My Generation and Church

Lenten Midweek reflection for 11Mar15
Isaiah 44:24-45:5; 61:1-4; Psalm 1

Paired with verses from the hymn O Blessed Spring, we are proceeding through our ages. Last week Paige talked about lively energy of children. Next week Edward may reflect on resolution and rest toward the end of life. Yet, today’s reflecting on faith among my age group is a matter of disruption, with probably the defining characteristic being that we don’t participate.

My age is approximately where many of your daughters and sons and grandchildren are. I share your pain and lament of wishing and wondering why they don’t come to church. I’ve even heard several of our older generation of members as they’ve been dying, that having their offspring connect to church would be almost a last request.

Yet there aren’t obvious answers. We can’t force each other to go to church. In spite of huge amounts of research and strategizing and books and books on the topic of faith and my generation, there is still no quick fix.

To start, some standard generational differences are helpful to highlight. The World War 2 generation built St. Stephen’s and many mainline congregations. That generation by-and-large trusted authority. They came to church just because it was the right thing to do. The Baby Boomers were more skeptical. They went through Vietnam and Watergate. They were willing to question church, among other authorities, and hold them accountable.

We younger generations, however, are said to have lost almost all confidence in institutions. There is nothing about a national brand of ELCA (or McDonalds or Oldsmobile) that automatically has our loyalty. We won’t say, “my country, right or wrong.” Instead, our loyalty is relationship-based, in diffuse small groups, online connections, and what we experience.

One way this is talked about is that the older generation would give out of a sense of duty and would give just plain to support the budget of the church, but younger generations respond specifically to causes or projects. And the more evidence they have their giving makes a difference, the better.

Among my people, I’m an anomaly. I wasn’t a church-geek as a kid, but since I started college I’ve probably hardly missed two weeks of church in a row. That’s weird. My peers don’t have that kind of rhythm. Sometimes it’s because our lives are actually busy, and work weeks aren’t 9-to-5 Monday to Friday. Or because we’re more mobile, and traveling on weekends. Or because life just feels more distracted, since we’re bombarded by news from around the world and are always in touch through social media and have zillions of other media options. We’re the generations that were first to have VCRs and cable, on to video games and cell phones and the internet. Even having children, which in former times was supposed to bring people back to church, doesn’t work well in my generation, with lives so overprogrammed from the get-go.

A lot of this reflection seems pretty dismal. So the first of my bright sides amid the darkness is that, even though my generation is less in church than others were, still when we we’re here it’s because we want to be, because it’s important to us. I like to share my anecdotal evidence that even in the 10 years I’ve been here I’ve witnessed a change. It used to be that young families brought children to be baptized as an insurance policy in case something bad happened (we’ll say more about that later) or just because they’d been baptized and thought it was what they were supposed to do. The same for parents of Confirmation students, saying, “I had to go through this even though I didn’t like it, and so my kids have to, too.”

Now it’s more like parents I met with today who said they’re bringing their daughter for baptism because they want her to be part of this community and to know God’s love and to learn to live with these values. Even when parents aren’t mindful of it, students themselves are seeking to be part of our Sunday School and Confirmation gatherings. Being here is not just by default, but because you really want to be, and find some sort of value in this.

So what sorts of values are there? I’d say the church is still looked to as a moral authority, a place of answers, and probably some peace or serenity compared to the rest of life. In this week, I’ve had people who are otherwise not at all connected to church asking me—and therefore asking for some sort of official church response—about the shooting of Tony Robinson, and for prayers during sickness, and for financial assistance amid a time of crisis. That people are turning to the church in those various needs and concerns still says in our society we’re seen as a resource, a place of morality and insight and caring. In the words of our hymn, people still expect from Christians “gifts of beauty, wisdom, love.” That’s another of the potential bright spots.

The shadow side of it, though, is that it’s tough to exist only as that occasional resource. If people aren’t listening to the church or listening for God except in sporadic moments of emergency or panic or despair, first of all that’s not a very pleasant way to live life, and second it doesn’t allow for any sort of sustained involvement. It leaves faith as a sound bite instead of the Word that becomes flesh to inhabit and inform all of your lives and outlook on the world.

