Gospel: Luke 13:31-35
1st Reading: Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18,
2nd Reading: Philippians 3:17-4:1
In today’s Gospel, Jesus expresses his disappointment in his religion that has failed him. “Jerusalem, Jerusalem!” he laments. Jerusalem, whose name means “city of peace,” is the place where God intervened to keep Abraham from sacrificing his son Isaac, the place where the temple is built, the place where heaven and earth come together—where God and humans can talk to each other. Jerusalem is meant to be the place that is closest to God’s heart, where God’s Kingdom is made a reality on earth, where the orphans and widows are cared for, where forgiveness is the rule rather than the exception, where people put their neighbor first, where the poor are clothed and fed. In this morning’s Gospel, Jerusalem has not only failed Jesus, who is headed there now to be killed. It has failed countless prophets before him, who tried to make the religious and political leaders in Jerusalem see the truth and change their ways and were killed for speaking up. It has failed the poor, women, lepers, and children—all the people it was developed to protect. It has failed itself. The holy city of peace has become the city of destruction.
How could something that started out so beautiful, get so twisted and ugly? We get, this morning in the Old Testament reading, the beginning of Jerusalem—the beginning of the promise to Abram of a place to worship, a family to belong to, a nation to father. We have Abram, so anxious and alone. We have God coming to him in a vision and promising him that he won’t be alone, God will be with him and so will more descendents than he can count. We have God calling to Abram to lift up his eyes. God excites his imagination, as asks Abram to look out on so many little lights in the sky. And Abram finds within him a little bit of hope. Abram begins to believe and God counts it in his favor, reckons it to him as righteousness, as good behavior, as godliness.
So what happened between God’s promise that Abram and his family would be a blessing to others as God had been to them and this brutal, selfish, death-dealing society and religion that Jesus encounters? Well, 6000 years for one thing. Some of it is recorded in the Bible. Some of it is recorded in history. And I think we can imagine how when you start adding people to a religion and family that number the stars, how some of them might get off track. And it is inevitable that when religion becomes established, it becomes something to defend and loses its main purpose of drawing people to God.
Martin Luther was asking this question, too. How did his religion fall so far from the ideals of Jesus? How did Christianity go from something so beautiful where all kinds of people came together to study and worship and experience God’s love, where people gave their lives for their faith, where people gave up everything they had in the world to be in community with each other—how did the church become what it had in Martin Luther’s day? How did it get to the point where the poor were being robbed of what little they had by the lure of indulgences—pieces of paper purchased to get their loved ones out of purgatory and into heaven, food taken from the mouths of hungry children, the money actually going to fund larger and more extravagant churches? How did it get to the point where the free gift of God’s grace had been twisted into so many relics you had paid to go see, how many times you’d whipped yourself, and how much money you’d paid to rich, spoiled, power-hungry old men who happened to be priests?
And many of us today, if you ask a young person why they don’t go to church, or even someone older, you might get this same sense of disappointment. How far the church has fallen from its ideals! We held the church up as a safe place to bring children, and look at the child abuse scandals of the Roman Catholic Church—and the Lutheran Church is not immune to this. Maybe you’ve been reading about our neighbor in Lake Oswego, Our Savior’s Lutheran Church, and how a youth worker there has been accused of abuse 20 years ago and they as well as the ELCA have a lawsuit against them. We heard the church teaching that Jesus asks us to love our neighbor as ourselves, and how he talked to prostitutes, tax collectors, illegal aliens, and other discounted people, and our children are tired of witnessing churches show everything but love to outsiders. Young people that I talk to often see church as irrelevant to them and don’t want to be a part of something seen as closed-minded, hateful, angry, and fearful. How far the church has come from the ideals of the reformation, from the ideals of Jesus!
Now we can say, “That’s not us.” But the truth is, we’ve had our own scandals in these church walls that have likely driven people from church once and for all. We’ve had discussions about sexuality where people felt safe to say what was on their minds, but it might not have felt safe to have to hear it. We’ve followed rigid worship outlines rather than sought an experience of deeper connection. We’ve said one thing and done another. We’ve had heated discussions about toilet paper and coffee instead of focusing on feeding the poor and what provisions we’ve put aside for them. These things don’t make us bad people. Certainly we are sinners on a path, working to become closer to Jesus and trying to walk the path of faithfulness. Yet, it might look to an outsider like we’ve got our priorities out of whack, at times.
Because of all these things people have left the church in droves. The church was actually getting in the way of their faith. The vast majority are still living their faith. They are good people. They volunteer to help the poor. They give their money to charity. They are friends of discounted people. Like Jesus, they have a job to do and not even the religious authorities are going to get in their way. He says, “Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow.” He won’t be distracted by petty arguments. He’s got a job to do on behalf of others. In the same way many young people who have flocked away from churches see very clearly that just because religion has gotten off track is not going to stop them from being godly people. They are going to continue on their path of faith and the church is not going to get in the way of that.
We are part of the broken institution and we’re a part of the body of Christ. We’re stuck in the middle. We are from a generation that believed you measured faith by how often you went to church. We love our church and want to make it better. We love our family members who don’t go anymore. We want everyone to be gathered together under God’s wings. Why can’t we just get along?? Our church is still working for us enough that we show up at least once in a while. Yet, we can see where others are coming from. Many of us have a sense of disappointment with the church, things that don’t work for us, that cause us to consider throwing in the towel now and then.
The good news is that Jesus has a plan for gathering us all together. Jesus says, “Listen!” It is up to us to listen to these people who have been hurt by the church—not to see them as our enemies or people who are deficient in some way that we need to get back here. Instead we can see them as pioneers trying to live their faith in an authentic way. We can be curious about their journey of faith and what gets them through hard times as well as how they celebrate good times. We can find out how they balance work and rest, how they find their Sabbath. We can discover the amazing gifts they have that they use to help other people—where they connect with others to use their gifts. We can let them teach us what a life of faith can look like when you don’t have pews and a bulletin and ushers, when you don’t have a building to maintain and pastor to pay, but can instead devote all of your offerings to the poor, when you don’t have your prayers all written out in front of you, but life becomes a prayer.
Maybe it isn’t a matter of one or the other being right, but different paths to a deeper connection to God, God’s creation, and God’s people. We’ve got a lot of good things going on here at King of Kings. We’re uniquely equipped for important work, like feeding the hungry, and welcoming the stranger. But I also think we can learn from Jesus’ critique, and the critique of those who see with the eyes of Jesus and tell the truth like he did. Maybe we each have a piece of the puzzle and if we listen and work together we might learn from others what Jesus is reforming the church to become and how lives of faith are being lived outside of these church walls and how we can be a part of that.
God says to Abram, “Do not be afraid.” We can look at these circumstances in which congregations are shrinking and religion has a bad name and our kids and grandkids don’t go to church, and we have a choice how to respond. We can respond with fear—what will happen to our church, our loved ones, our pet project at church?
God says do not fear. God is with us on our path. Although it might be new territory, God has always been on this journey with us. And God is also on the spiritual journey of those we love who don’t go to church and have a critique to offer like Jesus’ critique. Instead, we can respond with hope. We can listen to emerging ideas of how God can be found in community, how we can join together in lives of service, how we can find an authentic experience of the Divine, and how we can be vessels through which God brings in the Kingdom of justice and love.