Dr. Scott Black Johnston: Sent Into Exile

Earlier, I promised to post my sermon from the NEXT Church Conference in Indianapolis.  Here it is. I apologize for its length.  My dear friend Stan Hall once said, "The older I get the longer it takes me to say anything.  Just clearing my throat at the beginning of class takes twenty minutes."  Stan, I agree!  This one is for you.

"Sent into Exile"

1 Corinthians 1: 18-25

Jeremiah 29: 1-9

February 28, 2011

Second Presbyterian Church, Indianapolis

Next Church Conference

©Scott Black Johnston

A couple of years ago Brian Blount, President of Union Seminary, was preaching at the Presbyterian Conference Center in Montreat, North Carolina.  In his sermon, Dr. Blount remarked that Montreat is a great gift to the Presbyterian Church.  He's right, of course.  Curiously though, Brian did not cite the reasons that every Montreat regular can list: the beautiful valley, the fascinating history, the proximity of Billy Graham, or even the availability of vinegar-sauced Carolina barbeque.  No.  Brian remarked that Montreat was a gift to the wider church because it was a place where Presbyterians of all different stripes could gather to talk about (and debate) the most pressing issues facing the church of Jesus Christ and, at the end of the day, they would not be asked to cast a vote.

Those of us who have worked to put the Next Conference together feel the significance of Brian's words in our bones.  We aren't, we like to think, naïve.  We know that there will be disagreements (voiced and unvoiced) over the course of the next day and a half.  I can already see Tom Are and the Kansas City crew lining up to make an argument for his city's approach to BBQ.  Surely, the Texans here will have a spicy response to that sweet stuff from up north and the sour stuff from our east.  That's fine.  That's as it should be.  Yet, at the end of the day, no one here is going to hand out a blue ribbon.  Instead, we hope, we all hope, that our thirty six hours at this hospitable church will provide a place where we can have a vital conversation about the next church that the Holy Spirit is calling into being, a conversation that might be made more honest, and perhaps even more Christian, by the very fact that, at the end of it all, there will not be a vote.

Jeremiah 29  These are the words of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the remaining elders among the exiles, and to the priests, the prophets, and all the people, whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon.  _2__ This was after King Jeconiah, and the queen mother, the court officials, the leaders of Judah and Jerusalem, the artisans, and the smiths had departed from Jerusalem.  3 The letter was sent by the hand of Elasah son of Shaphan and Gemariah son of Hilkiah, whom King Zedekiah of Judah sent to Babylon to King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. It said:  4 Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon:  5 Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce.  6 Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease.  7 But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare._

I imagine that there are a whole lot of different reasons that the people in this room decided to book a ticket to Indianapolis in late February.  Although, I suspect, on some level, that we all share at least one motivation in common.  We all sense that the PCUSA, our beloved and flawed denomination, is at a watershed moment.  We may even agree that, like all watershed moments, this one provides reasons to be anxious and reasons to hope.

Let's start with the anxiety.  I doubt that anyone attending this conference needs a rehearsal of the numbers that have so many wringing their hands.  We know that the PCUSA has experienced a steady decline in overall membership for over thirty years.  We have seen the statistics that show other classic "mainline" Protestant denominations (the Episcopalians, the United Methodists, and the Lutherans) losing members (and status) at a similar rate.  We now know that even evangelical Protestants are feeling the pinch.  For three straight years, the Southern Baptist Church has recorded losses.

Many of us here have read the extensive surveys (from the Pew Foundation, the Barna Group and Gallop) indicating that an increasing number of young people in this country profess "no involvement with any religion."  We are aware that (generally speaking) we are not losing people to other churches.  We are notlosing them to other more glamorous, trendy or spiritually nourishing manifestations of Christian community.  In my context, we put it this way.  Our church's biggest competition is not a parish around the corner, but the Sunday edition of the New York Times and a nicely toasted sesame bagel.

I am guessing that everyone in this sanctuary knows that the church was in recession long before the great Recession hit.  We also know that the recent economic crisis hasn't improved matters.  In many corners of the United States, the Protestant denominations, which went on a great church building spree in the 1950's, are now struggling to care for facilities that cannot be supported by dwindling congregations.  In the Presbytery of New York City, there are one hundred churches spread out through the five boroughs.  Sixty of these congregations cannot afford to hire a full time clergy person.  Three weeks ago, the Wall Street Journal ran a story on something I had never heard of before:church foreclosures.  Did you know that in 2006 there were two church foreclosures in the United States?  In 2010 there were over a hundred, and that number is expected to double in 2011.  These churches come from every theological persuasion and every corner of the nation, equal parts south and north, east and west.

