Sunday, August 27, 2017

Year A, Proper 16, Isaiah 51:1-6, The Rock

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ.  Amen
As I enter into the final years of my ministry my youthful optimism has faded.
I also find myself feeling quite jealous of my father’s generation of pastors.
In the years following World War II the veterans who had returned from the war, as well as the whole nation dedicated themselves to building the United States into what it is today.
With Europe struggling with the enormous task of reconstruction, the United States was able to immerge as a Super Power, with the strongest economy in the world, and coupled with that a military that surpassed all other nations.
It was a time of unparalleled prosperity and community building.
All those veterans returned home to begin raising families and as a result our nation experienced the ‘baby boom’ of the post war years.
The Church thrived in this context.
As families grew by leaps and bounds, so did the Church.
Suburbs were born to house these new families, and the Church followed with new mission congregations being formed all across the nation.
Congregation after congregation found themselves bursting at the seams.  There was not enough space to accommodate all the growth.  And so there was a great building campaign that took place all across the Church.
As an example of this, I remember my Father’s first four congregations that he served.
His first parish was in Ronan, MT where he was the first full time pastor to serve that congregation.  They had built a parsonage to house our family, and because of the growing size of their Sunday School the basement of our home included additional space for Sunday School classes.
After a few years we moved to Worland, WY where Dad served a new mission congregation that had been started a few years before.  The Church was growing so fast that they didn’t even wait to gather a congregation.  The national Church simply identified a community, built a building, called a pastor, and let the pastor go find a congregation to fill the building.
Then our family moved back to South Dakota.  In Irene three congregations merged to form Calvary Lutheran Church and built a large new building.
The next congregation Dad would serve was in Wessington Springs, SD, and they also were the merger of a number of small rural parishes and had just built a large new building in addition to a parsonage.
When Karla and I got together, while we were still students at PLU, we immediately joined the congregation where Arden, and his wife were members, Mountain View Lutheran Church in Puyallup.  It was an older congregation, but one which was now flourishing with new growth from all those baby boomers coming of age and moving to Puyallup.  They too had just recently built a marvelous sanctuary, one of the most beautiful I have ever seen.
And then after Karla and I got married we moved to Gig Harbor so that we could be part of a new congregational start, Agnus Dei Lutheran Church. 
It was through my involvement at Agnus Dei that I decided to enter the ministry.
With all my heart and soul I anticipated being able to serve the Church as my father had, and I imagined that this tremendous growth and development would continue unabated.
I imagined becoming a mission developer pastor and starting new congregations as well.
But something happened.
The world changed.
In the thirty years since that time, people stopped flocking to the Church.
Those educational wings that had built during the fifties and sixties now had far more space than was needed.
One example of how radically things had changed was that, as I mentioned before, the Church used to just build a building and then go find a congregation to fill it, now at the end of this period, congregations were forced to worship in temporary worship space, in school gymnasiums and the like, for ten to twenty years before they might get a building.
But even more striking than that, was that in large part the Church simply stopped developing new congregations.
Peace Lutheran, as well as Agnus Dei, was one of the last congregations formed during this period of great expansion. 
Still there was optimism.
This room in which we are worshipping was intended to be the fellowship hall.  As the congregation grew it was anticipated that we would build a much bigger sanctuary to house the larger congregation.
But as is obvious to us, now thirty years later, the congregation didn’t grow.
It’s like the Church all of a sudden lost the ‘midas touch’.
Something happened.
The world changed.
During the post war years everyone went to Church.
Now, not so much.
Our country is becoming more and more secular.
When I look back and remember the optimism with which I entered ministry, and then reflect on the reality that I experienced throughout the thirty years that I have served, I find myself getting depressed. 
It is easy to get discouraged.
Jesus just doesn’t seem to matter much to people anymore.
And for those who continue to cling to the faith, whose commitment to the church remains steadfast, the empty class rooms and sparse attendance at worship is simply disheartening.
We are not the first ones to experience such emotions.
Our lesson from Isaiah this morning was written at a very difficult time for the Israelites.
Their nation had collapsed.
David’s Kingdom, which they thought would last forever had been defeated.
This people who had once been in slavery in Egypt, but who had been delivered by God at the time of the Exodus, who had seen the birth of Israel as a nation, and witnessed the glory of the Kingdom under David and Solomon, were now, once again in slavery, only this time in Babylon.
Everything had been lost.
And more than the things that they had lost, was the hope that they had lost.
For generations they believed that God would always be with them, and now it seemed that God had abandoned them.
This is the experience of God’s people throughout the ages.
We go through cycles.
We experience times of prosperity and great hope.  Times when it seems like God is right here, doing marvelous things in our midst.
And then we go through times of despair, when we feel God has abandoned us, when all is lost.
This is nothing new.
This ebb and flow of history is simply the way it is.
During the good times, faith seems easy, and yet in some ways it is untested. 
During the hard times, it can be difficult to maintain faith at all.
It is during these hard times that Isaiah’s words are so important.
If we would rekindle the faith within us, we begin by simply remembering.
Isaiah says:
“Look to the rock from which you were hewn,
and to the quarry from which you were dug.
Look to Abraham your father
and to Sarah who bore you;
for he was but one when I called him,
but I blessed him and made him many.”
The world is constantly changing, but God remains steadfast and faithful, his love constant throughout all the ages.
God, who promised a child to Abraham, remains faithful to his promises today.
God, who heard the cries of his people when they were in slavery in Egypt, still hears the cries of his people when they call out for help.
God, who led the people of Israel through the wilderness to the Promised Land, still leads us today.
God, who established the Kingdom of David, has not abandoned Israel, nor us.
God, who sent prophet after prophet to the Israelites, still raises up faithful servants for the Church today,
God, who promised a Messiah to save his people, remains faithful to that promise today.
God, who became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth, remains with us today.
God, who raised Jesus from the dead, still breathes new life into his people of every time and place.
God, who sent the Spirit to gather the faithful from every corner of the world, still blows through our midst creating faith wherever and whenever he sees fit.
God, who blessed his people in the good times and comforted his people during the difficult times, speaks words of comfort and hope to us today.
Indeed, it was this God that promised to Peter that he would build his Church upon a foundation so solid that even the gates of Hell will not prevail against it.
“Look to the rock from which you were hewn,
and to the quarry from which you were dug.
Look to the God who breathed life into the lifeless clay, the God who so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son so that all who believe in him may not perish but have eternal life.
Look to the God who created you.
Look to the God who redeems you.
Look to the God who Spirit empowers you.
Look to the God whose steadfast love endures for ever.
And know this, that nothing in all of creation will be able to separate you from the love of God that is ours in Christ Jesus.


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