In Luke 21:1-4, a widow gives her last two coins to support the Temple in Jerusalem. Jesus commends her faithfulness. He contrasts her total commitment to the limited commitments of the rich donors as they make their gifts. The widow, Jesus says, has “out of her lack thrown in her whole life” (Luke 214c, my translation). That’s the immediate context, for Jesus and/or for the Lukan author, as we move into the Apocalyptic Discourse.
While Jesus is musing about this contrast in commitments, one of the disciples goes tourist, oohing and ahhing about the size and beauty of the Temple. But, Jesus says, even that magnificent monument will be destroyed. Institutions come and go, live and die, are built and destroyed. How does this observation impact the meaning and message of the widow’s gift?
In other words, how does it feel to put your whole life into something that is destined to fail? That’s a personal question for me and for many Christian pastors these days. I might be tempted to write these feelings off as “retired pastor syndrome.” I always swore that I would not be one of “those pastors.” One of those pastors who said every third sentence, “In my experience…”
And yet, here I am. Too often, I’m one of “those” pastors.
Today’s ELCA, for example, isn’t “my” ELCA. I wasn’t trained for ministry in this century. I wasn’t trained in this century, first of all. And I wasn’t prepared for the realities of life in this century – for the church or for the world.
As an interim pastor, as a further example, I’m serving a congregation that hasn’t moved beyond the 1978 Lutheran Book of Worship (LBW) in their liturgical life. The LBW was “my” hymnal. It was new when I was in seminary. I can lead the Sunday settings without opening a book. I can chant most of the Morning or Evening prayer services from memory. I can lead the Brief Order for Confession and Forgiveness in my sleep. I can tell you the numbers of favorite hymns without consulting the index. Pastoral colleagues of my vintage can do the same and much more.
The most comfortable thing in the world would be to rest in that familiar tradition – in “my” tradition. But that’s not my job. And it wouldn’t be responsible. I have to suggest and at least gently push for the congregation to move into the current iteration of our worship book (already sixteen years old). I have years of training, experience, use, memories, and love invested in the LBW. That and $2.50 will get you a good cup of coffee in Stanton, Iowa.
It’s in the nature of things that we invest our lives in to be things that pass away. But my feelings are more than the maudlin mutterings of a preacher past his prime. “My” ELCA, my institutional tradition may fade – in my lifetime – into denominational oblivion. There will be pockets of ELCA vitality and growth here and there. But if current trends hold, the ELCA will disappear from the denominational landscape in many places over the next few decades.
I know that in the broad sweep of history, denominations come and go. I was part of the merger of the three Lutheran denominations that joined in 1988 to form the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. I remember that for a while it was considered bad form to even mention the “predecessor church bodies” by name, although that reluctance receded in a few years. But there’s a big difference between old bodies being incorporated into a new body and an old body dying out altogether.
So, I’m not sure how I feel about this state of affairs. It depends on the day. Sometimes I’m angry that I took time away from my family and poured my life into something that now seems so feeble and fragile. But I know that’s mere self-pity. It’s no different for people in a variety of vocations these days. We are all pouring our lives into things that are passing away. In that sense, perhaps, we are all like the widow at the beginning of Luke 21. The question is whether all that pouring was worth the bother.
I wouldn’t advocate that we read all of Luke 21 aloud in our worship services this week. However, I’m not sure in our preaching that we can stop at verse 19. That verse gives the impression that following Jesus is mostly about our capacity to just hang in there in the face of adversity.
“Heaven and earth may go by the wayside,” Jesus says at the end of that parable, “but my words will certainly not go by the wayside” (Luke 21:33, my translation). The widow, I hope, doesn’t give her whole life because she believes in the perpetuity of the Temple. Instead, I think Jesus commends her commitment because she trusts that God is faithful, no matter what, in life and in death. And Jesus’ resurrection is the demonstration of that faithfulness. In the resurrection, nothing good will be lost.
The verb the NRSV translates as “to pass away” is worth noting here. It’s not a word that means to be destroyed or to perish or to die. It has more of the sense of to go alongside something or to pass by something. That’s why I rendered it as to “go by the wayside.” It’s not so much that heaven and earth will be destroyed. Instead, at least in this verse, these realities will just no longer be useful. They will have served their purpose and will yield their places to the New Heaven and the New Earth, as we read in the book of Revelation.
I need to take a brief detour to head off a potential problem. I’m not suggesting that the Church has “replaced” the Temple or that Christianity has “replaced” Judaism. That rank sort of supersessionism has no place in orthodox Christian belief at this point. It has been a prominent feature of such theology in the past. And we current Christians must continue to repent of that perspective and repair what damage we can.
Judaism has not outlived its usefulness for Jews – or for the world. We need to stick with Paul in Romans 9 through 11 on this one. Jews and Christians have different vocations in God’s mission to redeem Creation. Those vocations are complementary, not in competition. When we lose touch with that perspective even a little bit, Jews die. So, we must always be careful in our comments about the Temple and especially about its destruction.
That’s why I focus on our own current Christian institutions. “My” ELCA will outlive its usefulness sooner or later. If it’s sooner, then I will be sad. But I won’t find God any less faithful. “My” hymnal or “my” congregation will outlive their usefulness sooner or later. When that happens, if I’m around, I can give thanks to God for what was good in those things and repent for what was not. Denominations and hymnals and congregations may go by the wayside, but Jesus’ words will not go by the wayside.
In her workingpreacher.org commentary, Debra Mumford reflects on several of these issues. Even though the Temple was indeed destroyed in 70 CE, “neither Judaism nor Christianity was destroyed. The Spirit of God transcends buildings and structures. Both religions continued to grow and evolve over the centuries in new geographical locations, nations, and among people of many ethnicities and races. People can take heart,” Mumford continues, “that though Christianity seems to be declining in some denominations, through the Spirit and power of God, it will continue to live and grow in new forms and new places. Our task is to ask for discernment,” she concludes, “about what God wants us to do and then follow the guidance of the Holy Spirit to get it done.”
Our text, therefore, calls us to have larger perspectives than we might entertain on our own. I serve in an area where the question often is whether “my congregation” will survive for another year or another decade. That question is asked in terms of whether “my congregation” can get “our own” pastor. If that’s the framing of the question, then the answer for many of those congregations will be a sad but firm “no.” People will walk away grieving and angry. That perspective is too narrow to give life at this point in history.
If, on the other hand, the question is whether God’s mission will continue in that area, the answer most certainly is a joyful and firm “yes.” The ways we’ve done church in the past one hundred and fifty years in those places have “gone by the wayside.” And it’s not just worship styles or preaching methods that have outlived their usefulness. It may well be that a new kind of “church” is coming to birth in those places. And some of us may have a hand in the birthing.
I think it’s worth sharing some or all of Carey Nieuwhof’s “10 Predictions About the Future Church and Shifting Attendance Patterns.” It’s not a new article, but it continues to be relevant to the conversation. I think church leaders and congregants should read and discuss this article as we seek to discern what time it is among us and what the Holy Spirit is up to in our midst.
In my setting, some of the “predictions” have more bite than others. “Churches that love their model more than the mission will die,” Nieuwhof writes. “Attendance will no longer drive engagement,” he argues, “engagement will drive attendance.” Even as some churches go back to exclusively face to face worship experiences, Nieuwhof argues that “Online church will become more of a front door than a back door.” These three items will be more than enough challenge to shake up the folks I serve.
And that, I say with a smile and a big sigh, is my job at the moment.
Resources and References
Christian, David. Future Stories. Little, Brown Spark: 2022.