[Note: This sermon was preached from notes, not a full manuscript. Here, to the best of my memory, is what I said. —Meighan]
That is the word that came to mind when I saw my woods. Two weeks ago my friend Catherine, who has a sheep farm adjacent to the property where I am going to build my house, left me a voice message. “It sounds as though someone with heavy machinery is down in your woods.” I have hired an excavation company to dig trenches and install my septic system, including a drain field down in the woods. So I followed up with them, asking that they not take down any cedar or Douglas fir trees. Alders were negotiable.
Some of you have been in my woods. You may recall a stand of alders, slim trees, beautiful. Alders are the first to grow in a bare place and are not particularly long-lived trees.
So that Thursday when I went up to the farm, I walked into the woods. The bulldozer had taken down some blackberries. Not concerned about those at all. The bulldozer had taken down a bunch of nettles. Not concerned about those either. The bulldozer had left standing all the cedars and fir trees. But the bulldozer had taken down most of that whole stand of alders. The logs were neatly stacked off to the side. What remained was a new clearing in the woods, all dirt and rocks, torn up.
The excavators were doing exactly what I had hired them to do. Still, seeing the result was shocking. I stood in the middle of that ravaged land and offered a prayer of lament.
Perhaps in some small way this prayer echoed the passage we read today in Lamentations. This is written at the time when the Babylonians had swept into Judah and carried many people into exile. Imagine standing in Jerusalem as one of those left behind and seeing all the bustling streets empty, all the once busy homes and businesses abandoned and destroyed, the Temple in ruins. Such grief.
The Church knows how to do grief and lamentation. When someone dies, we know how to come together in community to grieve and to celebrate that person’s life.
It may seem as though the Church itself is feeling abandoned, as though we are in grief mode for the Church itself. Most of us are old enough to remember what it felt like when there was more or less a cultural expectation that on Sundays, people went to church. Stores were closed on Sundays. Churches were full. Unless you were a Muslim or a Jew, you were in church. Now, we may feel like the exception when we say we go to church. We may feel ashamed to admit that we are Christians, because people out in the general population think they understand what that word means, and they project that meaning along with all of their church baggage onto us. We have to explain for about half an hour what it means to us to be Christian. So maybe we don’t bother. And the church is shrinking. It is abandoned, forlorn. Shops are now open on Sundays. There are football games on TV, kids’ soccer matches. People may describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious,” meaning they know themselves to have a spiritual connection with God or the universe, but they don’t want all the trappings of organized religion, and they are not showing up in the pews on Sunday morning.
In 1957, when the United Church of Christ was founded, it had over 2 million members. When I started working for the UCC national office early in this decade, we had about 1 million members. As of 2018, the number is down around 825,000. Every year a few new churches join the UCC, and more churches leave or close. The trend is downward. [UCC Center for Analytics and Research Data, United Church of Christ 2019 Statistical Profile, https://www.uccfiles.com/pdf/2019-UCC-Statistical-Profile.pdf, 6.]
If you’re trying to leap ahead in this sermon and are predicting that I will say it’s time for this church to close—don’t go there. That is not where I’m headed! On the contrary, I am hoping that we can become shameless Christians.
In the reading we heard today from 2 Timothy, Paul—or someone writing in his name—is encouraging his friend Timothy to rekindle his faith. Timothy’s mother and grandmother were faithful, and Paul is sure that Timothy is, too. Which suggests that Timothy may be having second thoughts about the work in which he and Paul have been engaged. Because Paul repeatedly walks into a new city and just starts proclaiming the good news of God and Jesus Christ. He is fearless, shameless. Paul, who gets beaten up and left for dead. Paul, who gets kicked out of town. Paul, who gets thrown into prison. Paul is unstoppable and shameless, because he knows whom he serves—God—and nothing else matters.
The Church as we know it is indeed declining. The graphs show the numbers. When the United Church of Christ formed in 1957 from a merger of earlier denominations, church attendance in the U.S. was near its all-time peak. From the founding of our country until about 1960, the Church grew at least 1 percent every year. But from about 1960 on, the Church has declined by at least 1 percent per year.
It’s not just the UCC that’s shrinking. Churches of all denominations, synagogues, other places of worship are all experiencing decline. People describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious,” meaning they acknowledge they still have a spiritual aspect to their lives, but they don’t want to be associated with any formal, structured religion.
