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Sermon: Rebuilding a Footbridge 

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Rebuilding a Footbridge to Faith

THE CONGREGATIONAL CHURCH OF NEW CANAAN SERMON – May 27, 2012
Rebuilding a Footbridge to Faith
The Reverend Harold E. Masback, III

Ezekiel 37:1-14

The hand of the LORD came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the LORD and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord GOD, you know.” Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the LORD. Thus says the Lord GOD to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the LORD.” So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord GOD: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude. Then he said to me, “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’ Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord GOD: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the LORD, have spoken and will act,” says the LORD.

Acts 2:1-21

“When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?”

But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.” But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: ‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’

Romans 8:22-27

“We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved.

Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.”

I have three stories for you this morning.

Here’s my first story, a Memorial Day story of courage.

When we were growing up, there was nothing about my baby brother Keith that would have led you to suspect he was capable of great courage under fire. As Keith would confess to a recruiting sergeant, he wasn’t even sure he had the discipline or motivation to do well in the Army – to which the sergeant dryly replied, “I wouldn’t worry too much about that sir. We’ll supply all the discipline and motivation you’ll need.”

And indeed they did. After a few years of service, Keith found himself stationed at Fort Bragg, serving as a jump master, drilling his men for a parachute jump. Two fighter jets collided and burst into a tumbling fireball that then slammed into the C-130 my brother and his men were preparing to board. As the men tried to dive behind a wall, the fireball roared through, burning scores of them and cooking off the 30 millimeter rounds in the fighters’ cannons. Keith knew he had to mount a rescue, but every genetic instinct of survival screamed to stay down. As Keith tells it, there was never a second from the beginning of the incident to the end when he wasn’t petrified. But then, without the slightest warning, something just kicked in, and Keith charged out from behind the wall and into the face of whistling shells to help direct a rescue.

I’m not sure anybody fully understands the alchemy that transforms a petrified young officer into a hero. When I hear the family stories of my great-great-grandfather charging through the Peach Orchard at Gettysburg (1) or of Amy’s father, fighting through the snow to relieve Bastogne in the Battle of the Bulge, (2) I am awestruck at the human capacity to persevere in the face of danger.

We call this human capacity “courage.” And some of what we remember this Memorial Day is the courage of young men and women who served in our armed forces. We memorialize with deep gratitude their courage and sacrifice that makes our peaceable assembly this Memorial Day weekend possible. That’s my first story – a Memorial Day story of courage.

Here’s my second story – a Pentecost story of boldness.

There was nothing about the very first Christians that would have led you to suspect they were capable of great boldness. For all the wrenching ups and downs of Christ’s crucifixion, resurrection and ascension, our twelve, poor, uneducated disciples now found themselves apparently abandoned by their leader and holed up in an upper room with no more than 120 bedraggled followers to show for their years of work. They could only presume that the Roman army, the greatest power the world had ever seen, was hunting them down. And they didn’t need any great imagination to guess their likely fate. They had just had front row seats to Rome’s grisly torture and execution processes. They had pestered Jesus for a time-table, but Jesus had simply responded, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all of Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” [Acts 1:6-8.] And so they waited as they had been told, passing long hours alternating between fervent prayer and whispered questions about their fate.

But then, without the slightest warning, it happened. The Spirit poured into the disciples, filling them with such creative faith and love that it was as if tongues of fire were leaping from their heads. God’s love swept aside all the doubt and pain of the crucifixion and sent the disciples charging out into the street with such urgent boldness that you could only conclude that they were either filled with God’s Spirit or just plain drunk. [Acts 2:13.] Peter shared the good news with such passionate faith that three thousand listeners stepped forward to be baptized on the spot. [Acts 2:41.] And now we scratch our heads at the alchemy that transformed those fickle followers who had so recently denied Christ into such stalwart preachers. Yes, they certainly exhibited a full measure of human courage, but Luke wants to be sure we understand that we are dealing with something far more mysterious than a human capacity – we are dealing with the Holy Spirit’s capacity to inspire bold proclamation.

