Sunday, July 26, 2015

Ninth Sunday after Pentecost

Ephesians 3
14 For this reason I kneel before the Father, 15 from whom every family[a] in heaven and on earth derives its name. 16 I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, 17 so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, 18 may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, 19 and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.
20 Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, 21 to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.

I guess you might say I’m religious but not spiritual.

Okay, I’m spiritual too, but like many I tire of the ‘spiritual, but not religious’ argument. And this tiredness found its voice in a rather snippy blog published by the Rev. Lillian Daniel in 2011 entitled “Spiritual But Not Religious: Please Stop Boring Me.”

What she describes is a situation most clergy and even some lay people have found themselves in. Trapped beside someone on a plane, some small talk, the inevitable question ‘so what do you do?’ and the equally inevitable response from your seatmate: ‘A minister, eh? You see, I’m spiritual, but not religious.’

What follows—brilliantly captured by Rev. Lillian—is a brief theory that God is always present in sunsets and never present in church. I don’t actually think the person knows how incredibly rude this is—but I long ago learned that when the conversation turns to religion, the normal social rules go out the window. And ‘spiritual, but not religious’ is a better response than getting yelled at for the past abuse perpetuated by the church—which is always disconcerting when you meet someone for the first time.

I suppose we will all need to get used to the ‘spiritual, but not religious’ paradigm, since somewhere between a fifth and a third of people surveyed claim the same SBNR orientation. Some call it the ‘rise of the nones,’ people who profess some form of belief but are careful not to label it religion. Like the words ‘government’ or ‘bureaucracy,’ the word ‘religion’ went from positive to negative in the common mind, and there is little chance it will revert back.

But the word spirituality has its own baggage, with an increasing sense that something so vague and so instantly appealing can be exploited for crass purposes. Spirituality is a marketer’s dream, with everything from niche travel to Lululemon pants linked to spirituality. Here is just a small sample from a group called Beliefnet, who coined the term ‘metrospirituality:’

From clothes to food to lifestyle, metrospirituality is about being hip and holistic while seeking inner bliss. A kinder, gentler post-Yuppie, metrospirituals treat the earth and native cultures with respect, connect with their inner source and inspiration, test their body and expand their mind with ancient physical practices—and do it all with serious style.

I think I just threw up a little in my mouth. The great thing about religion is you can’t really market it—you just have to explain it. You have to explain that like everything in this world, religion can be a force for good and bad, that you can’t judge all based on the actions of some, and whatever you think you know about a particular tradition is very likely incomplete.

And this problem is not new. St. Paul faced the very same tension when he spoke to the church at Ephesus: you need to be both spiritual and religious. But before I say more, I need to remind you that Jesus didn’t invent Christianity. You might call him the founder, and he is certainly the inspiration for our religion, but not the inventor. That role belongs to St. Paul, who takes the various threads and weaves them into a religious system that appears largely the same then as now.

And the problem he confronts still lives with us now. How do you take a collection of believers and transform them into a unified whole? How do you create a community of faith when the original spark of belief begins in the heart of an individual? And the answer is best described in the chapter that follows the chapter that Judith read this morning:

3 Make every effort to keep yourselves united in the Spirit, binding yourselves together with peace. 4 For there is one body and one Spirit, just as you have been called to one glorious hope for the future. 5 There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6 one God and Father of all, who is over all, in all, and living through all.

Four verses and the word ‘one’ is repeated seven times. Clearly something is rotten in the state of Ephesus. And the answer is found in Acts 19. Paul ventures to the city, then the capital of the Roman province of Asia (much of modern day Turkey) and begins to quiz them: ‘Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you first believed?’ Then the trouble starts:

“No, we haven’t even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” So Paul asked, “Then what baptism did you receive?”
“John’s baptism,” they replied.
Paul said, “John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance. He told the people to believe in the one coming after him, that is, in Jesus.” 5 On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.

But that didn’t solve the problem. People who didn’t follow in the Way tried healing the demon-possessed saying ‘In the name of the Jesus that Paul preaches, I command you to come out.’ That guy who said that got beat up.

Then there was the famous silversmith riot, where the followers of the goddess Artemis attacked the church for ruining their trade in silver figurines, saying “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” and ‘ignore the guy who says gods made by human hands are not gods at all.’