The theologian Phyllis Tickle wrote that about every 500 years, the Church holds a rummage sale. We go through all our beliefs and practices, keep what is still life-giving, toss the rest. She says we are in one of those rummage sale periods right now, and we may not know how it all shakes out for 100 years.
Our UCC General Minister and President, John Dorhauer, explores this idea in his book Beyond Resistance, which came out in 2015 just as he was elected to head our denomination. In this book, he talks about Church 1.0, which stretched from early Christianity up to the Reformation. Church 2.0 is from the Reformation until now, and it looks like us: meeting on a Sunday morning to worship, sitting in pews listening to one person preach, everyone turn to hymn 189 and stand and sing. We do a great job of Church 2.0. But that is the version that is now in decline.
Dorhauer writes of the grief of seeing churches close. But our work does not end there. He says we grieve, we believe, and we perceive: we grieve what is lost, we sort through what we believe, as in that 500-year rummage sale, and then we perceive how God is calling us to be Church in a new way.
There is much more to see in front of us than a dying church. There is more to perceive than the diminishment of resources. There is more to experience than grief. It is time not just to hope against hope, but to discover what there is beyond the horizon of our grief that grounds us in hope.
[John Dorhauer, Beyond Resistance (Chicago: Exploration Press, 2015), 61.]
If Church 2.0 is no longer the norm, and people still want to explore their spiritual connection to God, what might Church 3.0 look like? Dorhauer talks about what he calls “post-Christian Christians” who live into this new way of being Church.
Post-Christian Christians will be a strange, almost unrecognizable breed when viewed from the perspective of Churches 1.0 and 2.0. Gone will be the impulse to preach, convert, and baptize non-believers for the salvation of their mortal soul. Gone will be the Christology that needs Jesus to be sovereign or savior. Gone will be the inclination to reduce all authentic spiritual truth to what the Bible can tolerate.
In its place will be a church filled with disciples of Jesus who walk in his way, and who do their best to be faithful practitioners of all that they understand him to have been. They will be more comfortable with a seated Buddha on their desk or mantle than with a cross…. They will attend services at temple, synagogue, mosque, sweat lodge, and church. They will baptize those who find that meaningful, but will never think differently about a fellow disciple of Jesus who doesn’t see anything meaningful in that ritual. They will read from the Qur’an, the Bhagavad Gita, Confucius, the Vedas, and many other spiritual texts. They will consult spiritual directors, life coaches, mentors, rabbis, imams, priests, shamans, and others who demonstrate a capacity to put them in touch with the sacred. [Ibid., 116.]
For some of us, Church 3.0 may sound strange. Others of us may recognize that we have been dipping a toe into Church 3.0 for some time now. Wherever we are on this faith journey, we are invited to be shameless in sharing what is life-giving about the path forward.
We talked earlier about Jerusalem as an abandoned and destroyed city. It did not stay that way, of course. It was rebuilt and continues to bustle even today. Has it solved all its problems? No. But it is certainly alive. The Temple Mount of the Jews has given way to the Dome of the Rock, an important spiritual gathering site for Muslims. People of many faiths come to this city.
I said earlier that when I saw my ravaged woods, I offered a prayer of lament for what was lost. But I also said a prayer of thanksgiving for all that this space could be and is already becoming. Two days later, I took my friend Catherine down there. She brought her three border collies, who climbed all over the logs and explored the woods, panting and happy. I had tried to prepare Catherine for what she would see. As she stood in that space she said, “You know what you could put here? A labyrinth.”
A labyrinth. A new way—and also a very old way—to explore spirit in this sacred grove of cedars and firs. No pews. No pulpit. But life-giving Spirit. Maybe this is part of Church 3.0.
Where is God leading us—boldly, shamelessly? Because the world does need God’s life-giving message, now more than ever. So whether we meet in a church building with an organ and a pulpit and pews, or whether we gather at a labyrinth in a clearing in the woods, we are still called to be God’s people. We say “God is still speaking,” and we are perceiving or discerning God’s call in new directions. And on this World Communion Sunday, we recognize that we celebrate our God along with Christians of all varieties who worship in all different ways all over the world. So I invite you to rekindle your faith, to grieve, to believe, to perceive what new thing God is calling us to be and to do. And then let’s do it shamelessly. Amen.