That sort of superficial connection is also problematic for sustaining the way we’re used to doing church. In pre-marriage counseling I ask about generosity and what people do for charity. One couple said they support the Humane Society and American Heart Association drives at work, and said they put $10 in the offering plate when they come to church. But if they’re here once a month, that level of support sure doesn’t pay my salary!

It also doesn’t do very well to build community. I can get by visiting my dentist twice a year or car repair shop only when I need it. But for church, community is vital to who we are. We’re not just an outlet for theological answers or a venue for finding inner calm. We are—from the very core of our identity as people of God—in community. This is what we understand of God in Trinity. God is not God by being the Solitary Highest Individual. Nor is Trinity a pyramid scheme, where the Father is boss and the Son and Spirit are subordinate. No, the theological vision is all about mutuality, agreement, and balance. And since God is like that, then that’s our shape, too. But, again, it’s hard to be community when we’re around each other only once a month, and when we’re also trying to put on a good face to mask our problems and pains.

I’ve heard from numerous peers and parishioners that the breakdown in relationship is indeed what separated them from church. They didn’t get the support they needed when a baby was born. They felt ostracized or were hurt or shamed by the very ones who were supposed to be about love and care. Church, which is supposed to represent God and to live Christ-like, as the Body of Christ, where we ought to be able to practice living as Jesus people with love and vulnerability, too frequently has instead become a liability in relating to God, leaving people to the hard task of trying to find a relationship with God apart from church. The difficulty is that it’s nobody’s singular fault, since we all need to practice being community together. For it to work when you need it, you also need to be here when others need it. It’s not about being perfect, but is for practicing grace, forgiveness, and compassion.

Besides those direct, personal failings in relationships, people also of course cite the broader categorical failings. Some see the church as anti-science, or anti-woman, or anti-gay, or as greedy or causing violence, or as navel-gazers who insularly talk about what we believe in but don’t stand up for it when the rubber meets the road.

I’d hope we could counter all of that. I’d hope we would understand science and faith are not mutually exclusive, that they cover different territory and may both inspire increasing wonder rather than reductionist blinders. I’d hope we would see the early church’s work of breaking down barriers to include so many in society—the rich and the poor, the healthy and the sick, the local and the foreigner, the righteous and the sinners, young and old, men and women, slave and free—and that we’d be able to see society has taken 2000 years to get back to the equality Jesus and the early church were already embodying, seeing all humanity as valued in Christ, respecting insiders and outsiders of all types and abilities. I’d hope we’d continue to embody Jesus’ way of suffering love, not voicing brash aggression, but living out callings for humility and peace and reconciliation.

In my view, there are some bad reasons and weak excuses for not being part of church, but there are some really rational reasons, even if those aren’t usually what’s mentioned by those I’ve asked. For example, if you’re selfish and don’t want to share your resources or your time, then church should be a difficult place for you. If you think Jesus just doesn’t really matter and that there’s nothing in him that connects you to God, then church probably loses most of its meaning. If it seems that church has restrictive belief, that we claim that what we believe is true, well…I’m still not sure how to disagree with that.

For a final bit of grounding, I’d like to use our Bible passages. The first chunk from Isaiah I chose because it talks about God’s activity and operations even among the unsuspecting. Cyrus was the Persian emperor, a foreign. He didn’t worship God. He didn’t even know about God. Yet this declares that Cyrus was God’s shepherd, God’s chosen, God’s messiah, working out God’s good purposes and larger intent. That’s an interesting and helpful word for my generation, separated from a regular worshipping assembly. God is still working in our lives, even when we don’t realize. Those of us here may cling to the blessing of knowing what God is up to, joining in the callings to strive for God’s kingdom. Yet our lives are never cut off from God. The stanza of our hymn for this week seems to recognize busy lives filled with so many details and so much work, about “limbs holding a heavy harvest.” God is still producing fruit in our lives, through our various vocations and careers and places in life where we try to be productive and prosper. Sometimes it’s with our best efforts, and sometimes in spite of us. That’s a word of relief for us who can only continue to commend our friends or siblings or children or grandchildren into God’s ongoing care.

