We all know this church has been in decline
and for many years has been shrinking.
I am new and an outsider
so I only know what you tell me
about why the decline has taken place here.
But I want to look at the bigger picture today.
I want to take Trinity’s decline
and frame it in the decline of almost every kind of Christian church
in the Northern Hemisphere,
and in the context of the decline
of The Episcopal Church in particular.
Trinity Church is now officially,
as of last week,
a new and different future.
We cannot do that in isolation.
We will fail
if we simply say,
“well this is what I want Trinity Church to be”
and then go forward
with our brittle sticks of self-interest in hand.
We need to understand
what our core mission is
and we need to understand what time it is;
as in, what are the waters we are swimming in
as a spiritual community?
Why is the bottom falling out of Christianity
and the various denominational versions of it
in our time and place in history?
How can we be led by our mission
and the passions of our history
rather than self-interest
and the non-essentials that have weighted us down?
There is something happening in the world today
that we may not realize:
a radical, massive re-invention
Like the Protestant Reformation
that we were taught about in history,
the reformation we are part of right now
is the result of the economic, technological, and political
re-structuring of human society.
What is happening now,
and has been happening for some time,
is not about religion
any more than the last Reformation was about religion.
In human history,
every time there has been an intense urbanization
then huge changes follow in all forms of society,
We are undergoing,
in the United States as elsewhere in the world,
a massive urbanization.
And just as the globalization of Capitalism is changing
the whole world in dramatic ways
sociologically and politically,
the globalization of religion
is radically changing Christianity.
In Roman Catholicism
there was for thirty years
an ascendancy of the theologically ultra-conservative
in reaction to Liberation Theology
and the general liberalization of the Church in the 1960’s.
Now, with Pope Francis,
there is a kind of seething standoff
with forces peering at each other across dark chasms.
In the Anglican Communion
The Episcopal Church was suspended
by a two-thirds vote of nations
condemning us for the consequences
of our theological pluralism and openness
that embraces people regardless of their sexuality.
This is the result of pervasive sophisticated technology
that causes a triple-exposure in time –
allowing pre-modern, modern, and post-modern culture
to see and feel and know each other all at once
without being able to erect barriers that keep
images and influences of the other cultures out.
Lines are drawn.
Divisions are cast.
Blame is splattered.
Categories of good and bad,
right and wrong,
godly and godless are written in ink.
To understand what is happening today
we have to cast an eye back to our beginnings.
For more than three hundred years after Jesus died
Christianity was a vibrant, complex, and
It was a radical, counter-cultural movement
that began as a reform movement in Judaism
and maybe even a revolutionary urge
to free Judah and Galilee from Roman occupation.
Whatever it actually was when Jesus was alive,
it became zealous
For more than three hundred years
Christianity was a shapeless, shiftless amoeba
with semi-permeable membrane for boundaries
undulating across the Mediterranean,
absorbing whatever it encountered
as it both changed and was changed by
all it assimilatd.
Christianity was not the “Church” then.
It was a religious movement
with many centers
and a diverse and divergent leadership
that agreed on very little.
There were fierce differences of opinion
about Jesus and if and whether he was
fully human, fully God, or none of the above.
But eventually Christianity met its match.
It became an empire.
Christianity became the religion of an empire.
It was domesticated by Rome.
It was subjected to the power and authority of empire,
seduced into domestication
after three hundred years of vibrant diversity.
Empire looked like the Promised Land
from the margins of outsider status,
and with it Christianity became The Church.
formed and patterned itself
in the mold and shape of empire.
The Church became an institution of control –
social, theological, and economic control.
The Church became the means of managing the religion.
It was so successful at it
that still, in 2016,
most people assume Christianity and Church
are the same thing.
Even that first big Reformation
did not do much to change the imperial mold
into which Christianity had been cast.
In other words, Luther and Calvin and Cranmer
did not dis-imperialize the religion.
They tinkered with some of the theology
but only around the edges
and they fought wars
and killed people over arcane issues
that were more about authority and money than faith.
The Protestant Churches,
like Roman Catholicism before them,
never really lost the imperial habit of exerting
social, theological, and economic control.
That is what “Church” is all about:
maintaining order and discipline
over beliefs and worship and, of course,
support of the institution.
But now, and for a long time, “Church” is crumbling.
Because of globalization in its many forms,
imperial church is crumbling like the polar ice cap;
and the more fiercely it tries to exert control,
as with our laughable suspension
from the Anglican Communion,
the faster it crumbles.
Someone should tell the Archbishop of Canterbury
that the British Empire is dead
is nothing but a vestige of its Colonial past,
and this current battle
the harvest of our own Colonial sins.
Anyway, I mention all of this
to provide a lens through which to understand,
at least in part, Trinity’s decline.
Regardless of events and struggles
within this congregation,
decline was inevitable
without the necessary re-invention of itself.
Just as the melting of polar ice caps
thousands of miles away impacts the weather here,
so too does the radical reformation taking place
in Christianity because of globalization
change the circumstances for Trinity Church Geneva.
Now, ironically, paradoxically even,
I want to fall back on the Bible
to get a fix on where all of this is taking us
and what we are facing in this present moment.
I leaned on a biblical metaphor
as I welcomed the Geneva community to Trinity on Martin Luther King day,
and that metaphor is present
in both Deuteronomy and Luke that we heard today –
as well as reflected in that stellar poem from Mary Oliver.
In the Book of Deuteronomy,
Moses brings, what the story says,
are thousands of escaped slaves
out of the wilderness
where they have been lost for forty years,
and brings them to the banks of the Jordan River.
