This sermon was written for and preached at Broad Street Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Martinsville, Virginia, for the 12th Sunday in Ordinary Time, June 20, 2010.
In my work for our church, I have the honor of traveling around this country, working with congregations as they seek to become more just, welcoming, and inclusive communities of faith. On nearly every flight I take, I end up sitting beside someone who will inevitably ask me what I do for a living. When I tell them I’m a minister, I usually get one of two reactions. Number one: “I think that’s such an admirable thing to do with your life. My faith community is such a wonderful blessing in my life.” That’s the positive reaction. Number two: “Oh, my God! How on earth can you work for an institution that promotes intolerance, ignorance, hatred, and violence?” That’s the not so positive reaction. I wish that I could tell you I hear the positive one more frequently than the negative one, but I’d be lying.
Organized religion has fallen on hard times. Churches, synagogues, mosques, ashrams, and other houses of religious groups sit empty while the numbers of those who claim no membership in a religious community grows by leaps and bounds each year. A recent study by Trinity College reports that the number of Americans who claim no religion has risen to a record 15 percent, with the number growing to almost 25 percent of all persons between the ages of 18 and 30. Why have so many Americans turned away from organized religion? Is it because we are no longer faced with the spiritual hunger of previous generations?
There was a time in American life when organized religion was very important, when church was the center of American civic life. Some look back on those days and see them as a Golden Age and would seek to drag us kicking and screaming back to such an era. Others would simply say that belonging to an organized religious community was a social expectation and that there were far fewer options for connection to community, and thus individuals were left with little choice other than to participate in such a group. In my more cynical moments, I’m more inclined to believe the latter.
At the end of the 19th century, noted Scottish anthropologist Sir James Frazer wrote a book entitled The Golden Bough in which he argued that human beings have progressed through two different spiritual phases and were ready to pass into a third. He argued that the first phase was that of magic, particularly that of tribal shamanism, which eventually gave way to the more rational religions grounded in Greco-Roman thought. In those days of Victorian social conservatism, Frazer dared to envision a second transition. In the wake of the enlightenment and the emerging progressive thought of modernism, Frazer argued that human beings were poised to transition from reliance upon organized religion to a society grounded in science. Have we finally arrived?
I don’t think so.
Human beings remain a spiritually hungry species. We continue to be plagued by questions of who we are and why we’re here; questions that science can’t seem to answer on its own. A recent study by Lifeway Christian Resources, the merchandising arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, reveals that a whopping 72 percent of Millennials (those persons between the ages of 18 and 29) consider themselves “spiritual, but not religious.” What exactly does that mean?
BJ Gallagher, who blogs about spirituality for The Huffington Post, says she’s spiritual but not religious because organized religion inevitably degenerates into tussles over power, ego, and money.
Gallagher tells a parable to illustrate her point:
“God and the devil were walking down a path one day when God spotted something sparkling by the side of the path. God picked it up and held it in the palm of God’s hand.
“Ah, Truth,” God said.
“Here, give it to me,” the devil said. “I’ll organize it.”
While we may chuckle at such a description, there is a great deal of truth in it. Most young people report that they want nothing to do with organized religion because they find it too exclusive and conservative. George Barna, the renowned evangelical Christian pollster spent almost a decade studying why young people were fleeing the church in droves. His results might surprise you. In the book, UnChristian, published in 2007, Barna and his associates report that 91 percent of young people report they want nothing to do with the church because they find it homophobic; 87 percent report that they would describe the church as judgmental; 85 percent label the church hypocritical.
In his book, Clay’s Quilt, author Silas House tells the story of Clay Sizemore, a young coal miner from the hills of Southeastern Kentucky. Clay was raised in the Pentecostal Church by a deeply religious family, but, like so many young people, walks away from the church, but not his faith, as he grows to adulthood. He describes his struggles to his great aunt one morning after catching her smoking on her back porch and listening to her apologies. When his great aunt tells him that she has hidden her vice from him and everyone else for years because she feared being ostracized at church, Clay responds that he has no use for a church that would reject someone simply because of who they are or what they’ve done. He says, “I don’t see eye to eye with the church telling people how to serve the Lord.” His great aunt receives his solidarity with similar words, “A person should go by their heart. That’s what I believe.”
