sermon

Seeing the Blessing!

Rev. Dr. John J. Lolla, Jr.

March 17, 2019

Text: Luke 13:35c, O.T.: Genesis 1-12, 17-18, N.T.: Luke 13:31-35

          Washington, D.C. is the national center of power for our country. Congress, the President and the Supreme Court lead our nation from its white marble colonnades. Over 350 million Americans expect from these people the greatest economic and military leadership for the peace and tranquility of not only America, but the human race.

Leaders of nations hold privileged positions. They can use power for good or evil. They can enhance or destroy life.

There is considerable, but not universal public trust in democratically elected leaders to secure our lives. But what about religious leaders?

Pope Francis has just completed a conclave of archbishops and cardinals from around the world to discuss matters regarding child abuse in the Church. Ash Wednesday was an after-thought compared with the public’s concern about Church leadership.

Francis has tried to negotiate Vatican intrigue over child abuse that has rocked the Roman Catholic Church. The Roman Catholic Church’s problems have cast a pall over Christianity.

Public trust in Christian leaders has declined beyond what has happened in Rome. Skepticism is widespread regarding the Church – especially in Europe and America.

This is especially true among young people. Dan Kimball is a Protestant minister from California who spends at least one day each week at coffee shops meeting young people who aren’t going to church. What he found from hundreds of interviews is young people don’t like the Church.

The Church’s image has been significantly damaged by the three Cs – control, controversy, and condemnation. Each of these have influenced Rome’s leaders in their efforts to address child abuse in the Church. But they are also problems that affect local congregations that are not experiencing child abuse problems.

Kimball believes congregations need to face the problems of control, controversy, and condemnation if they hope to reach young people. They are not new problems. They’re as old as the time of Jesus.

Jesus came to Judea with the message that God’s kingdom had arrived. He addressed a people who were torn apart by control, controversy, and condemnation.

Herod wanted national control as Judea’s political leader. The Sadducees wanted national control as the Jews’ spiritual leaders. Herod personally gained by his policy of appeasing the Romans. The Sadducees believed Herod’s policy of Roman appeasement was damaging Judaism.

The Jewish fight over who was in control of Judea split Judaism.

Among Judaism’s religious leaders there was controversy between the Sadducees and the Pharisees. The Sadducees believed God’s covenant required sacrifices in Jerusalem’s Temple. The Pharisees believed obeying the Torah’s moral code was enough.

The controversy among Judaism’s religious leaders was over interpreting the Law of Moses. It split Judaism.

With Judaism split by control and controversy issues, condemnation tore apart the nation.  Various factions demonized each other. Judea was unsettled by discontent. Rebellion was in the air.

Similar issues face the Church today.   Issues of control, controversy, and condemnation are affecting a generation of young people.   It’s interesting to see their parallels with biblical Judea.

Secular leaders control standards that influence American culture. More of these standards resemble those practiced in ancient Rome. Religious leaders are watching biblical standards fall out of favor with secular leaders. They’re losing control.

At one time religious and national leaders shared similar standards. Today they’re on paths away from one another.

Control over moral standards divides America’s political and religious leaders. Controversy is not merely political, it’s spiritual.

Among religious leaders there’s controversy over interpreting the Bible and the social standards derived from it. It was evident when Unitarian/Universalist educators removed Jesus from public education in the early nineteenth century. It was evident later when the Bible was removed from public education because Catholics, Protestants, and Jews could not agree over which version to use and who should read it.

The Bible’s use and its interpretation spills into congregations, infecting church members relationships with each other.

Controversy over biblical interpretation is weakening congregations. Some Christians follow the state. Others follow the Bible. Others mix the state with the Bible. Biblical interpretation divides the Church.

Control and controversy issues lead to condemnation. In a nation and Church divided, condemnation demonizes the opposition. Anger and rebellion spew forth. People leave congregations and denominations. The majority of baptized Christians live outside a congregation.

Condemnation spoils caring relationships inside and outside the Church. Condemnation leads to cynicism and alienation that cripples the Church and is infecting the nation.

Today’s youth are watching a replay of ancient Judea. They’re turned off by adult rhetoric that’s angry and mistrustful. Much of it is political and a part of democracy’s public debate. But other rhetoric is religious. They don’t want to be part of the hostility surrounding them.

They aren’t about to leave America. So, they’re leaving the Church.

And they’re leaving the Church in droves. Every sociological study shows nearly 30% of our nation is unchurched. The majority of those not going to church are baptized church members. They were raised as children in churches. But once they were given the choice to attend or not attend, they chose to not attend. We are in the third generation of those who increasingly are turning away from the Church.

