Change and the Church
June 11, 2017
Whether we want it or not, the theme for this day, this year, this decade is change. Today’s young adults are not interested in organized religion. It’s become clear that if churches do not change, they will die. This congregation has been called to the forefront of this challenge. 70 percent of the people in our neighborhood are between the ages of 18 and 30.
When I stop at the grocery store down the street on my way home from work, I am always the oldest person in the store. Usually by at least thirty years. How will these religiously reluctant young adults down the street embrace meaning, purpose, and faith? How will they address the needs of those who suffer? And what role do we play in that? This is the matter at hand whether we want change or not, and we are in the middle of this challenge.
A second change will also require the careful attention of this congregation: the challenge that faces social services and care for those in need. Substantial changes in this area involve new ways of funding, new partnerships with emerging organizations, and new approaches to providing shelter and assistance which are both more humane and more effective than some of our current practices. How long will we use church basements to house the homeless? How will financial assistance be assembled and distributed? How will incarceration work? And how will we welcome new people to our country and city? These changes will be happening as public resources for caring and assistance diminish. These changes already are directly affecting the mission of St. John’s and will require some precise navigation in the coming years. As important the millennial challenge is, and as important as care and advocacy for the poor is, I suspect that the congregation’s capacity to navigate social service transformations with creative solutions will actually determine our fate.
But as we find our way in these changing times, we have the scripture to guide us. Let me say that again: we have the scripture to guide us. What a trite thing to say. Really? Seriously? In the face of overwhelming change, we just turn to the Bible as our best resource?
But a pastor is not only an agent of change and not only a servant of the people, she is also a servant of the word: dedicated to its weekly interpretation over years that turn to decades. And one of the most important changes in our spiritual lives has been change in the interpretation of the word over the last fifty years.
When I was young, the Bible was the story of Jesus Christ dying on the cross to save us from our sins, so that we could all go to heaven and live with those we love. And in some ways it still is that story.
But by the 1960’s there were some problems with this. It turns out the Bible is not a story. It is not even several stories. It is a collection of material from a variety of sources making quite a few different points about how the divine is active in the human endeavor. Forcing everything into the narrow funnel of salvation left large pieces of the Bible dangling. And after World War II, Korea, and Viet Nam, with the world trying to piece together some existential sense of what life means; the scripture became a source book for meaning and purpose. From the early sixties through eighties, the Bible became a theological book. We found in its weekly exposition meaning for our lives here and now: the possibilities for how to treat our neighbor and how to live lives of hope. I cut my teeth on this stuff. This was the great era of biblical theology: the time when we made meaning from the pages of scripture. And in some ways the Bible is still the source of meaning and hope as we make sense of our lives.
But there were some problems with this, too. The Bible became in some ways the captive of philosophy and psychology. And with the growth of liberation theology, the Bible itself was liberated from being the source of personal meaning making, to become the story of social liberation from the forces that control and suppress. Jesus was no longer the savior who died on the cross to save us from our sins. The crucifixion became the sign of the ultimate cruelty of the empire. And the resurrection became the ultimate symbol of hope for the human struggle against the forces of oppression and darkness. And in many ways this is still the meaning made of the Bible.
But there are some problems with this, too. In the culture wars of these recent decades, this approach became the foundation for the agenda of the politics of the left. And in the meantime the old story of salvation became the foundation for the agenda of the politics of the right. While those few people remaining in the boring middle were left to knit whatever meaning they could out of biblical theology that felt old even as it was created.
But now interpretation is at another turning point. I am retiring just as a new approach to scripture is dawning. One of my real regrets is that I will miss the full force of this change in interpretation. It is not really taught yet in seminaries as far as I can tell. It does not yet have a name or a label. And maybe in our postmodern times, labels don’t work very well anyway.
But it is coming. Fueled by new capacities in archeology, anthropology, and ancient sociology, and augmented by a tremendous increase in the first century Christian manuscripts available to us, we now are just beginning to shift our interpretative lens. When I was young, 90 percent of the known Christian writing of the first century was in the Bible. Today the Bible contains less than 20 percent of those known writings. And as archeology now is able to focus on daily life rather than the lives of kings, we are moving away from interpretations based on empire or theology or salvation, into interpretation based on how first Christians lived, what they did, and how they shaped their congregations for mission.
Interpretation of the New Testament is now focusing on congregational adaptation to specific missions of healing, teaching, economic communes, funerary and other social societies, as well as monastic centers, many of which were initially led by women. And here is the thing: this focus provides us with strategic advice on how to shape church life as we face the changes swirling around us. We are discovering with deep detail the insight and practices of our ancestors in the faith as they, in their fluid first century, built Christian assemblies passionate about their specific missions. And here is another thing: Because the average life span in the first century Roman empire was 35 years, these ancient congregational missions and ministries were developed and recorded by and for young adults. What we read in the New Testament is the activity of the first Christian millennial generation giving shape to new ways to live the faith. And as we try to figure out how to be church in these changing times, we have the scripture to practically guide us, in startling new ways, one Sunday at a time, one text at a time. Faced with the overwhelming generational change that defines our neighborhood and the changes in caring ministry that will confront us; we will discern our path in light of the practical spirituality and community building of our ancient but very young predecessors. We have the Bible.
I must say goodbye. But remembering those missional strategies of first century Christians, you still have a neighborhood to address. You have a caring ministry to carefully shape and craft. And you have a Bible to read — in fresh new ways — to help in this important endeavor. Wow. What a future you will have.
We must part now. We all just grow old, and need to slow down a bit. Any decent reading of Psalm 90 says it’s time for me to go. I am actually looking forward to shaping a new chapter of my life. Just as you face uncertainty and change, so do I. But as God will watch over you, God will also watch over Judy and I, even as I lay down the vocation I felt called into when I was a young child just a bit older than my grandchildren. The voice that called to me then, and has sustained me on this path, is still with me, reminding me to through a Psalm to let go, and to embrace the changes ahead.
My heart overflows with gratitude for your good will and gracious support through these years. I am thankful to countless volunteers, lay leaders, staff, congregational members, partners in our mission here, and those on the edges of our community who are really at the center of our hearts. I am especially thankful to Judy for her years of support and wisdom in this vocation. Thank you. As I have said to you countless times at the end of my correspondence: thank you for your partnership in the gospel.