Sermon for the Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany
February 23, 2014
Earlier this week, I had coffee with a large group of fellow pastors and church leaders in the area. At these meetings, a wide variety of Christian leaders show up. Baptists, Methodists, Lutherans, Episcopalians – we’re all there. Even though we come from different traditions, we share many of the same heartaches and joys of the ministry. And we also pass around ideas about the ministry. And one topic always comes up – is the church relevant?
It is fascinating to see the differences of opinion. I have a good friend who is the priest at the Greek Orthodox church on 2920. In his tradition, things never change. For the Orthodox church, there is no concept of being relevant. For example, one of their greatest thinkers was Symeon the “new theologian.” New? Symeon the new theologian died in 1022. For our Orthodox brothers and sisters, relevance is not in their vocabulary.
I also have a friend who is the pastor of the Church at Creek’s End on Kuykendahl. They do not have a denominational affiliation. They aren’t Baptist or Methodist or Church of Christ or anything. And they are all about relevance. No vestments – he wears jeans and t-shirts on Sunday morning. They don’t have a Prayer Book. They sing music that you hear on the radio. They are all about relevance.
And so we come to the Episcopal Church. Are we relevant? Or perhaps, should we be relevant? Should the church even try to be “with it”? But before we answer that question, let’s start with a survey.
How many of you have ever been attacked, physically, emotionally, or verbally? How many of you have ever had something stolen from you? How many of you have ever had someone beg from you? How many of you have ever had someone ask to borrow something from you? So when Jesus talks to us about turning the other cheek, giving to everyone who begs from you, and borrowing all of your stuff – he’s absolutely relevant. The question can never be: is Jesus relevant? The question is always: is the church relevant?
So often when we ask that question we get caught up in the trappings of church. How we worship, what clothes the pastor wears, what kind of music we sing, if we have an iPhone app. But that’s not relevance. Relevance is when Jesus talks about the stuff of every day life. Relevance is when Jesus speaks to us about the situations we encounter all the time. The Church is relevant, and will always be relevant, as long as we keep listening to what Jesus says.
And that’s the real zinger. Does the church listen to what Jesus says? Do we allow Jesus to be relevant in our lives, or do we block out what’s uncomfortable? Because, let’s be honest, what Jesus says this morning is incredibly uncomfortable. He says,
“Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.”
So the question is not so much if we are relevant. The question is: why are we not willing to listen to Jesus? Because when somebody attacks me, my gut reaction is to strike back. And more often than not, I drive by and ignore people who are begging from me. And I don’t know about you, but I lock my doors when I leave for the day because I don’t want anybody to steal my stuff. I hear the words of Jesus, but I have not allowed those words to be relevant.
When we hear these hard but relevant words from Jesus, we start making excuses to justify our behavior. We tell ourselves that it’s okay to not do what Jesus says. Instead of turning the other cheek, we strike back because that other guy deserves it. Instead of giving to anyone who begs from us, we tell ourselves that the beggar would just buy meth with our money anyway. We say that we are willing to die for Jesus, but are we willing to be inconvenienced for Jesus?
Churches across the country are declining. More and more people are staying at home on Sunday morning. Why? I promise you it’s not because of the music we’re singing, it’s not because of the vestments I’m wearing. Young people, and older people, are leaving the church because we have failed to actually listen to Jesus.
When the world sees the direct contrast between what Jesus calls us to do, and what we actually do, they leave the church. They abandon this thing that we love so very much because we get wound up about things that Jesus doesn’t care about: music, vestments, worship. And then we blatantly disregard the things Jesus does care about: non-violence, poverty, peace. People are no longer coming to church because we are not relevant. And we are no longer relevant because we aren’t listening to Jesus.
It all boils down to this: the people of this world are crying out for the living God. The people of this world want to pray, they want to pray – that’s why so many people consider themselves “spiritual but not religious.” Young and old, people want a relationship with Jesus, they want to know the Holy Spirit. They want to hear these words of Jesus because it speaks directly to their everyday lives.
And with the people of the world crying out for the waters of life, what does the Church gives them? We give the world platitudes like, “everything happens for a reason.” Instead of giving the world a relationship with Jesus, churches fight with each other about who is holiest. There is open revolt in the Ukraine. Syria has collapsed. The average age of a child in the sex slave trade is twelve, average age (http://freeourcity.org/free-houston/facts/). Two thousand eight hundred children go to bed hungry on any given night in southeast Texas (http://houstonfoodbank.org/media/66895/Child_Hunger_%209-16-13.pdf).
The world is crying out for the mercy and grace and love of the Lord Jesus Christ. And the Church mails out a newsletter. We haven’t even gotten around to loving our enemies. So how can we expect the world to do any better? The world is right, we are not relevant. We can try all the fancy music, we can try worshiping like they did a thousand years ago. None of that matters, what matters is that we are not listening to Jesus. We are making excuses so that we feel okay about fighting back, withholding our money, and hating our enemies.
And I do not accuse or blame anyone for our irrelevance. If anyone is culpable, it’s me, as a leader of the church. So what I propose is a fresh start. In a moment we will confess our sins, and I am going to ask for a longer moment of silence there. Enough time for us to really reflect on how we have blatantly disregarded Jesus. And then, thanks be to God, we will receive absolution. Our failures to live like Jesus commands us to live will be forgiven, and we will have the opportunity for a fresh start, a chance to try again. To be relevant. We are given the opportunity everyday to live like Jesus commands us to live. The world is crying out for religion, they want to know the love of God. And somebody must show them that love. That somebody, is you. You must show them Jesus. And live like Jesus. No excuses. No qualifiers. No justifications. To show the world that love of Jesus, I end with these simple and relevant words:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you. You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.”
2 thoughts on “Relevance”
Well said. Paraphrasing F.D. Maurice, “people cry out for the living God and the church gives them mere religion.” I’ve been saying for years that we are “functional atheists” – professing our faith (often beautifully in well composed prayers and songs!) yet functioning from day to day as if God didn’t exist. Now dear brother, you challenge us all to practice what we preach! Thank you, and bless you!