Monday, December 5, 2011

Spiritual But Not Religious

The fastest growing religion in the United States is unaffiliated.
People who are calling themselves “Spiritual but not religious” are leaving behind churches.
It got me thinking about how people are flocking away from Churches.
What is it that they are leaving and what is it that they are looking for?
Because today’s Gospel reading tells us that people were flocking into the wilderness to hear John.
I was thinking this week about those flocking to the wilderness.
I was thinking about those going out to hear John speak, and baptize.
They went to hear John because something they had a deep need to be saved.
They went because they were anticipating something great was going to happen.
John was preparing them for something even more.
I am wondering what is it that we are anticipating this advent season?
What do all the people out there need who say they are “spiritual but not religious”?
What are the people looking for who show up here at worship on Christmas eve but who don’t usually come?
What is it that they come to hear?

One thing they don’t want to hear is that they need forgiveness for their sins.
One of the criticism is about the Church is that people don’t want to come here to “feel bad about themselves”.
John’s message for our time is a radical one.
It is a message that demands of us serious preparation.
It demands preparation so that we are able to hear the good news.
Mark’s Gospel begins in this very simple way.
There are no birth stories, no genealogies, no angels, no wise men, or shepherds, just a message of preparation.

Because John knows that the good news is hard to hear without repentance.
If you don’t think there is anything wrong with you, if you don’t think that you sin, then how can you hear the good news of Jesus Christ.
The coming of the messiah means nothing if you think all is well.

I remember meeting with a family before a funeral.
It was in their home.
The grand daughter was telling me that she did not really think that religion was that important.
She was saying that she was “spiritual but not religious”.
She then told me this, “I am a good person. I try to do the right thing.”
Sin is not about being a good person or a bad person.
It is about something deeper in us that make us always seek out our self interest over the interest of our neighbors.
It is what makes us believe that we don’t need God because we can all improve ourselves.
Repentance is not about saying “I can improve. I can get better.”
Repentance is admitting that we can’t improve and we can’t get better and we need God to save us.
Without repentance it will be hard to hear the good news.

I too will tell you that I am spiritual and not religious.
There are many things I really dislike about religion.
I dislike that we use at as a way to divide ourselves from one another.
I dislike that we use at as a way to deny progress and science.
I dislike that we use at as a way to make ourselves feel superior over other people.
“My people are going to heaven, and your people are going to burn in the fires of hell.”
I dislike that religion often is the defender of the status quo, instead of a defender of the left out and lost.
So there is a lot to dislike.
But there is also a lot to like.
What I believe is that I can’t be spiritual with being religious.
I need some way to express my spiritual nature.
I need some where to go and pray.
I need some where to go and read the Holy Scripture, and be challenged in my beliefs.
I need a place to sing the praises of my God.
Without religion how would I do that?
I want to know what people who say they are spiritual but not religious are doing to be spiritual.

That is why I love Sunday’s, because on Sundays I get to come here and be spiritual.
To me this space that we occupy every Sunday together is like a wilderness.
It is a place I flee to.
Like the people in our Gospel this morning I come here to have a place to repent.
I come here to prepare myself for life, and to receive the good news of Jesus Christ.
And it is the wilderness because when I come to worship I get to leave everything else behind.
I can leave my busy life behind, I can leave the problems of the world behind, I can leave all my sin behind.
In this space I can recharge myself as I hear the good news of Jesus Christ.
It is like every week is a new beginning for me.
I can understand why the crowds flock to the wilderness to hear John.
They want bad1ly to have a new beginning of their lives.
They want to know the God of good news.

I know that many of you feel the same way.
On our giving tree people wrote about how worshipping here brings them closer to God.
As one person wrote, “Choir and music in the church brings me closer to the Word of God and the Holy Spirit. It is a reinforcing of the message of the Word through praise and song.”
In other words, it is here together in worship that we are met by the Holy Spirit.
It is here that we experience together spiritual worship.
Those who look at worship and see only boring hymns and outdated rituals don’t see it properly.
So much more is going on in our worship life together.
We are confessing our sins, emptying ourselves of pretention, seeking the mercy of God, deeply intersecting our stories with the story of God, and renewing ourselves to the mission of spreading the good news to others.
We are not just talking about being spiritual we are practicing our spirituality.

What John the Baptist calls the people of Jerusalem and Judea to this morning is something more than merely a ritualized bath, but he is calling them to spiritually prepare themselves for the good news.
And every Sunday we come together to prepare ourselves to receive the good news of Jesus Christ.

In this advent season preparing for us means that we confess our sins, sing praises to God, enrich our lives with the Word, and hear anew the promise of God’s good news coming to each of us.
We travel into the wilderness to do it.
We travel away from the hustle and bustle of buying presents, hanging decorations, and cooking food into the wilderness where God always meets God’s people.
We do it not because those other things are bad, but because we need it, we yearn for it.

For the people of Jesus’ day they were so eager to hear the good news that they came to the wilderness.
I think we too have that same hunger.
I believe that all those “spiritual but not religious” people in the world are deeply starved for the good news.
They too yearn to be loved.
They too yearn to hear God say words of comfort and joy.
Perhaps that is why in our culture Christmas is so wildly celebrated.
That even though people may or may not be prepared for Christ to come at Christmas they still yearn for it in their souls.
Buying presents is a great way to show your love for others, bringing light into our houses during the darkest time of the year is a great way to remember hope, hearing songs is great way to bring joy to others.
All these traditions of Christmas are not what Christmas is about, but perhaps they are signs of what we truly yearn for and really want in our lives love, peace, comfort, and joy.

Those of us who have come to worship this morning have traveled into the wilderness so that we are prepared for the good news.
We are preparing for the true spiritual beginning that comes to us from our God who comes to comfort us.
Let us leave knowing that we are prepared to receive the good news of Jesus Christ.

1 comment:

  1. That's an outstanding sermon, Jon. I'm only sorry that I have to read it on a screen rather than hear it preached. I've really been enjoying your blog. The people of Concordia Lutheran are blessed to have a pastor of your insight and wisdom.