The other Isaiah passage is about the work that God is up to, that the Spirit anoints us “to bring good news to the oppressed and poor, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty, to comfort all who mourn…” to repair ruined cities, the devastation of many generations. Two things are significant about this: first, Jesus quotes this passage as the purpose of his ministry, too. Second, there’s no mention about the afterlife or going to heaven.

Church shouldn’t only be about the insurance policy of whether you’ll get in to heaven if or when you die. That isn’t a burning question for people these days, and it should never have been our sole focus. A more important question is who God is and what the church is and who we are for all the days of our life before death. I’d say if God so loves our world and is concerned about all hurting lives, and that that’s a word for so many of our moments and not only for facing death, that we will do well to receive that work and to join in on it. It is first what God does for us, but also what God does through us. As that kind of people, we’ll be sustained by a power that restores devastated generations.

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Traps and Captivation, of Empire and of God

Sermon for 19Oct14

Matthew 22:15-22; Isaiah 45:1-7

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Sneaky, evasive Jesus has a tendency to answer questions with a question, when opponents are trying to trap him, but also to make us think for ourselves. Today it’s not a question, but more of a riddle, and you have to say it just sounds better in the King James Version: Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s.

They ask Jesus if it’s lawful to pay taxes to the empire. It’s a trap. If he says don’t pay, the Romans would arrest him for provoking rebellion. But if he says yes, pay, his people would be upset he’s encouraging the oppressive occupying powers. He can’t say yes and can’t say no. He’s trapped.

But sneaky Jesus flips the trap, catching them in their own snare. We’ll see more of that in a moment. First, though, we’ll try resolving the riddle. When Jesus says, “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and give back to God what is God’s,” we’ve usually figured there are two separate categories, and Jesus leaves it to us to discern which goes in what box. So we start compartmentalizing, breaking it down, maybe first that ultimate devotion should go to God and not to our government or whatever.

Money comes in a second layer of the divisions, with less direct certainty. We have generally determined that it’s okay to pay taxes, that they don’t interfere too deeply with our faith. We may grumble, but also see them as worthwhile. In fact, we should recognize they may serve consistent with what we do in faith, for example in programs of social uplift and concern for the least—very clearly a biblical ethic. As an example, picture school lunches resolving hunger and caring for vulnerable children, a Jesus-y kind of project, which just so happens to be run well by government.

That’s an important reminder for us. When Jesus tells us to render to Caesar or to God, it’s not just a matter of two columns on a budget sheet, one or the other. Some of it we simply cannot divide. Jesus is not drawing a distinction between sacred and secular. It’s not a separation of church and state. God is not relegated only to the realm of what happens at a church or with a religious logo affixed to it.

Obviously, God’s work is immensely bigger than those small categories. Our Isaiah reading declares that God’s work was being accomplished by the Persian king Cyrus, even though he didn’t know God and didn’t know he was doing serving that role. It even names this foreign ruler as God’s Messiah. Wow! Similarly today, God is not waiting for faith-based organizations with faith-healers to treat Ebola patients in Liberia, but is certainly striving through health care workers regardless of religion. So just because it’s government doesn’t mean it’s opposed to God’s good work.

Of course, the reverse may be true, too. Tax dollars may also get used contradictory to our beliefs. It’s in the debates about how abortion services are or aren’t funded. It could be in a question of subsidies for fossil fuel companies. It is in centuries of Christian conscientious objection to paying the portion of federal taxes which funds violence and military and war, by some measures almost 50% of the total.

That points also to the sneaky Jesus reversing the trap to ensnare those malicious, conniving opponents. It begins when Jesus says, “Show me the coin that is used for the tax.” See, this tax was due from everybody under the empire and it had to be paid with Roman money. But notice Jesus doesn’t rifle through the loose change in his pockets to pull one out. He asks them for it, and they produce a denarius. And Jesus asks, “Whose image is on that, and whose title?”

