Lamentations 1:1-6 How lonely sits the city that once was full of people! How like a widow she has become, she that was great among the nations! She that was a princess among the provinces has become a vassal. 2She weeps bitterly in the night, with tears on her cheeks; among all her lovers she has no one to comfort her; all her friends have dealt treacherously with her, they have become her enemies. 3Judah has gone into exile with suffering and hard servitude; she lives now among the nations, and finds no resting place; her pursuers have all overtaken her in the midst of her distress.4The roads to Zion mourn, for no one comes to the festivals; all her gates are desolate, her priests groan; her young girls grieve, and her lot is bitter. 5Her foes have become the masters, her enemies prosper, because God has made her suffer for the multitude of her transgressions; her children have gone away, captives before the foe. 6From daughter Zion has departed all her majesty. Her princes have become like stags that find no pasture; they fled without strength before the pursuer.
2 Timothy 1:1-14 1Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, for the sake of the promise of life that is in Christ Jesus, 2To Timothy, my beloved child: Grace, mercy, and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord.3I am grateful to God—whom I worship with a clear conscience, as my ancestors did—when I remember you constantly in my prayers night and day. 4Recalling your tears, I long to see you so that I may be filled with joy. 5I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that lived first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, lives in you. 6For this reason I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands; 7for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline. 8Do not be ashamed, then, of the testimony about our Lord or of me his prisoner, but join with me in suffering for the gospel, relying on the power of God, 9who saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works but according to God’s own purpose and grace. This grace was given to us in Christ Jesus before the ages began, 10but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel. 11For this gospel I was appointed a herald and an apostle and a teacher, 12and for this reason I suffer as I do. But I am not ashamed, for I know the one in whom I have put my trust, and I am sure that he is able to guard until that day what I have entrusted to him. 13Hold to the standard of sound teaching that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. 14Guard the good treasure entrusted to you, with the help of the Holy Spirit living in us.
I want to us to take a moment and close our eyes. Take a moment and let your mind take you to after you've finished seminary, you've graduated, with honors of course, you've gotten your first call at a church, pick your size, pick your own area of the country, city, whatever- envision yourself preaching and working there, counseling and possibly managing a staff. Envision what that might look like- what your office may look like, or your church... is there an organ? A worship band? What does it feel like, working in ministry every day? In a word or two, what have you pictured? Whatever you've taken the time to imagine, I want you to keep that in your minds for the next few minutes. And then answer in your own mind, does it resemble the church you grew up in? We need lots of positive energy and vision in the church today. The passage from Lamentations you just heard, albeit depressing, gives a grim but accurate description of many of churches across the board in mainline denominations. “How lonely is the city that was once full of people. She weeps bitterly… for no one comes to the festivals; all her gates are desolate.” People wonder, what has happened to the church? Churches were once filled to the brim, new bigger buildings went up all over cities and suburbs- hundreds filled the pews each Sunday, with large overflowing youth programs, bible studies, and social outings. Christian churches were the center of the community and the community was centered in churches. The question wasn’t, “Do you go to church,” but rather “Where do you go to church?” Remember?
I recently attended a pastor's workshop on missional church; and our instructor Glynis LeBarr opened the session by asking, “how many of you have a blacksmith shop in your town?” With no positive responses, she continued… “in 1900 horse and buggy was the main mode of transportation in the US. It had been for centuries. There were blacksmith shops in every town across the country. By 1940 only a few remained in business. Why? The automobile. In 40 years the standard form of transportation had changed." (paraphrased)
Glynis then related that to the church. 40 years ago, the church was the center of the community. It was the standard for Christianity. It had been for centuries. By 2016 many churches have closed or are near closing, and that number is on the rise. Our churches are going the way of the blacksmith shop. And after drawing a huge church on the blackboard with a circle around it symbolizing community, Glynis drew a sharp line through it- and said, “God himself/herself is now destroying this model of church.” (again, I am paraphrasing)
She paused- and let that sentence sink in for a minute. And I was glad she gave us that minute. Because this is not what we usually hear at church seminars. Especially clergy seminars. We usually hear things like, "we are living in the end times of Christianity- it's declining rapidly, before our eyes," and, “it's our generation's responsibility to save the Christian church. It’s our call to revive the church, to be more attractive so we can get more butts (especially those young families) in the seats, and inspire people to give- not just enough to cover the bills of maintaining these colossal buildings, but to do mission on top of it!" And if we can’t do that, as clergy, (because it's all up to us, right?) we hear, we are failing. We are made to feel, (sometimes even in our own churches) like 'less than.' We get talked about behind our backs, and compared to the pastor down the street, or worse, all the pastors who went before us when the church was in her glory years… and worse, we buy in. We incur the hurt that comes from that kind of talk, we start to allow that feeling of failure to pervade our being. "We must not be as good as St. Rev. Perfect because when he was here the church was full!"
So, we regroup. We try something else, or something new… or retrieve something from the old. But despite our best efforts, nothing much changes. And so we blame society; we blame shifting moral and cultural values, the breakdown of the family, technology, sports on Sunday… its got to be someone’s fault!
So when Glynis said, “God is the one destroying the church,” I could have cried. And not just because she was getting the clergy, or society off the hook. I wanted to cry because I love this model. I love church being the community. I share the the collective memories of hundreds of people on Sunday morning, and overflowing youth programs. I grew up in it. And I knew at that moment, that i need to start grieving it.