In Acts 4:13, Luke writes of the Jewish elders, “Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John and realized that they were uneducated and ordinary men, they were amazed and recognized them as companions of Jesus.” In Acts 4:29, Peter and John pray, “And now, Lord, look at their threats, and grant to your servants to speak your word with all boldness.” And in 4:31, Luke concludes, that the disciples “were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God with boldness.” In fact, as the rest of Acts and Paul’s letters record the spread of Christianity, this inspired capacity to proclaim boldly became the hallmark of the faith and the principal inheritance of Christ’s risen Spirit. [Acts 13:46; 14:3; 19:8; 28:30; 2 Cor. 3:12; Eph. 6:19; 1 Tim. 3:13.]

And so, at Pentecost we remember more than just the courage of the disciples, we remember the Spirit’s gift of boldness to the disciples and to every generation of Christians which has followed in their steps. We remember God’s gift of bold proclamation in the face of long odds that makes our worship this Pentecost possible. That’s my second story – a Pentecost story of boldness.

Here’s my third story, a fable of dutiful complacency.

One day a constable found a body floating in the river that flowed through his little village. The discovery was a source of sadness and puzzlement. When no one arrived to claim the body, the villagers dutifully donated materials to construct a coffin and conducted a funeral. After all, it was what decent people do. A week later, however, a villager found another body in the river, and then another, and another, and so on. With every discovery, the villagers dutifully donated another coffin and conducted another funeral. After all, it was what decent people do.

Eventually, the village became just plain worn out by all the coffin construction and funerals. Dutiful complacency had brought the village to the brink of bankruptcy, so the constable decided to hike upstream to see what was going on.

After following the river two miles into the foothills, the constable found a small footbridge washed out. Footprints leading up to – but not away from – the site of the old bridge indicated that travelers had been trying to get across the river without the bridge and had been swept away by the current. The next day the villagers trooped up the trail to construct a new footbridge and solved the problem for a generation. Now, if I just left this third story there, we would have a sobering, but safely metaphorical, fable about the urgent importance of addressing catastrophes at their source. But let me make the story more pointed by suggesting that our churches are suffering from two downstream catastrophes, that these two downstream catastrophes have a common upstream source, and that these two downstream catastrophes require a common upstream solution.

The first downstream catastrophe is that virtually all of our so-called “Mainline” Protestant denominations are suffering a steady and alarming decline in membership. The second downstream catastrophe is that our young are suffering a steady and alarming deterioration in adolescent mental health.

Let me explain. First, sociologists of religion report that “Mainline Protestantism” peaked in membership in the 1950s and has declined steadily over the past half century.3 Every one of our denominations has been affected. Between 1965 and 2008, United Church of Christ membership declined from 2 million to 1 million.4 Between 1990 and 2008, the Presbyterian Church USA membership declined from 3.8 million to 2.8 million.(5) Between 1967 and 2009, United Methodist Church membership declined from 11 million to 7.8 million. (6)

This first downstream catastrophe, a sharp decline in Mainline Protestant membership, is mirrored by a second downstream catastrophe: a sharp decline in adolescent mental health and well-being.7 As the chief of the Mental Health Service at Harvard University wrote in his book, College of the Overwhelmed, If your son or daughter is in college, the chances are almost one in two that he or she will become depressed to the point of being unable to function; … and one in ten that he or she will seriously consider suicide. In fact, since 1988, the likelihood of a college student’s suffering depression has doubled, [and] suicide ideation has tripled, and sexual assaults have quadrupled.8   In 2003, the Commission on Children at Risk, a consortium of the nation’s leading professors of adolescent and pediatric psychology and psychotherapy found that American children were experiencing a “crisis” of “deteriorations in child and adolescent well4 being.”9 According to the Commission, Scholars at the National Research Council in 2002 estimated that at least one of every four adolescents in the U.S. is currently at serious risk of not achieving productive adulthood. According to another recent study, about 21 percent of U.S. children ages 9 to 17 have diagnosable mental or addictive disorders associated with at least minimum impairment.”10  

Now, we have all learned that correlation does not necessarily prove causation. Still, there is a troubling parallel between the first downstream catastrophe of declining mainline membership and the second downstream catastrophe of declining adolescent mental health and wellbeing. And the parallel becomes all the more striking when studies suggest that the twin downstream catastrophes share a common upstream cause and require a common upstream solution: rebuilding a footbridge to faith. First, the demographic and sociological trends driving the decline in Mainline membership are complex and multi-determined, but according to “Mainline Churches: The Real Reason for Decline” by Benton Johnson, Dean R. Hoge, and Donald Luidens: The underlying problem of the mainline churches cannot be solved by new programs of church development alone… . Somehow, in the course of the past century, these churches lost the will or the ability to teach the Christian faith and what it requires to a succession of younger cohorts in such a way as to command their allegiance.11  

