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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