(This sermon was given by Pastor Sarah Goettsch on January 5, 2017, at First Lutheran Church in Cedar Rapids, IA)
There was once a time, while I was serving in Calamus, Iowa, when a toddler was to be baptized on a Sunday morning. Far from an ideal scene of baptismal serenity, this particular toddler wasn’t having it. After beginning the baptismal liturgy, I noticed the mom’s trembling hands and the dad’s sweaty forehead and the desperate expressions on both their faces as they fought to control the tantrum of their child. In a moment of swift decisiveness, I scooped up the child and said, “You know what? Forget the liturgy. I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit–whether you like it or not.” And that was that. Perhaps not the most elegant baptism, but I must say, it is that last part, the “whether you like it or not” that has stuck with me all these years. Because contained in that small phrase lies the heart of Lutheran theology and hope for the relevancy of the church.
I thank you for inviting me here today to come and preach, and I bring you greetings and thanks from Lutheran Campus Ministry at the University of Iowa. We thank you in advance for the loving and strong partnership that is already beginning to form between LCM and First Lutheran Church. I’m invited here to engage the question: Is the church relevant today? It is a bold question; one that requires bold answers.
I love this question of relevancy, because it is a question I ask myself every single day. Ask my husband how often I wake up in the morning and declare, “That’s it! This is the day I leave the church.” I suspect we both know I never will, but there is indeed a disconnect between the church and the world that is, in a word, unacceptable. However, while I have grave doubts about the relevancy of the church, I do not doubt the relevancy of the Gospel. The relevancy of the Gospel is a different question than the relevancy of the church. More on that later.
In my work as Campus Pastor at the Lutheran Campus Ministry at the University of Iowa, I ponder the relevancy of the church every day. I see 30,000 students stream past my office and so many other campus ministries and churches downtown. “Why don’t they come?” the church wonders. I have some insight into this question, but, as I warned you, it is uncomfortable.
Question: Is the Church relevant to these students or the world?
I have three separate but related points.
Firstly, the church has rendered itself irrelevant by betraying sacred boundaries of intimacy in the church in varying degrees, including clergy abuse, sexual misconduct and financial corruption. What did the church expect? The church has betrayed the sacred trust and vulnerability others have entrusted to us, and we have not yet adequately begged the world for forgiveness. The church has harmed deeply and now we need to repent and repair. This unaddressed harm and the betrayal of sacred boundaries has rendered the church irrelevant.
However, the church reclaims its relevance by proclaiming a message of health and safety and trust. It’s about re-establishing a holy intimacy with one another, the kind that Jesus models in his own ministry as he touched the sick, deaf, blind mute, dying and grieving. The church reclaims its relevance by being vulnerable and letting others in. The students I work with want to know about my life, my family, things that bring me joy and sorrow. They want to know about my work and my call to be a pastor and it isn’t helpful if they see me exhausted or bitter or resentful of my work or the church. They don’t want to see me sitting at a desk for 15 hours a day. They want to know that I have a life outside of my work, and they love running into me or my family at the pool or park or basketball game or restaurant. They love to see me kiss my husband and hug my kids. And they want to be hugged and they want to show affection towards one another and know that that’s ok, that there really is a thing called a safe touch, and that it is a sacred thing…because the safe touch is what embraces a sobbing student or holds the hand in the hospital bed or calms the panicked brow. They want to have a beer with me and tell me about their life. They want to be able to swear and cry and fall down and know they will not be judged by me or you or God. They want to know that piety, which is often expressed as judgment, is not the same thing as faith, which can only be expressed as love. It’s about giving students and indeed the world opportunity to reinvest themselves in a church that has made a terrible mess of boundaries. The church reclaims its relevance by being healthy again.
Secondly, the church renders itself irrelevant the minute it stops proclaiming the things it claims. What good does it do the world if the church claims acceptance for gays and lesbians but fails to marry them or welcome them into their pews and pulpits? What good does the church do the world if it claims solidarity with the marginalized but shuts its doors on the hungry? What good does the church do when it claims advocacy for minorities but fails to shape and affect legislation that protects these vulnerable populations? What good does it do to claim a radical Christ-like love for all people but proclaim a love that applies only to those who tithe 10% or show up on Sundays? What good does it do the world if the church claims to need leaders but then fails to support for the very ministries that reach out to young people, like campus ministries?The church becomes irrelevant the minute it becomes cowardly in proclaiming the radical message that Jesus proclaims–love for all people, mercy for the unlovable, forgiveness for the unforgivable. Society sees a disconnect between what the church claims on paper and what it proclaims publicly. This disconnect is experienced as irrelevance.