But Glynis continued: "You know, there were a few blacksmith shops who remained in business after 1940- (my ears perked up) "the ones that stayed in business were those who realized that their business wasn’t really about making wheels and horseshoes, but that their business was transportation. They learned to deliver transportation differently- learned how to fix cars, make car parts, and they remained viable. "
Last year she met with over 11,000 millennials. Most had not be raised anywhere near a traditional church, most had not grown up knowing who Jesus was, but in the midst of those conversations she heard good news- Christianity is alive and well in our country- it just doesn’t look like church as we know it anymore. People are meeting in homes, and parks, in dorm rooms, and over the internet. She gave story after story of young believers who have no interest the way we do church, but have every interest in studying and sharing the gospel, working in the community, volunteering at homeless shelters or after school programs, getting involved in habitat for humanity or justice organizations. It was so inspiring- and so scary.
Because what hit me immediately is that omgosh- who organizes all of that? Where's the theological oversight? And who insures that the right gospel is being taught? And worse, what happens to us as pastors? Will we soon go the way of the blacksmiths?
Let me bring you back to Paul’s letter to Timothy. Paul celebrates young Timothy’s faith, and calls it the faith of his grandmother, and his mother, and now Timothy’s own. But like each new generation of ministers, Timothy needed to revamp- or in Paul’s words, rekindle that faith. And Paul reminds Timothy that though things are changing, and it may seem scary, that God didn’t give us a Spirit of cowardice- of fear- but God gave us a Spirit of Power!
And when I hear these words- I think, 'this is exactly why there is such a large Christian movement OUTSIDE of the church with millennials! They are doing ministry based on the assumption that they have within them, a Spirit of Power. They understand what business we as Christians, are in- and that business is the delivery of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. And pastors, present and future in this room- that’s our only business. And that means that when you graduate, though you might walk into a ministry setting that looks very traditional, even looks ripe for revival under your skilled and seminary trained tutelage, but no matter what setting you walk into, that the business of delivering the Gospel has to trump the agenda of that local church.
Now for some of us, this is very different from what we expect our vocation to look like. We came to seminary looking forward to becoming want the next generation of pastor, we want to be cutting edge, we want to bring all of our knowledge and skill and biblical exegesis, combined with our passion for Christ, and when we speak from the 10 foot pulpit in the gorgeous stained glass building on Main St. - and the people rise after the sermon to sing How Great Thou Art, they will be forever changed- and yes, it's beautiful to claim that as a legacy, but my friends… that model of church is not the gift we have inherited from our ancestors.
Go back to the text- The gift we have inherited is the Spirit of Power! Now think about that version of your call that you imagined a few moments ago… how would it change if you had no church building, if there were no more church buildings, what would your ministry look like? How would people know you are called to ministry? How would you use your seminary education in the trenches- how would ethics and church history and pastoral care equip you to lead the people, to bring good news to the poor, light to the darkness? This seminary is unique in that it asks more of you than other seminaries do. Your professors will challenge you to think beyond what you're learning in the textbook to transform you into more than an academically qualified pastor- to think about how the things you are learning can translate to the local church- but it's up to you to engage on that level- to rise to where they can take you, and investigate for yourselves new ways of reaching people, creative ways to express the gifts God has given you. They can lead, but it's up to you to break the pastoral paradigms that have etched themselves on the walls of your heart, and open yourselves to the Spirit of Power that is within you!
When you become a pastor there will be pressure on you, to focus on things that perpetuate the life of a church instead of being the church; to keep traditions and keep people, and keep the peace. But trust me on this, once you go in to a church and start making changes, or challenging norms and traditions, your pastoral experience becomes anything but peaceful, and people are not always pleased, and yes, some people will leave. Don't be afraid of that! The only time you need to be afraid is if no one's upset with you- because that means you're leaving people alone, and that's not our job! Jesus certainly didn't! I'm not sure we expect that in ministry. But in order to stay faithful and relevant to the Gospel delivery business, we need to keep focused first on delivering the Gospel. Notice what I said here- we deliver the Gospel- instead of waiting for people to find us attractive enough or important enough to come to us, we find ways to bring the good news to them!
And by them, I mean everyone, amen? Not just the ones who think or act or look like us- its another misconception, that our churches, because most of them are so segregated, must continue that way. Wouldn't it be great if our churches looked like the population of this room? They could- if we would stop preaching a message that excludes- and adopt a message of unconditional love and acceptance. You think there is more to the message than God loves you.. but really, that's it, you know.- that's the whole Gospel. Bring that message to the people with no strings attached and see what happens.
The last thing I want to tell you before we celebrate communion together, is that no matter what people tell you, or what you've seen, or what you think you know, there will be times when it gets so hard you want to quit. More than one person in this room has talked me out of a tree when I was sure I was going to go back to my regular life. My prayer for you is that you will let them do the same for you. And when you leave this place, keep in touch with them, or if that's not possible find clergy colleagues who will do the same thing for you. Ministry is hard, but we aren't in this alone. Connect with each other, learn from each other. You'll be so busy you don't want to take the time, but don't stop reaching out for help or encouragement, and dont stop giving help and encouragement to your colleagues. God’s Spirit has called each of you to this place- each of you to participate in gospel delivery business. Claim your inheritance. Guard the good treasure entrusted to you, with the help of the Holy Spirit living in us.