Across the Jordan River,
on the other side,
opposite from the wilderness,
is The Promised Land.
The Promised Land
is everything the wilderness is not.
The Promised Land
is flowing with milk and honey.
The Promised Land
is rife with jobs and industry and prosperity.
The Promised Land
is a mall of enormous proportions
where the long deprived people
can shop ‘til they drop.
Standing there on the banks of the Jordan River,
on the very edge of The Promised Land
so close they can almost taste it,
Moses makes the thousands of escaped slaves
that are salivating for their final freedom,
and smelling the aroma of their prosperity,
sit down and listen…
for thirty-four chapters.
Today we heard a snippet of that long sermon
as it comes in toward the end
but which also repeats the theme
running through all thirty-four chapters.
Moses, like a teacher on the lip of summer recess,
reminds those people of everything they know.
Over and over and over again
Moses implores them to “remember.”
Why? Because, he says,
their success will tempt them to forget.
As Walter Brueggemann is fond of saying
on Moses’ behalf,
affluence causes amnesia.
Prosperity will make them forget.
No matter that they were slaves once.
No matter that they were in the wilderness just yesterday.
No matter that they know what it is like
to be deprived and mistreated.
When they get affluent
and they create a prosperous society,
they will forget everything they know
about loving their neighbor as their own.
And when they forget all of that, disaster will strike.
All throughout the Bible
the Jordan River is a metaphor
and what happens when we forget.
The Jordan River is the boundary waters,
a geographical border
between the wilderness
and the Promise land.
Standing at the Jordan is always a crossover moment.
Again and again and again in Hebrew Scripture
the Jordan River is that very important place of decision,
and when the narrator takes us there
we can automatically know
that some earth-shattering change of direction
is about to take place.
So with that in mind,
listen again to that opening from Luke:
“After his baptism,
Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit,
returned from the Jordan (there it is)
and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness.”
Do not suppose that it is a coincidence
that the narrator takes Jesus
to the Jordan River
or that John the Baptist was baptizing there,
or that he has Jesus cross over into the wilderness.
The narrator is intentionally
having Jesus do what Moses did.
Jesus in the wilderness,
at the Jordan,
on the border of a defining moment,
had to go and get himself clear.
Jesus went into the wilderness to remember
who he was
and whose he was.
Was he about fame and celebrity?
Was he about revolution against Rome?
Was he about being a miraculous healer?
Was he a preacher and teacher of sacred wisdom?
The story itself does not really tell us what he decided
but the next sentence,
which leads into the next story
and that wasn’t included in today’s reading,
is very explicit:
Jesus crossed back over the Jordan River, it says.
Jesus went with power, it says,
back into Galilee
as a preacher.
I know, compared with Messiah and
ushering in the end of time,
being a preacher doesn’t really stack up.
But that’s what the story says.
Okay, here are the parallels
I want to draw between these biblical metaphors
and our own time and place in history
where we are navigating our re-invention
in the midst of the crumbling of “church.”
Just as the Jordan River is the boundary
or crossover point for ancient people,
the 21st century is our Jordan River.
It isn’t literal,
as in everything changed after 1999.
But the 21st Century is our metaphoric Jordan River.
On this side of the 21st Century
Jesus is fully human.
Whatever you and I believe
or do not believe
about Jesus being divine,
it is Jesus’ humanity that matters in the 21st Century.
And in fact, it is important to note
that in the 21st Century
whether we believe Jesus is god
or not god,
is not the litmus test of being Christian.
We are back in those first three hundred years
when there is a wild and vibrant diversity of beliefs
about who and what and why Jesus.
We do not have to agree
and we do not have to toe a party line
and we do not have to fear
whichever lens we choose through which to see Jesus.
The imperial church has crumbled
and we are in the midst of a confused
and disoriented community of faith
in which stands, side-by-side,
people with very different beliefs
who are still encountering the one and same God.
It is not about what we believe, and how or whether
that stacks up with an imperial church,
it is about encountering God.
It is about being reshaped
and transformed by God.
It is about becoming agents of God’s love
in a world that desperately needs revolution.
We are not only about to re-invent Trinity Church Geneva
we are doing it at the Jordan River
in which Christians all over the world
are struggling to remember
who they are
and whose they are,
and hoping that remembering
will lead us into the fullness of our humanity
in the same way that Jesus was fully human.
In the 21st Century
we can understand that Jesus had to go meet himself:
he had to enter the wilderness
to get clear
about what his core principles and values were
and to place his finger on the pulse of courage
that would allow him to live them out.
He was fully human
and like all of us
needed to remember
who he was
and whose he was
in order not to lose himself
In the 21st Century
the Church cannot tell us who we are
or what we should believe
or what our actions should be.
Christianity as a religion
and spiritual practice
has the power to shape us and guide us,
and inform our decisions,
but there is no single, orthodox
And Jesus, standing at the center of our memory
with the core of our spiritual wisdom in his arms,
can guide and shape our spiritual practice
even on this side of the 21st Century.
Re-inventing Christianity begins
with recognizing the difference between
Church and Christianity,
religion and spiritual practice;
which is the difference between
believing in creedal formulas
and encountering God;
between the teaching and wisdom
of a man named Jesus
and the doctrines of the church.
Re-inventing Christianity has been underway
for quite some time now,
and as we look to re-invent Trinity Church Geneva
we need to recognize we are part of that reformation.
Maybe, just maybe,
because of our particular challenges and experience,
if we do this well,
we might even become leaders
in that reformation.