However, the church reclaims its relevance by embracing the same boldness forged by our namesake Martin Luther, who was the furthest thing from a coward, who preached and reformed in the face of a far greater threat than the one we see occupying the White House. If Luther can shake his fist in the face of Emperor Charles V and Pope Leo and say, “No more!” to the abuses and cowardice of the medieval church, then we can too. Jesus tells us to not be afraid, as one who knows fear firsthand, having preached against the established institution, as one who offended the authorities and befriended those whom society deemed disposable. The church certainly is relevant in times like ours; but we must re-discover our voice and even shout if necessary to proclaim a different Christianity than the one that defines us in the media today; ours is not a Christianity that condemns others, and this deserves bold proclamation. The Gospel of Jesus is life-changing and is deserving of courage, not cowardice; it is a message not of building walls, but breaking them down. It is a message not of exclusion, but inclusion. It is a message not of judgment, but compassion. It is a message for all people, not some. The church reclaims its relevance by boldly proclaiming the love of Jesus Christ!
Thirdly, the church has rendered itself irrelevant by confusing our role as creature with that of the Creator. While it’s true the church is the closest thing we have on earth that reflects the kingdom of God, the church is a human institution, and that means we can only expect human things from it. It is a broken structure created by broken people. The church will disappoint. The church will fail. The church is not God. In our role confusion, we have taken it upon ourselves to be God, to judge who’s allowed in and who belongs out. This is not our place. We are called to proclaim grace and the good news of Jesus Christ to all people. When the church starts playing God and we fail to remember our place, we become self-serving instead of God-serving. “How can we get people through our door?” is the last question we should be asking. “How can we lead people to God?” is the question. The church is not called to cultivate faith in church but faith in God. During my toughest year in the parish, I remember crying on my husband’s shoulder and saying, “I have lost all my faith in people.” He replied, “Shouldn’t your faith be in God, instead?”The church must re-establish our identity as God’s church, without playing the role of God. Jesus is Alpha and Omega–not the church. Faith in God, not in the church.When we confuse who we are with whose we are, we render ourselves irrelevant.
However, the church reclaims its relevance by being authentic church and letting God be God. The church must stop acting desperate by doing a million things in order to entice a few people through the door, meanwhile exhausting its parishioners with an overwhelming and largely irrelevant church calendar. One student describes desperate church as being similar to a scary guy offering kids lollipops from a white utility van. We don’t need to lure people in with bells and whistles and sparkly things, because we already have a gift to share that is beautiful on its own, a gift found nowhere else. We have the gift of Jesus Christ to share with all people; it needs no more than to be given away. God creates us in beautiful relationship with himself, so that we can work together to share this gift with the world. The church is about doing church things, and God is about doing God things. We proclaim, God converts. We forgive, God heals. We advocate, God transforms. We gather, God baptizes. We feed, God sanctifies. We include, God blesses. The church reclaims its relevance through an ever-present awareness that we are church and that God is God.
What these three points reveal is that the church did not suddenly and passively become irrelevant; rather, the church has rendered itself irrelevant by what we have done and what we have failed to do. This presents itself as an all-time low in regards to church membership across all denominations. The fact that the church has rendered itself irrelevant is self-evident. But before you tell yourself that this is the most dismal sermon you’ve ever heard, let me clearly assure you of this: if the church as rendered itself irrelevant by things done and undone, the church can change its ways in order to re-establish relevancy in today’s world, and the church can do this, because the church is resilient and has seen tougher times than these it our 2000 year history. I mean, none of you are going to be boiled in oil or thrown to the lions today, right? See? I prove my point. Let our light shine before all people, even in tough times when we struggle.
The great news in all of this is that while the church might fight the recurring battle of relevancy, God is never irrelevant, nor is the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is relevant today, precisely because so many people still don’t–or can’t–believe it. Most people cannot grasp that firstly, there is a God, and secondly, that this God gives a flying fig about them. The church’s relevance ebbs and flows over time, but God is eternally relevant, meaning that God eternally relates to us, proven in the incarnation, when God became one of us.
At Lutheran Campus Ministry, it often seems as though we have very little in common–from the honors student to the struggling one, from the athlete to the anorexic, from the Lutheran to the atheist, from the optimist to the suicidal, we confess it is our identity as baptized children of God that holds us together; and I recall that screaming toddler, that we are in this together, whether we like it or not, whether we like one another or not, and that we are loved by God, like it or not. God’s message of unconditional love applies to these students and to each one of you, a message that says, “I love you no matter what you are or who you are. I claim you no matter what you’ve done or not done. I will never leave you–in life or in death–no matter what.” Like it or not, believe it or not, buy it or not, there is a God who sent his Son into this world in order to become one of us and sweat and cry and bleed just like us. God has entered our human story, your story and mine. God has become human just like us. You can’t be more relevant than that.
