St. Paul’s Congregational Church
October 10, 2021, Proper 23B
Mark 10:17 - 31
A pretty depressing reading today - there’s the rich young ruler who sadly walks away from Jesus when he realizes he can’t get into the Realm of God by what he’s already done – there’s still something that he’s lacking – Jesus tells him to go, sell what he has, give to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven. And he invites him, “Come, follow me.” The image of a camel going through the eye of a needle is a profound one indeed. The young ruler must be thinking, I follow the rules, I keep the commandments, what more can I do? What more do you want from me? Jesus tells him. And he watches as the rich young ruler sadly walks away. The disciples are amazed at his words – and wonder who then can be saved? Then the statement from Jesus: “All things are possible with God.”
My guess is there are some of us today who feel heavy burdens too - asking, what more can I do? What do you want from me, God. Maybe some are feeling, “God, I’m afraid.” There are some who may feel overwhelmed, out of control, profoundly sad. Aching for some comfort, peace, and rest. If we’re fortunate enough not to feel that way today, we have at one time or another though, haven’t we. We know the feeling.
But, there’s also some hope buried in this story – some surprises, some lessons for us all, timeless insights. We can miss the hope, the surprises, and the lessons though, because they can turn our worldview upside down. And even if we do get the message, we may ignore it, or flat out reject it. How does this story relate to us today?
Since the flooding nightmare on September 1, we here at St. Paul’s have been immersed in floods of discouragement, worry and sadness, haven’t we. We thank God that nobody was hurt but our building, the symbol, the headquarters of our ministry has been devastated. Dumpsters full of stuff that’s been destroyed by the flood waters including our kitchen appliances are gone. It’s no secret that St. Paul’s has been struggling for a long time – financially, yes; and a decreased membership that has left too much work for too few people; the needs of an aging building – and the struggle intensified by the seemingly never ending COVID epidemic. What indeed do you want from us, O God?
The Church Council has met in emergency session and members have been receiving updates about the progress of the cleaning, remediation, and now the restoration process which will begin. But the underlying issues are still there – yes, we are collecting insurance proceeds to help with the restoration – but what will our restoration look like? Over 50 years ago this church founded the Community Nursery School as an outreach to the community – years ago our pews were filled, our Sunday School was large, we had numerous choirs – vocal and bells, we had numerous outreach activities to the community – dinners, programs, gatherings of all kinds – including an extremely popular Halloween Haunted House that drew children and youth in large numbers!
Now we’re asking the question, what will our restoration look like? Our world has turned upside down like it did for the Rich Young Ruler – but in the same way God still loved him, God still loves us and has called us together in covenant with the promise that God’s presence has been, is, and will always be with us both in trial and rejoicing. Will we experience a restoring of the old normal? Or the restoration of the dream our founders had of establishing a church community here in Nutley, formed to walk in the way of our Lord, proclaiming the gospel to all people, exalting in the worship of the one true God, laboring for the progress of knowledge, the promotion of justice, the reign of peace, and the realization of the brotherhood and sisterhood of all people. Will our building serve those dreams? Or will we serve the building?
Maybe there’s another question we should be asking: how do we live out the Great Commission Jesus left to us in Matthew 28:19: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and the promise he leaves with us: lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.”
We’ve talked about living in a new normal, haven’t we, even before the flood and since COVID has changed everything. There have been so many articles written about this “new normal” time in our world, especially in the life of the church. This week I came across two articles that seem to touch us right where we are today – articles that seem to help us answer the main question: how do we make disciples? Not just members, not just friends, but disciples!
A consulting firm, Ministry Architects, based in Tennessee has written an article entitled, “They’re Not Coming Back” – it reports that churches used to tell themselves that the young adults who had strayed from church would come back after they got married – then hope shifted that they would return when they had kids. Some came back for baptisms but most did not. Well, maybe they’d come back when the kids reached school age – but instead they began signing up for all sorts of sports and activities, many of which met on Sunday mornings. Maybe the amazing youth programs would make the priority list for the teens. Yes, some congregations saw some waves of church reengagement, many others did not. They weren’t coming back.
