Monday, October 13, 2014

Sermon for October 12, 2014

The Secular World: Stealing Jesus
Yes, God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him would not be lost but have eternal life. God sent his Son into the world. God did not send him to judge the world guilty, but to save the world through him. People who believe in God’s Son are not judged guilty. But people who do not believe are already judged, because they have not believed in God’s only Son. They are judged by this fact: The light has come into the world. But they did not want light. They wanted darkness, because they were doing evil things. Everyone who does evil hates the light. They will not come to the light, because the light will show all the bad things they have done. But anyone who follows the true way comes to the light. Then the light will show that whatever they have done was done through God. John 3:16-21, ERV
"Are you a Christian?”

Mainline Protestants, especially many who tend to go to churches like ours have a hard time answering that question without some theological gymnastics. It's not as easy a question as it may sound. What is a Christian? What criteria do we use to decide who is or isn't one, and who does the deciding?

There is one version of the story out there that says real Christians see Jesus' death on the cross as a transaction by means of which Jesus paid for the sins of believers and won them eternal life. Using verses like the passage I just read from John’s Gospel, some believers say eternal life is a heavenly reward after death for "true Christians"—the "Elect," the "saved"— sinners who accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior and follow all the correct beliefs of their church. The first type of Christian claims God loves only those who are “saved,” and that they alone are truly God’s children. Their version of Christian ethics warns that individuals should be wary of trusting their own minds and emotions, for these can be manipulated by Satan. Questions and doubts are to be resisted as the work of the Devil. All Truth is found in the Bible and known for sure by believers who have received correct interpretation from the Holy Spirit. They say true Christians read the Bible literally and consider it an accurate and flawless account of God’s will for humankind.

In America, when people talk about Christians, this version of the story gets the most coverage. The word Christian is often used by the media in a narrow way to include only this type of Christian, excluding pretty much everybody else. The increasing tendency to use the word Christian to mean only legalistic Protestants and ultra-traditional Catholics has given the word Christian an unpleasant flavor for many Americans — Christians included.

Other people tell another version of the Christian story.  This second version figures far less often in the mainstream media than do the legalists. Sometimes they seem virtually invisible. They worship a God of love and they envision the church, at its best, as a Church that changes the world by demonstrating God’s love in active ways. They tend to belong to churches like the United Church of Christ or the Presbyterian Church USA; American Baptists, Methodists, Episcopalians and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America. Some belong to groups like the Quakers or Unitarian Universalist. Some are voices within traditional groups like Catholics or Seventh-day Adventists.

These Christians see the work of Christ as a powerful and mysterious symbol of God's infinite love for suffering humankind and as the natural culmination of Jesus' self-giving love. They think that God loves all human beings and that all people belong to God, no matter what they believe or what religion they follow. Their version of Christian ethics teaches that the mind is a gift of God and that God wants us to think for ourselves, to follow our consciences, to ask questions, and to listen for the Spirit’s still, small voice. They see truth as something known wholly by God.  Religious creeds and belief statements can only attempt to point the way. So, they insist that the Bible must be read critically, intelligently, and with an understanding of historical and cultural contexts.

The second type of Christians think Jesus wasn’t interested in making a one’s personal faith the cornerstone for acceptance or rejection by God. Faith isn’t about following what someone tells us to believe. Belief has nothing to do with being scared that if we don’t say the right words, or show up at the right church, or live certain lifestyles, God will punish us. No, they nurture faith that can tolerate doubt. Faith that can grow and change. Take our tradition, for instance. Congregationalists believe there is no centralized authority or hierarchy that can impose any doctrine or form of worship on its members. We seek a balance between freedom of conscience and accountability to the faith. We take the Bible seriously. We listen to the historic creeds and confessions of our ancestors as testimonies of faith, but not tests of the faith. In other words, our faith is founded on Scripture and personal experience. Our faith is informed by the Church of the past. But it can never stay frozen in the past. The United Church of Christ thinks we must continue to grow and evolve: to receive new insights, and, when necessary, to reject past ideas when they have been disproved. The United Church of Christ, in its original Constitution, affirmed:
“the responsibility of the church in each generation to make this faith its own in reality of worship, in honesty of thought and expression, and in purity of heart before God.”
Faith calls each new generation to listen to God and follow God’s breath. This means we need to be willing to let go of the tethers that can keep us from being pliable, versatile people of faith.

So, are you a Christian?

