Always New(s)

Luke 7:36-43, Hebrews 13:7-10, January 5, 2014

My first eight years I ministry I was an associate pastor. That means I always preached the Sunday after Christmas, the Sunday before New Year’s. Always. I got into a routine. I do not especially like New Year’s as a holiday. Big deal, another trip around the Sun, but I like it as a concept, a time to look back over the past year and look ahead to the coming year. January is named for the Roman god Janus, the god of doorways. Janus has two faces, because it looks ahead and backward. The first Sunday of the year is a good time for us to do that as a church as well. A lot has changed through the years. A lot.

When I preached my first New Year’s sermon in 1991, I mentioned that on January 1 I always sit down and write the new year onto the next 20 checks I would write. People would nod. It was a good idea. It takes a while to get used to a new year, and I used to watch my mother do the same thing every January 1. People hardly write checks anymore. My mortgage, utility bill, car insurance, life insurance, phone bill and pledge to the church come out of my family’s checking account electronically. We hardly use stamps at my house these days. How many of you still have checking accounts? It won’t be long before checking accounts go the way of...

the rotary phone. I grew up with two phones like this. One was on the wall in the kitchen and one was in Mom’s bedroom. Phones were dialed. Before my mother replaced the last of these antiques with a push button phone, she had each of her grandchildren place a call on a phone like this. It was a history lesson for them. These days even push button phones have been replaced. And like all progress, something’s lost and something’s gained with every innovation. As a child I heard a story about how my father and my Uncle Fred were fighting and their babysitter was on the phone and it got so loud—and Fred got so close—that the babysitter hit Fred with the phone receiver. Phones used to be substantial enough that you could do serious damage with them. Oh, your reach was limited by the cord, but you could really brain someone who got close enough. Try that with a cell phone!

Remember when the school referendum passed for the new Oaklawn School? I talked to someone on the committee that worked to promote the passage of the referendum. She is about ten years younger than I. She planned to get the word out with social media, Facebook, things like that. The older folks on the committee, retired teachers and such, insisted that there should be ads in the newspaper and postcards, yard signs and fliers delivered to people’s homes. My friend said no one her age even checks the mail box every day. They don’t subscribe to the printed version of the newspaper. Both groups did not know how to communicate with people just a generation or two different from them. But both groups were able to listen to each other and they were able to get the word out to the voters, but the way that word got out was different than it would have been ten or 50 years ago.

When I was a child my mother bought gas for the Volkswagen from Joe. Joe pumped the gas, washed the windows, checked the oil if you asked. He would take mom’s credit card into the building and bring it out on a special tray, mom would sign the form and Joe would give her a receipt. About ten years later the law was changed, which permitted motorists to pump their own gas. Who would want to do that? You only saved a few cents a gallon. And then you’d have to go in pay for your gas inside. It caught on. And Joe who made his living fixing people’s cars in his two stall garage at his service station—and pumping gas when someone drove over the hose that rang the bell that told him someone was at the pump—went out of business. Now people pumped their own gas, and gas stations made their money off the snacks and groceries they sold to people who walked in to pay for their gas. My hometown was dotted with empty service stations…until the early ‘80s…when people started buying VCR’s and renting tapes. These old service stations became video rental centers. People used to joke about getting their parents a VCR for Christmas, and how the older people would put this special box on top of their TVs and it would be a plant holder. The younger generation could not imagine living without a VCR and their parents just couldn’t be bothered to drive down to Joe’s old filling station, pick out a tape, drive home and put it in the new marvelous box their kids had gotten them.

Now 30 years later those former filling stations and video rental places are tattoo parlors and auto title loan places. No one rents video tapes anymore—it’s even hard to rent DVD’s anymore because movies are available on demand with machines that I do not own nor understand.

Look around the sanctuary this morning. Do you know what group of people is statistically most likely to come to this church? Our oldest members who drive. Really. And the younger our members get the less likely they are to be here on a given Sunday. Someone who was born in the 1920s or ‘30s considers himself an active member of the church if he misses worship once a month. Someone born in the 1970s or ‘80s considers himself an active member if he attends once a month. The way people behave, the way families live their lives is very different even from when I was a child. So much has changed in just a few decades. I should say the culture around us has changed so much in a few decades, but the church has been slow to recognize these changes and respond to them. That’s not only this congregation, it is a nationwide reality.

Our lessons say that Jesus Christ is the same always. And that’s true. The grace that God conveys to us through Christ is eternal and unchanging—as is our need for it. The writer of Hebrews says simply, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. Do not be carried away by all kinds of strange teachings; for it is well for the heart to be strengthened by grace, not by regulations about food…” That is hold onto what is essential in the faith, and be ready to discard what is not essential. Grace strengthens our hearts, but mere rule keeping does not help anyone or anything. Our need for grace and Christ’s provision of it is constant and unchanging. The question is how do we experience grace…and perhaps more importantly, how do we share our experience of grace with other people?

Jesus told a parable about our need for forgiveness, this morning’s gospel lesson. It’s startling, as parables are supposed to be. It helps us see things in a new way. It’s really a simple question, who is more grateful at hearing a word of grace? Someone who needs a lot of forgiveness or someone who needs a little? There’s a huge contrast between the Pharisees and the woman who is identified as a sinner. It’s an odd scene and one that it’s hard to put into our modern context. The Pharisee whose home is the scene of the parable speaks a silent word of judgment against the sinner. Jesus engages one of his close followers in a dialogue and the reader is supposed to draw his own conclusion. Who is more grateful at having her debt paid? Who is more grateful at having her sins forgiven? Who is the extravagant and lavish party crasher?

I believe strongly that in this parable we members of this congregation and many congregations like ours, most closely resemble the Pharisees. The ones who judge and dare not touch or be touched by someone who is publically recognized as a “sinner.” And yet, part of our identity as followers of Christ is that we need grace because none of us live a blameless, flawless, perfect life. We all fall short and need the grace of Christ to pay our debt. But, let’s be honest, our sins aren’t nearly as numerous or serious as other people’s. Right? We’re not so bad.

What would it be like if we identified with “the sinner?” What would our worship look and feel like if we really understood our need for grace? What would you say about your church, and coming here at 9:30 most Sunday mornings to someone who does not believe in “organized religion” and has no experience worshipping as we do week after week?

As a worshipping community we are losing our most faithful, loyal and generous generation. In 2013 we had five members die, the youngest of them was 77! They were all people who gave years to the church and received enormous blessings from participating in this community. As we start a new year, and as we face some huge and expensive projects that will be done to our building, I believe we also need to look around at who is not here. Whom do you know who needs the grace of Christ? Whom do you know who would benefit from the peace, strength and comfort you get from worshipping here? We need to start finding ways to include people who are not here…yet. Not because we need to pay the bills, not because we want to building to stand for another 120 years, but because everyone you know needs the grace of Jesus Christ.

The world has changed around us, and will continue to change. And the world’s need for the message of Christ will also never go away, though we must find ways to share it with other people. Amen.