It’s very troubling these days to walk into a church and see all the empty seats. Especially this church with all these magnificent stained glass windows, and the stillness and the beauty of the space… This is holy ground for us, it’s our sanctuary, our haven, our safe place…it’s our home. Many of you can probably remember a time when this room was bursting at the seams on Sunday. A time when the whole family went to church together – from the tiniest baby, to the oldest grandparent, or even great-grandparent. Everyone went to church, and everyone knew each other. There were several levels of Sunday school and at Christmastime all of the kids were involved in the Christmas pageant. No one questioned any of this; it was what everyone did, and if folks weren’t doing it in this space they were doing it another worship space across town. Everyone went to church. It was the done thing…but then, slowly, people stopped doing it. And here we are today, in this nearly empty room, wondering how much longer we will be able to support this space. It’s more than troubling…it’s downright heartbreaking!
What happened? Did people just simply stop believing? If so, why, and what can we do about it? How do we bring people back, and how do we bring new people in? Can we bring new people in? These are the questions that are on our minds nowadays. How do we turn things around?
But you know, a friend of mine from many years ago used to always say “there are no right answers to wrong questions” and I can help but wonder if maybe we aren’t asking the wrong questions. It’s kind of like this guy Nicodemus showing up in the middle of the night asking Jesus some new questions. While all of his Pharisee colleagues were asking the same old questions and coming up with the same unsatisfactory answers, Nicodemus knew that if nothing changes, then nothing changes. Now keep in mind that Nicodemus was an established Pharisee, a leader of the Jews. He had been to seminary; he had studied the Torah inside out; he was a respected figure in his community, yet, for him, it was hollow; it meant nothing if God was not present. So he started looking around him and asking some new questions.
And what Jesus told Nicodemus that night was baffling. It upended everything that Nicodemus had been taught to believe. That’s what happens when we ask new questions. All of our previous assumptions are fair game for being blown out of the water. Jesus told him that no one could see the kingdom of God without being born from above. He said no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and spirit. And then he said that God loved the world so much that he gave his only son so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.
Let’s linger here for just a minute because this stuff seems pretty relevant to what’s going on today. We’ve heard these words many, many times; they are the backbone of our faith; but what they have come to represent for a lot of folks is that if you want to go to heaven then you must be born again and accept Jesus as your Lord and savior. Okay, so if I am baptized and say I believe, then I am saved – I won’t be going to hell after I die; I will be going to heaven – end of story, right? Well that’s pretty unfulfilling isn’t it? Because what’s on my mind, is today – right here, right now – when I’m struggling to earn enough money to feed my kids, or I’m struggling with how to be a caretaker to my aging parent, or with how to cope with my own cancer diagnosis… Today I’m interested in getting through today; I need to taste the kingdom of God today; I need to feel God’s comfort today; and if I can’t find any of that in church then I’ll have to look elsewhere – like Nicodemus, and – like the rest of the people who are no longer in church.
There are no right answers to wrong questions, and instead of asking how we bring people back, maybe we should be asking, ‘how do we go out and meet people and help them find the kingdom of God today?’ Just because people are no longer looking in church, doesn’t mean they are no longer looking, and just because they didn’t find it in church doesn’t mean that it isn’t there. And while we are at it, maybe we should be asking what the kingdom of God is for ourselves. Because I didn’t hear Jesus saying to Nicodemus, “hey, believe in me and you’ll go to heaven.” No, what Jesus said was that no one could see the kingdom of God without being born from above. This speaks to the “here and now,” not the “there and then.” It suggests that when we are willing to die to an old way of being and be born into a new way of being – a way that is centered in the sacred, in the Spirit, in Christ, in God, then that way of life is the kingdom of God. Jesus said no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and spirit, meaning that we become a new creation centered in God through a transformational process bestowed upon us by the grace of God. If I am willing to die to my old way of being, then God will transform me into a new way of being, through a series of small and large re-births that happen along the way. It’s not something we do, it is something that must be done to us and for us. It is the gift of God for the people of God. And finally Jesus said that God loved the world so much that he gave his only son to show us what this rebirth looks like and what it means, so that we too could follow the path that leads to eternal life. And you know what I have found? I have found that with this new way of being, when I’m struggling with something – anything at all, I am centered in the assurance that it’s okay; God is there with me, seeing to my daily needs and comforting me in my sorrow. That, more than anything else, tells me that I am in the kingdom of God.
So how do we go out and bring this kingdom to other people? We go out and we live our faith publicly. We go out and we be the Disciples of Christ that we claim we are. Jesus and his disciples did not sit around waiting for people to come to them. They went out and met people where they were. And as we go out and encounter people, we will grow closer and deeper in our own relationship with God who will create a new heart in us. And isn’t that why we’re here? Isn’t that basically what all humans are looking for? A new heart? Don’t we all question God in the dark nights of our fear and doubt, hoping for answers and reassurance? Don’t we all more than anything, yearn to know that “all of this” – our lives, our world, with both our struggles and our hopes – springs from love? Don’t we want to know that we are unconditionally loved? That we have immeasurable value in God’s eyes? That no matter who we are or what we do, God always loves us and cares about us?
We are doing a new thing in this church. We are starting to ask some different questions and we are coming up with some surprising answers. We are starting to look outward rather than inward, and when we do that we begin to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ. If we want to preserve our sanctuary then we have to be willing to let it go; we have to be willing to step outside the walls and shine our light into the world. That’s what this whole thing is about…it’s about spreading the good news that God loves us, that God’s essential being is a love so abundant that it spills out into the whole of the universe and invites all of us into it. This profound love of God draws us into relationship not only with God, but with each other, and with all of creation binding us together in ways both simple and profound.
I believe that with all of the uncertainty about the future of the church, there is also a sense of hopefulness and anticipation that perhaps the church is undergoing the transformational pains of rebirth. Are we willing to die to our old way of being, so that God can then begin the business of transforming us into a new way of being? If the answer to the question is yes, then I am excited about what is to come, because God is still-speaking; God is still doing a new thing, and we, are all a part of it. Amen