Fifth Sunday in Lent … Sunday, March 18, 2018
Pastor Nathan Pipho
Trinity Lutheran Church, Worcester, Massachusetts
Jeremiah 31:31-34; Hebrews 5:5-10; John 12:20-33
In the name of Jesus. AMEN.
In his Annual Report to the congregation of Trinity Lutheran Church in 1960, the Rev. Dr. Carl Olander presented figures for average Sunday worship attendance. In 1959, Trinity Church had 3 Sunday services that, excluding the months of July and August which even back then experienced a dramatic drop off in worship attendance, showed an average Sunday worship attendance of 977 people.
In his Parochial Report for 1977, nearly 20 years later, Administrative Pastor Charles Seivard, reported that average Sunday worship attendance, again excluding July & August, was 479 people – just about bout half of the total from 1959.
I didn’t find a Parochial Report for 1997, but I speculated … What if the worship attendance fell by another 50% over the next 20 years? If so, worship attendance in 1997 would have been about 230 people. And, if indeed a trend had emerged where worship attendance fell by half every 20 years, we might expect that in 2017 worship attendance would be 115 people.
Guess what? In combining the average attendance of our two Sunday worship services, again excluding July & August, our average Sunday worship attendance in 2017 was 130 – slightly better than the historical trends might have predicted.
In physics, or chemistry, I’m neither a physicist or a chemist, there is a term called half life. Half life is the amount of the time in which an element loses half of its original mass. It appears that the half life of Trinity Church is about 20 years.
It’s important to note that Trinity is not alone in these trends. Those who study demographics point out that church attendance in the United States rose after World War II to its highest levels ever. At the time of Pastor Olander and nearly 1,000 people here on a Sunday, worship attendance at mainline congregations and denominations was at historical peak. It was from that peak, that over the next 6 decades, attendance would gradually decline to about the same percentage as it was before the World Wars. We aren’t seeing rates of participation historically low, but historically average.
But … for those of us who love the church, and for those who have long memories of ministry in this place, these historic trends offer little comfort. Seeing empty pews that once were filled is painful. It hurts.
And for leaders, for those who hold institutional positions of responsibility, the trends are downright horrifying. Who pays the bills and maintains the building if Trinity is only half its current size in another 20 years?
I believe it’s important for us to speak plainly, clearly, and calmly about these realities and the reactions & feelings they cause in us. The reason, is because of something that Pastor Eric said in last week’s sermon. In what I think is a stunning insight with profound implications, Pastor Eric suggested the possibility that the community of John, in writing the Gospel of John, wrote right into the sacred text, their own fears, discomforts, and agitations.
As a community of faith, John’s community also had its struggles, its anxieties, its human natures. And out of their brokenness, Pastor Eric suggested the possibility they infused their own stuff into the word of God that would be written and preserved as the Gospel of John.
That point is worth highlighting – because of our tendency to do the same thing! How easy it is for us, as a Christian community, to mix into our proclamation of God’s Word our own fears, annoyances, and grievances.
How easy it is to do, especially in congregations possessing an overwhelming consciousness to do something about the downward numbers trend they are experience. Such congregations make it a priority to: “Fill the pews! Save the church! Grow the church! But, in yielding to those slogans in response to anxiety, end up muddying the proclamation of God’s word with messages emanating from institutional fears and anxieties.
Rather than being people of faith proclaiming justification by grace through faith, we become people of works doubting Christ’s ability to work resurrection. Turning from the savior of the church, we turn instead to seeking salvation in our own efforts, our own ingenuity, and our own creativity.
Our treasured witness of justification by grace through faith gets buried in messages such as: If only we had the right pastor, cantor, or youth minister … if only parents knew better how to prioritize church and have their kids behave … if only society was different … if only we could go backwards … if only things could be like they used to be …
In assigning blame, or professing simple solutions, we become like the country singer looking for love in all the wrong places as we look for salvation in the all the wrong places. We might imagine Jesus Christ looking at his church saying, “Hey, what about me?”
