Sunday, September 28, 2014

Pentecost 16A

An article, by American preacher Lillian Daniel has been circulating widely among religious professionals. In fact I think half my clergy friends on Facebook and Twitter had a link to it because it speaks to a common frustration among church folks.

The article has the provocative title “Spiritual But Not Religious? Please Stop Boring Me.” In her article, Lillian Daniel argues with those who create their own spirituality on their own terms. 

She scolds people whose heartfelt theological reflections lead them to the deeply profound and radical conclusions that they “find God in the sunset” or “during walks on the beach” or “while hiking in the mountains” as if we Christians never thought of finding God in nature before.

She waves a finger at them saying “Being privately spiritual but not religious just doesn't interest me. There is nothing challenging about having deep thoughts all by oneself. What is interesting is doing this work in community, where other people might call you on stuff, or heaven forbid, disagree with you. Where life with God gets rich and provocative is when you dig deeply into a tradition that you did not invent all for yourself...”

I understand her frustration. As one who has dug deeply into the Christian theological tradition, and discovered its riches, it can seem downright insulting to centuries of thoughtful theological reflection being pushed aside in favour of a “I find God in the sunsets” kind of kindergarten spirituality.

And we - YOU - as a church, who gather regularly to hear God’s word and receive the Holy Sacraments, YOU who work hard to build a strong church, YOU who give so much of your time, talents, and treasure to ensure that the proclamation of the gospel is heard within these walls and lived out in the community.

Those of you who’ve lived, breathed, and died the gospel message, might be offended to hear that some folks insist that their self-styled “walk along the beach” spirituality is a more authentic expression of faith than you who have holy dirt under your fingernails.

In my job I encounter these folks with self-created spiritualities all the time, folks who reflexively dismiss or challenge institutional religious traditions. But the weird thing is that they want me, as a religious leader, to affirm their religious rants, no matter how bizarre they are.

A conversation usually goes something like this, “Look, pastor, I know you are a Christian, but I believe that the earth is just a school for us to learn how to live on a higher plane of existence when we die, after which we exist as pure energy. And when we suffer in this life it just means we were meant to have that experience because in a past life we hurt someone and we need to feel the same thing in this life. That’s true right? ...RIGHT?”

And, of course, if I disagree with them, I’m forcing my religion on to them, being the typical tyrannical preacher who demands intellectual obedience, as if they weren’t doing the same to me.

I find those conversations annoying, if not insulting. As if their random musings are at the same level as thousands of years of rigorous theological exploration.

Many religious commentators have chimed in on why this “spiritual but not religious” phenomena is happening. Some say that it’s because of boring church services with long, tedious sermons that are out of touch with peoples’ daily lives.

Others suggest that we speak a religious language that does not compute in the brains of non-believers; that the words we use get lost in translation when they reach secular ears.

Yet others blame the growth of a multi-cultural society, where there’s no religious consensus, and so the religious waters have been so muddied that folks are forced to create their own spiritual meaning.

Still others blame a self-centered consumer society, where people get to pick and choose everything else in their lives, so why not their personal spirituality?

While I’m sure that there’s truth in all of these theories, I wonder if the rise of self-styled and self-created spiritualities are the unintended consequences of Christians behaving badly. Our cultural memory is long, and history doesn’t forget, many of the church’s past actions that have been less than loving and have hurt our proclamation and tarnished our reputation as good news people.

People remember the Crusades and the Inquisition. The know about the sexual abuse scandals and Residential Schools. The complicity or silence of Christians during the Holocaust.

People remember when the church was more interested in protecting its cultural and political power than in setting people free in Jesus’ name. 

People remember the angry, judgmental sermons and the mean Sunday School teacher. They remember being forced to memorize scripture, and they saw the harsh TV evangelist spewing hate.

They saw how some church leaders have tried to legislate so-called “Christian morality” on everyone else. 

They saw how some church-folks have tried to force people to live according to their “Christian” rules, without first receiving Christ their saviour.

They experienced a Christianity that was about controlling peoples’ behaviour and demanding social conformity. 

They experienced a Christianity that celebrated obedience rather than freedom. 