But, un-churched youth – the youth who don’t like the Church – do like someone. They like Jesus.

Jesus attracts young people according to Dan Kimball. Whether they were baptized as Christians, or were raised in another religion, or were raised in a secular home and never saw a sanctuary – they like Jesus.

Jesus is respected, admired, and appreciated. They may not believe that Jesus is divine. Whether or not He’s God’s Son is irrelevant. But they like Jesus. Jesus’ message is compelling and helpful.

In other words, the majority of young people aren’t going to Church. But they like Jesus.

What does that mean for the Church which is perceived by un-churched young people as controlling, controversial, and condemning.

Well-read church members are aware of the criticisms. We don’t want a Christianity that’s controlling, controversial, and condemning. The problem is often portrayed as historical. The Crusades, the Inquisition, and Protestant/Catholic Reformation wars are the problem.

But the problem extends to how congregations live together, and what church members say about each other and their church leaders. Young people have been listening to their parents and the adults at church. They hear what we say in the hallways and parking lots. They’ve formed an opinion based on our public positions as denominations.

So what do we do in response to their concern about churches?

We do the opposite of what young people who are un-churched say they like. Many well-educated Christian adults hold back from talking about Jesus because they’re afraid of offending people.

Young people are attracted to the blessing of Jesus. Many of us, well-read church members don’t think it’s correct to talk about Jesus because we’re afraid it’s offensive to others. But Jesus is the topic that interests young people.

We’re likely to fund missions where prayer and worship are not part of the mission. We support many missionaries who talk about giving love without explaining the source of that love – Jesus Christ.

Churches, especially mainstream Protestant churches, need to give the blessing of Jesus Christ to young people. It our mission of disciple-making given by Jesus to His Church.

Who was Jesus; what did He do; what did He teach; what is the application of His teaching today; how is Jesus’ teaching important for young people today?

All of these topics need to be brought out of the closet into the light. Mainstream Protestants need to get out of the closet where we pray in secret according to Matthew 6, and get into the coffee shops where young people gather and introduce them to Jesus.

Churches, especially mainstream Protestant churches, are being called to explain how Jesus is behind the things we do; the way we do them; the why behind our doing them. We need to explain how worship conveys who Jesus is; how our ethics are based on Jesus; how the boundaries by which we live were given by Jesus; how our relationships are blessed by Jesus.

Churches, especially mainstream Protestant churches, need to show young people that Jesus’ mission isn’t condemning the world but blessing the world. We need young people to know that God sent His Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through Him. Jesus is the one who teaches us this. He is the one who lives this. There’s a dramatic difference between a condemning Christianity and s Christianity that gives the blessing of Jesus.

Young people need to hear mainstream Protestant church members explain how Jesus blesses us daily; how Jesus gives us boundaries young people may not understand; how Jesus inspires us to love the unlovable, to find the lost, to help the weak, and honor the afflicted – whatever that affliction might be.

Young people are yearning for the Church to be like Jesus so they can experience Jesus in the Church in a tangible, meaningful way.

There were millions of Americans who depend upon Washington D.C.’s Mall for its leadership. But there are millions of potential worshippers in malls around the land who like Jesus but are not in church.

One congregation decided to go to the malls to give away Jesus’ blessing instead of staying in their sanctuary.   They rented space in a mall and began worshipping there instead of their church. They began offering small group discussions in the mall instead of their church.

They offered prayer to young people who began to wander in, and they offered light conversation with a cup of coffee to those who needed to be heard. They took Jesus’ blessing where the young people were and began to discover their needs.   Small group conversations began. Jesus’ love music reached into the heart of young people and began to move them to worship.

Another congregation’s choir memorized Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus and took it with them to the near-by mall. Church members weren’t dressed in choir robes. They weren’t in a group on choir risers. They were mingling in the mall among Christmas shoppers.

Their music director took a synthesizer to the Mall and hooked into two 12-inch speakers. He began to play and the congregation began to sing the Hallelujah Chorus right where they were in the Mall. The blessing of Jesus Christ’s birth surrounded the holiday shoppers with joy.

Where there are Christians with spiritual imagination, there are opportunities to break out of the walls of a sanctuary to reach the unchurched. You just need to see the blessing and help others see the blessing too.

Let’s set our sight upon the mission of giving away Jesus’ blessing, so that young people in our community can see His spirit among us.

Amen.

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