Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | October 16, 2016

2016.10.16 “The Times, They are a-Changing”- Luke 18: 1 – 8

Central United Methodist Church
The Times, They are a-Changing
Pastor David L. Haley
Luke 18: 1 – 8
October 16th, 2016

Jesus told them a story showing that it was necessary for them to pray consistently and never quit. He said, “There was once a judge in some city who never gave God a thought and cared nothing for people. A widow in that city kept after him: ‘My rights are being violated. Protect me!’

“He never gave her the time of day. But after this went on and on he said to himself, ‘I care nothing what God thinks, even less what people think. But because this widow won’t quit badgering me, I’d better do something and see that she gets justice — otherwise I’m going to end up beaten black-and-blue by her pounding.'”

       Then the Master said, “Do you hear what that judge, corrupt as he is, is saying? So what makes you think God won’t step in and work justice for his chosen people, who continue to cry out for help? Won’t he stick up for them? I assure you, he will. He will not drag his feet. But how much of that kind of persistent faith will the Son of Man find on the earth when he returns?”  – Luke 18: 1 – 8, The Message

Did you hear the news? This week Robert Allen Zimmerman (aka Bob Dylan) was awarded the Nobel prize for literature, a bit of a surprise for all those who write real literature. As everybody knows, Bob Dylan’s most celebrated work is from the Sixties, in such well-worn standards as “The Times, They are a-Changing:”

“Come gather ’round people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You’ll be drenched to the bone
If your time to you is worth savin’
Then you better start swimmin’ or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin.’” (1963, 1964 by Warner Bros. Inc.; renewed 1991, 1992 by Special Rider Music)

Last Sunday, we began a conversation about how the times are a-changing, especially in regard to the Church, including our church. We found that, increasingly, how we do Church is unsustainable, as we find ourselves living off more and more money given by fewer and fewer people who are getting older and older. Over the next twenty to thirty years, most of our people (including most of us sitting here today) will disappear, and the question becomes, “How will the Church survive?” The answer is, it will not, at least not in the form that we have known.

Given this, the future for us lies in figuring out what the Spirit of God is doing in our time, and – as Bob Dylan said in his song – not standing in the way of it but getting into the path of it.

As Beth Ann Estock and Paul Nixon say in their book, Weird Church: “Although sustainability is the buzz word right now; sustainability is not the critical issue; spiritual vitality is the critical issue. Where there is spiritual vitality, we can find a way for sustainability.”

In order to find out what God is doing, we have to take a look at what’s happening. While there are many changes in society that are affecting the situation of the church; I would like to briefly point out three of them.

First, cultural and demographic change. The Sixties: those years Bob Dylan sang about, were a time when thinking about many things began to change: race, sexuality, women’s rights, and environment, to name a few, but also religion. Historian Sydney Ahlstrom, in his massive A Religious History of the American People, says that the sixties were the time when the White Anglo Saxon Protestant (WASP) establishment that had held dominance in America for over 300 years came to an end.

One significant event influencing this was the Immigration Act of 1965, which abolished the quota system based on national origins that had been American immigration policy since the 1920s. What this did was open the door to immigrants, especially immigrants from South Asian and Asia. (Some of you and your families are likely here today because this happened.) Suddenly, down the block there was not only the Methodist or Baptist or Catholic Church or even a Jewish synagogue, but Mosques and Buddhist and Hindu temples and Mosques, and people began to realize religion – and religious freedom – involved more than just Christians.

One of the most significant books of this election year has been that of Robert P. Jones, The End of White Christian America. He notes that for the first time the number of white Protestant Christians in America has dropped to 46%. So when I hear people talking about wanting to “Make America Great Again,” I think this “pre-sixties America” is the America they long for, and it is not going to happen. You know as your Pastor I am deeply thankful, not only for the diversity within our congregation, but within our country. Like the Stars and Stripes of our flag, it brings tears to my eyes.

But the second major change that’s affecting the church is generational change: our children and grandchildren practice religion and spirituality differently than we practice ours. It is true that a larger percentage of the younger generation are not religious (those who identify as Nones); it is more correct to say they are differently religiously. More people tend to be what we might call “free-agents,” people who are not tied to or dependent upon and perhaps not even interested in, traditional religious institutions or religious practices, including attending church at 10:30 on Sunday morning.

Robert Bellah, in his 1985 book Habits of the Heart, first called this different perspective on faith, “Sheilaism,” based on a young nurse he interviewed named Sheila:

Sheila Larson is a young nurse who has received a good deal of therapy and describes her faith as “Sheilaism.” . . . “I believe in God,” Sheila says. “I am not a religious fanatic . . . I can’t remember the last time I went to church. My faith has carried me a long way. It’s Sheilaism. Just my own little voice.” . . . In defining what she calls “my own Sheilaism,” she said: “It’s just try to love yourself and be gentle with yourself. You know, I guess, take care of each other. I think God would want us to take care of each other.”