As the grim numbers mount, we are continually reminded that Christianity is not in decline across the globe.  In Asia, South America and Africa, the church is gaining ground at a sprinter's pace.  So, what's the deal here at home?  Why are American churches suffering?  There are more answers to that question than there are pages in our oh-so-thick Book of Order.  Some make sense.  Some do not. Here are a few of the most common:

American Christianity is suffering because...

  • scandals have undercut the church's authority and its message;
  • because the Bible's authority has been compromised;
  • because we live in a society more interested in self-help psychology than a self-sacrificing messiah;
  • because we have stagnant worship and dull music;
  • because we switched to contemporary music with vapid theology;
  • because our culture's prosperity makes us less able to identify with the poor and downtrodden who are at the heart of Jesus' message;
  • because the atheists are winning;
  • because young people perceive the church to be hypocritical, judgmental, and anti-homosexual;
  • because we haven't been emphasizing the Lordship of Jesus;
  • because we are saddled with a bureaucratic form of government created to serve a church that no longer exists;
  • because seminaries are not equipping future clergy with the right sort of training;
  • because the church is no longer attracting cream-of-the-crop leaders;
  • because (and I quote) "No one in the PCUSA knows how to use a microphone."

I agreed with this former parishioner and immediately blamed the seminaries.  Just kidding.  Most of the answers I have listed are serious, good-hearted attempts to get at what ails us, but all of them lack one thing.

They lack the outrageous conviction of the prophet Jeremiah.

When the Babylonian army swept down on Jerusalem 600 hundred years before Christ walked the earth, when invading soldiers carted men, women and children away, including, the very best artisans and smiths, the most influential prophets and priests, and the royal court itself: judges, administrators, King Jeconiah and even the Queen Mum, things got pretty grim on the streets of Jerusalem.

In response to this communal heartbreak, Jeremiah offered the people an explanation-a reason for the defeat, the chaos, and the disorientation they were all experiencing.  Standing on a street corner, Jeremiah declared, "God did it."  Yes, Jeremiah did the scandalous thing, the crazy, sounds-like-Pat-Robertson thing.  He went out into the public square and declared, "God did it.  God sent Israel into exile."

Now why would he do that?

Well, to begin, Scripture tells us that there were those in Jerusalem who questioned whether the exile was God's idea.  After all, Yahweh was a God of restoration, a God of new beginnings.  Surely, the Holy One wouldn't shake things up in such a radical way.  So, it wasn't long after the Babylonian army left that certain prophets began running around with PowerPoint presentations predicting a quick turn around.

"Don't worry this exile thing isn't God," they said.  "This is a historical hiccup.  Here's the ticket.  Increase the size of your parking lots.  Put your hymns on the big-screen.  Hire someone to get the church on Facebook.  All you need to do is correct a few technical mistakes, learn to use microphones, and soon you'll clicking along like its 1950 A.D.  I mean 650 B.C."  "Don't worry," these prophets declared, "God is going to break the back of Babylon."

Among the preachers predicting a quick turn around was a guy named Hananiah.  In the chapter immediately preceding today's text, Hananiah removes a symbolic yoke from Jeremiah's neck, smashes it on the ground, and with great passion predicts that the exile will soon be over.  Jeremiah reacts by saying that smashing the yoke might make for good theater, but it was bad theology.  God was using Babylon to make a point, and to conclude otherwise was to rebel against heaven.  Back and forth the two prophets go, until...

Until, chapter twenty-eight resolves this pastoral throw-down in its final, eloquent verse, "In that same year, in the seventh month, the prophet Hananiah died."

Isn't it funny how blunt the Bible gets when it comes to God messing about in history, especially when you consider how squeamish we are to claim the same?

So, Jeremiah provided an alternative to the message of the day.  Was it well received?  No.  The people in Jerusalem nearly killed him for it.  Twice they nearly killed him.  Still, the dude kept preaching.  Jeremiah risked death because he felt he had received a word from above-a word saying, "Jeremiah, I sent the people into exile.  I sent them into exile for a reason."

What was the reason?  Well, that's where the story gets interesting.

Again and again in the book of Jeremiah, the prophet calls the people of Judah to look out for the widow, the orphan, and the alien in their midst.  He was airing, of course, one of the most consistent themes in the Bible: the people with land (and access to its production) are to look out for people without land and without access to its harvest.  According to Jeremiah, the people of Judah were not following this divine command; and so, God sent them into exile.

