This sermon was delivered November 18th, 2012, at Wallace UMC.
Common English Bible (CEB)
11 Every priest stands every day serving and offering the same sacrifices over and over, sacrifices that can never take away sins. 12 But when this priest offered one sacrifice for sins for all time, he sat down at the right side of God. 13 Since then, he’s waiting until his enemies are made into a footstool for his feet, 14 because he perfected the people who are being made holy with one offering for all time.
15 The Holy Spirit affirms this when saying,
16 “This is the covenant that I will make with them.
After these days, says the Lord,
I will place my laws in their hearts
and write them on their minds.
17 And I won’t remember their sins
and their lawless behavior anymore.[a]”
18 When there is forgiveness for these things, there is no longer an offering for sin.
19 Brothers and sisters, we have confidence that we can enter the holy of holies by means of Jesus’ blood, 20 through a new and living way that he opened up for us through the curtain, which is his body, 21 and we have a great high priest over God’s house.
22 Therefore, let’s draw near with a genuine heart with the certainty that our faith gives us, since our hearts are sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies are washed with pure water.
23 Let’s hold on to the confession of our hope without wavering, because the one who made the promises is reliable.
24 Let’s also think about how to motivate each other to show love and to do good works. 25 Don’t stop meeting together with other believers, which some people have gotten into the habit of doing. Instead, encourage each other, especially as you see the day drawing near.
They are called the “nones,” they say, at least by the Pew Forum on Religious and Public Life. AKA, the unaffiliated. The term refers to “people who answer a survey question about their religion by saying they have no religion, no particular religion, no religious preference, or the like.” And according to the Pew Forum, they are on the rise.
One fifth of the U.S. public, and a third of adults under 30, claimed that they do not have any inclination to any institutional religion. This umbrella includes, atheists, who do not believe in any religion, agnostics, who believe that any religious claim is ultimately unknowable and unverifiable, and the religiously unaffiliated, people who may have belief or faith in some religion, but do not claim affiliation with any religious institution. The number of all these groups together equals about 46 million people in the United States. Here’s the thing. Of the religiously unaffiliated, about 68% say they believe in God. More than a third claim to be spiritual, but not religious. 21% say they pray every day. However, I think the most telling part of the report is this: “With few exceptions, though, the unaffiliated say they are not looking for a religion that would be right for them. Overwhelmingly, they think that religious organizations are too concerned with money and power, too focused on rules and too involved in politics.” Oh, and by the way, their numbers continue to grow. In fact, it’s the only group religious-wise that is growing in the US.
So what would an unaffiliated person look like? Really, it looks like anyone: men women, educated and not educated, people earning a lot of money, and people not making all that much at all, old, young, and middle aged, and of every ethnicity under the sun. It really is a diverse group. My brothers and sisters, these people…are us. They are our neighbors.
Nor are they universally hostile to religion; they are just more likely to have a problem with or are disillusioned by the institutions of religion rather than the actual faith involved in it. In fact, most of them view religious institutions as having positive qualities: 90% believe they bring communities together and strengthen community bonds; 90% say they play a crucial role in helping the poor and needy, and 81% believe they strengthen morality. At the same time, the major criticisms that religious institutions get are, as I said earlier, we are too concerned with money and power, that we focus too much on rules, and are too involved with politics. With so many spiritual options out there, and so many ways one can pursue spirituality on an individual level, it’s no wonder that they would bypass what may be seen as a corrupt and broken institution to achieve what is perceived to be the same goal.
I do not tell you this information because I want you to be scared. Nor do I want you to be angry at them, or judge them. My brothers and sisters, I only want you to consider that, because I think this information is crucial to the way we live our faith, and how the church thinks about our faith. The church exists in a time when we are beginning to realize that we are no longer the only spiritual presence in the culture anymore—nor are we seen as an inherently spiritual enterprise, for that matter. And yet, I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing. This can be a wake-up call. In fact, I think it’s a good thing, and a necessary thing, so that the church can truly grow and live into the spirituality that has been passed down to us through our religion.
I say this, because honestly, I know the mindset of the nones. I was one of the nones, for a while, and I know from firsthand experience, it’s pretty tempting to just go off on your own and attend to your own spiritual needs, your own thoughts, and your own faith. I really do know what it is to feel that disconnect, because from where I was sitting, the church’s history outweighed its potential for good. The atrocities of the past, and the continued negativity that I saw in the church within itself was too much to bear sometimes. And yes, I knew that the church was better than its public face, and could be better than the backbiting and in-fighting, but it gets exhausting trying to explain that yes, there are some good Christians out there, and no, they’re not all hypocrites and meanies. It gets exhausting, and I got tired of defending–and being a part of– the church.
The only difference between me and a lot of other people my age, all these other nones, is that I managed to find spirituality in the church again—and that’s no easy task sometimes. In coming back to the church, it took a lot of effort to trust the church again, and believe in the church again. I had my doubts, and I had my fears. I had seen enough hatred and backbiting in the church growing up, and I was afraid to step back in to a possible whirlpool of conflict. But there are a couple of things that did get me back in the religious frame of mind, and I think it’s worth thinking about for us in this church. How do we reach out to the Spiritual, but not Religious?
