(Caution this is only a draft, so please excuse the typos and other grammatical mishaps. I hope it helps in your preparation though and please help me by clicking on an ad. Thanks and blessings upon you as you preach this week.)
During this Ordinary Time or Kingdom Tide part of the Christian year we have been staying with the Gospel of Matthew because it is Year A. On the first Sunday of Advent move into a new Christian year and move into the Lectionary’s Year B where we will concentrate on the Gospel of Mark. But until then we stay with Matthew. We are in the 21st Chapter which is a busy chapter. When it starts off we get Jesus entering the city of Jerusalem on the back of a donkey hearing the cheers and shouts of the crowd. Then we witness him enter the temple where he throws out the money changers and merchants. The next morning he withers a fig tree. All of this happens in the first 22 verses of this chapter in Matthew.
Jesus storms into Jerusalem and turns it on its head. The religious leaders do not know what to think. They had heard rumors of this guy named Jesus. They had sent fellow Pharisees and scribes and teachers of the law to test him, watch him, and critique him. But here he is; in their holy spot; teaching to a crowd who had come to see him. They were a little skeptical of this man standing in front of them and so they start to question him. This is always a bad idea. No one backs Jesus into a corner.
They ask him, “By what authority are you doing these things? Who gave you this authority?” Jesus does not like to be tested. He does not like to be questioned in such a way that assumes that we have the answers and he doesn’t. Some might say he has a God complex, but since he is God it is okay in this situation. He answers them the way that Jesus answers most questions, with a question. In this brilliant move he turns over the tables in the temple once again, this time metaphorically instead of real tables. The question he asks them is, “John’s baptism – where did it come from? Was it from heaven, or from men?”
The religious leaders ponder this question. I envision some kind of holy huddle in the corner of the courtyard as they discuss the way they should answer. Jesus only gives them two choices. John the Baptist’s authority can come from heaven or from men. If they choose heaven then Jesus is going to ask them why they don’t believe. If they answer men, they were afraid the people would be upset because they hold John up as a prophet. They were caught in a Catch 22. So they baulk and say, “We don’t know.” Then Jesus tells them the parable of the two sons.
Lovett Weems is the head of the Lewis Center of Leadership at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington DC. He spoke at the District Superintendent Consultation at the beginning of this year. During this talk he predicted where the United Methodist Church is going. Many recounted last that this was a huge eye opener. Weems predicts that a Death Tsunami will start hitting the UMC in 7 years. It will be caused by a couple of situations. Since we became the United Methodist church, since the Methodist Church and the United Brethren merged in 1968, everything that has to do with money has increased. When we look at where the UM church is now compared to where we were in 1968 our net assets have increased by 206%, giving per worshiper has increased by 178% and total giving has increased by 147%. This is as a denomination, not as a local church. This is good news as we sit in the middle of the Great Recession.
He goes on though to explain that everything that has to do with people is down. Churches are down 13%, attendance down 18%, membership down 24%, professions of faith down 39% and children and youth down 60%. But what does this mean? If our money as a denomination is going up but our people are going down and getting older looking at the number of children and youth, what is happening? What is happening is fewer people are giving more. The ones who are giving more tend to be the older members of our congregations.
Then in 2018 starts the death tsunami. This is a tsunami that will hit us in the US in general. By the year 2050 there will 50% more deaths than there were in 2010. Why? Because the bulk of our population is getting older. There are around six generations living currently. Everyone doesn’t agree on where some generations end and start but there are six alive today. Let me demonstrate. If you were born after the year 2000 stand up. You are part of Generation Z or the Net Generation, or Generation I (for internet). You’re the newest generation and you haven’t really gotten a name yet. If you were born between 1980 and 2000 please stand up. You are part of Generation Y. Stand up if you were born between 1965 and 1980. This is my generation, Generation X. Please stand if you were born between 1946 and 1964. These are the Baby Boomers. 1925-1945, please stand, you are part of the Silent Generation. The Greatest Generation are the ones who were born between 1901 and 1924. Anyone here in that generation?
The largest generation currently is the Baby Boomers. There were 76 million people born between the years 1946 and 1964. Only 4 million died before 2000 leaving 72 million Baby Boomers in our populations. 10,000 baby boomers turn 65 each day. The next generation, Generation X only has between 41 and 51 million people (depending on where you get your stats from). This is far below the number in the generation before them. This generation has the personality which is not interested in Church. They distrust institutions, are children of divorce, latch key kids who grew up and don’t want anything to do with their parent’s ideas and beliefs. The loyal members of the UMC, are the Baby Boomers and Silent Generations. But by 2050, the youngest Baby Boomer will be 86 years old. They will be the shut-ins, the ones living on fixed incomes. The Silent Generation or the GI Generation is leaving this earth at 1,000 people a day. As that generation dies off it will be the Boomers next and they will leave much faster because there are a lot more of them. This is the start of what Weems calls the Death Tsunami.