To some, this second version of Christian faith is threatening. By and large, the first type of Christian thinks the second type of Christian is not a real Christians at all — or at least a fallen Christian. They will use John’s Gospel as an absolute litmus test to prove their point. The second type are seen as those who reject the light and live in darkness.

There is another difference in the two types of Christians. It has to do with how they view the secular world. The first type of Christians have become steadily angrier to what they see as spreading secularism. They think that secular humanism is winning adherents by the millions and posing a serious and snowballing threat to Christian faith and democratic freedoms. They think secularism has warped Christianity into a parody that has little or nothing to do with love and fosters suspicion and conspiracy theories. In essence, they think secularism has stolen Jesus. The culture at large has yoked the name of Jesus and his church to ideas, beliefs, and attitudes that would have appalled him.
Consider this example for the magazine Christianity Today, a representative for the first type of Christianity. The article opens with a picture of Richard Dawkins, the poster child for everything that is wrong and threatening about a world that works intentionally and actively to destroy Christian Faith. The author says,
“Christians need  . . . to recognise the new secularism for what it is – an attempt to undermine and destroy Christianity. We need to stand against its fundamentalism and we need to stand up for the poor, the young, the disabled and the marginalised (who most need the Good News), by proclaiming the gospel of Christ against the elitism and intolerance of our new fundamentalist atheists. The Gates of Hell shall not prevail!”
It’s his way of saying, “They think we are the fundamentalists. Well, the secularists are the real fundamentalists. They think we are elitist and intolerant. Well the secularists are truly elitist and intolerant.”

I can’t argue with some of that. As I’ve pointed out over the past few sermons, we do live in a more secular, more humanistic world in which Americans care less and less about organized religion. We also live in a more pluralistic, multi-faith America. In terms of the American religious landscape, we can see that many people are pulling away from organized religion. Especially when it comes to Christianity, many people do not want to associate with a religion that is seen as elitist and intolerant. Americans are becoming a collection of individuals with individual experiences, individual perceptions, and individual constructions of reality. This means, if we want to make sense of our chaotic, harmful world, less people rely on outside forces like God. If the world is going to be ordered, we need to do it ourselves.

The second type of Christians see things a little differently. They don’t see secularization and pluralism as challenges. They are opportunities. To them, the world, the universe itself, belongs to God. Creation has been blessed and pronounced good. There is no difference between the sacred and the secular. All are one in God’s realm. Here’s the opportunity: Just because religious institutions are losing their authority does not mean that people are losing their quest for or desire for God.  Instead of the church, people are connecting with God through nature, through popular culture, through literature, films, and music. Whether one’s inspiration comes from Bach or BeyoncĂ©, every note of creation is another reminder of God. Whether we watch an infant learning to walk or an elder aching to keep step, each footprint is another reminder of God. When we feel the touch of love, it is the fingerprint of God, a revelation of the mystery. So the whole distinction between sacred and secular just doesn’t work anymore. It’s not helpful. It’s not true. There is only one universe. It’s all sacred. It all reveals the divine. Since there are billions of us on this planet, if we can’t start honoring the divine presence in all people, all religions, and all things, then what hope there is for the world.

So, why haven't the “Type-2” Christians made more of an effort to rescue the word Christian from all the negative associations it has acquired in the minds of many Americans? Partly because we treat faith and religion as a private matter. Partly because we feel silenced by the aggressive, unapologetic manner in which “Type-1” Christians define true Christians from false ones. Partly, perhaps, because we sense the danger of seeming smug and self-congratulatory in our professions of faith.

The unfortunate result of silence is that one Christian point of view plays an invisible role in the discussions of issues that roil our society. We saw this with the marriage equality debate in Maryland. For the most part, people framed the faith concern as a clear-cut contest between "Christians" who supposedly upheld responsibility, values, and family, versus liberal secular humanists who supported tolerance and separation of church and state.

The time has come for a challenge to be made. It is time to take Jesus back. It’s time to take Jesus back to show the highest spiritual and moral aspirations for humanity. It’s time to take Jesus back to guide us along the path of transformation. It’s time to take Jesus back and invite others to receive his love in ways that do not mutilate or deny our humanity. It’s time to take Jesus back and to unshackle the word Christian, ¬and the living Christ itself, from the partialities and principles to which they have been captured.

