Sunday, October 06, 2013

Sermon: "What Do We Do When Institutions Fail Us?" (Delivered 10-6-13)

The reading this morning comes from a chapter in the book When “Spiritual But not Religious” is Not Enough: Seeing God in Surprising Places, Even the Church by Lillian Daniel.  Lillian Daniel is a parish minister serving a United Church of Christ (UCC) congregation in the Chicago Suburbs.  She was also the keynote speaker at a national gathering of members of the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association last June where she talked to us about the challenges that the new American religious landscape posed to us as ministers.  The reading comes from the chapter, “Things I Am Tired Of.”

I am tired of hearing people say stupid things in the name of [religion.]  I am tired of nutty, pistol-packing pastors who want to burn the Koran.  I am tired of televangelists who claim that natural disasters are the will of God…  I am tired of preachers who promise prosperity.  As grumpy as it sounds, I am even tired of Tim Tebow.

I am also tired of people who say they are spiritual but not religious.  I am tired of people who have one bad experience with a church and paint the whole of Christianity with that brush.  I am tired of celebrities who criticize the church for being patriarchal and homophobic but do nothing to support the churches that are not.  I am super tired of Anne Rice.

I am tired of people who say they want a church like mine but cannot be bothered to attend one.  And I am tired of people who criticize churches like mine [when they’ve never attended.]

So I resonate with the angry words from letters to the early church that criticize shallow believers with itchy ears…  I live in a society where stupid and simple spirituality always trumps the depth of a complex faith.  We are a people of itchy ears.

Perhaps I am really just tired of myself.  In criticizing others in their faith, I hardly live up to the best in my own faith… And this is why I can’t do this religion thing all by myself. This is why I need a community. 

I begin this morning’s sermon by sharing a few statistics about the American religious landscape.  Here is what has happened, what is happening, to religious affiliation in the United States.  In just an eight year period, from 2004 to 2012, membership in the Presbyterian Church declined by 27%.  Membership in the United Church of Christ, the most progressive Christian denomination in America, declined by 26% in that same eight year period.  Episcopalians declined by 20%, Lutherans by 18%, and American Baptists by 13%.  The United Methodists declined by 7%.  Even the Southern Baptists shrunk, but only by 0.7%.  In addition, all four major branches of Judaism have declined.  Evangelical Christianity, which was only so recently in its ascendance, has begun to decline as well.

Not every religious group has declined.  In this same eight year period, Catholicism grew by two and a half percent.  And Mormons, Pentecostals, and Jehovah’s Witnesses grew by more than ten percent.

In this same eight year period, membership in the churches of the Unitarian Universalist Association increased by a little less than 2%, not as good as the Mormons but not as bad as the Presbyterians and Lutherans.  Our congregation, by the way, has grown by 70% over the past decade or so.

What these statistics tell us is that there is a crisis taking place right now within American Christianity, and especially within the American Protestant tradition.  Most mainline denominations have declined by 10% to 25% in less than a decade.  This decline in numbers coincides with a decline in stature.  In the past decade the public perception of religion has taken a beating.  The terrorist attacks of September eleventh are associated with religion in the public imagination.  The worldwide childhood sex abuse conspiracy and cover-up within the Roman Catholic Church has profoundly undermined trust in religious institutions and religious authority.  A third factor in the decline of religion in the United States is that the most public expressions of religion in the past decade have involved virulent homophobia, splenetic judgments about abortion, and a prurient fascination with sexuality in general.  A few years ago, the Barna Group, an organization that does polling about religion in America, interviewed young people and found that the term they most closely associated with Christianity was “anti-gay.”  Over the past decade denominational conferences as well as congregations have become battlegrounds over issues related to sexual orientation producing knock-down drag-out fights, divisions, and schisms between factions in the church where people were mean and nasty to one another.  That’s never a good growth strategy.  And, finally, the public alignment of religion with political parties has had a negative impact on the public perception of religion.  When religious leaders get in bed with politicians and political parties for the purposes of building power and influence, religious people are ones who wind up being used and losing respect.  [These four factors were discussed by Diana Butler Bass in a piece by CBS News that also prominently features Unitarian Universalists.  That piece is included as part of the keynote given by Lillian Daniel.  Go to 13:00 in the video to see the CBS News piece.]

This decline in numbers and stature may have been what Lillian Daniel had in mind when she wrote, When “Spiritual But not Religious” is Not Enough.  On the surface, the book is mostly a collection of short reflections from a Christian perspective.  Well, mostly short reflections but also a handful of rants sprinkled in as well.  A subtle but common thread that runs through many of these meditations and reflections is they have to do with locating the transformative, life-affirming aspects of religion in the gathered church, the ecclesia, the community of religious people, as well as in a tradition that was there before us and will survive beyond us.  Her book is, in Daniel’s own words, “an apologetic, not for a belief stance, but for the meaning of community.”

The term “spiritual but not religious” refers to people who actively search for transcendent meaning, even for God, but choose not to participate in a religious community in any meaningful sense.  Some, but not all, atheists, agnostics and humanists are “spiritual but not religious.”  It is a term that mostly refers to people who think of themselves as Christian but don’t have a community, or people who dabble in a variety of spiritual practices and sample from many of the world’s religious traditions without having a community in which they are grounded.  With the statistics that I mentioned at the beginning of this sermon, with the startling decline in the number of Americans who identify with any religious tradition, you can imagine that this category of the “spiritual but not religious” is rapidly increasing.