All of which brings us to a third "WHY?"  The first was "Why was Jeremiah saying that God sent the people into exile?"  The second was "Why does God judge the people deserving of exile?"  And finally, we come to, "Why weren't the people doing as they had been commanded?  What's their problem?"

We tend to skip over this final question, but it may be the most important one of all.  Why weren't the people being faithful?  "Well," we usually conclude, "because they were being sinful."  That is, no doubt, true.  Yet, we need to probe a little deeper here.  Was the court in Jerusalem made up of cold-hearted jerks who couldn't give a rip for poor people?  I doubt it.  I bet they had hearts that were as theoretically open to the plight of downtrodden as our hearts.  It's just that they were busy.  The leaders in Judah weren't taking care of the most vulnerable souls in their midst because... they were immersed in politics.

Yes, politics.  The court of Jeconiah and his father before him was full of intrigue.  Brothers deposed brothers for the throne.  Bribery was commonplace.  Those who had the temerity to criticize the people in power were punished or killed.  Lest we blame all this nastiness on growing tides of secularism in 600 B.C., we should remember that Judah was a theocracy-a kingdom established on religious law that somehow still managed to forget its holy obligations in a wild frenzy of court politics that would (if anyone here is a producer) make one heck of an HBO series.

Ok, so... What does all this have to do with the PCUSA, with the predicament in which North American Protestantism finds itself?  With us?

Well, some within our denomination contend that our church is "deathly ill."  Others like Stanley Hauerwas claim (and I quote) "God is killing Protestantism and perhaps the church in America, and we deserve it."  I hear these cries, and the pain in them.  Yet, I have come to believe that Jeremiah pushes us to a different conclusion.

God is not killing North American Protestantism.   God has sent it into exile.

God has sentenced us to a Babylonian captivity for precisely the same reason that God pried Jeconiah and his crew out of their comfortable seats and shipped them off to alien land.  God has sent us into exile because we have spent the bulk of our time (in the last 30 years) playing court politics, engaged in protracted legislative battles, and not in caring for the most vulnerable ones in our midst.

But wait, we may want to argue, we engaged in politics for good reasons.  Yes, we did.  Right or left of center, we Protestants engaged in politics in our denomination (and in our country) to legislate morality.  We hoped to change things in our Book of Order and in our country's legal codes to bring about God's kingdom, but along the way we forgot something.

We forgot that power corrupts.

We have all done it.  I remember being on a search committee for a position of leadership in our denomination in which every hot button issue in the wider church was invoked.  One evening I was on the phone late, late into the night, lobbying a person about the search.  Then I hopped onto another call to discuss the activities of my "opponents."   I felt like was in an episode of West Wing.  Ah... the sweet taste of adrenaline.  When I got off the phone my wife asked me if I really needed to be doing all of this, and I responded, "Yes, Amy, absolutely, if we want the good guys to win."

Politics is so damn intoxicating.  It snares us.  We say that the church provides an alternative to a world with bankrupt morals, in thrall to commercialism, and bound up in out-of-control rhetoric and violent cycles of extremism.  And then we go to G.A., we go to presbytery, and what do we do?  We politicize everything.  We take the most controversial subjects, line people up at different microphones to debate, have lobbyists running around behind the scenes, and then we put them to a vote.  At the end of every vote, we have winners, who cry that God's will has been done, and losers who declare that God's will has been thwarted.  Then, true to the blood sport nature of American politics, we trot out individuals who have been harmed by the vote, our political martyrs, who stir up our constituents to new levels of anger, readying them for the next round of voting.

At the end of the day, we go back and worship at churches that are increasingly red congregations or blue congregations, religious manifestations of political parties, and we wonder "Why?"  We soothe our consciences by telling ourselves that our methods are necessary because our goals are so lofty.  Although, of course, what we have actually done is sell our souls.

And here's the thing, young Americans have been taking note.  The Barna Group reports that 75% of young people between 18 and 29 years old view the church as being "too political."  Instead of providing an alternative to the hectoring of Glenn Beck or the smug zingers of Rachel Maddow, we look more and more like them in our tactics and talk.  If you don't believe me, take a look at the comments section on the Presbyterian Outlook website in regard to recent letters circulating the church.

Now, don't get me wrong.  In recent years, we Presbyterians have engaged important conversations, holy matters of great consequence to the faith and to the world that God loves.  I am not arguing that we should stick our heads in the sand or retreat to a monastic community in Minnesota where we can all singKumbaya.  Although, at times, that does seem appealing to me...  Minnesota and Kumbaya!

