In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit; Amen.
I hear and read a lot lately among pastors and church folks about the decline of the Christian church. The numbers certainly provide evidence that supports that argument. Our own ELCA has certainly shrunk in numbers since our formation in 1987, and we hear that we haven't been in the worst state. United Methodists, Episcopalians and Presbyterians have also experienced a steady decrease in numbers of members and worshipers in their churches in Europe and North America over the last 30-40 years. Not only that, I hear that evangelical churches, like many non-denominational groups, are now in the decline in our country. Many of these churches are searching for new strategies in an attempt to stay alive. New church plants are tailored for terribly busy people, giving them a brief moment of worship on the run. And in a society where idle time is looked upon with disdain, taking an hour or so out of the week to do nothing and “worship” has seriously fallen out of favor with many people in our society. A Pastor friend of mine recently sent me an article about how the most ignored of the Ten Commandments is on Sabbath. We overcommit ourselves to the point that we have what is called, “Time Debt” and cannot block even a few hours on a Sunday morning for rest and worship. One quote from the article kind of said it all, “Once a week, God walks out on the Sabbath bridge to meet us. But most of us are no-shows; we unapologetically stand up the Creator of the universe, week after week.” Thus Churches are in decline.
What if I was to tell you that the Christian church in Asia, Africa and Latin America today is growing faster than any other world religion, including Islam! Does that surprise you? Does it even matter to you? Is it important – do you celebrate this fact?
This morning you heard me share once again the scripture passage which is quite possibly the best known and most widely quoted among all Christians. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” Notice that it talks about God loving the world, not condemning the world, wanting to save the world. There is nothing about God looking more favorably upon our own nation than others, or upon others less favorably than us! God has loved the world, and that all began before there was a nation called the United States of America, Canada, or any European countries!
In our day and age, we see ourselves as privileged. As I wonder why that is, I cannot help but make the connection between our affluence and our privilege, our independent nature and our drive to always be busy improving our lives and ourselves by our accomplishments, and the fact that the Christian Church in our society is shrinking while it is growing in other parts of the globe. Now, you may not place yourself among the affluent of our country, but statistics show that even a person who makes a living below the poverty line, which for my family of four would be $24,250, is richer than 98% of the rest of the people in the world, according to the Global Rich List. There are few of us young families of four that make that low an income. How much more is this true of those who make twice this figure, four times, or even ten times the figure? As we turn our attentions to trying to make our lives worth something through hard work, wealth and accomplishments, the basis for a worthwhile life, our faith in Jesus, is being forgotten. The need to rely upon God's grace and love for anything in life is a lost art. People either have all that they need, or they will work tirelessly to attain it themselves.
Affluence, which is defined as the abundance of money, property, and other material goods, tends to provide a pretty strong buffer between us and death. By talking about “death,” I don't mean merely concerns about the afterlife – rather I mean “death” in the sense of our inescapable mortality. That is, affluence can insulate us from admitting our own weaknesses and vulnerability, our own humanity, even, and certainly our own need. If faith does nothing else, it reminds us of, and helps us to cope with, our mortality. “Remember that you are dust” we say to each other on Ash Wednesday, “and to dust you will return.” I would venture to say that I, as a middle class person in North America, would rather have left off the last part of that proclamation as I place ashes on the heads of my own wife and daughter, and those of you who have lived long lives!
Affluence tends to give us a sense of control, even mastery, over our environment and to appreciate, and perhaps at times to exaggerate, our abilities. Affluence, after all, has led to great progress, and progress in turn has promoted greater affluence. In such an environment, the language of sin can feel outmoded, even offensive. Rather than serving as a truthful description of brokenness and as an essential admission of our failing that we might seek forgiveness, reconciliation, and reparation, sin instead comes across like a mark of failure. To admit sin seems to betray the belief in ceaseless progress that rests near the center of affluent cultures. Sin risks puncturing the “every day better and better in every way” mantra of affluence. Sin, keep in mind, literally means “missing the mark,” a true description of how we fall short of God's desires and designs for abundant life. It was originally meant to be equated with truth, not with shame. But we have let it become so and as a consequence the affluent society in which we live has little room for such talk.
Now think, for a moment, of the disparity between this picture of abundance and the economic landscapes of the countries where Christianity is not just flourishing but growing. These are places where mortality is far more present, where “sin” helpfully explains some of the conditions in which people find themselves as well as some of their own behaviors, and where the absence of choice makes the community, fellowship, and encouragement of the faith attractive. Little wonder, then, that the church is growing there as it once did in a less sheltered, less buffered United States of our past. There is much we might learn from the growing church around the globe, I suspect, if only we paid attention rather than focus on our own decline. Christians in some of these other lands are already sending missionaries to the US like we have sent to them for many, many years!
I truly believe that it is by returning to this most famous, well-known passage that we find God's promise of love which can encourage us to face the judgments of life with confidence, and experience salvation – which I define not only as eternal life after we die, but joy and fulfillment while we live in relationship with God and with each other – as well. It truly is God's intention that we all experience that gift of joy – of abundant life, as Jesus sometimes puts it. And the hurdle we face in this country is the fact that we think that we can do it on our own. We listen to the voices around us that tell us what we need to be happy, and we exhaust ourselves running after these things. Maybe those in other countries who depend on God and on each other for more of the basics of life can teach us a thing or two about this wonderful message that God so loved the world that he gave his only son for us! Maybe we who for years have been the authorities on shedding light on the Christian faith can be the students of how others hear, learn, share and grow in their faith!
This Lent is a good time to refocus our sight onto that which brings life and joy. I ask you to join me in prayerfully considering those pursuits which stand in the way of my allowing God's love to give me the life that God desires for me. A wonderful devotional tool for this is the song that we will sing during the offering – an old gospel song called, “Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus.” As we sing these words, think about them and how they apply to you personally. What things of the earth distract you, what do you want Jesus to make dim. Where are you weary and troubled? Turn your eyes then upon Jesus! As we continue through this time of Lent – and as we continue in our worship service today – may God shed the light of his wonderful grace into our lives to make dim the pursuits that overtake us, and assure us of the life that Jesus came to give to us all. Amen