9:30AM Sunday School
11AM & 7PM Worship

2203 San Antonio St.
Austin, TX 78705

Fifty-Seven Channels

The Reverend Matt Gaventa

October 20, 2019
Jeremiah 31:27-34

A Reading from Jeremiah

The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will sow the house of Israel and the house of Judah with the seed of humans and the seed of animals. And just as I have watched over them to pluck up and break down, to overthrow, destroy, and bring evil, so I will watch over them to build and to plant, says the Lord. In those days they shall no longer say: “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” But all shall die for their own sins; the teeth of everyone who eats sour grapes shall be set on edge. The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.

Well, well, well. Look what we have here: the announcements.

Those of you who have been worshiping with us regularly this fall will know that we have been preaching our way through the different parts of Sunday worship, starting with the Call to Worship, and the Confession, and the Passing of the Peace, preaching about the Prayer for Illumination and the Sermon and Communion and the Offering. But this week feels different. This week feels different because the announcements feel different. There is something inarguably worshipful about praying our confession or coming to the table or giving of ourselves in response. Not true for the announcements. Not true for that moment when somebody stands up in church to tell you about the potluck, or ask you to register for VBS, or beseech you to cook a meal for UKirk. If we were singing a rousing chorus of “One of these things is not like the other,” I think we would all know which part of the worship service might not belong.

The announcements are not inarguably worshipful. In fact, they are the definition of arguably worshipful. In fact, people argue all the time about whether the announcements belong anywhere near the hour of Sunday worship. Theologian Aidan Kavanagh writes that “there seems to be no good reason why announcements should be kept out of the liturgy altogether and relegated to the bulletin, if there is one. Notification of events which are important to the assembly is part of its public business. But announcements should not disrupt the rhythmic flow of the service, and they should be kept to a minimum rather than be allowed to swell into an extended, rambling monologue by the president or others…” And so, the announcements get wrapped up less in a theology and more into a practicality. Sometimes we have to announce things. And this is the only time when we’re all here. And so, we all tacitly admit that the announcements are a sort of necessary evil that nobody loves but everybody gets.

But this morning, much even to my own surprise, I want to go to bat for the announcements. And I want to begin by pointing out that actually, not everybody is here. There is never a time when everybody is here. There are lots of reasons for this, and some of them are very old, but some of them are signs of the times. A few generations ago, it would rarely have been the case that church members would have job shifts on Sunday morning that would keep them from worship, but it happens today at UPC all the time. A few generations ago, it would have been unheard of for parents to miss church because a kid had a sporting event or a school trip, but it happens today at UPC all the time. Even if Sunday morning at 11 is unscheduled on the family calendar, it can also be the case that it’s the only hour in the week unscheduled on the family calendar, and sometimes we have folks that just need that hour to decompress from the over committed and over stressed whirlwind happening everywhere else in their lives. It might not have always been the case, but it happens today at UPC all the time.

And we are very much not alone. We are in a new generation in the life of church. I have a kind of allergy to this story-line because as a professional hazard I hear it so often, so forgive me if I start to sneeze or break into hives, but it is nonetheless true that church attendance is not what it used to be. You all know this. Every few years the Pew Research Council releases their most updated survey of church attendance and church affiliation and every few years the numbers get just a bit worse. The percentage of Americans identifying as practicing Christians is much lower than it was a few decades ago and the percentage of folks attending worship on a weekly basis is on exactly the same trajectory, and we can surely debate the reasons for that and that’s fine (that’s what brings on the hives but that’s fine). The real point for this morning is simply to say that seeing empty spots in our pews on Sunday is hardly unique to University Presbyterian Church. We are all cursed to live in interesting times, as the proverb goes. We are in a new generation, and it is changing very quickly.

But this is hardly the first time the church has changed. Just the most recent. Our reading this morning comes from one of my favorite theologians, the prophet Jeremiah, who has seen the church of his time come tumbling down. Jeremiah is the prophet who sees the destruction of Jerusalem itself at the hands of the Babylonian invaders, and with that destruction Jeremiah sees the collapse of all the iconic centerpieces of Jewish worship. The temple itself is gone. The commandments written in stone are lost. It is hard to overstate the degree to which Biblical Judaism prior to the exile revolves around one space, one temple, one set of holy objects, all of which of course are simply representations of one specific covenant with one specific God. When Babylon brings destruction, when Babylon brings the people into exile. It is as if Babylon has destroyed their theological identity itself. No congregation has ever worried about decline quite as well as Israel on the brink of exile, particularly in the words of this prophet of death and destruction.

