Rev. Tony Clark
…surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope….
2600 years ago, the Jewish people faced a crisis of faith.
2600 years ago, Jews in Jerusalem faced deportation and exile to a distant land. This was their crisis of faith. They had to figure out how to live in that new place, what it meant to be God’s people in a land that was not God’s home. They had to figure out who God was for them in the new land. Did they believe in God anymore? Or the better question was, “Did God believe in them any more?”
Today, we also face a crisis of faith. Our crisis of faith, like that of 2600 years ago, causes us to stop and wonder how we are to cope and how God is present in our crisis. Although the setting is different—we are not being deported or exiled to a distant land where we have to find God—today we face a crisis of faith. We have not left our place, but the people we once thought would carry the faith with us have left us. Our children have moved on, our friends are spending time with their grandkids, and our grandkids are playing soccer on Sundays.
It seems that most of the people out there do not believe in our God enough to show up on Sundays. How easy it is for us to join them in that belief and say that faith doesn’t matter?
This is the crisis of faith, not whether they –or we– believe in God, but whether God believes in us anymore. Did God abandon us when our children left for college, or when our friends left to spend time with their grandchildren, or when our grandchildren choose to play soccer on Sundays?
The ancient people of Jerusalem knew God was on their side as long as the Temple stood as symbol of God’s home among them. But then the Temple fell, and the leaders of the faith and country were taken away.
Today it’s not so much the place called church that stands as the symbol of God’s providence; however, a full sanctuary on Sunday certainly stands as an apparent symbol of God’s favor. As our churches began to decline over the last 30-40 years, we watched as mega churches with evangelistic or Pentecostal roots swelled their ranks. We assumed they had the in with God, and we have been wringing our hands about the losses of numbers ever since. and the lower numbers have made us question our faith.
Does God exist for us when there are fewer children than before? Does God exist for us when every pew is not full? Does God exist for us, right here, right now, in this place, in this time?
The crisis of faith is real. It feels like God has abandoned us, simply because we have ascribed to God something that is a human trait, not God’s. The ancient Jews ascribed to God the place of their faith and when they faced deportation and exile and loss of their homes and Temple, they lost their faith in God. They saw God’s providence manifest in the security of their Temple, a temporary structure, that fell not just once, but 3 times to the hands of other people, and they had to figure out that God was found not just in that place.
Today, I bet some of us have based our strong faith in God in the numbers of people present in worship. Some of us see God’s providence in the numbers of worshippers who are here. God cares for us, obviously, when there are more people here in worship.
Yes, we have lost people. We have diminishing membership, and with that there are issues about programming and staffing and filling out ranks of volunteers to run this place. But this is not faith; nor is it the true marker of God’s presence.
The true marker of God’s presence is, in my opinion, peace. In Hebrew the word is shalom, which means more than just peace; it means wholeness, well-being, health, and calm in both self and the world. So how are we doing with that? Are we bringing more wholeness to the world simply by being here, by gathering every week? Do we bring more wholeness to our individual lives simply by being here every week?
Yes, we do. We are the faithful few who believe that this place makes a difference. We believe that coming to church helps us get through the next seven days, we believe that prayer works, and we believe that being right here, right now is more important than any other thing we need to do. In the past 50 years, we have watched as our kind of church has shifted from the center of society, providing leaders and moral leadership to the rest of society, to a margin, a place on the edge, where we are precariously surviving and making decisions about surviving long enough to leave a legacy for the future.
In choosing to be here, we are standing against the rest of the culture that finds this time, this Sunday morning time, to read the paper, go to brunch, play soccer, or do almost anything but go to church. Yet, We are here because we believe that this hour, this time together singing and praying, feeds not only ourselves, but the whole world. By being here every week, we say, against our culture and all the other things that we could do on Sunday, that God is not in the numbers of people who show up; no, God is in the spirit of this place. God is in the spirit we take from this place every Sunday so that Monday and Tuesday and Wednesday and Thursday are a little easier to get through, and perhaps we make it a little easier for those around us.
In choosing to be here, we are the faithful remnant, the few who still believe that God has a plan for us. We are not unlike the Exiles in this; we need to be reminded not to lose faith, and that we are in this new reality for the long haul.
Jeremiah told the Exiles to not lose faith. He told them to build and plant in their new location, for it would not be a quick sojourn to a foreign land, but a very long time—several generations in fact—in their new situation. Jeremiah assured them that God was with them in that place, giving them these words of God:. surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.
Our crisis of faith is not about place, but it is about whether God believes in us, or even has a future for us. I believe God does. I believe that God sees our little remnant here, praying, singing, enjoying our presence together, and God delights in us. I believe that God has a future for us, that we are to build and plant in what seems like a foreign land—a landscape of faith in which our children and friends find more meaningful things to do than be in worship with us. We are not in this place for a short term, for the new future of the American church is leaner, and it is not in the center of the culture, but on the margins, a place where we can join Gods’ favored ones.
Although our Temple still stands, it is emptier, and this feels like God has abandoned us. But I say to you, we are the remnant of the true faith. We understand that to be spiritual but not religious is not enough for ourselves or for God. We understand that God does not measure the number of people in the pews, but the strength of faith in the hearts that are in the pews.
So folks, in this crisis of faith, when God seems absent, take heart. It is not God that is absent but people, who for whatever reason find this to be a silly undertaking. Build and plant and grow in this new landscape of faith. And be assured by the Prophet Jeremiah’s words, …surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope… And in the meantime, enjoy the place of faith that we are in and know that God is here.