Dwell With You

I’ve heard more and more from people about a series of articles the Star Tribune has been running since this summer called “Test of Faith: The Unchurching of America”[1].  It focuses on the stories behind the trends that church professionals and religious writers have been raising alarm bells about for probably thirty years: the church is shrinking

Rev. Megan Torgerson

Jeremiah 1:4-10; 7:1-11

I’ve heard more and more from people about a series of articles the Star Tribune has been running since this summer called “Test of Faith: The Unchurching of America”[1].  It focuses on the stories behind the trends that church professionals and religious writers have been raising alarm bells about for probably thirty years: the church is shrinking.  Some would say it’s dying.  Church membership and attendance is decreasing universally across our country, though it’s happening much more rapidly in some traditions and denominations, most notably our own.

In the most recent article, the voices lifted up were the “nones”.  I don’t mean NUNS, like women in wimples and habits in cloisters.  I mean NONES, those who, when asked about their religion, claim “none”.  In some cases, they used to go to church but now don’t, maybe because of a critical crisis of faith, but maybe just because of a slow drifting away.  In some cases, they were raised with little to no religious connection and therefore saw no value or need.  Most of them aren’t necessarily unbelievers.  They just don’t want to affiliate with a church.

I am very literally preaching to the choir here, and many of you who shared these articles with me expressed surprise that someone could find no benefit in being part of regular worship in an organized religion.  So, here are some of the things these people said in that recent article:

“I can’t imagine that only one religion has access to the pearly gates… I realized there are all kinds of different paths to being a good person.”

“I like the teachings about helping others, about creating community. But I don’t think you need a big organization to do that.”

“You listen to a sermon and you read some Bible passage and there’s no real connection to your daily life.”

I can see you shaking your heads and crossing your arms, but we shouldn’t be too surprised.  If we’re honest, we’ve heard these things before.  They are perfectly reasonable assessments.  We deserve it.  We need to listen to what these people are saying without defensiveness or judgement.

Church, we need to hear these things because we did this to ourselves.  We are the ones who gave people the idea that Christian faith was only about being a good person.  We are the ones who said that the only way to fix society’s ills was through our version of rote belief.  We are the ones who came to church, heard a sermon, read some scripture, and then stopped acting like it mattered in our daily lives.  You want to know why people aren’t coming to church?  It’s because of us.

We are the ones who have trusted in deceptive words to no avail, to use Jeremiah’s words.  We are the ones who have put our trust in people and programs and policies that are not God so we might gain power.  And we said we wanted that power for God, but really, we wanted it for ourselves.  We are the ones who have made the church look like a place where hypocrites go to keep looking important.

I’m not telling you this to make you feel bad about yourselves.  Okay, I am a little bit.  But more than that, I’m telling you this because God is at work in the truth-telling of these Nones, and we are being called to account.  I’m telling you this because what these non-churchgoers are declaring is also what God in Jeremiah is declaring: “Amend your ways and your doings, and let me dwell with you in this place.  Do not trust in these deceptive words: “This is the temple of the Lord””

Let us not be so prideful and self-centered that we can gather here on Christ the King Sunday, a day to be reminded of Jesus’ powerful reign over all the world, and say that just because we came in the doors of this building that we’re somehow better and more godly.  Let us hear the words of Jeremiah and be reminded that when we call Christ the King of our lives, we commit ourselves to a revolutionary, counter-cultural way of life that does not guarantee we will look good or feel more special, but rather that we will continue to build God’s kingdom here on earth both when we gather together in worship and when we protect and provide for immigrants, parentless children, vulnerable adults, and any of the powerless to whom God calls us.  Let us be reminded that if we make going to church the most important thing, we have made church into our god, and that is not the same as God alone being God.

God calls us into worship this Christ the King Sunday to remind us that it is good to be here and also to continually reorient us to the reality of Christ leading in every bit of our lives, inside these walls and outside them.  We need to be in worship, yes, and we also need to be in the world.  The world needs God’s kingdom to come to them, and we help do that.

This Sunday exists to wake us up to the challenge of faith in this day.  Christ the King is a modern addition to the calendar in response to the church’s shock at the rise of fascism, war, and human suffering.   The Lutheran church only started observing it within the past 50 years, but Pope Pius XI instituted it less than 100 years ago, after WWI and all its horrors, giving the following reasoning:  “If to Christ our Lord is given all power in heaven and on earth…  if this power embraces all, it must be clear that not one of our faculties is exempt from his empire… He must reign in our bodies and in our members, which should serve as instruments of justice unto God.”[2]

This Sunday was not intended to be one where we pat ourselves on the back, self-content and proud that we made the right choice, as if we’re somehow better than all the rest of God’s good creation because we happen to be in the right building on Sunday morning.  This Sunday reminds us that we need Christ to be our king, because left to our own power-hungry devices, our neighbor suffers.  We suffer.  Our selfishness mocks God.  This Sunday calls us to account.

Are you truly living in the day-to-day political reality that Jesus your King rules over every single thing you do, say, take, give, want, and have? Does he truly dwell with you in this place: in this church, yes, but also in your home, your work, your school, your neighborhood, your life?  When someone looks at your calendar, your bank account, your Facebook page, your driving habits, will they know you’re Christian – and not because you say you are or because of the bumper sticker on your car, but because the way you remain accountable to God and the way you treat others show that Christ’s mercy leads you?

People of God, listen.  Listen to the message God shares with us in the voices of those who critique the church.  Let us live in love, apologizing where we have gone wrong and speaking boldly where we have let others define our faith.  Let us serve our neighbor who needs us, no matter how deserving we think they might be, because we believe our God dwells with them as much as God dwells with us here.  Christ our King calls us to truly live, speak, act, and worship as if he is the one, true leader of our lives.  Let us prepare a way in our hearts, in our lives, for Christ our King.  He dwells with you.  If you believe it, then live it. Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] This article, which also contains the quotes later in this sermon, can be found at http://www.startribune.com/fastest-growing-religion-in-minnesota-the-nation-is-none/498664191/ (Accessed 21 Nov 2018)

[2] Pope Pius XI, Quas Primas §7.  You can read the statement in full at: http://w2.vatican.va/content/pius-xi/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_p-xi_enc_11121925_quas-primas.html

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