Lillian Daniel is admittedly judgmental of people who are spiritual but not religious.  “Being privately spiritual but not religious just doesn’t interest me,” she writes.  “There is nothing challenging about having deep thoughts all by oneself.  What is interesting is doing this work in community, where other people might call you on your stuff or, heaven forbid, disagree with you.  Where life with God gets rich and provocative is when you dig deeply into a tradition that you did not invent all by yourself.  Being privately spiritual but not religious has become the norm in American culture.”  The rants in Lillian Daniel’s book have to do with her frustration with a world in which religious community is in decline and in which shallowness, consumerism, self-centeredness, and loneliness are increasingly present.

When Daniel spoke to a room full of 500 UU ministers, the reception she received was somewhat divided.  I found myself talking with many of my colleagues and asking them if they were on-board with her message.  What I discovered to be anecdotally true was that ministers who live in places that are religiously progressive tended to like Lillian Daniel a lot and that my colleagues who reside in places that are more religiously conservative tended not to agree with her as much.  My colleague in Houston put it this way, “I run into people all the time who are going it alone spiritually because they’ve been burned so badly by religion.  God may not have pushed them away, but the church certainly did.  And I don’t think it’s fair to paint the people I meet as self-centered or irresponsible, when they are more wounded than anything else.”  One of my Kansas colleagues agreed enthusiastically.  “You want to know how to make the church unattractive to people who visit?  Have the minister criticize them for not being a part of a church, that’s how.”  On the other hand, a friend of mine who serves a church in the Boston area loved what Lillian Daniel had to say.  “I run into so many people who look down on religion condescendingly, who are cultured despisers of religion.  And when they open their mouths they don’t have the faintest idea what they’re talking about.  There isn’t a church in my county that resembles all the bad things they assume about religion.”  A colleague of mine who lives in Northern California told me that he considers narcissism and self-centeredness to be biggest spiritual issue of our time and that religious community can be a great antidote for narcissism.

Let me share one of the stories from Lillian Daniel’s book.  It is not the best story.  It is not the most memorable story.  But it is a story that most clearly illustrates her message about the church as a transformative institution and presents a challenging vision of community.  She serves a church in the affluent suburbs of Chicago.  The church offers itself up as a homeless shelter every Sunday night.  Despite the wealth of the area where she lives, as many as 60 men, women, and children receive shelter at the church.  As we may expect, her church begins to receive complaints about homeless people panhandling, pushing carts with their belongings through the town, and hanging out at the local Starbucks.  Daniel writes,

Some of the complaints I have heard center around the fact that the homeless have the nerve to sit on the bench outside the coffee shop, and by doing so, prevent others from sitting there who would not want to sit by someone like that.  It is as if, in this affluent suburb, there is an unspoken sign that says that if you pay enough money for your home, you should not only not have to sit next to a homeless person, you should not even have to see one…  To which Jesus and the church have a very clear answer that will not satisfy these people.  The answer is this:  in the world, there may be assigned seating, but in the kingdom of heaven there is not.  And so if we believe in that heavenly banquet, we ought to act like it, and live it out here.  For Jesus and the disciples, there were no assigned seats at his table.  All were welcome, particularly in their brokenness, for the church was born on the damaged consciences and rotten reputations of tax collectors, sinners, and people in need.  The church will always be criticized when it challenges the world on these issues.

For Lillian Daniel, as a Christian, the church is the institution through which God’s grace works in our lives.  She’s responding I think to a historical moment in which a whole lot of people have said that they have no need for these institutions.  In so many words they’ve said, “Religion is not the solution to our problems.  Religion is the problem.”  And she’s responding, I think, to a historical moment in which religious institutions themselves have engaged in a lot of self-destructive foolishness: senseless violence, scandals that reveal corruption, an unhealthy fascination with private behavior, toxic feuds, and lusting after power at the expense of professed values.  She still loves the church deeply despite its colossal errors and in spite of those who would try to convince her that the church is useless.

I think there is a parallel to be made here.  After all, we’re living in a time in which people have tried to argue that “Government is not the solution to our problems.  Government is the problem.”  Aren’t we living in a historical moment in which our government has engaged in a lot of self-destructive foolishness: senseless violence, scandals that reveal corruption, an unhealthy fascination with private matters, toxic feuds, and lusting after power at the expense of professed values?  Is there a way to hold out for government despite the colossal errors and in spite of those who would try to convince her that the government is useless.

I admit that this analogy is not without its problems.  For one thing, religious institutions are voluntary associations.  People make choices as to whether to participate in them or not.  Government is an involuntary association.  You can’t just decide to opt out of following laws or paying taxes.

What do we do when growing numbers of people denigrate institutions that matter?  What do we do when the discourse is full of false witness?  And, what do we do when our institutions are failing to do what they should be doing?

I don’t want to pretend that I have all the answers to fix the problems with government.  Heck, I don’t even pretend to have all the answers to fix all the problems with church.  If I said that I did you should probably choose not to listen to me.  While I don’t have all the answers, I would like to think that I can see some of the problems.  And those problems, as I see it, have to do with different visions of what a good future, a good society, looks like.  I don’t think that there is a commonly held idea of where we’d like to go, much less a shared sense of how to get there.  I believe that we have profoundly different ideas about the role of government, different ideas about human nature, different answers to the question of who are neighbors are and what we owe to one another.  I have my own answers to these questions.

I would like to offer a few thoughts to take with you in the days ahead.  I think being spiritual but not religious is analogous to being opinionated but not political.  Lillian Daniel says that being spiritual all by yourself and finding God in the sunset seems to work when everything is going well, but not well at all when you get cancer.  Then it helps to have religious community.  The world cries out not for people to have opinions or retweet funny jokes.  These times ask us to be engaged in real work with other people.

The answer to bad religion isn’t no religion.  It’s better religion.  The answer to bad government isn’t no government.  It’s better government.  Amen.