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Sermon for September 28, 2014

Singing in a Strange Land

Two poems . . .

—one—

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

—two—

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,
Retreating....
– 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.

Sources:
W. Eugene March, God’s Tapestry (Philadelphia: WMJK, 2008).
http://www.bbchurch.ca/Sermons/272/2006-01-08%20-%20What%20happened%20to%20my%20comfortable%20life.pdf
http://www.usatoday.com/news/religion/2009-03-09-ARIS-faith-survey_N.htm
http://www.religioustolerance.org/chr_prac2.htm
http://religions.pewforum.org/reports
http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2008/06/24/eveningnews/main4206426.shtml
http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/03/01/AR2007030102073.html
http://publicreligion.org/2012/05/study-shows-that-mormons-are-the-fastest-growing-religious-group-in-the-u-s/
http://www.readthehook.com/102629/fading-faith-unreported-story-our-time
http://commons.trincoll.edu/aris/files/2011/08/ARIS_Report_2008.pdf

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