Second, this failure to transmit our faith to our young contributes not only to the declining membership of our denominations, but it also contributes to the declining resilience and mental health of our young. According to that same Commission on Children at Risk, adolescent mental health and resilience is declining because our young are now less likely to be nurtured and raised in what the commission called “authoritative communities,” and the single most effective solution to this declining health is to reconstruct the authoritative communities our young need for healthy emotional development. What’s an “authoritative community”? According to the Commission’s neuroscientists, an authoritative community is multi-generational, warm and nurturing, treats children as ends in themselves, establishes clear limits and expectations; is guided at least partly by lay people, has a long-term focus, encourages spiritual and religious development, reflects and transmits moral values, and is committed to the principle of love of neighbor and the equal dignity of all persons.12 If you’re wondering if you’ve ever seen an authoritative community, you have. You’re sitting in one right now. We Christians call it a church.

Now, I know my third story sounds like kind of a downer for a Memorial Day service. After all, you’re the parishioners who have actually shown up for our Memorial Day weekend worship; and you’re the ones who always do all the volunteering and pledging in our churches; and we’ve all been working on this declining membership concern for some time without apparent success. To paraphrase Paul’s line in our Epistle lesson, “we do not know how to revitalize our denominations as we ought.” And, hey, we can almost smell the hot dogs cooking; and the town band is getting ready to strike up; and, oh by the way, isn’t Pentecost Sunday the birthday party of the church? What kind of message is this for a party anyway?  

But I’m sure you’ll agree that “dutiful complacency” will not reverse these troubling trends, and I’m also sure that you’ve already anticipated the ultimate source of hope in this message. After all, we worship a God who can inspire prophecy that will raise a people out of dry bones, who can send God’s spirit into a people and restore them to their promised land. We worship a God who inspired fickle, uneducated, defeated fishermen to preach so boldly that their faith spread to every corner of the globe.  

This same God blessed our children, as God has always blessed all children, with a restless yearning for unconditional love and acceptance, for clear and understandable guidance and boundaries, for the inspiration, the exhilaration of participating in something larger than themselves. But who will show our youth the true goal of their restless yearnings? Who will help them channel their restlessness away from the idols that tempt them into sickness and death? God knows our schools won’t show them, or our government, or Hollywood, or the media. God knows only churches can show them.  

And to those churches that passionately commit themselves to nurturing and teaching their young, to those churches who courageously labor upstream to rebuild the footbridge to faith, to those churches God will bless the power to proclaim boldly – in those churches Christ’s promise will be fulfilled, and in those churches “[their] sons and daughters will prophesy and [their] young men shall see visions… . And all who call on the name of the Lord will be saved.”

Amen.

Notes:

1. David Riley, 1st Lt., 53rd GA Regiment, Semmes’ Brigade, McClaw’s Division, Longstreet Corps. Lt. Riley would fight with Longstreet’s Corps through the Battle of Knoxville, November, 1863, where he was wounded and captured. He spent the rest of the war at Camp Chase, a Union POW camp in Ohio. 

2. Frederick J. Maxted, Jr., Major, 314th Field Artillery Battalion, 80th Infantry Division, “Blue Ridge Mountain Division,” Patton’s 3rd Army. Major Maxted was wounded three times while fighting in Patton’s 3rd Army from their landing on Omaha Beach, through the Normandy Breakout, the Battle of the Bulge and the crossing of the Rhine at Metz. He was finally sent home to recuperate after contracting jaundice. 

3. According to Dr. Mark A. Noll, a professor of Christian history at the University of Notre Dame, socalled “Mainline Protestantism” peaked in membership in the 1950’s and has declined steadily over the past half century. From 1960 to 1988, the mainline church membership declined from 31 million to 25 million, and then fell to 21 million in 2005. Only 15% of American adults now claim membership in “Mainline” denominations. A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada , (1992), 465. Using slightly different methodology, The Association of Religion Data Archives [the “ARDA”] counts 26,344,933 members of “Mainline” churches as compared to 39,930,869 members of evangelical Protestant churches. 