Really, the issue partly comes down to reclaiming our own spirituality. People often associate Religion as being cold, and distant, and bereft of anything spiritual or moving or life-giving. The Letter to the Hebrews is an excellent place to begin thinking about our spirituality in a world filled with religious disillusionment and fatigue. This passage that was read from expresses in its first verse what can be seen as religious fatigue; priests making sacrifices every day, all in vain, all for nothing, with no good coming out of it. The writer is making a sharp critique at the temple sacrifice system from a certain spiritual perspective; he’s seeing an inherently religious act as something robbed of its spirituality. He’s feeling the disconnect of the spiritual from the religious, and he’s dissatisfied with it, in a way, because he’s experienced a richer, more robust, and more fulfilling spirituality—one that comes through belief in Christ.
One thing that is unique about this letter is its emphasis on sacrifice, and that Jesus is our High Priest, which does impact a lot of the spirituality of this letter. Everything in turn revolves around the sacrifice of Jesus, the self-giving nature of his life, death, and resurrection. Everything Jesus did was for our benefit, for our healing, and for our restoration and redemption. The sacrifice of Jesus is can be found throughout his ministry, in his reaching out to the lost sheep of the world. The cross is just the final and most evident part of his sacrifice. Because of this ultimate sacrifice, any other sacrifice that might be done is rendered empty and useless in comparison. Those enemies it talks about? In this vision of Jesus in his Glory, those enemies are the ones he defeated on the cross: sin and death, despair and oppression, fear and hate. Those enemies are what Christians see as the problem of all life. Those are the enemies of the body and the spirit, and those are the enemies that have become nothing more than a foot-stool to Jesus! Because of Jesus’s sacrificial life, of his self-giving and all-encompassing love, we are made to be more perfect, more holy, sharing in the very image of Christ.
If this isn’t spiritual thought, spiritual belief, spiritual conviction, I don’t know what is, especially when this faith, this spirituality, is founded on the idea that the Holy Spirit will write those rules that seem to confine us not in stone, not on paper, not in a book but in our hearts, in our minds. In doing this, in being open to the Holy Spirit in our lives, in recognizing, living into the sacrificial life offered to us in Christ, we are given a new life! Our sins are not only forgiven—they are forgotten! Religion is therefore freed from empty practice, so that it may be given new life in the truth of Christ.
You see, religion need not be completely without spirituality. I know that many of you in the pews may never have doubted this. Some might say that the divide was never even apparent. But truth be told, if we aren’t reminded of this spirituality that we carry in our tradition, if we are not aware of the spiritual dimension of new life, of forgiveness, of love and of personal sacrifice for others, we lose out on a crucial aspect of religion. Without recognition of the life-giving aspects of religion, we doom ourselves to our own lifeless, cold, judgmental, and hypocritical caricature that is given to us by the nones. Without affirming our spirituality, people will seek spirituality elsewhere. If all we have to offer are rules, judgments, and double-talk, we have truly lost touch with our spirituality, and we are right to be criticized. It means that we have not been faithful in our witness to the lost sheep of the world, something Christ has called us to do.
So how do we reach out to the Spiritual but not Religious? The other part of that question is just that—reaching out. Our spirituality is one that inspires in us confidence, and an authenticity that we all can aspire to. Our spirituality is one of hope, of ultimate and everlasting peace, and we can be the embodiment of that spirituality in this world by reaching out to those who are in need of the best thing we can offer, and that is community.
Don’t get me wrong—individuality is a good thing, in many ways, and everyone comes into their spirituality on an individual basis on some level. But the thing about Christianity, and the United Methodist Church especially, is our emphasis on community, and how spirituality is something that comes fully alive in community with others. Extreme individualism is something that even Christians have a hard time with amongst ourselves. It’s really easy to sing “Jesus Loves Me”—I love that song, and so do most of you! But the true vision of Jesus’s love is one that’s not really about me, but rather, about us. Jesus loves us.
I can actually testify to this. One of the things that really helped me see the value of the church is its ability to form communities, and build bonds of love between one another. When I drifted away from the church, I really was tempted to just go it alone. But what brought me back was finding a church that welcomed me in, who reached out to me, who made me feel like a family, and who nurtured my spiritual growth. Through that community, I felt like I belonged. That feeling of belonging brought about changes in my behavior, and it got to the point that I believed again in the power of communal spirituality. I believed in the church again, even though I never really lost faith in God.
Think about it this way. Take for example a solo singer. Rather, imagine the best of all possible solo singers. This person has trained all her life to be the best singer ever, and as a matter of fact, she is world renowned for her solo singing ability. Her pitch is phenomenal. Her musicality is unparalleled. Her range is without equal. But the truth is, no matter how good she is, no matter how practiced at her art she may be, there are some things she is unable to do without other people. With other people, with a group of singers, they can produce a harmony of sounds. The music gains more depth, more richness, and more variety. There can be dissonance. There can be complexity. There can be music of a type that she was never able to do on her own.
So it is with our spirituality. Alone, one can accomplish a great many things, and come to great spiritual truths. But together, we can let our spirituality grow in ways that would have been impossible on our own. We come into contact with ideas from our history, and from varying experiences. We are exposed to far more, and our spiritualities intertwine and become something more than it was before, and in that, we reflect the truth of the spirituality of Christ. Christian spirituality is one of community, of forgiveness, or self-giving and overwhelming love. We must reclaim our spirituality if we are to be honest in our witness to Christ, and to the work of the Holy Spirit. We are a Spiritual Religion, and we can reclaim a Religious Spirituality. We must simply reach out with the love that Christ has offered us. Amen.