They saw preachers who used their positions and pulpits for financial gain at the expense of the good will of people in their pews.

So, it’s not as if this “spiritual but not religious” phenomena is happening within a historical vacuum. People are rebelling against an institutional, authoritarian Christianity that hurt them, which is the only kind of Christianity that seems to make the news, and so perpetuates the myth that churches filled with angry, judgmental, people who just want to tell you how sinful you are. Should we be surprised, then, when people walk away and claim spiritual independence for themselves?

However, even knowing where it’s coming from, as a church leader, there’s something therapeutic in criticizing these self-styled spiritualities, especially when the inadequacies of homemade religion are so glaring. 

But criticism can easily devolve into smugness. It’s tempting to look down my nose at those whose faith has as much spiritual nourishment as a Big Mac with fries.

It’s easy to ask, “Why can’t these folks just see what they’re doing, and then get back on board with traditional Christianity?” 

That’s tempting. But that question speaks as much about what we’ve lost as much as our concern for those who are wandering in the wilderness searching for spiritual food that sustains.

Last Sunday was supposed to be called “Back to Church Sunday,” where we were encouraged to invite people to worship who haven’t been to church for a while. It’s supposed to be an evangelistic exercise designed to help churches return, once again, to a place of institutional prominence. Which is why I decided that St. John’s will NOT participate in Back to Church Sunday.

Back to Church Sunday, to my eyes, focuses our vision on the past - on what we’ve LOST rather than what God has for us in the future. The program wants to bring “BACK” our previous successes rather than to turn our gaze to what’s ahead.

To me, it’s clear that God is doing something new, by doing something old. God is calling us away from the cultural captivity of western culture, and asking us to learn again, what Paul was trying to teach the church in Philippi in our second reading.

“Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility, regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others...”

While I think Paul overstates the issue when he says to “regard others as better than yourselves,” as he calls the church to humility, I also think he was on to something when he reminded the church that the heart of our life together is humble service to others, just like Jesus lived.

That’s why Paul goes on to quote from an early Christian hymn:

“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human likeness, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death - even death on a cross...”

As followers of the one who humbled himself, that is our calling. I’ve always said that the church of the future will be smaller, but stronger. As we break free from our cultural captivity to power and success, and as our institutional structures crumble, God will raise up a new church that is marked by humility, and revitalized by a deep spirituality rooted in ancient practice but with eyes open for God’s future.

We will no longer feel threatened by people with self-styled spiritualities or feel endangered by world religions that have migrated to our once Christian-dominated home. We will no longer worry about being a minority, but will embrace life on the margin. We will no longer look to the past with longing, but will look to the future with anticipation.

Because having been set free from institutional shackles and cultural entitlement, we will once again be a movement of good news people,

...joyfully proclaiming God’s message of life and salvation that God has given us in Jesus’ name,

...gratefully declaring freedom and forgiveness to a world trapped in selfishness and sin,

...vigorously announcing God’s justice and joy to those oppressed by destructive powers.

We will grow as a resurrection people with the resilience of the saviour who who died and rose again to defeat everything that would keep him down; indeed we ARE growing as Jesus’ risen body. Our future is NOW! Our time have ARRIVED! Christ has risen and so have we! Our eyes are open to the future that has been given to us in Jesus!

Together, may God open wide our arms to receive the future that God has placed in our hands.

May this be so among. Amen!

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Sunday, September 21, 2014

Pentecost 15A

I have trouble believing Paul in today’s second reading. Not because I think he’s dishonest, but because, given his circumstances, I can’t see why he can be in such a good mood. This letter he writes to the Philippians EXUDES joy and praise of God. He encourages a struggling church that he just started.

I have trouble believing Paul because it sounds like he’s trying to talk himself into not being afraid of being executed. He’s sitting in a Roman jail, chained to the wall, and what does he have to think about all day? He’s thinking about when his end will come, and what it will look like.

“It is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be put to shame in any way, but that by my speaking with all boldness, Christ will be exalted now as always in my body, whether by life or by death...”

