by Andrew Stephens-Rennie
Over the past couple of weeks, my thoughts have turned to Jeremiah 32. I’ve been auditing a class over at Knox College entitled “Prophetic Preaching,” taught by visiting homiletics professor, David Schnasa Jacobsen.
It’s been an incredible course filled with a number of challenging books that help to balance prophetic preaching with the need to maintain a pastoral presence while reflecting on and preaching from some pretty difficult texts.
Texts that call us to account, that tell it like it is: we have not loved God with our whole hearts, we have not loved our neighbours as ourselves, and we surely need to repent.
We need to name our sins, individual and corporate, and we need to turn around and follow the God who has called us to faithfulness. The class’ final assignment was to prepare a sermon on a prophetic passage, and to present it in class.
I didn’t have to participate, as an auditor, but I figured I’d give it a try. At any rate, the issue I ended up wrestling with was wrapped up with Jeremiah’s buying of a field that seemed to be completely worthless.
And as I read the passage, I began to wonder about the church’s lack of imagination in the downtown cores of our cities. There is such a lack of imagination in our denominations to imagine a future that involves something other than closing churches and selling off the buildings for condo developments.
I have heard denominational leaders and ministers talk about selling off property in downtown locations to fund mission elsewhere. But how often does that money go to do anything of use?
The question I keep asking myself is why we are such slaves to the bottom line. Why do economics shape our imagination of what is possible for the church? When we run into Jeremiah, we run into a man whose passionate and audacious faithfulness causes him to buy a worthless field behind enemy lines that he may never even get to use.
And as I thought about this passage and Jeremiah’s act some more, I realised that we too are called to passionate and audacious faithfulness. A faithfulness that does not make sense in the world’s terms. A faithfulness that sees, that hopes for possibility in the face of cultural, economic, even religious collapse. A faithfulness that sees an area that is by all appearances beyond redemption, and invests, because God has called us to do so.
Today, what many perceive as wars on the Christian faith, wars on decency, on morality and the like are really much deeper. These are merely symptoms. The underlying problem, as it was in Jeremiah’s time, is “a crisis in the symbol world and mythology of the royal and cultic establishment.” The symbols of Christendom hold less and less weight these days.
And yet we try to assert them and re-assert them. To re-brand them, to re-package them. Any technique will do to re-package the gospel. Pop songs for Jesus. Using the latest and greatest technology. Powerpoint. Electric Guitars. Podcasts and live feeds for a consuming generation. If we position the message just right, they’ll buy it. And we’ll hold off collapse. Won’t we?
The signs and symbols of the kingdom are in decay, no longer capable of holding people together. The signs and symbols of an old, entrenched ideology are crumbling at their foundations. As much as they’ve held until now, it won’t be long…
As we look around at the emblematic church structures of the Christian faith, it’s not too difficult to see that we are in a similar dilemma. It’s not too difficult to see the ways in which the church and her symbols have lost the luster they once had.
It’s not too difficult to see our congregations atrophied, as more and more are carried off into exile. They have found other consumer goods to buy. Healing comes through an hour with Oprah, Dr. Phil, or some Desperate Housewives. Healing can be purchased at a reasonable price through the large on-line, on-demand self-help section at www.chapters.ca
What is this modern exile? Where have they been taken, our faithful number? Where have they gone, our denominational leaders and bishops cry out, asking why, oh why, are people leaving the church? Why are the old symbols and practices no longer standing up where once they held people in allegiance?
We continue to use the same tired techniques to trick our neighbours into coming, all the while selling short the fullness of the gospel. The depth and breadth of the faith in a God who brought an entire nation out of slavery. We’re not always like that.
We’re not always this way. But on some days, it just seems easier to respond to crisis by imitating Hollywood. Sadly, we don’t have the budget for such spectacle. Rather than buying in to these techniques, we must come to understand that we are living in a cultural situation that in many, if not most, ways is antithetical to the life, teachings and gospel of Jesus.
How should the church respond to a world that prides itself on luxury at the expense of dignity? With a brazen spectacle, or something else entirely?