Let’s go back to Jesus’ parable today. After being questioned about his authority and turning that question back on the chief priests and elders, Jesus says, “What do you think? There was a man with two sons.” Jesus lays out two examples for the religious leaders to chew one. Both sons are asked to go work in the field. The first one says no but then goes out later and does work after he changes his mind. The second one says he will go out but then doesn’t.
The first son sounds rebellious and rude. He tells his father, “I will not.” He seems defiant and callous against his father’s wishes. The second son on the surface seems loyal and obedient but later disappoints us when he does not do what he said he would do. As I was reading this passage again I was struck by a similar parable that Jesus tells in Luke’s gospel, the parable of the prodigal son or as it is also called, the parable of the lost son. In that story the younger son demands his father’s inheritance and spends it frivolously. He hits rock bottom which was feeding pigs and being so hungry that he wished he could eat what the pigs ate. For a Jew, this was below rock bottom. He eventually goes back home to seek forgiveness and gets it, along with a huge party.
The older brother had stayed at home the whole time and did what the father asked. He ran the father’s business and was obedient. But when he sees the party for the younger brother here is what Luke’s gospel says, “The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and laded with him. But he answered his father, “Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him! ‘My son,’ the father said, ‘ you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’” At the end of this parable which brother do you think is really lost?
With this Death Tsunami on the horizon, less than a decade away from the waters starting to rise, what are we going to do as a denomination? The college of bishops asked the Connectional Table of the denomination (it is like the Church Council of the denomination) to start to look at this approaching problem and start coming up with some solutions. In this call to action it talks a lot about church vitality. It asks if our congregations are being vital congregations to their communities. Are we gaining members, having professions of faith, are we being missional minded, and are we growing in our faith? Are we making an impact on people’s lives?
Our conference has come out with a score card for a congregation’s vitality. Looking at four different aspects of the church’s life you get a Revitalization Score. Depending on your score it tells whether or not your congregation needs to reevaluate, if you are moving in the right direction and making progress or if you have been revitalized. The key is to make strong congregation who can weather the storm that is about to hit; to make the changes necessary now before the wave begins to roll in.
The two sons in Matthew’s gospel have been all given the same task, to go out and work in the vineyard. The first one refuses but then eventually goes. The second says he will do it but doesn’t. Jesus looks at the religious leaders and then asks them, “Which of the two did what his father wanted?” They all agreed this time that it was the first. Then Jesus tells them that the people they see as dirt in the world, the tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the Kingdom of God ahead of them.
In Luke the son who seeks forgiveness, the one that the world sees as the degenerate, is the one enjoying the party the Father has thrown. The older son is left in the field, angry and pouting. The second son in Matthew says he will go work but then never does. We don’t know why but his intentions on being obedient get deterred. He could have gotten distracted during the day. He could have been wrapped up in another project and when he picked his head up the day was over. Whatever the excuse, it is just that, an excuse. At the end of the day the first son, the one who seems disobedient and rude is the one who does what the father wants.
This week has been hectic and frustrating for those who live on Facebook. I confess I am trying to understand the changes that this social network has gone through. Many people though really complained about it. They were angry that this medium they use to communicate for social and business reasons was altered. They don’t pay to get on but yet they did not like the changes. Change is hard and to do what God wants can be even harder. It can become inconvenient, annoying, and bothersome. Yet we are asked to go do the work in the vineyard.
The reality of the Death Tsunami is true. In the next forty years the Baby Boomer generation will bow out in dramatic form. That is not speculation, that is fact. How the United Methodist Church deals with this reality is up in the air. Will we survive as a denomination? Will we be able to make the move from being supported by the Baby Boomers to Generation X, Y and Z? How we handle this transition, this change will tell us which son we are.
Are we the one who is willing to do the work but then at the end of the day we don’t? Are we the son who sits out in the field stewing because we feel we deserve something for our loyalty and work?
At the end of this passage the religious leaders stood around with their mouths open wide. They were under the impression they were doing what God wanted. They were following the path the best way they knew how. But what they missed was the fact that God was moving in their midst. He was doing so with John the Baptist but they ignored him. God was moving in the Jesus Christ, who was both God and human. But they rejected him as well. They missed out on the opportunities God was laying at their feet because they didn’t want to face the reality that God was changing the way the thought about and followed God. They missed out and the ones who recognized it, the sinners, the tax collectors and prostitutes were able to participate in the Kingdom of God that was in their midst.
God doesn’t just seek change, he seeks transformation. That is what was happening in Jerusalem that week and we are on the cusp of another dramatic move in our denomination. What son we will be is yet to be determined.
And all God’s people said…Amen.