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country in the world), some are unbelievable (The top-10 jobs in 2010 didn’t exist in 2004) and some were out-of-date by the time the video went viral (If MySpace was a country, it would be the 11th largest in the world).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.


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