Empowered by the Holy Spirit, we commit ourselves:
To praise God, confess our sin, and joyfully accept God's forgiveness;
To proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ in our suffering world;
To embody God's Love for all people;
To hear and give voice to creation's cry for justice and peace;
To name and confront the powers of evil within and among us;
To repent our silence and complicity with the forces of chaos and death;
To preach and teach with the power of the living Word;
To join oppressed and troubled people in the struggle for liberation;
To work for justice, healing, and wholeness of life;
To embrace the unity of Christ's church;
To discern and celebrate the present and coming reign of God.

It’s time to take Jesus back.

How (Not)to be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor, by James K.A. Smith.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Sermon for September 28, 2014

Singing in a Strange Land

Two poems . . .


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. Psalm 137


The sea of faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round Earth's shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
– from Matthew Arnold's “Dover Beach”

Philosopher-historian Will Durant called it "the basic event of modern times." He didn't mean the world wars, or the end of colonialism, or the rise of electronics. He was talking about the decline of religion in Western democracies.

Last week, I presented the case that many feel a sense of loss and discouragement about the church. Our sanctuaries are not as full as they used to be. Some of our neighboring churches that used to be the bedrock of the town are closing their doors. Denominational identity can be unsatisfying. Church growth programs that once worked are now ineffective. The question I’ve been pondering is how did we get here? Why was it virtually impossible not to believe in God, say, 500 years ago in Western society, while in 2014, many people find this not only easy, but even inescapable?  As one report from Trinity College in Hartford concludes, “The challenge to Christianity in the United States does not come from other religions but rather from a rejection of all forms of organized religion.” How did American religion become a faith of humanists and skeptics?

We could say the Western Christian church is entering a time of exile. Many of you grew up in a 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. Definitely no liquor sales. 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 and the Christian church supported each other. These days, the Christian story is much less known and Christians find themselves closer to the margins of society and competing for attention in the public square. Here is an example of our new America’s relationship with Christianity: According to Professor Stephen Prothero from Boston University, 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 world religions like 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 survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life reports that Americans are changing religious affiliations at a rising rate. The survey confirms that the United States is on the verge of becoming a minority Protestant country. Catholicism has experienced the greatest net losses as a result of membership changes. While traditional churches hemorrhage, we see other faiths growing. 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? The Mormons. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day reported 2 million new adherents and new congregations in 295 counties where no Mormons even lived a decade ago.

Let’s go back to that comment a made a moment ago -- the report from Trinity College in Hartford concludes --“The challenge to Christianity in the United States does not come from other religions but rather from a rejection of all forms of organized religion.” According to Pew and other studies, the group with the greatest net gain in the religious landscape is “unaffiliated.” In other words, 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.”

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 our song in this new land. We need to think about what it means to follow the Living God in a culture that cares less and less of our faith language and religious metaphors.

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. Now, we find ourselves surprised by the reminder that we were always meant to be foreigners, pilgrims, or in the words of Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon, resident aliens

Let’s think back on the first poem I read ¬¬– Psalm 137. It was written by foreigners. They were prisoners — Jewish exiles living and working in Babylon. After the fall of Jerusalem, Jews were deported to Babylon and assimilated into the culture. Two or three generations later, some of the Jewish exiles still remembered the stories of home. They recalled the times when their people were in control of their own destinies. The warmth of community had all but disappeared. Their tormentors ask them to sing the songs of Jerusalem. I wonder if it was a way to test whether Babylon’s regime of exclusion through assimilation had worked. If the Jewish exiles can’t remember their songs, then their culture has been destroyed. The exiles hang up their harps. They pretend not to remember. But truth be told, remembering just hurts too much. They set aside their harps – harps that used to accompany their hymns in worship of God. Their harps, so useful and so right, their music so fitting in the Jewish Temple, could not be evoked in this repressive environment. They asked, “In the midst of our grief and loss, in the face of those who want us to forget who we are, why would we invoke songs of gratitude and joy? How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?”

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, economic, and 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.

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 expressed a passionate, stubborn and resistant faith. Churches like CCC must continue to re-tell and remember our story: that forgiveness and new life is open to all who embrace it.

3. Engage

What will it mean to practice our faith in a country of religious diversity? I think it means that we have to learn humility, invite open dialogue with other faiths, and engage those who are “unaffiliated” as equals on our spiritual journey. We will have to resist the temptation to make absolute faith claims that cut off true dialogue. 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.

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).

Sermon for January 21, 2018

How Far Would You Go? 1 Samuel 17 I had a sermon all ready to go today. It was a NICE sermon. You would have felt really good about i...