The church is dead. The church is dying. The church is irrelevant. I’ve heard statements like these increasingly more often in the last couple of years. Truth be told, I’ve made similar observations myself for more than a decade. But after reading this week’s lectionary, I no longer agree that the church is dead, dying, or irrelevant. Although, it could be if we don’t pay better attention.
First, Isaiah’s words to the people of Israel. God is not pleased. The offerings and prayers of the people have become meaningless. They are going through the motions of faith, but they do not seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend orphans, or plead for widows. They have lost their way, again. God does not want empty religious rituals. God wants their hearts and their lives. It wouldn’t be much of a stretch for Isaiah’s word’s to be meant for today’s church goers.
The Hebrews text is the beautiful reminder of the power of faith. Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval. By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible. The passage goes on to remind the church in Jerusalem that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob had faith in the midst of challenge and change; they did not sit still and wait for things to happen. The emerging church was changing the face of religious practice in those days, and it was scary. The reminder to trust God to guide the journey and fulfill promises was a timely one. And, like the Isaiah text, it’s not hard to imagine that these words spoken to the church now.
No, we aren’t dead. No, we aren’t dying. No, we aren’t irrelevant. But we could be all these things if we don’t pay more attention. The caution to Jerusalem’s emerging church was not to do things that would make God ashamed to be their God. It’s a reasonable caution for today’s emerging church. Where have our rituals become empty? Where have our offerings become meaningless? Is God honored by our actions or ashamed of them? Do we truly seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend orphans or plead for widows?
We aren’t dead or dying, but we are changing; something new is emerging. Change is essential to the church’s survival and we don’t like it. This resistance to and dislike of change has been consistent since the early church. We don’t know what to do when the shape of our religious practice shifts. It makes us anxious and in our anxiety we tend to cling more firmly to things and rituals that don’t really mean all that much. Therefore, the reminders of the faithful who have gone before us. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Miriam, Rebecca, and Rachael. Peter, Paul, and Stephen. Mary, Martha, and Lydia. And the countless men and women who walked paths of faith when the present and the future were unclear.
So lest we become irrelevant, let us get moving with the great cloud of witnesses who have gone before us. Let’s ask ourselves what is essential for Christian faith right now, and pray for the courage to let all the rest fall away. It’s not too late. We aren’t dead yet. And we are not irrelevant. People need faith now as much as ever before, if not more so. The church has a unique message for those who are hungry. It’s time we look to see where our treasure lies (and move it if it is in the wrong place.)
Let your steadfast love, O God, be upon us, even as we hope in you.
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RCL – Year C – Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost – August 11, 2013
Isaiah 1:1, 10-20 with Psalm 50:1-8, 22-23 or
Genesis 15:1-6 with Psalm 33:12-22 and
Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16