Sunday, August 27, 2017
This week in response to the gathering of white supremacists and other hate groups in Charlottesville, a hashtag started trending on Twitter, #EmptyThePews. The idea came from disgruntled evangelical Christians whose pastors were either silent about the events happening across the country or who actually condoned racism from the pulpit. #EmptyThePews was basically a call for these evangelicals to leave their churches. It didn’t ask people to leave THE Church, but to leave their particular congregation if their pastors were preaching messages of hate. However, as you might imagine, the following on Twitter quickly morphed into people sharing (in 140 characters or less) reasons why they had left their church, period, beyond just the events of the past two weeks.
I was shocked to read some of the horrific situations people had encountered in their churches, and whenever I hear about this kind of stuff happening at church, I have a hard time understanding it. I grew up in the ELCA and I am proud of our church being a place of welcome, grace, and love. I hope you, too, have had positive church experiences and have a hard time like I do understanding why people might be so hurt by the church that they leave. Beyond the politics of this particular hashtag, I think we should pay attention to the reasons why people leave church instead of immediately placing blame or guilt on them. Because if you listen closely, you realize a lot of people still deeply love God and want to follow Jesus, they just don’t see the institution of the church helping people live their lives as Christ calls us to.
In the gospel for this morning, Jesus establishes the church with Peter as its leader. Jesus asks the disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” He knows other people throughout the region have different ideas about who he is, but he wants to hear from his closest followers if they get who he really is. And Peter does. For all the times he gets it wrong: walking on water a little bit but then sinking, questioning Jesus’ need to go to the cross to the point of Jesus telling him, “Get behind me, Satan,” denying Jesus three times on the day of his crucifixion, Peter at least gets this right – Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God! And for his faithful answer Jesus gives Simon son of Jonah a new name, saying, “you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.”
Jesus asks us, the church, “Who do you say that I am?” As a church, I pray that we at least get that right – we worship Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of the living God. As we confess who Jesus is as faithful Christians, then, just like Peter, Jesus gives US a new identity, too, as the church. Jesus establishes the church for a specific reason – he gathers his followers together to proclaim the good news that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God.
If we think about reasons why we go to church, we could confess that there are ways in which we as a church function differently than Jesus instituted the church to be. Our congregations might be places of welcome and grace – we may not engage in harmful behavior like public shaming or condoning racism, but there are ways that we build our house on sinking sand rather than the rock of Jesus Christ. We worship the building. We think of the church as our social club where newcomers are welcome if they do what we tell them to do. We cling to the past and treat the church like a museum instead of following the living God who calls us to adapt and live into the future. And so now I return to that question, if you were to tweet on the hashtag #WhyIGoToChurch, what would you say? Why are you a part of this church that Jesus established over 2000 years ago? What keeps you here?
If I were to answer that question, I’d have several answers that I hope are faithful! I’m a part of the church because that’s where my extended family is – some of the members of the church where I grew up know me better than my blood relatives. I’m a part of the church because my questions about God were welcome – I didn’t have to leave my brain at the door – and there were people to push me to grow deeper in my faith. I’m a part of the church because the day after I had a miscarriage people from the church showed up at our door with bbq ribs, corn on the cob, homemade bread and rhubarb crisp with ice cream for dessert. I’m a part of the church because together we impact more people’s physical and spiritual lives for the better through Lutheran World Relief, Disaster Response, Lutheran Social Services, World Hunger and the list could go on. I’m a part of the church because I don’t know what I’d do without my relationship with Jesus and I don’t know how to worship him without the body of Christ, this community, with me. That’s a way longer response than Twitter would allow. But think of the impact we could make in the world if we weren’t such good quiet Lutherans and actually spoke up about how God has made a difference in our lives through the church? What if we refused to participate in a society that so easily defines themselves based on what they’re not, and instead positively claimed who we are as beloved children of God and members of a church that bears Christ’s name?
I WILL BUILD MY CHURCH. One of our colleagues, Pastor Anna-Kari Johnson, associate program director for new congregations in the ELCA, has this on her signature line in her emails. Every time I get an email from Anna-Kari, I see this promise from Jesus that we heard today in Matthew. I WILL BUILD MY CHURCH. This can be hard to believe when we look around us and see churches shrinking and dying, and Twitter feeds filling with #EmptyThePews reasons why church is harmful, or irrelevant, or too human an institution to sustain. But Pastor Anna-Kari and Matthew reminds us, Jesus said, I WILL BUILD MY CHURCH. And the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. No twitter hashtag, no inadequate evangelism effort, no “wrong reason” for going to church or not going to church can prevail against the Church of Jesus Christ. Our particular congregation might be in trouble but the Church of Jesus Christ is not because not even death itself could defeat the resurrected Christ.
So in faithful response to this promise from Jesus we find in Matthew that I WILL BUILD MY CHURCH, Pastor Anna-Kari also says, “the church isn’t dying, it’s changing.” More and more in my work with congregations across the ELCA I see churches meeting in store fronts and schools, brew pubs and homes. For all the reasons why people have left or are leaving church, others are finding ways to connect to Jesus the Messiah and the living God in community, even if it may not be in a way we imagine a church “should” be. A hopeful sign I see across the church is that the people who are worshipping on Sunday morning know exactly why they’re there – and it’s not to please parents or grandparents, to maintain social standing in the community or because people feel guilty. It’s because like the first disciples, like Peter, they know they’re not perfect people who have it all figured out, but they want to follow Jesus. They know Jesus is the son of the living God and because God is living and active among us then they want to know how they can respond to be a part of what this living and active God is up to. From the very beginning, Jesus established a church to gather his followers together for worship, fellowship, and service. The reasons for being the church may have changed for us, but today I hear Jesus calling us back to being the church that he established, a church that is focused and grounded on him, our Rock and our Redeemer. We have the opportunity now to go and invite others to be a part of this great community of faith, the church. Amen.