Is God in the House?

Sunday After Christmas, December 30, 2018

Old Testament Lesson: 1 Samuel 2: 18-20, 26

Samuel was ministering before the LORD, a boy wearing a linen ephod. His mother used to make for him a little robe and take it to him each year, when she went up with her husband to offer the yearly sacrifice. Then Eli would bless Elkanah and his wife, and say, “May the LORD repay you with children by this woman for the gift that she made to the LORD”; and then they would return to their home. Now the boy Samuel continued to grow both in stature and in favor with the LORD and with the people.

Gospel Lesson: Luke 2:41-52

Now every year [Jesus’] parents went to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover. And when he was twelve years old, they went up as usual for the festival. When the festival was ended and they started to return, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it. Assuming that he was in the group of travelers, they went a day’s journey. Then they started to look for him among their relatives and friends. When they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem to search for him.

After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. When his parents saw him they were astonished; and his mother said to him, “Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.” He said to them, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house? (I must be with my Father)But they did not understand what he said to them.

Then he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them. His mother treasured all these things in her heart. And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.

Each of you has in your bulletin two slips of paper: one is yellow and one is green. I am going to ask you two questions: one at the beginning of this sermon and one at the end. I want you to answer both questions anonymously and in a way that you don’t mind me reading out. Don’t write your name on your answer. I want you to answer the first question on the yellow slip of paper. I want you to answer the second question on the green slip of paper.

So, does everyone have a pen or pencil and your yellow slip of paper?

hold up the yellow slip of paper

Here’s the first question, and I’ll ask it a couple of ways:

  • Where or how or when do you meet God? or
  • How do you best experience God? or
  • What were you doing the last time you felt like you were in the presence of God?

I’ll give you a couple of minutes to think about it and write down your answer. And remember: don’t sign your answer. When you’re done, fold the yellow slip of paper and place it in this bag.

collect the yellow slips of paper

When I was a child, Dallas Baptist Church was like a second home. I went to church there. My maternal grandparents went to church there. My aunts and uncle and cousins went to church there. I attended kindergarten there, where the beautiful Miss High would teach us our letters and play piano. For a while my Mama was church secretary there. I have memories of running around the building with my cousins, playing with building blocks in the nursery while the booming, disembodied voice of the preacher shouted over the PA system from the sanctuary, moving up to the first floor primary SS classes, getting bags of raisins, nuts, oranges, and Hershey Kisses, which we called silver bells, from Santa in the fellowship hall on Christmas Eve, lively church dinners, solemn communion services, falling asleep with my head in my mother’s lap, being given a pencil to draw in the worship bulletin and color in all of the Os in the order of worship.

The arc of my faith journey was probably not too different from the journey of lots of folks: I was raised in church, strayed from it in adolescence and early adulthood, and then was drawn back for the sake of my children after Chris and I were married. But more and more this arc no longer traces the faith journey of young folk. More common now is for adolescents to leave church and never return.

Today’s gospel lesson—with the preadolescent Jesus asking his parents where else would they expect him to be besides the temple—set me to wondering why it is that the young folk of our time no longer feel that they have any use for church. Here’s what I learned from Carey Nieuwhof, a mega-church pastor in Ontario and a church leadership blogger. A few years ago, he wrote about 5 reasons millennials don’t go to church:[1]

  1. THE CHURCH IS IRRELEVANT, THE LEADERS ARE HYPOCRITICAL AND LEADERS HAVE EXPERIENCED TOO MUCH MORAL FAILURE

Conversations with unchurched people . . . will go something like this: the church is irrelevant . . . and full of hypocrisy…just look at the moral failure of so many of its leaders. . . . So what’s the antidote? . . . Create a counterculture of integrity and grace. . . . Live a life of integrity with each other and outsiders, and your church will become a magnet, not a repellant.

  1. THEY’RE NOT FINDING COMMUNITY

Despite a growing epidemic of loneliness, only 10% report going to church to find community. . . . Nobody should be able to out-community the local church. . . . You can make a legitimate argument that one of the reasons behind the explosive growth of the first century church was because of the way they loved each other and the world. Love should be a defining characteristic of the local church.

  1. LEGITIMATE DOUBT IS PROHIBITED

It is very difficult to have an honest conversation in many churches today. . . . Legitimate questions get dismissed with pat—and often trite—answers.  . . . Questions that actually can be answered are left unresolved—as if leaders were taking people nowhere.

  1. THEY’RE NOT LEARNING ABOUT GOD

[People can’t] understand anything the pastor [teaches]. . . . The solution to this is simple: clarity. . . . Speak in everyday language, not in church speak or in a meandering way. It takes far more work to be clear than it does to be confusing. Have a clear point to your message. Be clear about what you want to have happen when people leave.

  1. GOD IS MISSING IN THE CHURCH

The paucity of personal experience with God is disturbing. . . . People in all kinds of experiences from liturgical to charismatic have left the church in search of God.. . . What if the real paucity is that we . . . have even lost a sense of what true maturity and the experience of God is?. . . A clearer understanding of Christian maturity and experience could go a long way in better helping people connect with God.

