Sunday, September 4, 2016

Sermon: A Death in the Family

Jeremiah 18:1-11
A Death in the Family
James Sledge                                                                                       September 4, 2016

I’ve recently been reading a new book that’s getting a lot of buzz, The End of White Christian America. It’s a fascinating read, especially if you’re a bit on the wonkish side. It is helpful in understanding a great deal of what is happening in American society these days, everything from Black Lives Matter to the current, bizarre political season. But before delving into all of this, the book opens with a tongue-in-cheek obituary.
 After a long life spanning nearly two hundred and forty years, White Christian America— a prominent cultural force in the nation’s history— has died. WCA first began to exhibit troubling symptoms in the 1960s when white mainline Protestant denominations began to shrink, but showed signs of rallying with the rise of the Christian Right in the 1980s. Following the 2004 presidential election, however, it became clear that WCA’s powers were failing. Although examiners have not been able to pinpoint the exact time of death, the best evidence suggests that WCA finally succumbed in the latter part of the first decade of the twenty-first century. The cause of death was determined to be a combination of environmental and internal factors— complications stemming from major demographic changes in the country, along with religious disaffiliation as many of its younger members began to doubt WCA’s continued relevance in a shifting cultural environment.[1]
The obituary continues, as they typically do, with some of the notable moments from the deceased’s life and then concludes,
WCA is survived by two principal branches of descendants: a mainline Protestant family residing primarily in the Northeast and upper Midwest and an evangelical Protestant family living mostly in the South. Plans for a public memorial service have not been announced.[2]
White Christian America has something of mixed legacy. It gave us American democracy but also gave us racially based slavery, the Civil War, and racial divides that persist to this day. As noted in the obituary, Presbyterianism is one of its children, and we are just beginning to process the death of our parent and figure out what it means for us.

If you’ve ever been to funeral home visitation when someone dies, you’ve probably joined in the reminiscing that typically goes on. People remember that time when... and laugh, or cry, or shake their heads. Such reminiscing is an important part of grieving, and doing it well helps people move forward with their lives.
That doesn’t always happen though. People sometimes can't manage to look forward. They can’t figure out how to live in the present and get stuck. In institutions such as church congregations, this often takes the form of nostalgia, a longing for the “good ‘ole days.” It’s even more debilitating for organizations than it is for individuals. That’s especially so for churches who are called to proclaim and live into God’s kingdom, God’s new day that is coming and never was in any past, no matter how wonderful.
I once knew a healthy, vibrant women in her 70s who lost her husband to a prolonged illness. Mary had children and grandchildren in the area, worked part time, and was active in the church. But for some reason, she could not seem to turn her gaze forward. She wasn’t sure who she was apart from her husband.
I’ll never forget a call I got from another church member who had just been widowed. Mary had called to help her with her grief and said, “It never gets any better.” This new widow was pretty sure that wasn’t so, and wanted me to tell Mary to stop calling her.
For Mary, all purpose lay in the past, and I don’t know if she ever discovered something that allowed her to live again. It was easy to feel sorry for her, but it was also hard sometimes not to get upset with her. She was remarkably good at resisting efforts to help her.
Longing for the past probably happened a lot in Jeremiah’s day. There wasn’t much left of the nation built by the great King David centuries earlier. The kingdom had split after Solomon died. Israel was in the north, made up of all the tribes except Judah. Judah, David’s tribe, kept Jerusalem as its capital, but it's days as a real power were over.
By the time of Jeremiah, Israel had been destroyed by the Assyrians. Judah had reclaimed the name Israel because it was all that was left. But their problem wasn’t just one of decline. Israel had also forgotten who they were, God’s chosen people who were supposed to live in ways that bore witness to God. It was a calling not so different from the Church’s call to live in ways that make God’s love in Christ known to the world.
In our reading today, Jeremiah calls Israel to task for this failing. He also makes clear that Israel is not an end in itself. Israel has a special role in God’s plan to draw all humanity into right relationship with God and one another. But when Israel forgets that role, abandons that role, God will find other ways. Israel is not indispensable.
The same can perhaps be said of the Church. The cultural dominance that White Christian America once knew was never part of our call to embody Christ for the world. And when the children of WCA get stuck looking backward, longing for those glory days of prestige, cultural hegemony, and influence, they cease to be who God calls them to be. And presumably, at some point, God will be done with such a church and create something new.
I don’t see that happening here. Not that we can’t occasionally long for days when it was easier to fill pews, when the culture sent us members who already knew how to do church. It was easier being church back then. But we also recognize that our WCA parent was a bit of a racist who often failed to bear witness to the unity in Christ that overcomes divisions of race, ethnicity, gender, economics, class, and more. So we’re not looking to go back.
In fact, our Session has begun a process of listening for God, of trying to cooperate with the potter and not resist. That can be a little scary, to say that we are ready to become something when we’re not entirely sure what it looks like. But that is what faith is about, about seeking God’s will, about becoming what Christ needs us to be, not what we want to be. And so I’m proud of the Session for committing to this.
The hymn I chose to go with this sermon isn’t a great work of art, but it is only one I could find that based on our scripture for today. Unfortunately, like much in modern, American faith, it takes a corporate message and makes it an individual one. I’d like us to correct that as we sing it. “Change our heart, O God (the heart of our faith community); make it ever true. Change our heart, O God; may we be like you. You are the Potter; we are the clay. Mold us and make us; this is what we pray.”
May this indeed be our prayer.

[1] Robert P. Jones, The End of White Christian America (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2016), Kindle Locations 22-29.  
[2] Ibid., Kindle Locations 47-49.

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