You may wonder how any of this relates to us. We are, after all, members of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), one of the more progressive and inclusive denominations in the United States. We’ve always said that the table belongs to Christ and it is open to all who seek Christ. I would ask you, though, how many people in our world have any idea that’s what we believe and practice? In my travels across this country, virtually every unchurched person that I meet (and even most of the churched people) has no idea who we are as the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). They’ve never heard of us. When they ask me what we believe and I start to tell them what I think it is that we believe, their faces light up with hope and inevitably I hear these words, “Now if I could find a church that believed and practiced that, I’d be willing to go to church.”
My friends, we have sat comfortably isolated in our pews for the past 50 years and waited for the world to come to us. We have assumed that people who wanted faith would find us. Look around you. They haven’t. They have found those whom I term the “religious loud;” that is Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, James Kennedy, Robert Schuler, Joyce Meyer, John Hagge, Joel Osteen, and those like them who preach a faith that is anything but good news. These sages of American evangelical religion claim that by simply conforming one’s life to the narrow confines of their interpretation of the teachings of Jesus, one can find lasting happiness and material wealth. It’s a one size fits all faith. Perfect, right? Hardly. Human beings, created in the image of God, are hardly a one size fits all species. Evangelicalism has been rocked by scandal after scandal of spiritual leaders who can’t live up to their own expectations. Such hypocrisies have only furthered the flight of Americans from the pews.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus offers us a very different model of faith.
As Jesus is getting out of the boat, the man possessed by demons runs to him, but the demons inside him cry out in fear. Word about the miraculous powers of this itinerant rabbi has spread far and wide, drawing many to seek healing from his hands. Others, though have fled in fear. Just before today’s reading, Jesus has calmed a storm that threatened to overtake the boat in which he and his disciples were sailing. Upon stilling the tempest, the disciples are said to utter in terror, “Who is this, that even the wind and the waves obey him?” People are both drawn to and repelled by this Jesus who lives and loves with power. In her magnificent hymn, “Christus Paradox,” Sylvia Dunstan describes this double edged relationship with Jesus. She addresses him as, “You whom we both scorn and crave.” The Gerasene Demoniac illustrates this tenuous relationship with the One who offers healing.
I wonder how Pat Robertson would have responded to the demon-possessed man? Perhaps he would have done just what Jesus did. Perhaps, though, he would have condemned the man and ordered him out of his sight. The man was, after all, undoubtedly a Gentile, an unclean man even before he was possessed by demons. I wonder how we would have reacted to this man. Perhaps we also would have done just what Jesus did. Perhaps, though, we would simply have ignored him and continued on our journey, unnerved by the encounter and uncertain of how to respond.
How does Jesus respond? He treats the man with respect and dignity, something unheard of on the part of a devout Jew dealing with a Gentile. Jesus allows the spirits within the man, crying out in fear at the prospect of being sent back into the abyss, to offer their own understanding of what healing and wholeness would like for them and for the man. They ask to be sent into the herd of pigs that are grazing on a nearby hill. Jesus agrees to the suggestion and the spirits flee the man and enter the pigs, who promptly run headlong over the nearby cliff and are drowned. The cynic in me wonders if this isn’t the embellishment of a devout Jew in the retelling of this story. I mean, come on, it was bad enough that Jesus spoke to a Gentile, did he really have to acknowledge the presence of a herd of swine as well?
Whatever the case, Jesus allows the man to determine what healing is needed in his life. Jesus does not dictate the details of that healing, only that the man should be healed.
If we are to follow Jesus, shouldn’t this be our model of healing as well?