This is the story for so many churches for so many years! Surveys and church statistics continue to show that church members are more likely to stay home than to go to a different church. They aren’t going anywhere – and they certainly aren’t coming back, except maybe for Christmas Eve or Easter.
Then came the pandemic. Churches around the nation had to hit a reset button. In-person worship stopped, online methods of worship filled the gaps. Some churches experienced numbers that at least met their previous in person numbers – and they were excited about people living out of the area joining them in worship. At the same time, some church members’ everyday life no longer conflicted with church options.
But there’s more – the stress of daily pandemic navigation grew. People were experiencing the rise of political and social tensions. A general feeling of exhaustion grew in our people. Numbers started to drop off zoom gatherings and online worship events. Churches who held children and youth ministry activities saw an increase of cameras turned off and eventually a decrease in participants.
But we figured that the people would return, volunteer, and help us rebuild the church once we reached that “new normal.” But, you know, many people got used to life with less church or even life without church. Now churches are beginning to realize something not just about young adults, but also about people of all ages: they’re not coming back. And the super volunteers who used to carry twenty positions in the church are now looking to do just a few things. Our regular attenders are becoming semi-regular. Our fringe folks are fading away.
The author of this article puts forth his theory: it’s not even that people aren’t returning – they might never have been really connected in the first place! Some have realized how easy it is to live without their church. Some discovered or at least acknowledged that church isn’t a necessary part of their lives.
And why is this: he continues, what we don’t acknowledge is that we are a traumatized people. For each and every one of us – all at once – our world stopped. And, now, every single person – from the ones present to the ones we claim to miss to the ones we don’t even know yet – every single person is recovering from a shared trauma. The events we’ve walked through have had many questioning their livelihoods, their safety, and their relationships. And if the church hasn’t offered answers for those questions yet, then we need to figure out how to do so now. We need to figure out what it means to be a spiritual trauma center for our communities. We need to reintroduce ourselves as a place that can tend to the wounds this pandemic has opened. Each church needs to consider how they might evangelize to their neighbors (and some of their own members) – almost as if they were launching a new church in 2021. What we do know is that the future of the church will require innovative changes: the need for a major pivot is before us, and we know that God will provide for the times and places where we are found – if we are paying attention.
Friends, our churches are called to make disciples. Not everyone will respond or say yes – some will sadly walk away as the Rich Young Ruler did – disappointed that they still have not found the safety, the encouragement, the engagement and most importantly the love and acceptance they are still seeking, even yearning for, in their lives which have been turned upside down.
In my time here at St. Paul’s, I’ve been amazed by the number of visitors we have at worship – this has probably happened before my time as well, – the question we struggle with, as in many churches, is how to welcome them into the life of the church – to welcome them into a life of discipleship. In my 30 years of ministry, I’ve come to realize that too often when a church wants to grow, it means they want the financial help but honestly don’t want to change anything except the numbers of worshippers on a given day. If we want to be a disciple-making church, that’s not helpful, is it.
Another article talks about transforming first time church visitors into long term disciples by creating safe space. It goes on to caution, “Without taking the time to talk with them, build trust, and embody integrity, they may never find that safe place. By being that safe place for them, our church becomes a sanctuary…we do the real work that Jesus calls us to do.”
Of course, we need to make sure we have contact information for our visitors and follow up with them effectively – a note, a phone call, a coffee meeting at Starbucks. Yes, passing that information on to the pastor is important but honestly, all of us have that responsibility – this church means something deep to each of us – why not share it with our visitors?
This particular article gave me so much food for thought – I’d love to spend some time sharing the details of this article – to learn more about practicing radical hospitality - everyone has gifts and everyone is called – how do we open the door to each other to share them! Moving from “get-to-know-you” to discipleship can transform our church community and bring new life! Yes, it’s risky – for all of us – but it’s our call. Let’s not turn and sadly walk away.
Discipleship is a gift from God. A gift we can accept or reject. Giving of one’s possessions, money, time, is not a pre-requisite of discipleship – it’s a consequence of discipleship.
Discipleship is a movement outward not inward. It leads to wholeness, to the experience of life in all its fullness – it’s responding in trust to God’s invitation to be part of the Body of Christ. Let’s go forth and make disciples together. Now is the time. So may it be. Amen.