It was all a bit of a mess. Eventually Paul had enough and decided to move on to Rome, but some time later he wrote back, and tried to share a message that might help the church. And while doing this, he did something extraordinary: he spoke to individuals. He set aside the message of unity and creating a common life, and spoke (just for a moment) to the heart of the individual believer:

I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, 17 so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, 18 may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, 19 and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.

Paul was both spiritual and religious, speaking to the corporate and the individual, speaking to the body of Christ and to the heart of faith: a solitary encounter with the indwelling power of God. This power is mediated by the Holy Spirit, made known through the love of Christ, and demonstrated through the common life of believers. He said “I pray that you, being rooted and established in love (spirituality) may have power, together will all the Lord’s people (religion).”

From nearly the first day, people have been saying ‘the church was great until it was ruined by...’
The church was great until it was ruined by Paul (very ironic, since he invented it).
The church was great until it was ruined by Constantine (which is unfair, since his watchword was tolerance, not state control).
The church was great until it was ruined by Augustine (also unfair, since he gave the church an identity apart from the crumbling Roman Empire)
The church was great until it was ruined by Luther (which is kinda true from the perspective of Rome)
The church was great until it was ruined 19th century liberal theologians (only true until evangelicals began to study them too)
The church was great until it was ruined by post-war optimism and the baby-boom (it would take more than that).
And finally, the church was great until it was ruined by Sunday shopping, minor-league hockey and the SBNR crowd (wrong, wrong, and really wrong).

The church was great until we lost confidence in the church, lost confidence in organized religion because someone, somewhere suggested that we are at the root of everything that is wrong with the world. The reality of human sin is that every time we try to organize ourselves into something—anything—we generally fail.

But human failure does not define the church, because God says ‘repent, and try again.‘ Paul says ‘I pray that out of God’s glorious riches God may strengthen you through the Spirit in your inner being so that Christ may dwell in your hearts in faith.’ In other words, ‘repent, and try again’ because God is with you, and the Spirit is through you, and Christ is in you. May it always be so. Amen.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Eighth Sunday after Pentecost

Mark 6
30 The apostles returned to Jesus and told him all that they had done and taught. 31 And he said to them, “Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. 32 And they went away in the boat to a desolate place by themselves. 33 Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they ran there on foot from all the towns and got there ahead of them. 34 When he went ashore he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. And he began to teach them many things.

You will encounter more information reading one week of the New York Times than the average person in the 18th century would encounter in a lifetime.

Maybe. If you google this intriguing factoid, you will see it repeated time and time again in books and on websites—most related to the information revolution that surrounds us. I first heard (read) it during an Emerging Spirit event, the congregational renewal program that began nearly ten years ago.

It comes from a video called ‘Shift Happens,’ essentially a catalogue of mind-blowing stats assembled to underline the massive changes we face and will continue to face. Some are incredible (China will soon be the largest English-speaking country in the world), some are unbelievable (The top-10 jobs in 2010 didn’t exist in 2004) and some were out-of-date by the time the video went viral (If MySpace was a country, it would be the 11th largest in the world).

So back to where we started: Reading one week of the New York Times, you will meet more information than the 18th century person would in a lifetime. It turns out all the books and websites were simply repeating what they saw (read) in the video, which gives you a bit of a sense of the reliability of information in this new age of information. Undaunted, I wanted to know where this idea began, so (in the spirit of the age) I dedicated myself to a full 30 minutes of online research.

It turns out that a historian named Theodore Roszak wrote a book in 1986 and made the claim that a single edition of the New York Times contains more information than a 17th century Englishman might encounter in his lifetime. It was misquoted some time later (Wurman, 1989) and has been repeated often enough that it has become an internet fact.*

Beware the internet fact. We don’t actually know how much information a 17th or 18th century person might encounter in their lifetime, but there are clues. When your ancestors burned Washington to the ground in 1814, they also burned the Library of Congress. Some time later Thomas Jefferson was ‘invited’ to offer some of his 10,000 books to replace the collection. Granted, he was unique (and wealthy) in amassing so many books, but it adds some doubt to the New York Times suggestion.

So it might be enough to say we have more information now than then. An equally difficult number to pin down is the number of books published each day, but it seems to be somewhere between 1,500 and 3,000. So clearly, you are falling behind on your summer reading. And with all this information appearing like open fire hydrant, I think we can assume there is some hunger for it. But is the hunger new?