The issue is not  whether  we engage controversial issues; the issue is  how  we go about it.

James Davison Hunter, sociologist at UVA argues that over the last 40 years, American Protestants have been co-opted and corrupted by the very political processes we were hoping to influence.  We forgot that the third temptation that Satan offers Jesus out in the desert was to exercise political authority.  In trying frantically to work our way out of a decline, we have overlooked the Apostle Paul's incredible, haunting words, "For the message about the  cross  is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God."

Is it any wonder that our Lord has chosen this moment in time to shake us up?

So, exile.  What happens in exile?  <Believe it or not, this is the hopeful part!>

Let me mention three things, three really quick things and then I'll shut up.

In exile, you get perspective.  Ok this is really cool.  Did you know that, in 1917, archeologists in Iraq discovered an underground vault containing hundreds of ration tablets from the time of Babylonian exile?  These tablets provide a record of what Israelite families were given to eat by the Babylonian government.  And, here's the fascinating thing, these archeologists actually uncovered a tablet (that is now in a museum in Berlin) that shows the rations allotted for King Jeconiah and his sons.  Do you think heaven's point got made?  I am guessing that in Babylon Jeconiah and his court no longer had trouble identifying with the poor or the alien in the midst of a foreign land.   In the exile, you get perspective.

In exile, you become more open to your critics.  In Jerusalem, people eventually started listening to Jeremiah, a guy they once threw down a cistern because they didn't want to hear his criticisms.  We all tend to write our critics off, both within and beyond the walls of the church.  While we should never assume that they know everything and have all the answers regarding what ails us, we should not fear them.  We should listen to them, because in their criticisms there is often truth... truth that just might set us free.  Right now some of our best critics are the Millennials (ages 18-29); 85% of whom describe American Christians as "hypocritical."

A few years ago I was involved in taping pilot episodes for a new television program on the Hallmark Channel.  One of the regular features of this show was to be a segment showing a group of clergy gathered at a greasy spoon for breakfast.  Over a cup of coffee, a diverse cross-section of clergy were supposed to talk in a candid and pastoral way about current issues of religious significance.  In our first taping session, they fixed microphones to our clothes, set us down around a small table, and asked us to discuss (in eight minutes or less) some of the most controversial issues of the day.  As we discussed, the director kept breaking into the conversation urging us to show more passion, more conflict.  He wanted "to see sparks!"

Well, there were sparks.  Smiling like the reliable clergy that we consider ourselves to be, we jostled to toss out a few pithy sentences that would both make our point and discount our adversaries-I mean, our colleagues in ministry.  My panel's first topic was "Will there ever be peace in the Middle East?"

Three weeks after the initial taping, we gathered to film another series of segments.  The previous director was gone.  So, we asked the new guy, "What happened to the man who kept asking for sparks?"   Well, they explained, "we showed the initial segments to a test audience.  They gave good grades to the basic concept, but across the board they had one negative reaction:  They did not like to see their clergy fighting."

In the exile, you need to listen your to your critics.

Finally, in the exile we are called to ask the question, "What does my faith motivate me to do?"  Now, of course, those who had been carried off to Babylon knew that there could no longer be a political answer to that question.  They had no illusion that in exile they could ever pass a law (or amend the Book of Order) so that everyone would have to make BBQ the same way.

Being exiled from the corrupting influence of the broader political sphere might just be the best thing that's ever happened to us.  Why?  Because it will force us to think about ways (other than legislation) for being faithful.

What are those?  Well, that is in part what the Next Church conversation is about.  We believe, to quote my friend, Michael Jinkins that "The Gospel is no less true, and the world is no less hungry for God's word than it has ever been."  And so, we are convinced that we must, we simply must, figure out how to be faithful together without beating each other up politically.

Since every organization needs a creation story, let me close with this.  In my mind, NEXT (What is God calling the PCUSA to do next?) got started at the General Assembly in San Jose when Tom Are asked two colleagues a simple, but sticks-to-your-soul-like-oatmeal question.

"Why," he asked, "aren't Presbyterians known for building hospitals anymore?"

Why indeed?

According to scripture, the prophet Jeremiah wrote a letter to the exiles in Babylon with a bit of advice from God.  It was a sermon for people who no longer had the power and influence that they once had.  The letter said, "Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare."

Could it be that those same marching orders apply to us today?

[Taken with permission from "Sharp About Your Prayers," the blog of the Rev. Dr. Scott Black Johnston. Originally posted 4/16/2011.]