If they were onto him at this point, there’d be a long, dumb pause: “uhhhhh…the emperor.” See, simply using this coin was forcing you to swear allegiance to the emperor, to Caesar. Right on its face, it gave him the title “son of god.” By using that coin, by having it to show off, the so-called religious authorities demonstrate their hypocrisy. They claim to be devoted to God. Daily in worship and prayer they would’ve proclaimed, “The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you in your heart” (Deuteronomy 6). Well, they might have had those words in their hearts, but in their pockets they were holding onto a second so-called god, his face engraved on the coin.

That shows the shape of the debate is not about politics so much as theological worldview. In telling them to render to Caesar, Jesus might mean “purge yourself of that filthy heretical coin.” In some regard, while bearing that image, it is dominating their lives, that is their lord, and so they aren’t bearing the image of the Lord their God. It highlights their bondage to their enemy, the occupying army, that we can’t escape the systems that ensnare our lives. Again, rather than a question of religion versus government, a larger issue here is two competing powers, for the empire’s kind of control or God’s kingdom in this world.

Even though our bills don’t call George Washington the son of god, this makes it hit home. If our dollars claim that “in God we trust,” how much do they really do that, and when do they render us captive to another force?

For us, we may figure it’s appropriate to begin trying to resolve the riddle by making this word from Jesus into a lesson on how you use money, especially as we prepare to share our financial pledges next Sunday, encouraging you to give more to church, that you should render more to God, return more of what you’ve been given. Yet what does that mean? Is it giving 2% of your income instead of 1%? Or giving 10% and reaching a tithe, can you think you’ve done enough?

After all, God has given you 100%.   It may be right and good to ask what you give at church, yet if we’re working with this passage that tells you to render to God what is God’s, how do you pay back 100% of all that you have and are? Putting tokens in the offering plate wouldn’t cut it. Maybe we return gratitude and praise, that if we’re given a beautiful autumn day, we remember constantly to thank God. Maybe we ask about our vocations, of how we’re using our time and skills to press toward the goals of Jesus. Yet as vital as those efforts are, they also reveal it’s not just the hypocritical opponents in the reading today who fall short in their loyalty and devotion. It’s all of us.

One more example: We hear about foreign Cyrus doing the work of God without even knowing it. The opposite comes on Good Friday, when Jesus has a conversation with the Governor Pontius Pilate, the representative of Caesar. The conversation emphasizes our point, that not just his property or palace, but even his position of power has come from God. If he’d rendered to God and not to Caesar, Pilate would’ve pursued very different path. Maybe he would’ve stopped the crucifixion of Jesus.

Yet even in that, God’s work was done. In the death and resurrection of Jesus, we know the fullness of God’s compassion and God’s abundant and amazing forgiveness and the work of God for life that just will not stop.

I’m going to conclude by suggesting you are hypocrites, but you are faithful hypocrites. You are sinners, but you are simultaneously saints and sinners. You render to God, but you also render to Caesar and the corrupt powers of this world. Even more, you are rendered by those powers. They render you helpless or trapped, in bondage, captive to sin. You are stuck supporting systems you’d prefer not to, trapped by taxes you don’t want to pay, ensnared by a consumer lifestyle, captive to carbon emissions by which you cause climate change, to prejudices and racisms you may not even always realize exist. For your life and for the good of others, it is indeed a terribly important choice to struggle against those oppressive forces that are rendering you an agent of evil, or of Caesar, opposing God.

But also know you are rendered an agent of God. The God who has given you 100% of your blessings and sustains you through every breath will continue striving for you, and with you. God doesn’t wait for you to perfect yourself, won’t repay you for your actions, never renders evil for evil, but always will be the God of life. You don’t get more just when you’ve proven you can do the right thing. It’s not taken away from you when you do wrong. God in Christ receives when you’re at your most considerate and devoted and doing your best, but God in Christ will just as much pursue blessing when you’re malicious and miserable and selfish and broke and broken.

Even when you’ve squandered 100% and given it to exactly the wrong place, the God of our whole universe is still working with that total. You can’t take anything away from God. God recycles and recreates you from the ashes of your past, from dead ends and even rising out of death. This is the true power. You are entrapped by Jesus, held captive and kept tightly in God’s love. It doesn’t matter what’s in your wallet. When God looks at your face, all that shows is the image of Jesus.

Hymn: Take My Life, That I May Be (ELW #583)

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