September 12th 2020 – Fr. J. Devin Rodgers
I say Pharaoh, Pharaoh
Oh baby let my people go!
Huh! Yeah, yeah, yeah
I say Pharaoh, Pharaoh
Oh baby let my people go!
Huh! Yeah, yeah, yeah
It was the first Sunday after Labor Day, and a crowd of about 60 elementary school children were gathered in the freshly cleaned, floor waxed, chairs polished church hall at the parish I grew up in.
Mrs. HrVatin, and Mrs. Jesko the heads of the elementary Sunday School stood in the middle of the large circle of wooden, student sized chairs and taught us the story of Moses through music.
As we sang, we posed with our best “walk like an Egyptian” dance moves.
I loved learning songs in Sunday school. Some of the most important lessons in faith came from these easy-to-remember church school diddies.
I learned that Jesus often hung out with people you wouldn’t expect him to – short tax collectors, who ripped off poor people and worked for the the despised foreign occupiers.
Zacheaus was a wee Little Man! – Luke 19:1
We learned that everything in the world…everything, belonged to God and could be used for good.
He’s got the Whole World! In his hands!
And finaly one of my favorites, because we got to parade through other grades’ classroom. God gave us each lights to shine so that others could see God’s goodness shine through us.
“This is our little Gospel Light! We’re gonna let it shine!”
I suppose my generation of kids was one of the last generations of church school children to have the experience of having 60-80 children crammed into the parish hall and learning songs and dances to literally dozens of Bible stories and passages set to easy to remember, catchy, earworm songs.
Sometime during my adolescence the decline in church attendance became somewhat noticeable, and maybe just because I was old enough to get caught up in the adult conversations at coffee hour, I heard regularly that “we needed more people”
It’s probably not a surprise to anyone to hear this today, but if you haven’t heard yet, less and less Americans are attending church, and it’s a rare occasion to pack 60-80 children in a parish hall for Sunday School lessons.
Having had this experience, my first reaction to this news is regret that something happened in our churches that caused this decline.
So, what happened?
Sociologists, religious academics, priests and pastors, have given many reasons and rationales for this decline. Episcopalians are quick to blame worship styles or more contemporary forms of worship. But we and other Christians search for hte easy out. It’s a tedious list.
The secularization of society – As if mere cultural Christianity was ever the answer to begin with.
School Sports being on the Lord’s Day or Sabbath or people being forced to work on Sunday – I always think of our Jewish siblings who still had to pay the parking meters when they went into synagogue while I got free parking outside my church 😉
We’ve blamed a slow moving church structure.
We’ve rightly placed blame on an institution always behind on taking the lead on important social justice issues – how many Christians are still digging in their heels over womens roles in church, LGBTQ causes or the environment?
We’ve even placed blame on the birthrate. People have less children. The baby boom is long over.
Whatever the reason, and I’m not sure it matters, the fact is far less people are attending church than they once used to. Less children attend Sunday School than they used to. That’s a lot less singing of fun Sunday school songs unfortunately.
Today ¼ of the US population consider themselves “nones” or religiously unaffiliated. However, out of that demographic, approximately half consider themselves Spiritual but not religious and do not belong to a community of faith. When the church doesn’t meet folks where they are, when it doesn’t engage the questions people are asking, and when institutions and their continuation become more important than the people and the Holy Spirit’s action in them, people seek spirituality, and yes even relationship with God elsewhere.
I’ll be honest there are days when this reality causes me to worry. What is going to happen to us in 10 years. Heck what is going to happen to us next year?
Fear wells up inside of me, and I start slipping into those quick fix solutions that really aren’t the answer.
New music, new programming, follow the latest and greatest best practices. I research and attend conferences to counteract this reality desperately wanting to fill our pews and our Sunday school rooms like they once were.
However jumping to conclusions and rushing for solutions causes us to miss the mark. Fear responses are never the right responses in matters of faith because they are based solely on self propagation and preservation.