That’s a bold statement. Especially from someone who could be taken away and executed at any moment. Some might say that he’s masking his fear with heroic religious language, trying to convince himself that the promise of new and everlasting life with Christ was not a mere fantasy, but a present reality waiting for him just on the other side of the jail cell door.

Others might say Paul is declaring his strong, confident faith in difficult circumstances, defiantly staring death in the face, proclaiming the mighty acts of God in a world opposed to God’s kingdom.

Maybe it’s a mixture of the two.

“For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain,” he goes on to say. “If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which I prefer.”

So this is a win-win for Paul. If he lives, he knows that he will continue his productive life, building churches. But if he dies he’ll be with Christ. He doesn’t know which one is better. He can’t decide which one he wants: doing rewarding, effective work on earth, or being with Jesus in heaven. It’s a tough choice for Paul

But not for me. I know what I’d choose. Dying isn’t something I’m looking forward to. Although I trust that God will know what to do with me when it happens, the thought of closing my eyes with only the hope and assurance of everlasting life doesn’t sit well with me. 

So maybe I don’t have the confidence of Paul. Or maybe Paul is putting on a strong religious face for his people - or even for himself.

What really worries me about this passage, is that we might be tempted to reduce our faith to the prospect of being with Christ when we die, and we miss Paul’s other great joy: being fruitful in this life. Which I think is the real point he’s trying to make.

I hear too many well-meaning Christians who seem to say that this life doesn’t matter, that all that we do here in this life is just to set us up for the life that is to come, that our time here on this planet is nothing more than a warm-up act for the main event which is heaven.

And if we misread what Paul has written then we could find ourselves even further from his message. Paul seems to be saying that suffering is GOOD! That we should rejoice in our suffering! But, of course, the suffering that Paul is talking about is the suffering of persecution, not just any old suffering.

But that’s not always clear. And again, I’ve heard many Christians talk about how suffering is the evidence of our evil and sinful world, and that we should just accept it because, in the next world, our suffering will end. We just have to be patient.

But that’s NOT what Paul is talking about because that is to completely miss the point of what God wants for us. God doesn’t want us to keep our gaze continually turned toward heaven. God wants our eyes set on the race that is before us. God wants us to focus on the task at hand. God wants us to love the life we’ve been given because that life is such a precious gift.

To diminish the life we have today is to diminish the value of the gift of life that God has given us the world God has so lovingly made.

That’s why Paul tells them to “live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.” Not as an act of obedience that will get you into heaven. Not as a burden meant to give you worth. But as a gift to give you life.

The gospel is love. The gospel is forgiveness. It’s peace, justice, mercy, and grace. These are the values that Paul is talking about when he says to live your lives in a manner worthy of the gospel.

It is because you have been given love, grace, mercy, forgiveness, and peace, that you can live them. It is because of Jesus, you ARE worthy of the gospel. It is because God has named and claimed you as God’s own, that you can live your life in Christ.

And that means something difference for everyone. Everyone has their own way of living the life worthy of the gospel. And you have your own way. Maybe God is asking you to pray for others. Maybe God is asking you to strike up a conversation with a stranger. Maybe God is asking you to heal a broken relationship. Or to write a letter of encouragement to someone you know who needs it. Or to pick up the phone and share some good news.

No matter who you are, and not matter where you are, God is calling you to live a life worthy of the gospel, because that is who you are, that is who God in Christ made you to be, so now you are agents of God’s healing mercy and forgiving love.

That’s who you are because of your baptism, where you were joined to Jesus’ death and resurrection. In these waters God has made you worthy to live your life in Christ. God hand is upon you, and will NEVER be let go. It is because of God’s good work in you, that you will do good work for others. God has set you on a path that leads from the joys and challenges of this world, and into the world to come.

So, live YOUR life in a manner worthy of the gospel. Life YOUR life in a manner that reflects God’s grace, live YOUR life in a manner that reflects God’s mercy, that reflects God’s forgiveness and peace. LOVE the life that God has given you. Shine with God’s brilliant light. 

Jesus is the one who set your free from sin and death, so live your life knowing that you’re worthy, and one day, you will depart and be with Christ.

May this be so among us. Amen.