I ask therefore that turning from all that is usually called religion you aim your attention only at these individual intimations and moods that you will find in all expressions and noble deeds of God-inspired persons. If you then discover nothing new and pertinent even in the particular, as I hope may occur despite your learning and your knowledge, if your narrow concept that is produced only by superficial observation does not expand and transform itself, if you could then still despise this bent of mind toward the eternal – if all this is important to humanity can still seem ludicrous to you even from this point of view, then I shall believe that your disdain of religion is in conformity with your nature and shall have nothing further to say to you. Only do not worry that I still might, in the end, resort after all to those common measures of demonstrating to you how necessary religion is for maintaining right and order in the world and for coming to the aid of the shortsightedness of human perspective and the narrow limits of human power with the reminder of an all-seeing and infinite power. Nor shall I say that religion would be a true friend and a saving support of morality, since its holy feelings and its brilliant prospects make the struggle with the self and the accomplishment of good very much easier for a weak humanity. — F. Schleiermacher, On Religion
We had a slow crowd here for the Ham and Bean Supper. I, like many of you, I suspect, felt somewhat depressed by that fact. I apologized to Pierro, the music director of the Mad River Chorale, after the concert that so few people attended the concert following the supper. He said something to me that I will not soon forget. He said, “Look, you’re up here Sunday after Sunday preaching the gospel, and after a week of rain, if Sunday morning dawns bright and clear, even the gospel is not going to get them here. What makes you think some esoteric music that I take an interest in can do what you can’t?”
Well, of course he’s right. But what is really striking is that for so long it has, and I think it continues, to bring people into sanctuaries, even on nice days.
But I think we must also be clear. The church is a struggling institution.
One statistic I read recently posits that in 10 years the US Church will claim numbers like the European church today does — .5% of the population attends church on a Sunday morning. I agree with Philip Clayton who quoted that statistic — “Jesus’ message will be consigned to the dustbins of history unless we, together, begin to show why and how it remains relevant to our day.”
I want to being with one metaphor and end with another, more hopeful one. The first metaphor comes from the great French composer, Claude Debussy, who when he was a young man, struggling to make ends meet writing music, made money on the side as a music critic. He was required to review the music of the great Richard Wagner who was widely acclaimed as a genius. Wagner’s music caused consternation early on, but by the time Debussy reviewed it, Wagner was an old man, but his music was all the rage. Debussy thought otherwise. “Wagner,” he wrote, “is the sunset which some have mistaken for a sunrise.”
Part of Pierro’s observation is true. The gospel has remarkable staying power. But we cannot pretend the occasional light is a sunrise. We must begin to show why and how it remains relevant today.
When I graduated from divinity school and returned to my home church, several clergy people were present who had long since retired. They had retired at the height of the “God is dead” movement of the 60’s and 70’s. That movement was nothing new — nevertheless, some of these retired clergy were disturbed by the 60’s presentation of it and pressed me for information on how the professors were thinking about it. But the fact is that the word “God” has been through all sorts of ups and downs, and Nietzsche’s claim that “God is dead,” is nothing, in my opinion compared to the depths to which it is being dragged now, used to sanction economic injustices, wars, and violence against the poor. In some ways Christianity has been terribly effective — it has marshalled a mighty political machine in service to economic dominance and military might.if you see this as a problem, there are three logical paths optiond — 1) we can abandon the Way of Jesus. We can acknowledge that the word “God” is too fraught with unstable images. We can abandon these things and simply go to war over the ideological sense of injustice we might feel. This way is superficial and will not work in the long run.2) We can try to force Christianity back on to the Way of Jesus. Philip Clayton writes pointedly in response to statistics that suggest by 2020 US church attendance will rival that of today’s European church attendance — about .5% of the population. He says:
I used to think that the answer was a new theology. My emphasis on constructing a theology was similar to the protagonist in Field of Dreams: “if we build it, they will come [back].”
Let’s put it on the record, he continues, I was wrong. Christianity’s problem today is not theology.
If Clayton means by this that theology, as the language of the institutional church, will pull a sudden fast one, like Schleiermacher, in our reading today acknowledges has been done too often in the past, and force us back to the way of Jesus, I entirely agree. The language of Christianity has become entirely too easy to misuse. Perhaps we’re more accurate to say the language of religion, as Christianity is not alone in using religion to grab hold of power through state sponsored violence. Look at Judaism — In the name of a promise from God — the state, against many Jews who wish otherwise, occupies, oppresses and slaughters, on a regular basis, their neighbors, the Palestinians. Look to Islam too — some preach murder and suicide as a mark of Ins’ Allah, the will of God. Their ungodly noise is not stiffled by their friends and neighbors.
Let me offer the third way — a way that reclaims all that is important to humanity, from religion, and moves forward — with another metaphor.On the day Osama bin Laden was killed, another muslim by the name of Omar Ahmad died of a heart attack in California. He was the mayor of San Carlos and universally beloved for his optimism and his power to lead which he did not do by force, but by inspiration and encouragement. One obituary said that people admired Omar “not because he was Muslim, but because being Muslim made him do admirable things” The obituary continues:
When we think of Muslim-America, we think of Omar. . . When we think of role models for our community, we think of Omar. He gave only what was best—and he gave it every day for everyone, regardless of color or religion. . .
But he was not bigger than life. Despite all his accomplishments, he was humble, grounded, full of conviction, congenial, and approachable. . . His spirit, energy, relentless curiosity, and fierce intellect could not be anchored. . .
Most people leave us behind. He left us moving forward.
I mention Omar Ahmad, because while Debussy’s metaphor, functions to illustrate the end, — Ahmad’s life is the metaphor we need on the positive side. If abandoning religion will not ultimately work, and inventing a new theology holds little promise — then the third option is to reclaim all that is important to humanity from the structures of institutional religion and move forward — not because we are Christian, but because being Christian leads us to engage the common good; to seek after our better angels.
People like Ahmad make us realize that all that is important to humanity is no longer tied up in churches or synagogues or mosques — and since these structures are so laden with Debussy’s sunset — something new needs to happen. And here’s where I struggle a lot with all of this. I do not know what that will look like.IV.But who cares? That matter will take care of itself if the language of God is returned to the people of God. That matter will take care of itself to the extent that we grow beyond thinking about religion as an external requirement making us to bow down before altars. That matter will take care of itself if we can, right now, grow beyond thinking it is the job of pastors and priests to minister and be good and obey, but instead the extraordinary gift and responsibility of all of us. That matter will take care of itself, if we can grow beyond the thinking that we have to get our theology right our own believing right, in order to belong to a community. That matter will take care of itself as we proclaim and live the highest ideals that we can articulate about humanity.
These ideas are not just limited to thinkers like Clayton in the 21st century or Schleiermacher in the 19th. They can be found in the bible too. Cast your nets where the fish are. Turn around, the kingdom of God is near and you can see it too. The first shall be last and the last first.
And these words from the Psalmist — “O God, establish the work of our hands upon us; yes, establish the work of our hands.”
That doesn’t mean just any work. It certainly doesn’t mean evil work. It means the work of the hands that move us forward — it means the kind of thinking, worshiping and living that moves us forward, together. Different people, different colors, different religions, different orientations, seeking the common good.
May it be said of us, that all that is important to humanity is worth more than our ideology, more than our theology, and more even than our institution. Amen.