But of course, what looks like death and destruction is just change. Change, in the words of the Lord, given almost ironically to this most gloomy prophet. “The days are surely coming,” says the Lord, ” when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel. But these coming days will not look exactly like they used to. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors. Even the most basic central most iconic parts of Jewish identity will change. The temple will not be what it was. The commandments will not be what they were. This new covenant does not need those things. It does not depend on tablets of stone — I will write it on their hearts,” says the Lord. No one ever thought you could even have a covenant without carrying these heavy stones around, but God has changed the rules. For sure no one ever thought you could even have a congregation without having the temple as its cornerstone, but God has changed the rules. They will still have a congregation. They will still have a covenant. But instead of it all happening under one roof, Biblical Judaism will have burst its seams.

I wonder if our own interesting times are really just another chance for the church to burst its seams. Try this comparison on for size: five years ago, almost everybody you knew who watched television had a cable or satellite bundle. You pay one company a big flat fee every month and you get all the channels you can imagine. It is one huge all-you-can-eat buffet, and you can spend all day sitting on Bravo or you can spend all day sitting on Discovery or you can spend all day sitting on ESPN but you’re paying one big rate no matter what. Nothing beats this for simplicity, of course. There is only one login. There is only one password. And of course, for generations, this is also what churches have been — not entertainment bundles, but certainly bundles of different kinds of social experiences. You can come here to pray. You can come here to take a class. You can come here to find community. You can come here to sing. You can come here to listen to a sermon. You can come here to do community service. You can come here to do public advocacy. Sue Phillips of the Sacred Design Lab has done a lot of work on precisely this idea, and she says that churches for generations have actually been incredibly efficient bundlers of social opportunities. We have provided so many things for so many people. All for one login.

But as you know. Cable is also expensive. And it’s expensive because you are paying for things you don’t actually watch. ESPN alone was charging cable providers something like fifteen dollars a month per customer and if you’re the customer at home not watching ESPN, you’re thinking why am I paying all this money just so somebody else can watch sports? And if you’re the customer sitting at home only watching ESPN, you’re thinking why can I not pay ESPN fifteen dollars a month and not have to add on all this other stuff? Which is also exactly what we currently see in the trendiness in church participation. In the age of HBO on demand, fewer and fewer people want to order the buffet. Instead, they pick and choose. And now we have folks that will come here just for UPLift on Tuesday morning. And now we have folks that will come here only for the right musical event. And now we have folks that will come here only for the right educational opportunity. All of which may feel substantially easier than the Sunday morning bundle, with all its complicated rituals and all its channels that you may not really want. I think we have to admit that for folks who are not comfortable with the lingo or just anxious about the entire enterprise, coming to church on Sunday morning is the most expensive way of getting in the door.

This is not the covenant made with our ancestors. But the Gospel, of course, is that God is entirely capable of doing a new thing. It was never God who was bound to one temple or one set of heavy stones; God was always free to call people into being and call people into covenant and call it church wherever it happened. The challenge has always been to us, to God’s people, to recognize church wherever it happens, and not just here in this bundled hour between 11 and 12:15 on Sunday mornings. The challenge is to us, to recognize — when a whole army of volunteers opens the doors here on Tuesday morning for UPLift, that’s church. When young adults from all over Austin come here for our monthly Presbyterian young adult ministry, that’s church. When UT students show up here Sunday night for UKirk, that’s church, and when UT students show up here on Thursday night to volunteer for Micah 6, that’s also church, and when y’all walk down to the state capitol to claim your values, that’s church, and when y’all gather up to support one another around living room tables or at hospital bedsides, that’s church, and it may not always look like the covenant made with our ancestors. But God is happening all over the place in this community. And wherever God is happening, wherever two or three are gathered, that’s church.

And that’s what the announcements are for. They are not simply a listing of channels you might want to watch. In fact, the most important part about the announcements is not the part that you might sign up for. The most important part are the announcements you will never respond to. Any given week, the most important announcement you can hear is the one for an event you will never have any interest in. Because that announcement, that invitation, that channel you will never watch, that Tuesday night potluck for something you will never care about, that, especially, is the Gospel for interesting times. That, especially, is a proclamation about this covenant that does not look like the one made with our ancestors. That, especially, is a declaration about God, about God who is bigger than what any of us can see, about God who is at work in ways none of us can entirely understand, about God who has burst the seams of this Sunday morning hour, about God who is doing a thousand new things. Surely that God is worth announcing. And surely that God doesn’t fit in the insert.

Thanks be to God.