There’s a great deal of anxiety in this country about the decline of the church. The fastest growing religion in this country is those who claim no religion at all and many are afraid that the church, once so proud and mighty, has become an irrelevant relic. Churches, especially progressive churches, worry they will be lone voices in a land that does not know God anymore. What will the church be in the 21st century? What future is there for the church? It’s a big question, too big to take straight on, so let me start by telling a story. It’s a story from 2 Kings chapter 17 about a priest of the Lord, and how he came to be the only priest in all of Israel.
The priest in question was just an ordinary priest. He would preside at the altar, and lead the people in worship, and teach them about the Laws that governed the moral landscape of Israel. This priest was so ordinary, in fact, that the Bible remembers neither his name nor anything about him other than that he was a priest of the Lord. But this ordinary priest did not live in ordinary times. Oh no, he lived during a time in which the people of God were divided into two nations—Judah in the south with its capital in Jerusalem, and Israel in the North with its capital in Samaria. Our ordinary priest lived in Israel, and in Israel things were not going well.
In his lifetime, our ordinary priest had seen the worship of the Lord falling by the wayside in Israel. There were other gods that could be worshipped, like Baal. To worship Baal just required leaving a little wine or grain at the sacred high places. And if you did, it was said, you would reap many times what you gave up in material prosperity. It did not matter that Baal was not real, because Baal was offering a scheme that people wanted to be true. Worship Baal and you’ll get rich—simple, easy.
Worshiping the Lord, on the other hand, was a whole way of life. It required generosity to the poor and integrity between what you said and did and self-sacrifice in service of the greater good—not simple, not easy. But to live among people walking together in the ways of the Lord, oh it is sweet. Living among people walking together in the ways of the Lord would mean living in a place that was a beacon of hope for just how good human life can be. When people walk together in the ways of the Lord there is equality between people and security for the tragedy struck and healing for the sick and reconciliation where there was wrongdoing.
But even so, year after year our ordinary priest saw the temple of the Lord grow sparse and empty. The people chased after idols, false gods that offered nothing but a get rich quick scheme and the people began to forget who they were. In worshipping an idol of materialism, they became materialistic. They forgot that to be chosen meant to be chosen for service to others. They forgot that to be blessed means great responsibility toward others, not hoarding private rewards. The social order of idol worship taught each person to look out only for themselves: to do nothing unless it benefitted them personally, to sacrifice nothing unless it was in down payment on future reward. Year after year, our ordinary priest saw his country become worse and worse as it became consumed by idol worship and its small, petty individualism.
And so when the end came, it came like a cleansing rain. Shalmaneser, fifth of his name, king of the Assyrian Empire. When Shalmaneser marched in, a few were filthy rich and most were filthy poor. And there is nothing special or worth protecting about that. You can find that anyplace.
Matchless Shalmaneser’s army came like trumpet blast.
And on the holy mountain and in all Israel,
The people shook and trembled, for the day of the Lord had come.
That great and powerful army marched,
Their like has never been been,
Not of old, nor ever yet to come—drawn up for battle like a map.
The sun and moon were darkened and the stars withdrew their light.
It was a day of darkness, a day of clouds and smoke.
Before that army warriors fled in anguish, and each face grew pale.
With the rumbling of chariots,
They burst past weapons, climbed the walls, and overwhelmed the land.
The people all were captive, not a single one escaped, not one.
Like a sword in God’s own hand.
The people of Israel were rounded up—men, women and children—and sent into exile. They were sent to live as aliens in lands at the very heart of the Assyrian empire. Our ordinary priest was no exception, he was sent to live in exile along with every other inhabitant of Israel. And in their place, the king of Assyria sent settlers from other lands who were loyal only to him. In one fell swoop, the people of Israel were driven out of their land and replaced by people who had never even heard of the Lord.
That might have been the end of the story. But exile in a foreign empire was not, it turns out, going to be the fate of our ordinary priest. One day, the ordinary priest was seized in the street by guards: “Are you a priest of the God of Israel?” they asked. “Yes, I am” replied the ordinary priest. And they took him to the palace, into the throne room and thrust him on his knees before the King of Assyria himself. The King asked him, “do you know the laws of the God of Israel?” “Yes of course,” the priest replied. What came from the mouth of Shalmaneser next changed this priest’s life forever. “The God of your land is angry. Every day my subjects there are being attacked by lions. None of my subjects know how to worship the God of your land and so the lions have attacked and killed many people. They do not know how to appease your God, so I am sending you back to Israel. I am sending you back to live in that land and you will teach my subjects how to worship the Lord.”
I wonder if he took this as good news. I wonder if he looked forward to going back to his homeland, even though it was now peopled by strangers. Or maybe his response was: wait, what’s this about lions? He was just an ordinary priest and he was going to be the one and only priest in the land of Israel. It could not have been easy, it must have pushed him beyond what he had thought the duties of a priest had been. It must have pushed him to find new recruits from among people he might never have considered his equals before. It could not have been easy, but he did have one thing going for him. He was living among people who had never known the Lord. And so he every time he told someone about how good and sweet it is to walk together in the ways of the Lord, he was telling people the truth, and they were hearing it for the very first time.
This ordinary priest, living in a land that does not know the Lord, needing to bear witness to God in new ways, that priest is you. And in each of you lies the future of the church.
You see, our country is full of the worship of false gods. That is all our fellows know. The worship of money, and beauty, and fame, and youth, and political parties, and the free market with its magic invisible hand—these are objects of worship. They are idols that even those who claim to have no religion know how to bow down before.
The bad news is that idol worship has become mainstream. The good news is that the church is no longer cursed with being mainstream. No longer are our best stories and our most compelling reasons for existence simply old hat. People do not know anymore how good it is walk in the ways of God. They do not know that it means being free from shame over sexual orientation and gender expression. They do not know that it means building up just structures of society and finding your own humanity ennobled in the process. They do not know that it means that the tyrants and potentates of the world cannot threaten us, because their greatest weapon, death, has been blunted for two millennia. You are a priest of the Lord living in a country of people hungry for they don’t know what. And you, O priest of the Lord, have a fresh start, a blank canvas, a big sheet of crisp construction paper and a brand new red crayon. Because every time you show someone how good and sweet it is to walk in the ways of the Lord, you will be showing them something true and lovely, and they will be seeing it for the very first time.
And there are so very many ways for you to be a priest. God is not content to leave us with only one way of being a priest. Why would God be content with one rigid priesthood into which everyone’s talents must be twisted and conformed? Why would God be content with that when the alternative is so much greater? Priesthood is a malleable vestment that can be shaped to fit your gifts.
Yours can be a priesthood of art, painting truths too fundamental to be circumscribed by reason’s rigid compass. Yours can be a priesthood of high finance, turning mutual funds to the service of mutual accountability. Yours can be a priesthood of parenting, teaching your children to reject the evil and choose the good. Yours can be a priesthood of medicine, working for months to heal wounds that take only moments to tear open. Yours can be a priesthood of voting, seeking to harness democracy’s power and rein in the worst excesses of greed and consumption. Yours can be a priesthood of working at planned-parenthood, facing down threats so that frightened women need not do so. Your priestly vocation can be so many things, but there is one thing it cannot be. It cannot be hidden. In the 21st century, you can no longer hide your light under a barrel.
Remember, when you go from this place, you are a priest of the Lord, a stranger walking in a strange land. So do justice and love kindness, and walk humbly with your God. Let your light so shine before others that they might see your good works and give glory to our Mother who is in Heaven. Show to everyone you meet how good and sweet it is when people walk together in the ways of the Lord. That is the way forward for the church in the 21st century. The future of the church is yours to build.