We rang the new year in quietly with our kids on December 31st with a Netflix marathon and a range of tasty junk food. After the clock struck twelve, my pre-teen daughter became solemn and eventually emotional. It took some prompting to get at the problem. Eventually she named the environmental crisis and observed that everyone seems to just be carrying on as if there isn’t a problem; she talked about the angry and divided political landscape, and the fact that when more is needed of us in order to really address what is happening in our world, we seem to just argue more. “My friends say that we’ll all be dead by 2030. And I think they’re right. I just don’t see how we’ll survive,” she cried quietly.
There has been another crisis on people’s minds lately, people in our church. Those who get the Anglican Journal, our national church newspaper, would have had delivered to your mailbox, just before Christmas, an issue devoted to honestly exploring the declining numbers and resources across the Anglican church. “Gone by 2040?” was the attention-grabbing headline on the front page. I have never heard our church’s paper prompt so much discussion. All through the holidays, people within my congregation, and across the church, have reached out to share their thoughts on the articles offered in that issue. “Challenging,” “shocking,” “alarming,” and “depressing” were a few of the adjectives used to describe how people felt. “Hopeful,” and “cautiously optimistic” were other adjectives.
I see this issue of the Anglican Journal as an opportunity. It’s an opportunity to remember a truth that is all too easy to lose or confuse. The opportunity is to remember that God has never promised to save the church. God has promised to use the church to save the world.
The church is not a divinely protected survival unit of the saved. God’s love, healing, transformation and salvation is meant to be poured out for all people. That’s what God is concerned with: the healing and wholeness of all people. God creates us as the church, the community of faith, because we actually need one another in being able to know God’s love. But God also creates us as the church so that we can be part of how God’s saving love is made known to the ends of the earth.
God doesn’t create the church and then ask us to pour our energy and resources into securing our own future.
Today we celebrate the Epiphany, the visit of the Magi from the East to pay homage to the manifestation of God’s presence and power as revealed in a peasant baby named Jesus. This story offers a study in contrasts between two very different versions of power and hope.
On the one hand, we have King Herod. King Herod is meant to exist as part of a line of kings anointed by God to serve his people in living close to the way and purpose of God. Instead, Herod has fallen into the very easy, very seductive trap of believing that his life is about protecting himself, his power, and his position. His hope is in himself, and therefore he spends his life gripped by the fear of losing what he has, threatened of being overthrown or taken down on all sides. His life doesn’t serve God. It serves himself. It serves keeping himself on the throne of the Jews at all costs. His fear is so great and his grip on power so fragile that he sees a peasant baby born in a barn, a nobody from nowhere, as a direct threat to him and his crown. He sees a group of wise seers from the east as a sign of that threat. In reaction to this story of God’s miraculous activity, Herod rains down violence and terror on his people. He issues a genocidal decree — unfortunately with all too many parallels throughout history — that all Jewish boys under the age of two are to be put to death.
And in direct and dramatic contrast to Herod, we have the story of human life in full and complete partnership with God, revealed in this baby Jesus. Even though he is just a baby, even though we haven’t heard him say anything yet, we haven’t seen him do anything yet, we are already shown that those who dare to allow their hearts to be opened to him become part of a very different sort of power. It’s the power that leads a group of strangers from a different race, religion and culture to make a dangerous and costly journey to Bethlehem, not with the purpose of gaining anything for themselves in doing so, but in giving everything away. They simply want to bow before this baby and offer their gifts. We see Mary and Joseph welcome these strangers and receive their message and their gifts. We see in this small interaction between these people who are supposedly so different from one another that God’s purpose in Jesus extends far beyond one tribe or one group of people. We see exactly what God has in mind: the overcoming of division across our whole human family.
In Mary, Joseph, and this group of Magi we see a common denominator which allows them to live with this courage and generosity. They listen for God’s message, they watch for God’s sign, they live their lives as people who are not alone but who are led. They live their lives as people who have been named and claimed for God’s purpose, not as people who live merely for themselves.
It is Mary and Joseph and the Magi who give us hope. Hope for the future. Hope for the church. Hope for this new year. It’s King Herod who offers us a caution — what can so easily happen to us when we become anxious about saving only ourselves.
As my daughter very clearly articulated on new year’s night, there is a world of trouble out there on the horizon. Our human family faces enormous challenges in the coming years. Those challenges should make it crystal clear that we can’t get caught into the narrow field of concern of simply saving ourselves or even our church. We have to know that what God wants is to heal us all, for all of creation to know God’s love and to be part of how God’s love is made known. It’s an enormous task, but also very simple and clear: we need to keep aligning our lives with God’s light; we need to keep watching for how God is inviting us to overcome division; we need to keep seeing God’s message and purpose at work in the strangers we meet; we need to keep opening our hearts to Jesus — teacher, friend, brother, guide, the human face of God.
In fact, the thing that I feel best about as a parent is that in the face of those significant challenges, we do have this church. Those were the words of reassurance that were on my lips on new year’s night. “We get to be part of the church,” I said. “We have hope.” We get to be gathered to worship, to bow down before the truth of our lives in service to God. We get to be encouraged and motivated by people right here who are living lives that are courageous and generous. We get to keep being called back to baptismal vows which name this world, its creatures and our fellow human beings as beloved works of God’s hands, worthy of our care and concern and guardianship. We get to be constantly renewed in our vows to offer this care, concern and guardianship, “with God’s help,” rather than just by ourselves. We get to tackle challenges together rather than tearing one another apart or being paralyzed into inactivity. We get to be in communion with those who are totally different from us. Each and every day, we get to see how far and wide God’s love can reach — as the hungry are fed and acts of kindness and compassion are extended far beyond the confines of our one church community.
While decline might be a significant story in the life of the church, it’s not the only story. There is also the story of growth: of new people welcomed, new programs started, new outreach ministries initiated, new ways of engaging faith and responding to the needs of the world around us begun. There is the story of how congregations have been willing to change and to grow, to invest themselves, their resources, their imaginations and their friendship in ministries to our young people, to make sure we are passing down the faith to the next generations. Exactly when the future of the church can be such an anxious worry, I think that we have also glimpsed the antidote to that anxiety and worry: give ourselves away. Let go of our small dreams of survival. Open our doors. Give what we can give. Keep matching up our gifts with the world’s need. And never lose track of who God is actually trying to save.
God doesn’t promise to save the church. But God will use the church to heal and bless and, yes, even save our world.