+ A sermon preached for the Third Sunday after the Epiphany (Year C) at First Lutheran Church, St. Peter, MN on January 24, 2016 +
Texts: Nehemiah 8:1-3,5-6,8-10, Psalm 19
Grace and peace to you from God our Creator and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen
As many of you know, I am not from the Midwest, but consider the Pacific Northwest and Alaska home. If you’ve talked to me for any extended period of time, I probably have steered the conversation to the Pacific Northwest at least once. I just really love it out there – the mountains, the trees, the water, and yes, even the rain, make me feel like I’m home. As you may or may not know, religious researchers have also labeled that region of the country as “The None Zone.” And just to be clear, this does not mean that we have an excessive number of religious women living in convents, as I first thought when I heard the term. No, when conducting surveys about religious affiliation, nearly one third of the residents of the Pacific Northwest will respond with “none of the above,” the highest rate of “nones” in the country. In fact, “nones” make up the single largest religious identification in the region. Another third of Pacific Northwesterners claim a religious affiliation, but are not active participants. Some speculate that the rugged individualism inherent in the history of the region contributes to this phenomenon. Others credit the evident distrust of institutions as the cause. Still others say that the natural beauty of the outdoors makes people more likely to go hiking or kayaking on Sunday morning as opposed to going to church. Whatever the reason, a very large percentage of the people consider themselves religiously unaffiliated (much to the dismay of future pastors who want to make a career there). Interestingly though, even among these nones, relatively few identify as atheist or even agnostic. Most will say they are “spiritual, but not religious.”
And if the Northwest is labeled the None Zone, one could argue that my generation could also be called the None Generation as 35% of Millennials respond as not belonging to any religious institution. While there are many people from my generation who leave the churches they were raised in, most unaffiliated Millenials were not raised in a religious organization at all. Regardless of how they were raised, only 55% of the people in my generation believe that churches and religious organizations have a positive impact on the world. 55%! When you consider that my generation grew up steeped in news of priest sex-abuse scandals, science vs. religion debates, religious extremism and violence, the promotion of feel-good theologies and prosperity gospels devoid of social justice, and seeing preachers on national TV blaming natural disasters on homosexuals, perhaps it’s understandable why some people my age view organized religion as old fashioned and inconsistent when their values.
Now, I understand that much of this may not be news to all of you. These demographic realities have been very well known recently in the church and the implications are sobering. In my time here in St. Peter, I have heard many conversations about how to attract younger people to worship and hopefully become members. Unfortunately, I’m not here to give you a magic solution to the challenges we face and will likely continue to face for years to come – if I had that solution, I’d probably be in the midst of a worldwide book tour. I do know, however, that we live in a new era where we cannot expect younger generations to flock to the church, where our familiar religious jargon will be foreign to many, and where we cannot even assume that people know the foundational stories from the Bible.
When the people of Judah returned to Jerusalem from their decades long exile in Babylon, they found their capital city mostly destroyed and Solomon’s once glorious temple in ruins. They immediately set to work rebuilding the city walls and buildings, resuming at least some temple worship. But as the reconstruction continued, the people seemed to realize that there was still something missing. They realized that during their years of captivity, they had lost their collective identity as Jewish people. So they called for the scribe, Ezra, to read the scroll of Moses, the Torah (what we know as the first five books of the Bible). The scene is remarkable. Most of the city shows up to hear Ezra read all morning long amid the rubble of their destroyed city. For something like five hours, Ezra read to them the foundational texts of their faith and identity as a people. And the people wept. Now, it’s possible that the people were distraught when they realized how many of God’s laws they had broken and saw their failure to live up to God’s vision for them, but I think it’s something more. I think that, for the first time in decades, the people heard the wondrous story of God’s love for them; a story that had been lost or forgotten during their exile. They heard about God’s beautiful creation and how humanity was formed in God’s own image. They heard about the promises made to Sarah and Abraham and how God rescued the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. They heard about God’s guidance for living together in community and of God’s mercy regardless of how many times they had failed to live up to those standards. They heard about a God who gives strength to the people when hope seems lost and whose love is everlasting. And as they listened, those learned in the text were there to interpret and explain the scriptures to them. And there, right next to the ruins of the temple, the former center of their religious life, the people discovered God anew and formed a new relationship with their Creator. They discovered the Word of God in a new way; the Word, which as the Psalmist describes as ‘to be desired more than gold’ and “sweeter far than honey.” And after this, they feast! They celebrate the abiding goodness of God who has not abandoned the people.
The scene makes me think of a news article I read a couple years ago. After dozens of Egyptian churches were burned by arsonists, Christians still resolutely gathered for their Sunday worship in the burned out shell of their sanctuary. One pastor said, “The Church is not walls and buildings. The Church is us, the people of God. They burned and destroyed the building, but it will never be possible for them to burn and destroy the Church because the Church will remain forever.” And to encourage his flock, he spoke the same words Ezra said to the people in today’s reading, “The joy of the Lord is your strength.”
I am also reminded of a story I heard while visiting a synagogue a few years ago. After the Shabbat worship service, the rabbi gave us a tour. When he opened the tabernacle and showed us the Torah scrolls carefully stored there, someone in my group asked why they had three scrolls. You see, Torah scrolls can’t just be printed, but each is meticulously handwritten by a specially trained scribe and can take months to finish. Each scroll is prized by the congregation and treated with the upmost reverence. The rabbi responded that one of the scrolls was actually on loan to the synagogue. It was one of what is called the Czech scrolls, Torahs that were seized by Nazi troops during their invasion of Czechoslovakia in World War II and were all but forgotten after the fall of the Third Reich. In the 1960s, they were purchased by a British art dealer and those that could be salvaged were carefully restored. The rabbi told us that Jewish communities from all over the world offered donations and homes to take care of these scrolls with the understanding that if that Torah’s home synagogue were ever reorganized, they would send the scroll back home. Despite all the destruction and hate and attempts to wipe them out, these sacred scrolls endured as a testament to God’s enduring presence and care.
As Lutheran Christians, we have a sometimes interesting relationship with what we call the Old Testament. Some people have even asked me whether it would be better to just forget about the Old Testament altogether and focus only on the New Testament. We can get caught in the law/gospel dichotomy and get worried about what the Law of Moses really means for us. But just as surely as the Old Testament can reveal our sins to us, so can it also display God’s abounding love for us. Sure we find law in the Old Testament, but we just as certainly find true gospel.
Now I know I need to end before you wonder if I’m planning on pulling an Ezra and preaching for five hours, but let me close with this: I don’t know what the church will look like 50 years from now. I don’t know whether the nones will return to the pews or if we will drastically have to rethink what we know as the church. But what I do know is that the Word of God will endure and even if the walls of the church buildings crumble, we will be able to hear the wondrous stories of God’s love for us in new and exciting ways. So after we leave here, go on your way, feast and be glad, and remember that the joy of the Lord is our strength.
Amen and amen.