So what’s the risk in proclaiming the Gospel which we claim? We might offend, we might disappoint, we might fail to meet others’ expectations of what church should be or what pastors should be…often the students’ biggest fear is disappointing others, a fear that is certainly not unique to them. Will the church disappoint? Maybe, so what? That shouldn’t deter us, because we come from a long line of disappointments. The prophet Isaiah disappointed his beloved Israel. St. Paul disappointed his Pharisee colleagues when he quit being a persecutor of Christians and became one. Jesus disappointed the those who’d hoped he’d hoped he’d lead the Jewish people in a rebellion against the Romans. Martin Luther disappointed his father by not becoming a lawyer. Bishops and colleagues have disappointed me and I them. But there has been tremendous triumph despite these disappointments. Whose expectations are we hoping to meet? One another’s? The world’s? So what? We are not works-righteousness people. We are grace people. You already meet God’s expectations, simply by being you. You do not disappoint God, so you have nothing to lose in sharing God’s love with others. Let your light so shine before others, not to gain approval from the world or from God, but to give glory to God in heaven. The light shines in the darkness, whether the darkness likes it or not.
Absolutely, the church can reclaim its relevance, but it’s got some work to do. Relevant faith must be more than lip service, more than playing biblical ping pong in order to win some silly argument; relevant faith is a life of living sacrifice–that I exist because of and for you. The church can no longer afford to be obsessed with membership or denomination or maintaining our current administration, these are largely silly things, because people are starving for a word of hope, and we need to feed them with the Bread of Life and the Word of God. Relevant Christianity is not intimidated by the Christians out there who judge and intimidate. Rather than simply quoting Scripture, relevant Christianity considers these questions: have we listened to Scripture? Have we absorbed it, digested it, do we embody it?…I guarantee you, Jesus is not impressed by how many Bible verses you can quote. In other words, are we authentically letting our light shine, a light from within that comes from God? Do we proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ with all our flesh and blood–with the words we say, by whom we embrace, by whom we include, by fighting and speaking out against injustice, and there is plenty right now to choose from. When the church stops playing it safe, it grows…there’s even a phrase for this: growing edge. Edgy church is relevant church. If we’re messy and bruised, then we know we’re being relevant. Relevant church is worked out on a mat on the floor. Let’s put some sweat equity into this church.
What are ways LCM is seeking to be relevant in our corner of the world?
- We are planning a retreat to Wartburg Seminary next week, with 17 students attending, several of whom are planning to become ordained pastors in the ELCA.
- We are participating in a rally Sunday afternoon on the ped mall in Iowa City to demonstrate solidarity against the recent ban against immigrants, minorities and Muslims.
- We are hosting a community forum next week to give voice to those who marched 2 weeks ago and to connect participants with contact persons in the community who can lead them to legislative action.
- Next week, we are hosting the Midwest Coordinator for the Lutheran Volunteer Corps.
- This fall, hosted representatives from every seminary in the United States so that our students can continue their discernment as leaders in this church..
- We are planning a progressive dinner on campus involving the Muslim Student Center, the Mormon Campus Ministry, the Hillel House Jewish Campus Ministry and the Newman Center Catholic Campus Ministry.
- We are hosting a junior and senior high lock in in March for churches in Iowa City and North Liberty, staffed by LCM students.
- We are traveling in April to visit the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago and the University of Chicago Lutheran Campus Ministry serving the south side of Chicago
- We are forming a partnership with the Secular Students at Iowa, an organization of atheist and agnostic students who seek fellowship and community with religious campus ministries for the sake of mutual learning.
- We are housing a brand new campus ministry called Love Works, which is choosing not to call itself non-denominational but rather cross-denominational.
This. And so much more. And we are but a motley band of about 25, up from about 3 almost 3 years ago.
I am honored to be Campus Pastor at Lutheran Campus Ministry at the University of Iowa, to witness this relevant and often raw expression of the church. I see God moving in these students and on this campus and in our world. History is happening. People are on the move. May the church catch up, and from the middle of the crowds, with flesh pressing in from all sides, may God give us courage to proclaim a bold and defiant message of love that points not to ourselves, but to God, who has promised to love this throng of noisy and sweaty people no matter what with a love which always has been and always will be relevant.