4 The Association of Religion Data Archives. “United Church of Christ Denominational Profile.” 27 Dec. 2011 <http://www.thearda.com/Denoms/D_1463.asp>. Between 1959 and 2008, Episcopal Church membership declined from 3.4 million to 2 million. “Episcopal Church Denominational Profile.” 27 Dec. 2011 <http://www.thearda.com/Denoms/D_849.asp>. “Maps and Reports.” U.S. Membership Report, United States, Denominational Groups, 2000. 16 Jan. 2012. <http://www.thearda.com/mapsReports/reports/US_2000. asp>.

5 The Association of Religion Data Archives. Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) History. http://www.thearda.com/Denoms/D.asp. May 23, 2012. 

6 The Association of Religion Data Archives, United Methodist Church, History. http://www.thearda.com/Denoms/D 1469.asp. May 23, 2012. 

See, e.g. the following sampling of representative findings:

  • a: In studies involving 13,257 student-clients who sought counseling at a large Midwestern university between 1988- 2001, this counseling center found that, “Overall, our results indicated that students who were seen in counseling services in more recent time periods frequently have more complex problems that include both the normal college student problems, such as difficulties in relationships and developmental issues, as well as the more severe problems, such as anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation, sexual assault, and personality disorders. Some of these increases were dramatic: The number of students seen each year with depression doubled over the time period, while the number of suicidal students tripled and the number of students seen after a sexual assault quadrupled. The pattern of change was also of interest, as some problem areas showed steep increases from the first time period to the second and then appeared to stabilize from Time Period 2 to Time Period 3. Relationship problems, stress/anxiety, family issues, physical problems, personality disorders, suicidal, and sexual assault all followed this pattern. In addition, we found significant increases in several problem areas more commonly expected in college counseling centers, including developmental problems, relationship problems, difficulties with academic skills, and situational problems.” Sherry A. Benton, et al., “Changes in Counseling Center Client Problems Across 13 Years,” Professional Psychology: Research and Practice 34, no. 1 (2003). Print. 69.
  • b: “In recent decades, a number of social forces have changed both the landscape of family and community life and the expectations for young people. A combination of factors have weakened the informal community support once available to young people: high rates of family mobility; greater anonymity in neighborhoods, where more parents are at work and out of the home and neighborhood for long periods, and in schools, which have become larger and much more heterogeneous; extensive media exposure to themes of violence and heavy use and abuse of drugs and alcohol; and, in some cases, the deterioration and disorganization of neighborhoods and schools as a result of crime, drugs, and poverty. At the same time, today’s world has become increasingly complex, technical, and multicultural, placing new and challenging demands on young people in terms of education, training, and the social and emotional skills needed in a highly competitive environment. Finally, the length of adolescence has extended to the mid- to late twenties, and the pathways to adulthood have become less clear and more numerous … . Concerns about youth are at the center of many policy debates. The future well-being of the country depends on raising a generation of skilled, competent, and responsible adults. Yet at least 25 percent of adolescents in the United States are at serious risk of not achieving “productive adulthood” and face such risks as substance abuse, adolescent pregnancy, school failure, and involvement with the juvenile justice system. Depending on their circumstances and choices, they may carry those risks into their adult lives” Jacquelynne Eccles and Jennifer Appleton Gootman, eds. National Research Council and Institute of Medicine. Community Programs to Promote Youth Development. Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press, 2002. Print, 1-2.
  • c. “Early-onset MDD [major depressive disorder] and DD [dysthymic disorder] are frequent, recurrent, and familial disorders that tend to continue into adulthood, and they are frequently accompanied by other psychiatric disorders. These disorders are usually associated with poor psychosocial and academic outcome and increased risk for substance abuse, bipolar disorder, and suicide. In addition, DD increases the risk for MDD. There is a secular increase in the prevalence of MDD, and it appears that MDD is occurring at an earlier age in successive cohorts. Several genetic, familial, demographic, psychosocial, cognitive, and biological correlates of onset and course of early-onset depression have been identified. Few studies, however, have examined the combined effects of these correlates.” Ryan B. Birmaher ND, Williams DE, et al. “Childhood and adolescent depression: a review of the past ten years. Part I.” J. Am. Acad. Child Adolesc. Psychiatry 1996 Nov. 35. Print, 1427-1439.
  • d. A report compiled for the Centers for Disease Control the frequency with which U.S. high school students seriously considered or attempted suicide in the 2001 calendar year: Jo Anne Grunbaum and Laura Kann, Steven A. Kinchen, Barbara Williams, James G. Ross, Richard Lowry, Lloyd Kolbe. “Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance: United States, 2001.” Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report 51, no. SS-4. Washington, D.C.: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, June 2002. 4 Jan. 2012. <http://www.cdc.gov/ mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/ss5104a1.htm>.
  • e. “Two meta-analyses find that Americans have shifted toward substantially higher levels of anxiety and neuroticism during recent decades. Both college student (adult) and child samples increased almost a full standard deviation in anxiety between 1952 and 1993 (explaining about 20% of the variance in the trait). The average American child in the 1980s reported more anxiety than child psychiatric patients in the 1950s. Correlations with social indices (e.g., divorce rates, crime rates) suggest that decreases in social connectedness and increases in environmental dangers may be responsible for the rise in anxiety. Economic factors, however, seem to play little role. Birth cohort, as a proxy for broad social trends, may be an important influence on personality development, especially during childhood (1007). Jean M. Twenge, Jean M. “The Age of Anxiety? Birth Cohort Change in Anxiety and Neuroticism, 1952-1993.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 79, no 6 (2000): 1007-10021. 