Now many saw [Jesus and his disciples] going and recognized them, and they ran there on foot from all the towns and got there ahead of them. 34 When he went ashore he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. And he began to teach them many things.

Of all the names given to Jesus, teacher seems to be the most common. And when it wasn’t teacher is was usually rabbi, which means teacher or master of the Torah. So the earthly Jesus is first a teacher, then we might say a healer, and then we might begin to add prophet. Later, the people around him will add Christ or Lord, but throughout his ministry the call to teach remains. Here’s a sample from just the first half of Mark:

Mark 1:21 When the Sabbath came, Jesus went into the synagogue and began to teach.
Mark 1:27 The people were all so amazed that they asked each other, “What is this? A new teaching—and with authority!
Mark 2:13 Once again Jesus went out beside the lake. A large crowd came to him, and he began to teach them.
Mark 4:1 Again Jesus began to teach by the lake. The crowd that gathered around him was so large that he got into a boat and sat in it out on the lake, while all the people were along the shore at the water’s edge.
Mark 6:2 When the Sabbath came, he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were amazed.

He taught them about the Kingdom. He taught them about the scriptures. He taught them about the One he called Abba or Father. And he taught them what happens when God visits humankind and all that God might suffer. And finally, in a garden one morning, he taught them that God can forgive what we did—in our utter failure to embrace all that we were taught.

And the hunger remained. And it still remains, down to today, like sheep without a shepherd, hungry for some glimpse of something more, some sense that what we see is not the sum of all that is. We are told again and again that as weekly attendance in church drops, interest in God remains constant—and we can take heart.

Some call it the elephant in the room. Or at least it was the elephant in the room, before speaking and writing about the decline of the mainline churches became a minor industry. At General Council in 2006 (the last time I went) the topic of decline went largely unmentioned. This time (when they meet next month) the entire agenda seems dedicated to various schemes that will seek to stem the decline.

So what happened in the last nine years to take us from careful avoidance to obsessive attention? We seemed to cross some threshold, some moment of recognition, and the idea that we have a problem took hold. Nationally, the United Church of Canada is closing one church per week, and this fact alone should be enough to keep us awake at night—and account for all the attention.

And like an idea repeated over and over, the death of the church has become fact for many, much in the way the limited knowledge base of a 17th century Englishman become fact. It became an internet fact. And like all good internet facts, it became the launching point for a thousand articles (blogs) commenting on the idea.

And all of this began to ramp up this past May, with the release of the latest and aptly-named Pew Survey of the state of American religion. All this happened while I was attending the Festival of Homiletics, the preaching conference held each year. It was Diana Butler Bass who introduced the somewhat grim statistics and concluded with “well folks, welcome to Toronto.” (We were in Denver) What she meant was that an increasingly diverse religious context, with fewer mainline Protestants and more religiously ‘unaffiliated’ is now the new normal even in the US, and it looks a lot like our town.

And while Prof. Bass was trying to be clever and funny (she is always clever and funny) she was also pointing to something else: as futures go, becoming like Toronto is certainly not the disaster that some seem to imagine. A diverse religious context, with fewer mainline Protestants and more religiously unaffiliated might be mixed news for us, but we also know it’s not the end of the world. Let me explain.

In the past, in the period before I could say ‘back in my day,’ people went to churches. But they we’re necessarily hungry for it. They were sheep with a shepherd, but they were restless under the shepherd, and many fell away. And we could assign blame to this falling away (ours or theirs, or both) but that would seem rather pointless when people have freewill. It just happened.

And the churches, in their wisdom, tried every possible approach to meet the change. Some overreacted, changing everything with little success. Some under reacted, changing nothing with little success. Some turned left and some turned right, both with little success. What emerged was a diverse religious context with fewer mainline Protestants and more religiously unaffiliated.

But the hunger remains: like sheep without a shepherd, people are hungry for God. We know this because we see the films they see and we know the books they read and we sense their longing for something more. And in a diverse religious context they can try all or none, and very little will change until something changes.

What will change? Someday, somehow, and without some clever intervention on our part, people will act on their hunger and find us. And when they find us, they will find the shepherd they seek, still teaching about the Kingdom, still teaching the scriptures, still pointing to the one he called Abba or Father, still describing what happened when God visited humanity, and still forgiving our inability to embrace everything he taught.

May God bless us as we wait. And may our waiting (which may seem passive) be described instead as faithful. Amen.