezra says some have a change of heart when they realize the new Temple won’t be the same as the old.
Some refuse to give their money to it, Ezra says.
Others opt out Ezra says.
But others, those who are old enough to remember what was 50 years ago, Ezra says they weep.
They weep, but they’re still there. They’re still there when the new Temple is dedicated. They’re still committed. They’re still contributing. Because of what God did for them in the past, they’re still invested in the future of what God’s doing.
And sure when the new Temple is dedicated, Ezra says you can’t distinguish the sound of celebration from the sound of grief.
But that’s okay.
Because as messy as it is, that’s what it sounds like- celebration and grief, that’s what it sounds like- when God’s People take the next faithful step.