This is the first sermon of my three-part series on being church in the great emergence.
Please find parts two and three here.
Who remembers the good ol’ days? For one reason or another church people keep telling the story of a glorious past. And then usually follows a horror story of how everything has gone downhill since. Who remembers the good ol’ days when the church was at the center of the community? When it was chic to belong? When it was necessary and beneficial to belong?
People used to put down their roots. Nowadays nobody believes it anymore but there was a time when your first job was also your last. Some people stayed with the same company not for years but decades. That meant you either stayed in your hometown for decades or even if you moved somewhere else you usually moved there for an indefinite period of time. You put down your roots. You find a home. You get involved in the community. Back in the day that usually included joining the local congregation of your denomination. You made friends that you could reasonably expect to be around to grow old with. Investing in these kinds of relationships was worth it. Your neighbors, your coworkers, they did not have much turnover. Your church was not only for you but also for your children.
That was also the generation that was great at creating volunteer organizations. Manning a concession stand at a sports game or even the county fair gets harder and harder. Investing in the community is not commonplace anymore. Community is literally not what it used to be. Our congregation used to fire up the BBQ pits for a community meal. Then we had it catered. Now it’s just not happening anymore. We used to have a team in the church softball league in town. The whole league is gone. The church used to be at the center of most pastime activities. If you lived in a community you tied into the institutions that were there.
The prophet Jeremiah preached that exact message to the exiles. A whole bunch of Israelites was taken to the Babylonian captivity and Jeremiah tells them to assimilate to the community. “But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” This is the place where you are. Get attuned to it. Work here. Live here. Play here. This area with its culture, with its language, with its political leaning, all that is something people were supposed to assimilate to.
Part of that equation also used to be the church. Even Jesus sent the lepers to the priests. Now, usually Jesus is not a big fan of institutions. He challenges authority and the status quo wherever he can. But with the ten lepers he deals differently. To them he suggests what everybody would say, too: “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” Because the temple is the institution in the community where you find healing. Jesus sends the lepers to the religious establishment which later turns against him.
For the longest time church and empire have been walking in lock-step. Ever since the Emperor Constantine made it legal to be a Christian in the Roman Empire, Christendom became the normative power of what we call “Western Civilization”. In order to be a member of the greatest civilization the world had ever seen you also had to be a member of the greatest faith community the world had ever seen. Bishops appointed kings, kings appointed bishops. The good-old-boys club ruled the world.
The founding fathers of the United States did not like this accumulation of power and introduced the separation of church and state. But that was on paper only. Still for the longest time, the politics of the town where determined by the gathering that happened in the sanctuary on Sunday. That started to gradually change as diversity came to dilute to Protestant hegemony of the original colonies. Catholics and Jews shook up the mono-culture a little bit. But still the whole was based on Judaeo-Christian tradition.
Then came the 1960s. Here comes the revolution. All of a sudden institutions went out of the window. Here is the individual. All of a sudden Hinduism, Buddhism and Krishna were en vogue. All of a sudden you did not have to go to church anymore in order to be someone in the community. All of a sudden you could fight for all kinds of causes without religious baggage. The days of having to participate in any kind of organization are long gone. Since the sixties we no longer live in institutions but we are really all individuals on our own journeys. Thank God that you can move to an area with its culture, with its language, with its political leaning, and you do not have to assimilate to it but you can transform it.
When the 10 lepers came to Jesus he may have sent them to the temple like everybody else would have. But from that came great transformation. Let’s follow the lepers on their journeys. They go to Jesus to ask for help and they actually follow Jesus’s advice and go to the priests. As they went, they were made clean. They may or may not have arrived. The arrival is not the point but the going. The going is what the story is all about. All ten were made clean because and as they went. All ten got what they needed.
Only one of the ten went back to Jesus to say thank you. The most interesting point here is what is not said: He is not better than the nine. Jesus does not praise him for coming back. For us, this one leper is where the church is. He comes back to the place where his healing journey started. Jesus for him turns into an institution where you can share faith experience and giving thanks to Jesus. He wants to relive that moment and reconnect to what put him on the right path to begin with.
But he was only 10%. The other nine went their own way. They were healed and moved on. They did not look back. They did not say “Thank you, Jesus.” They did not connect with the community but they did their own thing. Again the most interesting point here is what is not said: Jesus does not say they are wrong for doing that. He let’s them do what they need to do, no matter who they are, or where they are on life’s journey. They don’t have to perform a specific thank you ritual.
Thank God that they can move on with their own culture, with their own language, with their own political leaning, and they do not have to assimilate into a certain church culture.
Quite the opposite. As a matter of fact Jesus sends number ten off as well: “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.” Do not hang around Jesus! Do not stay inside the sanctuary where your healing came from but move on into your own life! The church is not here to establish itself but to send people on their own way: “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”
The church is no longer at the center of town and that is a wonderful thing. Everybody can pursue their own hobbies. You can play all the sports you want, not only in the leagues the church used to be in. You can eat whatever you want and don’t have to sign up for the BBQ pit to volunteer. The church in this day and age is the place where Jesus comes to visit. Ask him where healing can be found! If you want, come back and say thank you. That’s it. And if you are one of the nine who did not come back right away, you may still remember down the road where it all started. It’s never too late to come. Or you just stay out there doing your own thing. “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”