Sunday, August 27, 2017

"Empty the Pews": Sermon for 27 August 2017

Sermon for Sunday 27 August 2017

Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, Jerusalem

The Rev. Carrie Ballenger Smith


Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart
    be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.


One year ago this month, I visited my “home church” in Stillwater, Oklahoma, to preach and to share with them about our ministry here at Redeemer Church in Jerusalem. Now, I have many “home churches”, including the church where I was baptized, the church where I was confirmed, the church where I preached my first sermon, and the churches where I have served as pastor. All of these are “home.” And now Redeemer is home! But Salem Lutheran is the place where I first heard the call to ministry. It’s the community that supported me and Robert financially when we were in seminary. It’s the place where Caleb was baptized and where Robert was ordained. You could say that it is not only a home church, but a foundational church. It has been a solid rock for our family through many life changes.

But last summer when I preached there, the worship service wasn’t in the church I remembered. Salem was in the process of renovating its building, and for this reason the congregation had been worshipping on folding chairs in the fellowship hall. It was strange, to visit this place that held so many important memories, and to see it completely changed. It was strange, to peer into the old worship space I loved, and to see the altar, the pulpit, the pews, and even the floor itself in a state of complete disarray.

After the service in the fellowship hall (which was lovely, by the way), Pastor Sally gave me a gift: a beautiful wooden bracelet. She told me that in the renovation, a few of the pews had been removed permanently so the church could be made wheelchair accessible. This bracelet was one of many crafted from those extra wooden pews by a very talented church member.


I was really touched by this gift. How cool, I thought, to wear on my body a piece of my home church, when I’m living and working so far away! How cool, to look down and think, “Perhaps this was the pew where I was sitting when I first heard the call to preach. Perhaps this is the pew where someone else heard the Good News for the first time, or for the 1000th time, or when it mattered the most.” I imagined the wood of my new bracelet soaked through with spilled communion wine, and with drips from kids’ juice boxes, and with funeral tears.

I absolutely loved it!

And then I broke it.

When I unpacked my things here in Jerusalem, I lifted the bracelet out of my bag and saw that it had cracked in two. On the long journey home, the delicate wood had split, leaving me with two jagged sticks rather than anything wearable or lovely.

Oh, I was heartbroken! I was angry at myself for not caring for it properly. And I was sad to see this important piece of my faith story snapped in half.

Thanks be to God, I’m happy to show you that I’m wearing that same bracelet today, joined together once again by the miraculous powers of Gorilla Glue! It’s not as perfect as it was. You can still see the split in the wood, and the superglue has dribbled out of the crack and dried in a most unattractive way.

But I love it even more now, as it reminds me that our church communities are never perfect.

Of course, I’m not perfect, either, but that ugly glue reminds me the church is the place I always hear the Good News that in Jesus Christ, I am forgiven, reconciled, and made whole.

Most importantly, this imperfect, super-glued, fragile wooden bracelet reminds me that church pews are not the foundation of my faith.

Let me say it again: church pews are not the foundation of my faith.

Beloved church buildings are not the foundation of my faith.
My ethnic heritage is not the foundation of my faith.
My childhood memories, my favorite hymns, and my Christmas traditions are not the foundation of my faith.

As a familiar hymn says, “My faith is built on nothing less than Jesus and his righteousness!” The church—and my faith—are built upon the confession of Simon Peter, who said: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.”

And Jesus answered Peter,
“Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.”

Jesus built the church upon a rock, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. This is both the foundation of the church, and one of the most contested verses in all of the New Testament.

Our sisters and brothers in the Catholic Church hold that this verse establishes Peter as the bishop of Rome. By this interpretation, Peter (whose name means “rock”), and every Pope who came after him, holds the keys to the kingdom of heaven.

Protestant Christians, on the other hand, interpret this Scripture differently. Churches in the Reformation tradition hold that Jesus founded the church upon Peter’s confession, not upon Peter himself. When Jesus tells Peter “on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it”, he is speaking of Peter’s confession of faith. Jesus has built the church—this one, and the early church, and your home church—upon the singular, solid confession that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the of the Living God. This is the “church’s one foundation.” This is the solid rock upon which we stand. This is what makes us the church, wherever we are in the world, and whether we worship in a 12th century chapel, or in a modern new amphitheater, or in the homes of our friends.

Here at Redeemer Church, I often joke that if you “love Jesus and speak English”, you belong here. And if you come to church twice, you’re a member! It’s fun to joke about this, but actually, the great challenge of forming a cohesive church community in this multi-cultural, multi-lingual, multi-denominational environment, is also our greatest gift. Here at Redeemer, we are constantly reminded of our one true foundation. 