This may sound shocking, but God is not interested in programming that will fill pews. God is not interested in the latest and greatest research that will help us fill volunteer roles that arise. God is not interested in our fear response. We don’t need more people, we need to be faithful to the gospel.
The Gospel is entirely interested in our transformation, in the transformation of our communities and the kingdom of God being revealed in our midst.
God desires to be revealed through our way of being and our relationship with one another.
This requires nothing short of absolute surrender to the way of Jesus.
If surrender sounds intimidating and scary to you, I want to remind you of one thing.
That is absolutely normal! In fact, surrender feels like dying.
Take Peter for instance in today’s Gospel.
At this point in their ministry the disciples know who Jesus is.
“You are the Christ! The anointed one.”
Right answer Peter!
However the implications of this are uncomfortable because they put Peter face to face with a reality that he’s not ready to admit or accept.
The Human One[a]must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and the legal experts, and be killed, and then, after three days, rise from the dead. Take up your cross, and follow me. All who want to save their lives will lose them. But all who lose their lives because of me and because of the good news will save them.”
“Excuse me? This isn’t what we signed up for is it?” The disciples had this image of the Messiah coming back to restore the lineage of David. They were content to follow the traditions as they had been handed down to them. They were content to believe and follow Jesus, healing people proclaiming God’s love. The cross doesn’t fit into their, or our comfort zone. Can’t people just join our cause without all this talk about change, death, suffering? On rare occasions we might even throw God a bone and offer to change up our music or liturgy.
Why the necessity to surrender?
Surrendering is necessary because we will always have reservations and put up road blocks that inhibit us from fully loving God and neighbor. It’s the reality of being human. This isn’t a one time event either. It’s a mindset of evaluating what we need to let go of or give to God so that resurrection might be possible.
This is all great in theory, but what does this actually look like?
It looks like each of us looking at our own lives and asking.
How can I give this to God so that others might discover God’s love.
How do I use my possessions, my time, my very presence to allow not my will to be done, but Christ’s.
Particularly on this parish picnic Sunday and as we begin to launch our new formation we might look around us at our beloved parish church, our worship, our learning, our sharing food with one another, our celebration of the sacraments and take a step in this direction.
How can we use all that we have at St. Alban’s to better reveal God’s love in this church, in this city, to meet people where they are and reveal love?”
We don’t ask this for the sake of filling committees, meeting a budget or getting more volunteers.. It’s not for providing “nice” programming or giving our children a solid moral foundation on which to build their lives.
All that we have is to enable us to follow the way of Jesus and show a love so deep it changes us. Surrendering to love.
Then we ask ourselves, can we surrender, change and transform to meet this purpose. With God’s help we can.
If we do this, we are sure to be headed in a direction of hope and faithfulness despite what national church statistics tell us about decline.
Today, in honor of restarting our program year and reinvigorating our Sunday School, our youth group, our children’s service and our worship- I offer you some of my favorite Sunday school songs- tools once used to teach our children and lead them towards love so they might lead others to love.
Pharoah Pharoah! Woah Baby let my people Go!
Let go of all that is enslaving you and holding you back from the love of God. You’ll find yourself on a journey, albeit a tough journey, to the promised land.
Zacheaus was a wee little man and a wee little man was he!
People are hungry for the news that they are loved. It is not to be reserved for the righteous, the people that have it all together. We can never forget that people will go to great lengths to experience the love of God. Zacheus climbed a tree to see Jesus and found himself dining with God. Who in your life is hungry for this relationship?
God’s got the whole world in his hands!
God certainly does, and if this is true there is not a single place we can go where the love of God is not present – churches, schools, stores, our homes, sports fields, our belongings.
Surrender them all for the holy purpose of love.
After all, the light of Christ is in all of us so that others may see our good works and give glory to our Father in heaven.
“This is our little gospel light, we’re gonna let it shine! Let it shine! Let it shine! Let it shine!”