Most of us would agree! Not only has “Sheilaism” become the dominant spiritual perspective across America, it’s also the spiritual perspective of most people in the church. As Bellah pointed out, this privatized way of thinking turns the church into something like the Kiwanis Club or some other kind of voluntary association that you go to or not if you feel comfortable with it, but otherwise it has no claim on you. Increasingly – especially among blue collar people and younger people – it has less claim. They see no need of a church or pastor to find God, which they do in nature, in community, in service; in short, in ways other than traditional church.

The third major change which has occurred more recently and which has amplified and accelerated the second is this: technological change, specifically the invention of the internet and social media. When Johannes Guttenberg invented the printing press in 1439, he enabled the faithful not to be dependent upon priests and the church, but to have a one-on-one relationship with the Bible and each other. In our time, the invention of movies and TV initiated a one-to-many relationship, in which a teacher or preacher – a talking head – spoke as one to many, whether in church or on TV.

Now, the invention of the internet and social media has created a “many-to-many” model, furthering cutting ties to established institutions such as church. As we are all still learning, social media is a platform for breaking news, sharing ideas, organizing movements, seeking support, gathering information, convening groups, and making money, not to mention watching the latest cat and dog videos.

As Beth Ann Estock and Paul Nixon put it in Weird Church:

“Why give money to support the overheard of the church when you can organize a meet-up group in the park or coffee shop on your schedule? Why sit through a sermon when you can listen to an inspiring TED talk while taking a walk or sitting on your back patio? Why drive in traffic to a meeting when you can create a Google hangout with friends from all over the world in your pajamas? Why watch a movie in a theater when you can access it on your TV at home?”

And so, here we are, with nobody beating down the door. And we wonder, if the stream of religion and spirituality (and almost everything else) flows outside the institutions we have built, what will happen to denominations, to congregations, to professionally trained clergy, to people sitting in pews on a Sunday morning? The days are growing short for denominationally based, neighborhood franchise churches like Central, awaiting our boxes of curriculum and offering envelopes from headquarters. What then shall we do? We shall go looking for where God is, by looking at where the problems are.

A model for us doing that today is the poor woman Jesus used in his parable, the Parable of the Persistent Widow. In fact, it says Jesus told them the story to remind them how it was necessary to seek and pray consistently, and never despair or give up. Considering what we face, that applies to us, doesn’t it?

This poor woman with no support or resources had a problem. Big deal, we might say, I know lots of women (and lots of people) with problems; tell her to take a number. (In fact, this week in particular we have heard more than we wanted to hear, at this time and date, about the problems women face, and from a presidential candidate at that.) As happens time and again, this woman’s rights – perhaps even this woman’s body – was being violated, and she was seeking justice. Time and again, she went before a judge who couldn’t have cared less, maybe he thought she was a liar or overweight or less than attractive. Time and again, she kept going back to that Judge – “My rights are being violated – I am being violated” – until that Judge was worn down, until – as Eugene Peterson puts it – he was “black and blue from her pounding.” Until he said, “This woman won’t stop badgering me, until I get her some justice.” And so he did.

And so Jesus said: “Do you hear what that judge, corrupt as he is, is saying? So what makes you think God won’t step in and work justice for his chosen people, who continue to cry out for help? Won’t he stick up for them? I assure you, God will.’ Isn’t what Jesus is saying is this: look at what and where the problems are: because where the problems are, there God is.

So we are going to go looking for our problems. Like this poor widow, we are going to go to God in prayer about them, asking for God’s help and direction, but we are also going to turn and talk to each other. Like we did (so well) last Sunday, move around a little bit, and find another person to talk to. We’ve talked about some of the problems facing Church, but for about 3 minutes each, ask and listen to each other answer this question:

Like the poor widow,
what issues in your life,
in your neighborhood,
or in the world,
REALLY concern you?

These problems that we face – in our lives, in our church, in our neighborhoods, and our country – are the problems our children and grandchildren will face. Frankly, it is not them that should get on our bandwagon, but we who should get on theirs; learning from, adapting to, and supporting the ways they are not only practicing faith, but confronting the problems that confront all of us. May God lead us, that we might be humble enough to learn from them.

“Come mothers and fathers
Throughout the land
And don’t criticize
What you can’t understand
Your sons and your daughters
Are beyond your command
Your old road is rapidly agin’
Please get out of the new one if you can’t lend your hand
For the times they are a-changin.’ (1963, 1964 by Warner Bros. Inc.; renewed 1991, 1992 by Special Rider Music)

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