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Goldie, the Temple, and Us [Maria Tjeltveit]

Pentecost 28/C, Nov. 17, 2013
Mediator, Allentown
Canon Maria W. E. Tjeltveit, rector

[Maria Tjeltveit, rector at Mediator Allentown, said this sermon got more comments than any she has preached lately. Although it deals specifically with things at Mediator, I thinks it applies to many of our churches. It’s about adaptive change and technical fix as related to the church. She said she might entitle it: “Goldie, the Temple, and Us.”]

My puppy Goldie loves to sleep under our bed. Unfortunately, since she grew from 12 pounds to 45 pounds in the last six months, she can still squeeze under the bed but can’t get herself back out, because she gets stuck. After weeks of hearing her whine and having to drag myself out of the bed to drag her out from under it, I began looking for a solution to this problem so I could sleep through the night. I brought her dog bed up to the room but she would have no part of it at night. I tried having her sleep downstairs but she started barking at the slightest noise, and would only stop when I brought her up to our room.

As part of the Missioner for Growth Task Force, I learned about two approaches to problems: adaptive change and technical fix. In adaptive change, there is no clear solution to the problem and you need to change your behavior to adapt to the circumstances of the problem and work for a solution. With a technical fix, there is a concrete solution which you can apply to the problem and, voila!, the problem is solved.

I realized I had been trying adaptive change which wasn’t working with my dog. So I called a mattress store and discovered that there are things called bed risers, which you put under the legs of the bed to make the bed taller. A technical fix! Now Alan and I have elevated sleep and Goldie can get herself in and out from under the bed.

It may seem like a stretch to go from the problem of my puppy under the bed to Jesus’ prediction of the destruction of the temple, in today’s gospel reading from Luke. But, if you hang in there with me, I promise I will make a connection.

The temple in Jerusalem that was built by King Herod, was not only massive and beautiful, it was the center of Jewish worship and life. The system of offerings and sacrifices at the temple shaped a person’s life from birth, when an offering was made for the first-born, to regular visits throughout the year, even if you lived away from Jerusalem. So, to predict the destruction of the temple, that “the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down” (Luke 21:6), was like predicting the end of the world.

The Jerusalem temple was in fact destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE. Jerusalem was razed and became a Roman city called Aelia Capitolina. The Jewish population was killed or driven out.

This was a huge problem for the Jewish people. The temple had been the place where God’s Name dwelt. Their central place of worship was gone, and the whole sacrificial system stopped. What were they to do?

There was no technical fix for the problem of the destruction of the temple. But there was adaptive change. Already, in the time of Jesus, a synagogue movement had shifted some of the focus away from the temple. With the temple gone, the locus of Jewish worship and life moved to the synagogue and the home. As the Jewish population dispersed around the Mediterranean they took with them the Torah and the teachings to guide them into a new kind of living faith. The destruction of the temple, as painful as it was, turned out not to be the end of the world, or the end of Judaism, because the Jewish people learned to adapt to their new circumstances and find new ways to live out their faith in God.

Reading about the destruction of the temple, with its stones being thrown down, may resonate with us in the mainline churches. Although the mainline or establishment churches, like the Episcopal Church, the Presbyterian, Lutheran, United Methodist, and United Church of Christ, have not been destroyed, they have declined significantly in the last 50 years. No invading army has led to this but the changing culture has thrown some of our stones down.

Christmas Eve services when we had to put up extra chairs in the back since the church was so full….That stone was thrown down.

Being the church in which to be seen, where the Air Products executives and rising stars worshipped….That stone was thrown down.

Sundays reserved for church with stores closed and no youth sports on Sunday afternoons….That stone was thrown down.

National attention when our church leaders spoke about social and political issues….That stone was thrown down.

Young people raised in the Episcopal Church automatically coming back to church when they had kids….That stone was thrown down.

We are in a period when, on a national level, and on a parish level, things that we thought were set in stone have crumbled. Just deciding to go to church on Sunday morning is an active decision now, not a given. We live in a largely secular culture, where those who say they are “Nones” (meaning no religious affiliation), or “spiritual but not religious” are rapidly increasing. Even for those who go to church, that does not necessarily include worship, with more families coming regularly just for Sunday School. The church is increasingly marginal in our society. It used to be a place for seeking community, as well as faith, but now people often seek community on line, not in the pew.

Mediator is not exempt from these problems. Our attendance has declined dramatically since the 1960s, with the trend continuing in the last decade. We have some strong ministries and bonds with one another but we are an aging congregation and unless we do something, we will not be viable in the long run.

What do we do? Is there a technical fix for this? About 20 years ago some in the parish thought that moving to the suburbs might be a fix; an idea derailed by the bishop at the time, who said that Mediator could not sell this building. But there are small churches in the suburbs, so even a move would not necessarily have meant that we would have grown. This is a problem that requires adaptive change.

As many of you know, our Widening Our Welcome campaign this spring raised over $400,000 to renovate parts of our building and to hire a part or full-time Missioner for Growth. It would be nice if our new kitchen, when it is done, and the Missioner for Growth were technical fixes, but they are part of adaptive change. There is no one easy clear solution to the problems that face our parish and the mainline church. What we are called to do, and what the Missioner for Growth will help us do, is to learn about the culture and community around us and adapt our ministry so that we can find ways to proclaim the good news of God in Jesus Christ in language that people can understand and relationships they can trust. To do this we will need to change; perhaps our language, perhaps our behavior. We have already begun some of that change, with the Contemporary Eucharist on the fourth Sunday of the month reaching out to people who seek a shorter, simpler service. We are also reaching out to those who seek more formal worship, and will be using incense at our next Choral Eucharist.

Adaptive change to the problems faced by our Church and our parish, will move us away from focusing on institutional survival (trying to keep the temple from being thrown down) to seeing what God is up to in the community and world around us, and seeking to be a part of God’s mission to our hurting and hungering world. It will also challenge us to be able to articulate who Jesus Christ is for us and for others, in our increasingly pluralistic world. 

In today’s gospel, Jesus talks about people being taken before secular authorities, and says, “This will give you an opportunity to testify” (Luke 21:13). In a similar way, part of our adaptive change will be to learn to testify, to talk about our faith, in ways that people around us can relate to. We have been doing some of that in our Adult Forums, as we have discussed our parish history, and I will be inviting members of our congregation to testify or give a lay witness in place of the sermon periodically in the next year. If we can learn to do this in church then we can learn to do it in our communities where people need to hear about God’s transforming love.

Change like this is challenging. Some of us find change exciting, but others do not. We may not want the stones of our traditional way of being the church thrown down. We may not want to learn new ways of worshiping, speaking about our faith, refocusing on God’s mission toward the world around us. But doing the same thing we have always done is like Goldie squeezing her way under the bed, only to get stuck. The last seven words of an Episcopal church are: We’ve never done it that way before!

When the temple was destroyed, the Jewish people learned adaptive change to continue as God’s faithful people. We too can learn adaptive change, discovering what new things God is calling us to do, what God is seeking to do through us. In the process we can rediscover the truth that the church is the people, not the building; the body of Christ, continually being given for the world.

In the midst of change, may we trust that Jesus Christ is the one stone that cannot be thrown down. May Christ be with us, guide us, and bless us as we seek to embrace adaptive change.



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