Because we are so different, because we have so many cultural, linguistic, and denominational backgrounds, we must always seek what unites us, not what divides us.
And what we share is this: Together, we proclaim Jesus Christ as the Messiah, the Son of the Living God. Everything else is what the Reformers called “adiaphora.” Everything else is gravy. Everything else can be overlooked or overcome, discussed or dismissed, renegotiated or reformed. But the confession that Jesus is Lord, not only of the church but of our lives and of the world, is the one foundation we share. Here we stand. Here we find solid footing. Here we can weather any storm—and even the gates of Hades will not prevail against us!

This kind of foundational clarity is critically important today, as it seems the very foundations of our world are being shaken. Every morning, the news seems worse: 

Who would think that today, in 2017, we would see Nazis marching through an American city? 
Who would think we would be worried once again about a real threat of nuclear war? Who would think that the 50th anniversary of the occupation of the Palestinian territories would come and go, and there would still be no real peace process underway in the Holy Land? 
Who would think that two thousand and seventeen years after Jesus died on the cross, we would still see so much war, so much poverty, so much suffering, so much hatred between peoples, religions, and countries?

It’s true: Terrorists, racists, and political tyrants are shaking the foundations of our world today. It is a scary time, not only for the church, but for all of humanity.

For this reason, it is critically important for Christians to remember that our faith is not about where we sit on Sunday morning, but about where we stand every day of the week.

It is critically important that we be clear about who we are, and what we are about. As it has been said, “If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.”

I say that it’s critical for the church to be clear about who we are, and where we stand, because nearly every week I read an article that says the church is dying—or that it is already dead. Just this week I heard someone describe most of our mainline Christian denominations as “in a death spiral.”

And in this same week when I was waxing poetic about my bracelet fashioned out of a beloved church pew, one of the top trending tweets was “#emptythepews”—a heartbreaking flood of messages on Twitter (from mostly evangelical Christians) talking about why they are leaving church today.

They wrote, among other things:

"we need to pray about it" is not enough. Christians need to stand up for equality for the oppressed. #emptythepews

I realized that worrying about whether or not I was a good enough Christian was the root cause of my mental illness. #EmptyThePews

Christians put a rapist in the White House. #EmptyThePews

Why #EmptyThePews? Losing members is about the only thing that will get Evangelicals' attention.

This is scary to hear.
It is also true.
Many of our churches are in trouble today, for many different reasons.

But it seems to me that if our pews are emptying,
If our denominations are dying,
If it seems our church foundations are shifting, or even splitting in two—
Then we are probably standing somewhere we shouldn’t.

If our world leaders look like they’re lying, they probably are!
And if the church seems shifty, it probably is.

Listen: Some of our denominations are dying because they’ve forgotten who they are. They’ve forgotten that being the church is not about counting “butts in pews”, but about standing where Jesus stands.

The church is not a social club.
The church is not an ethnic or cultural heritage society.
The church is not Sunday morning entertainment.
The church is not the auxiliary wing of any political party.

The church of Jesus Christ is the gift he gave the disciples, the home he built for us, so we could in confidence continue his work after his crucifixion, after his resurrection, and after his ascension into heaven.

This means that making peace,
Fighting injustice,
Feeding the hungry,
Liberating the oppressed,
Healing the sick,
Welcoming children,
Tearing down walls,
And silencing racists, extremists, and tyrants,
Is not a side hobby for the church.
It is foundational.

This is who we are.
This is where we stand, because this is where Jesus stands.

Dear sisters and brothers in Christ: The pews you are sitting in today are in a 1990’s renovation of an 1890’s chapel, which was built from the ruins of a 12th century monastery, which was itself built upon the outer wall of Jerusalem from the time of Jesus. That’s quite a heritage! This is something to be proud of. This is part of who we are.

But the real foundation of this church, and of this community, is who we say Jesus is—and how that confession shapes what we do.

We must be clear about this, because there is so much work to do in the world.
There is so much evil to contend with.
There are so many things to distract us.
There are so many voices to oppose us.
But when the church stands where Jesus stands, we have been promised that the gates of Hades will not prevail against us.

Though Nazis may march and racists may tweet, the gates of Hades will not prevail.

Though political leaders from Kenya to Venezuela to the USA fill their pockets rather than children’s bellies, the gates of Hades will not prevail.

Though extremists multiply and terrorists horrify, the gates of Hades will not prevail.

Though walls stand tall, and settlements grow, and the international attention span withers and shrinks, the gates of Hades will not prevail.

So let the powers and principalities of the world be on notice:

Tomorrow, these pews will be empty—because this church will be in the world, standing firm for life, and love, and justice, on the solid rock of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.