2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time - 2024
Old Testament - 1 Samuel 3:1-10
New Testament - John 1:43-51
Come and See!
The Times, The Sun, The Metro, and The Daily Mirror - those were just some of the various newspapers that started popping up in my Google feed recommendations after its sneaky algorithms and other tracking tricks figured out I was not in the States anymore, but rather in Scotland.
Gone were the usual suggested articles from The Washington Post, The Atlantic, and New Yorker magazine, all of which are frequent suggestions when in the more familiar terrain of the United States.
And so it was that a title for an article from The Guardian, another British newspaper, caught my eye: “Anchors in our Landscape,” was the heading. The article, it turns out, was about the rapid decline of The Church of Scotland over the last 50 years or so. Apparently, it’s been so rapid The Church of Scotland, the Mother Church for Presbyterians the world over, is now looking to sell hundreds of churches (and other types of property) as a way to survive and reduce overhead. Or as one line from the article put it:
“The Church of Scotland, once one of the most powerful forces in Scottish life, is disposing of hundreds of churches, manses, halls and cottages over the next five years as it faces up to a ‘perilous’ transformation in its fortunes and its place in Scottish society.”
Turns out Scotland, Mecca for us Presbyterians, is rapidly on its way to becoming a secular culture. Just listen to a few sobering statistics that are used to support the claim.
In 1982 there were nearly 920,000 members of The Church of Scotland. In 2022 that number had fallen to 270,300. A decline of 70%.
And Catholicism, the other large faith tradition in Scotland, isn’t doing much better. In 1982, The Catholic Church conducted 4,870 marriages and had 273 men training for the priesthood. In 2021, there were just 812 Catholic marriages and only 12 men studying to be priests. And since that time, The Catholic Church has decided to no longer even bother training priests in Scotland.
And so I was lamentably, but also hardly, surprised when Audrey and I rounded a corner while meandering around Edinburgh one day to be greeted by a very pretty stone church built in that typical Gothic medieval style - leading me to presume the church was hundreds of years old. Except the pretty stone church was no longer actually a “church.” Instead, it was now the home for a furniture store. Cotterell and Company was the name of the store, which, by the way, was having a 75% off sale!
Of course, while not quite as dire, Christianity in America isn’t faring all that well either. Just a few days ago we held a called zoom meeting of our Presbytery to approve the sale of the New Hope Presbyterian Church off of Franklin Road. And more called meetings will be forthcoming as the Presbytery looks to sell at least two other churches in the near future. And several more, I can tell you, are looking at a similar fate over the next five years or so.
And then there are the national numbers when it comes to the Christian faith as a whole. According to a recent Pew study, 63% of American adults currently identify as Christian. And while that might not sound all that bad, keep in mind in 2007 that figure was 78%. Likewise, today 29% of adults now claim not to be religious at all, up 13% points from, again, 2007 when that figure was just 16%.
If that trend continues at the same pace, by the mid-2030s fewer than half of all adults in the nation will identify as Christian. No wonder Michael Moore, editor of Christianity Today and a leading voice among evangelicals, has been led to declare: “American Christianity is in crisis. The church is a scandal in all the worst ways.”
According to Moore, people aren’t leaving the Church because they have lost faith in God. Rather, they are leaving because they have lost faith in religious leaders, and the refusal of the church to be a positive moral witness in the world. The Church, for a whole lot of people, it turns out, isn’t doing a very good job of being, well, the Church. Ouch!
You see, here is the thing that can be hard for us to hear. While hardly the case everywhere, in survey after survey, many people no longer experience Christians and communities of faith as welcoming and hospitable places. Instead, they, sadly, find a whole lot of churches and their members to be more intolerant and self-righteous than anything else.
The way many churches present themselves to the world, in other words, is hardly inviting or welcoming. Instead, they come off as petty, puritanical, and to be frank, just plain old mean.
So needless to say, I found my thoughts this week being drawn to Philip in our Gospel lesson and his invitation for Nathanael to “Come and see.” For Nathanael's invitation, I think, is kind of, well, strange, right?
