The readings for the Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost are
Old Testament & Psalm, Option I
Old Testament Joel 2:23–32
Psalm Psalm 65
Old Testament & Psalm, Option II
Old Testament Sirach 35:12–17 or Jeremiah 14:7–10, 19–22
Psalm Psalm 84:1–7
New Testament 2 Timothy 4:6–8, 16–18
Gospel Luke 18:9–14
The great church historian (and Lutheran), Martin Marty, once proclaimed, “When it’s hard to be Christian it’s really easy to be Christian. When it’s easy to be Christian it’s really hard to be Christian.”
One of the things happening coincidentally with this pandemic is panic in the pews because it seems so hard to be church. In a Zoom discussion sponsored by Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago this past Monday our main topic of discussion was the growing diversity of our neighbors’ faith. We learned how mosques are popping up all over, and Chicago is being called now the Medina of America. In our breakout discussion a Unitarian told how the pastor of her congregation was Buddhist, and about half of the members were atheists. Then one of the Lutheran participants recounted her wilderness wandering as she had to keep finding new congregations to join after several she belonged to folded shop in rather quick succession.
A generational shift that has left the “nones” as the fastest growing affiliation among American Christian denominations has fed into another crisis as those who stayed away from Sunday services because of Covid-19 have still not returned long after restrictions were lifted. Tasting worship experiences from all over the world via Zoom seems more attractive than diving back into the thicket of congregational life.
As pastors all over are buzzing about reinventing church, I wonder about the truth of Martin Marty’s little saying. This seems surely to be a time when it’s hard to be church. So, could it really be easy to be church?
This thought brings me to the New Testament or epistle reading for this Sunday, in the fourth chapter of Second Timothy. The lesson paints an ugly picture for the young church; and yet we are right to think that this was an especially vibrant, creative, and inspired time that laid the foundation for a remarkable spread of the gospel.
This letter may have been written by the Apostle Paul, or by a follower of his who came a generation or two later. But, even if it’s by a latter day disciple, the letter surely reflects the experiences noted by both Paul’s letters and by the Book of Acts. And the letter undoubtedly is for a time when being church was a hard slog. The faithful life is said to be like being “poured out as a libation,” being in the midst of a fight, and running a marathon, Church leaders can expect desertion, betrayal, stiff opposition, and loneliness. It makes a person feel like being thrust into a lion’s mouth.
As hard as it all is, Second Timothy demonstrates how hard times brings out the best of faith. All of these pressures faced by the first generations focused people’s minds and hearts. There is no doubt in the author’s mind that it’s all worth it to be part of sharing a good news message of God’s love poured out in Christ.
So, if I have one thing to say to the younger generation of pastors, whose burden it is to “reinvent church,” it is to make certain that the gospel message is the beating heart of the church of this new day, and of the future. It may not sound new, but the good old gospel message is what the whole world needs. Whether our neighbors are Lutheran, Moslem, Buddhist, or atheist, they need to hear how God’s grace has been given to the world as a powerful gift. God’s freely given love is the only thing that has the power to bring all the diverse people together.
And the story of Jesus Christ says it all. That gift of grace, and that power to gather, is certainly there in other faith traditions, and in the yearnings and memories even of atheists. But the essential mission of the church is to lovingly speak it loud and clear, and today to be in conversation with people of other traditions so that they too can clarify their own teachings about the necessity of God’s grace, and even sense God’s invitation to reconciliation in Christ Jesus.
I graduated from Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, in 1973, at a time when the message of the gospel was under attack. The leadership of the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod was under the stranglehold of those who had misplaced their faith. They believed the church’s mission was to convince people that their small cadre had the only proper interpretation of Scripture and doctrine. Deliberately or not they had forfeited trust in God’s grace in Christ, and exchanged it for trust in the purity of their own teaching.
In the ensuing “battle for the Bible” in the Missouri Synod a fabulous college was summarily closed down, missionaries were lost, professors were fired, and the majority of the faculty of the church’s flagship seminary was accused of teaching false doctrine. It was a time when it was hard to be Christian, and hard to be the church. But it was also a time of massive vitality. It was all because people had to think, “What is the heart of my faith? What do I ultimately trust in? What guides my interpretation of Scripture and my way of life?”
The battle for the Bible in the Missouri Synod gave way to the same battle in the Southern Baptist Convention, and to more recent battles over sexuality and the church’s mission among Anglicans, and now among an assortment of so-called evangelical communions.
But controversies such as these, and challenges to church attendance by religious, ethnic, and cultural diversity, can best be met by understanding them as opportunities to sharpen our understanding of and dedication to the gospel. When we look around us we should see not enemies or competitors, but people like us who truly hunger for the good news of a God who welcomes, affirms, forgives, and reconciles.
We sometimes find ourselves mourning the successful, powerful, and dominant institution of a church that we believe we have lost; but that kind of church can only lose souls—even its own. This indeed is a golden age when we can “reinvent the church” as one that pours itself out—empties itself in service of the good news of God’s grace.
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