Friends, the truth on this 5th Sunday in Lent, remains the truth proclaimed on Ash Wednesday, the same truth spoke for congregations as well as individuals: Trinity Church is dust, and to dust it shall return.
But … just as this truth was not meant to drive us despair on Ash Wednesday, nor is it meant to drive us into despair today.
Rather … this truth leads us to where our hope is found. Our hope is not found in our best intentions to save the church or fill the pews, or do something, anything, to reverse the trends. Rather, our hope is found in the saving power of Jesus Christ.
Our hope is the hope of John’s Gospel proclaimed in our gospel today: the good news of Jesus Christ, the seed of salvation dying on the cross for the life of the world.
It is the Good News of Hebrews, who proclaims Christ as a great high priest, not adorned in robes of glory offering a burnt offering, but clothed in the pain and suffering of the cross offering himself as the sacrifice of life for the world.
Our hope is in the work of God on cross of Christ that we as Christians see as the fulfillment of the prophet Jeremiah in our first reading today … In Christ, God does not just write faith into our head as information and facts, but writes faith into our hearts as an intimate knowledge and trust in the promises of God.
In his 1959 Parochial Report, Pastor Olander also wrote… We enter into the thirteenth year of our history as Trinity congregation with the overwhelming consciousness that “we are not here to dream and drift; there is work to do and loads to lift.”
Clear that our proclamation is the cross of Jesus Christ, what I propose today in the 71st year of ministry … is not apathy or despair. In a mystery of faith, the Holy Spirit does use our efforts to build the church and proclaim the cross. We are not here to dream about the past and drift mindlessly towards the future.
We are here as we have always been: to live in Jesus Christ our Lord. In all that we do, we are called to proclaim Christ lifted up on the cross. It becomes the grounding, the authority, the source of how we as a congregation organize our time, our activities, our ministry.
Our work to do is NOT to save this church! Rather, our work to do … is to BE the church.
We are not called to save the church as institution … we are called to BE the church – the living body of Jesus Christ!
To BE the church of Jesus Christ that:
- faithfully gathers around the hearing of God’s word that kills and gives life …
- receives the sacraments that wash and feed …
- prays for one another, encourages one another, speaks well of one another, forgives one another, and supports each other in Christian discipleship
- supports this ministry through generous financial offerings, and offerings of time and talent.
We don’t need 977 people here on a Sunday to do those things – those things we do right now to be the church today!
Our load to lift … is not this congregation into survival. Our load to lift is the cross of Jesus Christ.
All that we do, our words and deeds, our committee work and social gatherings, our maintenance and upkeep of this building, our outreach programs and service projects … are all about lifting the cross of Christ before each other and before the world.
And in this generation, the cross is best lifted not in words, but in deeds. There are too many words in the world today and not enough deeds.We lift the cross as we become seeds of wheat, sowing mercy, of forgiveness, of grace, and peace for the life of the word.
We lift the cross before the world as we:
- enter into relationships of compassion especially with the most vulnerable around us.
- when we feed the hungry, welcome the stranger,and tend to the least among us.
- not by bending and conforming to the powers of this world, or yielding to those who hold power in this world, but by consistently, persistently, and courageously standing up to all soul-crushing and life destroying actions.
Again, we don’t need twice as many people here to lift the cross – in faith, we are called together to do that today as we live in Christ in relationship with the world.
The Good News today is the Good News of Christ lifted before the world on the cross. And the great high priest, who offered himself as our sacrifice in his death, LIVES! Christ the great high priest LIVES to lead us as individuals, us as Trinity Church, as the people of God – to life and resurrection.
May Christ alone be the message and hope of Trinity Church.
Empowered by the Holy Spirit, together may we lift the cross of Christ before each other and before the world.
To Christ alone be the glory!