In today’s Gospel lesson, Mary and Joseph did what nearly all parents do at one time or another: they lost track of their kid in a crowd and retraced their steps, frantic to find him. Anyone who has ever been a parent—or has at least had to keep track of a curious and energetic child for any length of time—can easily identify with Mary and Joseph in this story. I lost each of my children multiple times, and each time it nearly unhinged me!

Losing Stefan in Thalhimers.

Losing Rachel at the bus stop!

So I can very easily identify with Mary when she says to the boy Jesus, “Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.” And I think I too would have had a hard time understanding his reply when he said, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” In fact, I think I might very well have felt like slapping him! What a smart-aleck! I imagine Jesus answering this question with exaggerated eye-rolling!

Yet underneath the sarcasm and the youthful eye-rolling is a real hunger for the word of God. Jesus began to feel called to his ministry at a very tender age, and so he was drawn to the place where he knew he would meet God: the temple. And there he engaged in a deep and meaningful exploration of scripture with elders who recognized him to be wise and discerning far beyond his years.

This is what church should be: a place to which people are drawn because they know they will meet God there: in scripture, in exploration, and in each other.

In a couple of weeks, we will begin a series of evangelism workshops in which we’ll be asking ourselves what makes church a meaningful place to come week after week, how can we live every Christian’s calling to “go therefore and make disciples,” how we can discern what God is up to in the world, and how we can join in that work as a community of faith.

As we approach this work of discerning who God is calling us to be and what God is calling us to do, this story of Jesus in the temple raises several good questions for us to keep asking ourselves:

  • Identity: For Jesus, the answer to his parents’ frantic question was: I am the Son of God, where else would I be? To what extent does our faith define our identity? To what degree do we identify as “Christian”? When someone asks “who are you”? Do the words “Christian” or “child of God” spring to the forefront of your mind?
  • Community: Jesus showed an awareness of God’s claim on his life at a tender age. And he sought in the temple a community of faith where he could explore and deepen that claim. Would you say that God and the community of faith are central or peripheral to your life?
  • Meaning: Jesus clearly placed God’s claim on his life before all other claims. The call to be God’s anointed was the primary source of meaning in his life. Among all of the worthy claims on our lives—such as work, social standing, family, friendship, economic prosperity—what priority do God’s claims have? What imparts the most significant meaning in our lives?
  • Calling: For Jesus, being in the temple was partly about curiosity and attraction and partly about obedience to a clear call in his life: “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” What are the ways that you feel drawn to participate in God’s redemptive work? What must you do as a grateful child of God to answer God’s call?

Each of us can ask these questions of ourselves individually. And we as a community of faith can ask these questions of ourselves collectively. Which leads me back to the reasons that millennials give for not being in church. I’d like to turn the last two reasons—that they do not learn about God and that God is missing in the church—into questions that we can ask ourselves as a community of faith:

  1. THEY’RE NOT LEARNING ABOUT GOD

What, if anything, are we teaching about God? Do we have a clear message that can be articulated in everyday language? Do we leave here each Sunday with a clear sense of call or mission?

  1. GOD IS MISSING IN THE CHURCH

Is God in the house? Are we a community that can articulate our experience of God? Do we help folks find God or do folks have to go looking for God outside the church? Do we equip folks to meet God? Do we even know how to connect with God?

So—and this is where this sermon gets really scary—let’s see how we are doing in relation to the first question I asked: Where or how do you meet God?

read answers on the yellow slips of paper; talk a bit about the extent to which BPC is a place where folks meet God

Now, I happen to think that any place at all in this world can be a place where we meet God. But I also think that just as Jesus must be in God’s house, so is church a place where folks must be able to meet God. Otherwise, why are we here?

So now I want to ask you the second question, which I want you to answer anonymously on the green slips of paper. As I did with the first question, I’ll ask the second question a few different ways:

  • How can Butner Presbyterian Church better become a place where you meet God?
  • What kind of experiences draw you into the presence of God?
  • How can this church help you bring God more into the center of your life?

This might be a harder question, so I’ll give you a little more time to think about it and write down your answer. And remember: don’t sign your answer. When you’re done, fold the green slip of paper and place it in this bag. I’ll follow up with your answers when we have our first evangelism workshop on January 13. And, if you have any further reflections on this, please feel free to send me an email with your reflections.

play a few minutes of meditative music

If Butner Presbyterian Church is to be a place where people find their identity, community, meaning, and calling, then we need to be a place where people meet God and where people feel safe questioning God. God needs to be present here. Who God is and what God calls us to be needs to be clearly articulated here. And when folks leave here, they need to be able to say: this is what I must do to serve God today.

Let us pray . . .

To the God of all grace, who calls you to share God’s eternal glory in union with Christ, be the power forever! Amen.

[1] Carey Nieuwhof, https://careynieuwhof.com/5reasonsmillennials/ (cited December 27, 2018). I’ve changed the order to lead more naturally into the subject of this sermon.