in search of a real and relevant faith

[the following is an adaptation of the sermon i gave at the Crossing for our first Vespers service of the new school year (09/08/13)]

The beginning of a new school year can bring with it the full range of emotions—from expectant excitement at new possibilities to anxiety about unknowns to homesickness for what you’ve left behind. On some level, it may feel daunting, as if you’re staring at a blank page. But, a blank page also presents us with opportunity. It reminds us that our lives are a novel and there is much yet to be written.

Perhaps a blank page is a good place to begin a new school year spiritually as well.

Each of us has chapters already written in our ongoing epic that speak to our experiences with religion and Christianity: Perhaps you have seen nothing but lemon drops and gumdrops, even when it rained. You were active in your home church or youth group, you were included, and faith was made relevant to you. You’re a rarity—the number of people defining their experience like this is continually decreasing.

Perhaps your experience has been defined by negative, painful, even scarring encounters with the church and Christians. Perhaps you or someone you know and love has been subjected to homophobia, transphobia, sexism and racism justified by the Bible and a refusal to see your humanity. Perhaps you’ve mostly experienced a Christianity that is divisive, hypocritical, judgmental, and a perpetuator of an unjust status quo. Perhaps you’ve been dismayed by your experience of the church as an overtly partisan political player, or as being anti-science and ignoring creation stewardship even as our global climate crisis grows ever more threatening. Unfortunately, you’re part of a segment in our national population that has long been growing.

I’m guessing most of us have experienced a frustrating combination of both. I know that’s been my experience, at least.

When I was a college student, I began asking tough questions about God and Jesus, the Bible, heaven and hell, gender and sexual diversity and people of other religions—questions that stemmed from me trying to understand my faith more deeply and make it more relevant my life as a 21st century young adult who had friends who were gay and Jewish and Muslim. However, I was told by people in the campus ministry with which I was involved that my questions were out of bounds, and indicated that I was “losing my faith.” Meanwhile, I was supposed to accept answers to all my earnest and honest questions that felt sterile and pre-packaged, often simplistic, removed from reality, and ultimately unhelpful.

As a result, I began developing a frustrated sentiment similar to that expressed below by Abraham Joshua Heschel, an extraordinary Jewish rabbi profoundly involved with Martin Luther King, Jr. in the Civil Rights movement, who said:

It is customary to blame secular science and anti-religious philosophy for the eclipse of religion in modern society. It would be more honest to blame religion for its own defeats. Religion has declined not because it was refuted, but because it became irrelevant, dull, oppressive, insipid. When faith is completely replaced by creed, worship by discipline, love by habit; when the crisis of today is an heirloom rather than a living fountain; when religion speaks only in the name of authority rather than with the voice of compassion—its message becomes meaningless.

Indeed, the message of religion has too often been rendered meaningless for our world.

As a result of the negative reactions I was getting to the questions I was asking, I too became disillusioned with Christians and just stopped going to church. And yet, spirituality—and particularly Jesus—has always claimed me deep in my bones. I couldn’t escape that.

And so, I began searching for a relevant faith and faith community that lived in and addressed 21st century issues open-mindedly and emphasized truly following in the radical way of Jesus rather than subscribing to a primarily spiritualized and dogmatic religion. I was looking for a spiritual community that was engaged in the most pressing and controversial issues of social and environmental injustice of our day; a place that embraced doubt as a check on certainty, and probing questions as a sign of an engaged faith. I was looking for a community of followers of Jesus that truly loved all people with the unconditional grace, mercy, truth and compassion I found in Jesus of Nazareth.

Paul describes this sort of community well in his exhortation to the diverse community in Rome (12.1-3, 9-21; 13.8-10). And so—with blank page in hand—let this be our vision for what a relevant faith and faith community could look like (my own paraphrase):

Present your whole bodies, that is, every aspect of your life to God—not just going to church on Sundays or Bible study on Wednesdays or doing a service project once a month or any other box you are checking off.

Do not be conformed to the consumeristic, materialistic, militaristic, and overly-individualistic ways of the world and of our age, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, your inner-self.

In a world that tells you that it’s all about you—let go of your ego, your pride, your need to be right; let go of self-righteousness; but don’t forget that you are valuable and that you do have unique gifts to contribute.

In a society full of façades and fake smiles covering oceans of deception—in everything from relationships to politics to business to, yes, religion—let your smile and your love be deep and genuine; in this generation where one has a thousand “Facebook friends” and yet drowns in a sea of loneliness, might we finally make manifest the dream of a “beloved community” where deep and diverse relationships are formed and one another’s greatest joys and deepest sorrows shared; a community that practices radical hospitality, seeking out and welcoming those who are new to our country, city, or community, as well as those marginalized by the wider church and society.

In a world that worships redemptive violence and still lives by the pax Romana seeking to establish peace through war, you are never to return evil with evil; rather extend your love and forgiveness even to those who may define themselves as your enemy, for “darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that; likewise hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that (MLK).”

Beloved, live life with passion and know that everything in the Bible—from the law and the Prophets to Jesus’ gospel proclamation—boils down to this: “loving God, by loving creation and your neighbor as yourself. Therefore, in all things “err” on the side of love and inclusivity, for that is the very heart of the gospel, the meaning of the message of Christ.

Pfew. That’s a lot to live into. But in a world where religion has too often been rendered meaningless or irrelevant and even oppressive, isn’t it’s invitation refreshing?

May God grant us grace and inspiration in our quest to creatively reimagine Christianity for our generation—not by throwing out tradition and that which has gone before us. But, in living by the spirit of Paul’s call (as I paraphrased above), by breathing new life back into it by wrestling humbly and open-mindedly with relevant questions about the meaning of God, Jesus and the Bible for our world in our context, profoundly engaged with today’s most pressing issues and injustices.