It isn’t that people have ceased to be spiritual today, it’s simply that they’re fed up with simple answers and one size fits all religion. They’re not interested in religion that is exclusive, arrogant, or condemning. They’re interested in a dynamic spirituality that welcomes questions, doesn’t offer easy answers, and that respects the unique journey of each and every person. They’re seeking something that more closely resembles the healing Jesus offered the Gerasene Demoniac.
Mohandas Gandhi is perhaps one of the best known examples of those who have encountered the church’s understanding of healing and politely turned away. He once said, “I like your Christ, but I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”
Why is it that so many people dislike Christians and our churches? Could it be that the only image of Christianity seen by most people is that presented by the religious loud?
I was always taught there are three topics you don’t discuss in polite company: politics, sex, and religion. Having grown up in a fairly middle class farming family in the South, I was taught that it was simply impolite to talk about controversial subjects with anyone other than one’s closest friends and family. The only problem was that I quickly discovered that not talking about those three topics left me with virtually nothing of interest to discuss. Honestly, how interesting a conversation can you really have about the weather? The longer I’ve lived, the more I’ve become convinced that the only topics truly worth discussing are politics, sex, and religion. Anything of worth in this life relates to these three subjects and to avoid them is to avoid the things which are of greatest value to us. In seeking to avoid them, we leave ourselves in the shallow end of the pool and allow the public conversation surrounding these issues to be controlled by those who have a very narrow understanding of God and God’s world.
Those of us who come from more progressive Christian churches have cowered in our pews, afraid to talk about religion because of our insecurities about our own understandings of faith and out of a fear that conflict might be generated by a conversation about religion. In doing so, we have handed religion over to the religious loud which has crafted a public image of Christianity that invites few to faith.
In her sermon at the 2003 General Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), the Rev. Dr. Maritzia Restin, pastor of University Gardens Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Bayamon, Puerto Rico, urged the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) to recover an emphasis on evangelism. She acknowledged that we have rightly been suspicious of those who would seek out individuals in order to convert them and save them, but challenged us to change the way we look at evangelism. Evangelism, she said, is not about converting people or getting them saved. Rather, Restin proclaimed, it is inviting people out of isolation and loneliness into a loving, caring, and accepting community of faith. That, she argued, is liberation and liberation is justice.
The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) has always believed in the right of each and every person to discern God’s will for her or himself under the guidance of the Holy Spirit as they seek to follow the Jesus who is revealed in the Bible and our tradition. As you say on your website, “Disciples are called together around one essential of faith – Belief in Jesus Christ, as Savior and Lord. Believers are free to follow their consciences guided by the Bible, the Holy Spirit, study, prayer, and we are expected to extend that same freedom to others.”
Sisters and brothers, we have been silent for far too long! There is a world beyond these walls that is desperately hungry to hear that there is another way, a way of faith that respects the right of each individual to be who they are and where they are in their journey of faith, that respects the work of the Holy Spirit enough to allow God to form and shape us into the image of Jesus, the Christ, in God’s own time and in God’s own way. My friends, we have an amazing gift to share with the world. We have a church that welcomes seekers and questions. The problem is that no one knows we exist. And how will they, unless we tell them?
May God give us the courage to share the treasure that has been entrusted to us: the Gospel of Jesus Christ, a way of hope, patience, and wholeness, a way that offers people the chance “to work out their own salvation with fear and trembling.” Do I call that healing? You bet I do!
By Wes Jamison
Rev. Wes Jamison is a minister-at-large (meaning he doesn’t have a call to a specific congregation at this point) for the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and the United Church of Christ. He holds a B.A. in Religion and Journalism from Milligan College and an M.Div. from Emmanuel School of Religion. Jamison currently serves as National Field Organizer for the Institute for Welcoming Resources, a joint project of the welcoming church programs and National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. He also currently chairs the Open and Affirming Ministries Program for GLAD (Gay, Lesbian, and Affirming Disciples) Alliance. Jamison lives on a farm near Blacksburg, Virginia. He has been in the Search and Call process for over four years now and continues to seek a call as a parish minister.