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Sermon for May 3, 2009

Singing in a Strange Land
May 3, 2009

Psalm 137
By the rivers of Babylon—
there we sat down and there we wept
when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there
we hung up our harps.
For there our captors
asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’
How could we sing the Lord’s song
in a strange land?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
let my right hand wither!
Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth,
if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
above my highest joy.

Last week, I presented the case that the Christian church is entering exile. Many of us grew up in this world of American Christendom, a world where church and culture were interwoven in ways that we were mostly unaware of. For example, many of you can remember times when stores were closed on Sunday. No youth sports, no college sports, no shopping at the Mall. Public schools opened each day with the pledge of allegiance and a prayer – sometimes even a reading from the Bible. These were central ways in which the culture supported the church. These days, the Christian story is much less known and Christians find themselves on the margins of society and competing for the public square. Here is an example of our new America’s relationship with Christianity: According to Professor Stephen Prothero, about 75 percent of adults mistakenly believe the Bible teaches that “God helps those who help themselves.” More than 10 percent think that Noah’s wife was Joan of Arc. Only half can name even one of the four Gospels. The American public knows even less about Islam, Buddhism, Confucianism and Hinduism than it does about Christianity and Judaism.

Like the psalmist of old, we find ourselves asking, “How shall we sing the Lord’s song in this strange land?”

A new survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life reports that Americans are changing religious affiliations at a rising rate. We Protestants are no longer the majority religion in the country, and the Roman Catholic Church has experienced the greatest net losses due to affiliation changes. CT ranks fourth in Catholic Church losses, with a 12% decline in 18 years. The Pew survey indicates that the group with the greatest net gain was “unaffiliated.” More than 16 % of American adults say they are not part of any organized faith, which makes the unaffiliated the country’s fourth largest “religious group.”

While traditional churches hemorrhage, we see other faiths growing. CT is the number one state in growth of non-Christian religions. The Islamic Society of North America claims there are between 6 and 8 million Muslims in the United States today. The New York Times placed the number between 2 and 4 million. The Pluralism Project at Harvard University, believes the correct figure is somewhere in between. Islam is one of the country’s top ten largest religious groups, not to mention the second largest religion in the world. And guess who the fastest growing faith group is, in terms of percentage of growth? Wicca, a Neopagan religion sometimes referred to as Witchcraft. Wicca adherents went from 8,000 in 1990 to 134,000 in 2001. Their numbers of believers are doubling about every 30 months.

Like it or not, it is well documented that the United States is the most religiously pluralistic country in the world. In this new ecology of faith, dealing with religious pluralism is not just a politically correct nicety. Religious diversity is now a fact of our existence, whether we fully recognize it or not. And as Christians, we will have to deal with it. Our compelling task is to figure out how we can sing the Lord’s song in this new land. We need to think about what it means to follow the Living God in a culture shares less and less of our religious language and metaphors.

Christendom made the church lazy. When we were on top of the religious dog pile, we did not have to offer compelling reasons for our existence. We did not have to convince the world that we were relevant. We were taught that our citizenship as Americans and as Christians were one in the same. But this has never been the message of the gospel. If you are among those who follow Jesus, your citizenship is in the realm of God. We lost that perspective along the way, and now find ourselves surprised by the reminder that we were always meant to be foreigners and aliens as well as residents of our world.

Psalm 137 was written by foreigners. They were prisoners — Jewish exiles now living and working in Babylon. They remembered how it felt to be masters of their own destinies. they lived far away from the familiarity of home. The warmth of community had all but disappeared. Their harps, probably Levite harps used in the worship of God, were set aside. In their sorrow, they could no longer sing. In their loss, they did not know how to worship God away from the familiar surroundings of the Temple in Jerusalem. Their harps, so useful and so right, their music so well thought out and so fitting in the Temple, could not be sung this foreign environment. And so they asked a serious question of themselves? “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?”

In effect, this is the question today’s churches need to ask itself: “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” Because, as far as the church is concerned, we do live in a strange land. The religious, cultural, political, economical, sociological landscape has changed. What do we do? Let’s listen some more to the Psalmist.

1. Grieve

The Psalm opens with these words:
By the rivers of Babylon—
there we sat down and there we wept
when we remembered Zion.
We can’t just embrace the new world without grieving the loss of the old. Real grief is part of a process of transformation. Grief is hard. It takes us by surprise. In grief, we learn to let go and to move on and be changed. We grieve for the good old days, and those days weren’t so long ago. Only a generation ago, it was unusual for people not to go to church. Churches were built in neighborhoods for people in the neighborhood. Our church was built with that understanding. We grieve because aligning oneself with Christianity is no longer a popular stance. And if we do not grieve, we will not ask ourselves the tough questions that we need to ask. Maybe when we ask the right questions we will discover that the good old days weren’t very good after all. Maybe from God’s perspective, Christendom wasn’t so Christ-like as we thought it was.

2. Remember

The Psalmist also offers these words:
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
let my right hand wither!
Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth,
if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
above my highest joy.

As a church, we not only grieve. We remember. This last portion of this psalm speaks defiantly into the darkness that has enveloped the exiles. Taunted by enemies on all sides, seemingly helpless and hopeless, powerless to change their fate, laughed at, ridiculed, rejected, their country devastated, their temple in ruins, the exiles express a passionate, stubborn and resistant faith. Our celebration of communion reminds us to relive and remember our story: that forgiveness and new life is open to all who would embrace it. The simple elements remind us of what kind of life we are called to live: lives of generosity and sacrifice, lives of love and grace, lives of faith and hope, not of power, not of self-centeredness, not of popularity.

3. Engage

What will it mean to practice our faith in a country of religious diversity? I think it means that we will have to learn humility, and invite open dialogue with other faiths, and those who are “unaffiliated.” We will have to resist the temptation to make absolute faith claims. We will have to stand firm against the enticement to make negative judgments on other faith practices. We need to make the effort to get to know others — to learn what they think, what they believe, and what is at the heart of their understanding and commitment to God. Let’s call this stance “pluralism literacy” — becoming knowledgeable about other faiths. The culture is beginning to taking care of this for us. For example, Modesto is known as the Bible belt of California. It has deep conservative roots in farmland and a vocal Evangelical community. Modesto is becoming more religiously diverse. But unlike any other place, religion is a required course in high school here. Modesto is the only public school district in America where students have to study all major religions to graduate. The goal is to create one community where everyone is accepted. It will be essential for us to know how other types of believers and nonbelievers feel and think — the kind of knowledge that requires imagination, empathy or, what college often provides, real encounters.

As Christians, we do not know. We only trust. We do not own the truth, but we bear witness to the living Truth. We engage ourselves with those who belong to other faith traditions with the expectation that the other — another human being — has something vital to bring to our meeting. We want to know what God is doing in the lives of people within other faiths. Christian witness in a pluralistic world means opening our lives to others so that they may understand how we attend to our ultimate concerns, and so that we might listen to how God helps others address their ultimate concerns.

When we can do that, we might be surprised at what we learn. We might be shocked to hear God speaking to us. We might learn to talk intelligently about our own faith instead of assuming that people already know about Christianity. As we share and listen, as we do God’s work, hand-in-hand with people of faith who seek to make the world a better place, we might just become the church God intended us to be in the first place.

W. Eugene March, God’s Tapestry (Philadelphia: WMJK, 2008).

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