After all, his invitation for Philip to “Come and see!” lacks any qualifications, requirements, expectations, or even stipulations. Nope, his invitation is simply that - an open invitation.
Philp doesn’t say, “Come and see, as long as your skin tone is the same as mine and we share a similar genetic ancestry.”
Nor does he say, “Come and see, as long as you are from the same zip code as I am and live in the right part of town.”
Or “Come and see, as long as you and I pull the same levers in the voting booth and give to the same political party.”
Or “Come and see, as long as we agree on every aspect of doctrine and who can and can’t participate in the sacraments.”
Or “Come and see, as long as you are holy and pure enough and live in a way I find acceptable.”
Nope. Philip, he just says, “Come and see.” But I hazard a guess that’s not how many in our age hear the invitation. Instead, the invitation to “Come and see,” (if given at all!) is too often accompanied with a tenor of judgment and snarky smugness, that is simply off-putting. And even worse, the invitation is accompanied with a litany of requirements that have to be met up front before the welcome mat is actually rolled out. But Philip doesn’t do any of that. “Come and see,” he says. Just, “Come and see.”
There’s a story about a New Testament professor named Stuart Currie, who taught at Austin Presbyterian Seminary for many years. Apparently, Dr. Currie found himself being witnessed to one day while walking across a nearby campus to a bookstore.
Full of fire and an intensity that only comes with being sure one has found the truth, the young evangelist was giving his testimony with a heavy hand and an energy that was anything but magnanimous or warm. The young man finally concluded, “I want you to know something. Jesus loves you man, and so do I.” To which Stuart reportedly replied, “Well, good sir, half of that is good news.”
Here’s the thing. Without wanting to be smug or self righteous myself (and I seek your pardon if I should come across that way), I genuinely wonder if many of our brothers and sisters in Christ haven’t maybe lost their way a bit, as we all can and as we all have at times in our own lives. Discipleship, after all, is no easy thing for any of us to try and do.
But it does seem to me many of our brothers and sisters these days are more interested in having power than in serving.
They are more interested in being right (whatever that means!) than being humble.
They are more interested in settling scores than being forgiving.
They are more interested in punishing than being kind.
And they are more interested in stroking their own egos than being penitent and effacing.
So, while in Scotland Audrey and I made a return trip to see Saint Giles, the national cathedral for The Church of Scotland. During our first visit to that grand and majestic church in 2022, I shed a few tears while worshiping there. Being in a place where people have been gathering for some 900 years to praise God, offer prayers, and sing hymns was exhilarating and overwhelming.
Our most recent visit a few weeks ago, though, was different this time. Visiting Saint Giles at night while it was open for tourists to walk through, and with that recent article from The Guardian on the rapid decline of The Church in Scotland fresh in my mind, well, it was hard for me not to have a more jaded experience.
As tourists milled about the packed sanctuary gazing at the architecture and other accouterments, even though Saint Giles is still a working church with a small congregation, I wondered how many of them just assumed they were actually on a museum tour, as if they were walking through some dusty old building from a bygone era in human evolution, rather than exploring the home of an existing congregation.
So this is where John Knox preached during the Protestant Reformation. Isn’t that interesting.
O look! That large bowl must be where they did baptisms for all those years. Isn’t that quaint.
And that ornate pulpit sure does seem fancy. I wonder what that would sell for at an auction?
Those stand glass windows sure are pretty.
Well, this has been fascinating, but I am getting hungry, honey. What ya say we go grab a bite to eat. The stores around here do close early for the evening, you know.
But it doesn’t have to be that way, right?
For there is still time to get back to our high and noble calling. There is still time to get back to being, well, the church. Even though some of our brothers and sisters might find us strange and maybe even dangerous, we can be that living, tangible expression of God’s kingdom right here, right now.
With grace, generosity, love, and hospitality, we can once again get busy humbly extending that invitation for any and all to “Come and see!” No strings attached. No requirements. No stipulations. No judgment. Just the generous offer to “Come and see.”
Now by the One who by the power at work within us is able to do far more abundantly than all we ask or imagine, to God be glory in the church and in Jesus Christ to all generations forever and ever. Amen.