8 Kadison and DiGeronimo, College of the Overwhelmed: The Campus Mental Health Crisis and What to Do About It (San Francisco: Josey Bass, 2004), p. 1.  

9 The Commission on Children at Risk included, among others, Thomas Insel, the Director of the National Institute of Mental Health, Robert Coles of the Harvard Medical School, Steven Suomi of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, T. Berry Brazelton of Harvard Medical School, Allan Schore of UCLA Medical School, Judith Wallerstein of the Center for the Family in Transition. They reported estimates that at least 8 percent of high school students suffer from clinical depression, and 20 percent of students report seriously having considered suicide in the past year. The Commission on Children at Risk. Hardwired to Connect: The New Scientific Case for 7 Authoritative Communities. New York: Dartmouth Medical School, Institute for American Values, YMCA of the USA, 2003. “Executive Summary.”  

10 The Commission on Children at Risk. Hardwired to Connect, 8.  

11 Benton Johnson, Dean R. Hoge and Donald A. Luidens. “Mainline Churches: The Real Reason for Decline.” First Things, no. 31 Mr 1993: 13-18. See also: These findings by the Pew Research Center: “By some key measures, Americans ages 18 to 29 are considerably less religious than older Americans. Fewer young adults belong to any particular faith than older people do today. They also are less likely to be affiliated than their parents’ and grandparents’ generations were when they were young. Fully one-in-four members of the Millennial generation — so called because they were born after 1980 and began to come of age around the year 2000 — are unaffiliated with any particular faith. Indeed, Millennials are significantly more unaffiliated than members of Generation X were at a comparable point in their life cycle (20% in the late 1990s) and twice as unaffiliated as Baby Boomers were as young adults (13% in the late 1970s). Young adults also attend religious services less often than older Americans today. And compared with their elders today, fewer young people say that religion is very important in their lives. Compared with their elders today, young people are much less likely to affiliate with any religious tradition or to identify themselves as part of a Christian denomination. Fully one-in-four adults under age 30 (25%) are unaffiliated, describing their religion as “atheist,” “agnostic” or “nothing in particular.” This compares with less than one-fifth of people in their 30s (19%), 15% of those in their 40s, 14% of those in their 50s and 10% or less among those 60 and older. About two-thirds of young people (68%) say they are members of a Christian denomination and 43% describe themselves as Protestants, compared with 81% of adults ages 30 and older who associate with Christian faiths and 53% who are Protestants.” Pew Research Center. Religion Among the Millennials. February 2010. Print. <http://pewforum.org/Age/Religion-Among-the- Millennials.aspx>. 

12 The Commission on Children at Risk, Hardwired to Connect, 34.