“Church? Why Bother?” Isaiah 58:1-12
Rev. Sean Weston Matthew 5:13-16
Lyonsville Congregational UCC, Indian Head Park IL
August 19, 2018
Last Sunday, I did something I rarely do: I didn’t go to church. Last week I was on what we call “continuing education” leave, which is a time for me to focus on study and professional growth. This year I attended a mediation training for church leaders, which was excellent and quite intense. Taking the leave through Sunday allowed me to rest and recover, rather than squeezing in worship prep.
So, David and I got brunch with friends in the city. I had the chance to see what people who don’t go to church on Sundays do. As it turns out, you can find a lot of people eating a meal out, enjoying a slow Sunday morning. It got me thinking about how there were so many people around the city and the world gathering for worship – and there were so many people doing something else. Why? I wondered.
There are a whole lot of people doing a whole lot of things on Sunday mornings that have nothing to do with church. I’m not really bothered by that fact alone. Once we’re old enough we get to make our own choices about that sort of thing. If people have the chance to explore what it means to be part of church, and then decide it’s not for them, that’s fine with me. My problem is that many people have not been offered an experience of church life that makes them want to part of it. Study after study after study after study has tried to understand this more, especially because people staying away from church tend to be younger and that means a lot of churches are feeling a pinch. Churches want to know what to fix. Music? politics? judgmental attitudes? Buildings? Programs?
In the church world, there are a lot of people peddling nice answers and easy fixes. But if there were an easy one-size-fits-all “fix” we would have done it and moved on. It’s not really that simple. The only thing that is simple is that a lot of people – including plenty of friends of mine – look at church and think “why bother?” And, you know, it’s not actually that hard for me to understand. Just in the last couple weeks, churches have been in the news nationally and the stories haven’t been good. The leaders of Willow Creek Church here in the suburbs finally stepped down when it became abundantly clear that they not only gave their founder and long-time pastor Bill Hybels a blank check to abuse women, but swept abuse reports about other leaders under the rug too. In another story that has rightly gotten significant attention, a grand jury found that over 70 years hundreds of Pennsylvania clergy abused young people with no accountability. It doesn’t matter the flavor of church – you can find story after story of incredible moral failings in the very places that are supposed to set the tone for the world. Lest you wonder why developing Safe Church practices are a priority here this fall.
Jesus said, “You are the salt of the earth. But if salt loses its saltiness, how will it become salty again? It’s good for nothing except to be thrown away and trampled under people’s feet.”
As we hear story after story of the church’s severe failings, as we hear more and more about the ways people have been hurt in churches, it’s not hard to understand why more and more people are saying “Church? Why Bother?” I myself only came to ministry after stepping away from church life for a time.
This means a lot of things, and one of them is that if we church people want others to bother with church, we must be able to answer that question: why? This is a time when those of us who are committed to this thing called church have some really big questions to wade through. How did we get to where we are today? Why do we do what we do? How is our community different because we’re here? What do we want to be known for? What do we have to offer the world in this place, in this time? Who are we? Who do we want to be? What’s the point of it all? The scholar Don Schön calls “swamp” issues. These are the important, complex, and messy problems. There is no “high, hard ground” where quick fixes can be developed. The leadership development program I was just accepted into focuses on helping pastors lead churches through the swamp. Because that’s where we are today. In some ways, it’s a swamp of our own making. In other ways it’s part of much larger trends in the world.
This isn’t the first time in history that religious communities have struggled with questions like this. These issues tend to come up during times when the world is changing intensely and quickly. One time was during the life of Jesus, when he challenged his religious community to a higher and bolder purpose: to be salt and light of the world. To make things better, at a time when the government was leaning harder and harder on people, and many religious leaders seemed more worried about their own comfort than making life better. What’s the point of religion, Jesus is asking, if we aren’t offering something good to the world?
Roughly five hundred years before that – very roughly, because we aren’t exactly sure when it was written – we find our section from the prophet Isaiah. Isaiah’s religious community struggled with change after change after change. They had been uprooted from their land and sent into exile. They had hope things might change soon, but no clear path to get there. They were in the swamp and they wanted to know why God didn’t seem to be helping them out much.
Isaiah said to them: don’t get so obsessed with your own situation that you forget the wider picture. Don’t miss the forest for the trees. When you can zoom out a bit, you’ll see two things:
One is that our failure to live our own values is displeasing to God. No matter how often we pray or fast or come to church, if we are still acting with hatred and violence ourselves, if we are still accepting injustice from our community or state or nation or world without standing for what’s right, God is not happy with us. All of us fall short, but when churches fail to hold their people accountable to the values they claim, people get hurt and God gets a bad name. Few things are as disappointing as those who talk a good game and then do whatever they want, even when others get hurt. One thing that is clear from the endless studies is that many people inside and outside the church believe that churches do not live the values they claim.
The second is the flip side of that same coin. When communities of faith are at our best, amazing things can happen. Those who are hungry get fed, the unhoused are given shelter, families reconcile, the world becomes a better place. When communities of faith take seriously the calling to be salt of the earth and light of the world, amazing things happen. Lives are changed. Churches are transformed. The world is made better, more just. This is pleasing to God, Isaiah says. When you are like this, God will guide, provide, and rescue you.
I truly believe that many people don’t bother with church because they’ve seen so much of the bad and so little of the good. But I also that it doesn’t have to be that way. I believe that, as the church leader Paul said, the whole creation is groaning for the children of God to be revealed. The world is waiting for freedom, for life, for love, for care. It is waiting for the children of God. For us!
God’s promise isn’t that everything will be okay and comfortable. God’s promise is that as when choose to wade through the swamp, we are not alone. God will be right there. Isaiah says: “the Lord will guide you continually and provide for you, even in parched places.” Even in parched places. We are not alone. When we act in courage and hope, God is there.
And hope isn’t hope unless it’s a big hope. So we are not called to the hope of survival, Lyonsville Church. We are not called to the hope of just keeping going. We are not called to small hopes, things easily seen and obtained, quick fixes and easy solutions. We are called to a big hope: hope that God is setting the whole world free, healing the broken places, and that you and I have some part of that work. We are called to a big hope: a world where everyone has what they need. A hope that takes us from our comfort zones and into the swamps that stand between here and the promised land. To ask the hard questions without easy answers. To look for the bigger picture. To be the salt of the earth and light of the world. You’ll note that I didn’t really answer the question, “why bother?” because it’s not my job to answer that question for you. It’s our job to answer it for ourselves and together. These are things we’ll explore together, not only over the “Being the Church” sermon series the next few weeks, but time and time again as we prepare to step into God’s future.
The world doesn’t need small hope. The world needs big hope. A hope worth bothering for. May we find that hope, and may we share it. Amen.