Revised Common Lectionary Reflection, Proper 28 (33), Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost, Year C
November 17, 2019
Lessons: Malachi 4:1-2a; Psalm 98; 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13; Luke 21:5-19
Theme: God’s faithful and generous people do not fear a grim future; trusting that God will never abandon them, they keep on doing what is right and following Jesus.
Key Scripture: “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.” Luke 21:6
One of my favorite 80s bands was The Talking Heads, and I’m especially fond of their hit single “Burning down the House.” When asked about the lyrics, members of the band essentially said that the lyrics were nonsense words put together to fit the rhythm of this jam-session-induced hit. So much for a deep analysis of lines like these: Hold tight, wait till the party’s over/Hold tight, We’re in for nasty weather/There has got to be a way/Burning down the house!
Consider how easy it is to allow our lives to be phrased and our words parsed to fit popular cultural narratives and rhythms, even if it does appear to be a nonsensical riff. There are much easier and more expedient ways to live than following a radical first century rabbi, who just happens to be the Son of God. But discipleship isn’t about easy, is it? No, discipleship is more about charting a course and following Jesus no matter where that leads or whether the house stands or burns.
Scholars do not agree when the Gospel of Luke was written, but it is probable that Luke’s audience had experienced the destruction of the temple in 70 c.e. — or have been familiar with it. If that’s the case, this week’s lesson could be a sort of “rear-view mirror” account, which of course provides the benefit of context for the sober reality and loss. The scene opens with worshipers admiring the temple and its beauty, and Jesus’ responding that it will one day fall. Jesus answer must have seemed fantastic to many who were gathered. After all, the building had been rebuilt in grand style by Herod (a.k.a. “that fox”), so surely it could withstand anything.
Nothing lasts. Our Buddhist friends seem to understand and accept this truth more readily than most Christians. Right now the Christian Church is under tremendous pressure, and in some places it seems ready to implode. Shrinking budgets and giving, declining and aging membership, and tired maintenance-hungry buildings paint a grim future. A recent self-study reported that my own denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, may very well cease to exist in a generation. You can read more in this article by Dwight Zscheile, vice president of innovation and associate professor of congregational mission and leadership at Luther Seminary.
One of my friends and I were recently having dinner conversation about church change and decline (a cheery subject, I know). She asked where all the groups who use church space (Twelve Step programs, grief groups, scouts, etc.) would meet. It’s a worthy question, for providing space is one important ministry that houses of worship offer, in addition to connecting with the community and serving as safe space, a resource and partner, and being a place to gather and encounter God. I told her my suspicion is that those congregations that possess a real sense of identity and mission will continue to adapt, change, and serve.
The key is to be able to adapt and change while also providing an authentic and safe place to worship and grow in faith. Yes, we will see many churches lock their doors and shutter their windows in the next 10 to 20 years, but I believe they will be largely those congregations that have lost their sense of vision and purpose, their fire for the gospel, and their inability to tolerate, much less embrace, change. If that sounds harsh, well I suspect Jesus’ words sounded harsh to many of those first century folk.
We as the church face some stiff challenges, but that’s okay. There’s nothing from which God cannot make a way, and we are promised that God will never leave us. Maybe it is time we had a bucket of cold water thrown in our collective faces. Time to wake up, disciples! Time to be serious about living a kin-dom life like Jesus modeled and quit worrying so much about losing everything. Imagine instead how Christ’s table might fill with those who have previously felt unwelcome if we do the hard work of dismantling patriarchy and systemic racism, welcoming all people (and meaning it), and embraced the new things that God is doing in our world today. Hey! Maybe there is something to Byrne’s nonsense lyrics for those of us who love the church and grieve for it: “Hold tight … There has got to be a way” (even it involves burning down the house).
What is the state of your congregation’s spiritual and fiscal health? Do you worry about making budget? Are things going well, or do you feel like the walls are crumbling around you? Before you go into worship this Sunday take an honest assessment of the state of your congregation. Do you know what are people’s biggest fears? Are folks eager to embrace change for the sake of the gospel, or do they dig their heels in and cling to a nostalgic past?
Why not use this Sunday and next week’s Reign of Christ Sunday to help people articulate and address their fears and concerns. It’s better to speak honestly and prayerfully rather than wait until there’s no chance of course correction. Consider Advent as a time to pray about the next phase of the journey. Not only are we waiting for Christ to be born anew, we can also wait expectantly for God to lead us into new ministry and mission. And, sometimes following God may even mean walking right out the doors of your building and into new or smaller or shared space. Consider hymnody that is reflective of your context and your hope. Some more traditional possibilities might include “Built on a Rock,” “How Small our Span of Life,” “Christ is made the sure Foundation,” “The Church’s one Foundation,” and “Build Us Up, Lord.”
If you have any youth who are long distance runners, invite them to talk about training and how much perseverance it takes. If you don’t have any youth runners in your group, invite a congregant who runs marathons or half-marathons to talk about training and show any awards or photos they might have. Connect the principle of disciplined, long distance training with perseverance in faith and discipleship. Use this week’s lesson from 2 Thessalonians, especially verse thirteen: “Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right.” (Note: You can also use a non-sports metaphor if it works better in your context. How about a professional musician, a farmer, or an artist?
This week’s focus verse is Psalm 98:1a – O sing to the LORD a new song, for he has done marvelous things.
Ask the children what they notice about this Psalm. What words or images stand out to them. Invite them to help you sing a new song to God and teach the congregation, too. Pick out a song/hymn that works for your context and carries the theme of Psalm 98. One option might be “Oh, Sing to the Lord.” If you have any brass players and drummers in your congregation, you might have them play along. Make it a rousing and joyous song, and invite the children to dance if they want. Here’s the hymn played in a church setting.
Weekly Stewardship Bulletin Insert
Sometimes it is good stewardship simply to keep on doing what is right. This may be the more difficult path, but it’s always the better path for disciples of Jesus.
Stewardship at Home
“Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right” (2 Thess. 3:13).
It can be pretty tough to keep doing that which is the right thing when so many cultural messages function as roadblocks to discipleship and shortcuts to self-interest. Paul wanted the Christians in Thessalonica to keep on following their teachings: working, sharing, and doing what is right. Some of them, however, had decided that since the end of time is near they don’t need to keep active and focused on the work of discipleship. Waiting for the Lord’s return is an active proposition, not a passive “hall pass” to get out real life.
This week spend some time reflecting on and praying with this passage from 2 Thessalonians. What does it mean for you to “not be weary in doing what is right” in your own life and context? Do you have an accountability group from your church or tribe that helps you on the way when things get tough? Do you choose the good that may be more difficult or the wrong that follows an easy and smooth path?
If you have children in your household, spend some time talking about what it means to the right thing, even when it’s difficult. Here’s a good list of movies to help facilitate conversations with children about doing what is right.
2013 Reflection: http://www.stewardshipoflife.org/2013/11/why-perseverance-matters/
2010 Reflection: http://www.stewardshipoflife.org/2010/11/meantime-in-the-mean-times/
Images: Peter Kaminski; Soreen D; and joybot, Creative Commons usage license. Thanks!
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