The Work (In Progress)

If the pundits are to be believed, organized religion in North America is a losing proposition and leadership in religious institutions a fool’s errand.

Much has been made recently of the latest information from the Pew Trust Religion and Public Life survey. Religious affiliation in this country is in rapid decline, particularly among younger people. The number of people who respond “None of the Above” to the question, “What religion are you?” is increasing exponentially.

These latest findings, which are in line with similar surveys and studies that have been coming out over the last several years, have unsurprisingly increased the hand wringing among those of us who are not only affiliated with a religion, but care deeply about its future.

There was a time when religious institutions could depend on a stable population of volunteers and donors. Houses of worship could sit pretty on the town green or on the main street and expect people to come to them. Attendance at a house of worship was an expectation (if not an obligation) that most fulfilled, particularly in the period after the Second World War. Clergy were respected in the culture at large as leaders and moral guides. Religious institutions were trusted, and the charitable work they did was lauded and commended.

There’s been a dramatic shift over the last generation. People now are generally suspicious of institutions, and much less likely to join one or sustain it financially. Clergy sexual misconduct, and its cover-up, along with financial malfeasance among religious leaders, has dashed forever the automatic trust people might once have had in clergy. Faith communities compete with all kinds of enticements and regular attendance at worship has fallen.

The seismic shifts that are taking place beneath our feet are breaking centuries-old encrustations and tectonic plates. The religious institutions that once seemed rock solid are crumbling and the very foundations of church are shaking. Centuries of church establishment and Christendom are crumbling and falling away in this generation. For those inside its collapsing edifice, these changes are painful and frightening, to be sure.

Yet it is also an exciting time to be the church.

Without the culture and the state propping up religious observance, who and what will be left? Stripped of power, privilege and persuading influence, what role can organized religion play in our social order? If our neighbour isn’t knocking on the church door to be let in, how will we be sent to serve our neighbour?

The possibilities are endless and exciting. What will faith communities look like in the decades ahead?

We just can’t imagine the future. It’s hard to imagine a future when everything is up for grabs. Telling people that our pipe organs and meetinghouses and hymn books, our meeting for worship and our meeting for worship on Sunday mornings, may not be in the church’s future is met with the blankest of blank stares. What’s left? To say nothing of the change in basic assumptions—people are not coming to you, you need to go to them.

A year ago, I preached a sermon at the First Parish in Lexington, where it has been my honour to serve as their minister these last five years, which I think might become my lasting legacy. They continue to speak about “the phone booth sermon.” I began by asking the congregation, “How many of you remember telephone booths?” Most everybody raised their hands. Then I asked, “How many of you, at some time in your life, have used a public phone?” Again, just about everybody raised their hand. And then I asked, “How many of you have used a public phone in the past seven days?” There was laughter, and not a single hand in the air.

And yet, it’s not as if people don’t need to speak on the phone when they’re out in public. People still want to be able to reach others when they’re away from home. And we continue to do so. It’s just that how we do it has completely changed.

Nobody could have imagined, forty years ago, that we would all be walking around with little phones on our person, phones not tethered to the wall. We couldn’t have imagined this change. We had no way of knowing this is what “talking on the phone in public” would look like in the future.

When it comes to church, we only know how to ask for what we have always known.

We think maybe if we update our Web site, or use guitar in worship, or create a Facebook page, we will be well positioned for life in the twenty-first century. We cannot even imagine the entirely new, reinvented church of the future. So we keep asking for what we already know, only maybe with a few modifications when what we need is a complete, creative, innovative breakthrough.

Henry Ford once said, “If I gave my customers what they wanted, I would have invented a faster horse.”

Those whose hope is in institutions and habits, as they are, whose hope is in the ability of church people to change, those are the ones who are really panicking. Because our most enduring slogan is, “We’ve Never Done It That Way Before.”

But the good news is, there are powers greater than any human made institution, including the church. There’s a spiritual power moving in the world greater than our habits, including our religious habits.

I believe there are powers of regeneration and renewal alive in our world that are constantly calling us to be, and to become, and to be-in-relation. There is a power greater than ourselves that simultaneously invites, sustains, and constitutes mutual dependence and community, constantly drawing together disparate elements and people, eternally expressing itself as love. These forces within and among us are known by many names, including God or the Goddess.

God is doing a new thing. When something interesting or creative or new is afoot and church people are shocked or dismayed, I pay close attention. Because I think that if it upsets church people, it is probably of God. If it is overturning those intractable idols of “what we have always believed” or “the way things have always been,” I am certain God is in the midst of it. When a vibrant spiritual thing is happening on the margins, in the peripheral vision of the established religious institutions, I think, “Now that’s some Holy Spirit power right there.”

God is doing a new thing. That creative and creating power at the heart of the universe is doing a new thing. And a new thing sometimes means letting the old thing crumble away and fall apart.

The pathway to renewal and revival goes straight through defeat and decline. The pathway to resurrection goes straight through the shadowy valley of death. The church needs to die to the church in order for what comes next to come to life.

The trappings that our faith comes in are falling away. There may not be meetinghouses and churches and pipe organs and stained glass and hymnals a generation from now. We might not meet for worship on Sunday morning. But what is essential and at the core of our liberal way of being religious is timeless.

What is essential is the life-giving message that we were born to original blessing–

that there is a better way of being in relationship with each other, ourselves, our natural environment–

better ways of being a society together–

that forgiveness is better than anger–

that love and compassion and generosity and solidarity are better than fear and self-centeredness.

Yes, better.

And yes, life-saving and transformative.

This is at the heart of our liberal religious faith. What we offer as religious liberals is in fact sorely needed in our world today.

Now more than ever, our nation needs our witness. Now more than ever, our communities need our witness. Now more than ever, our planet needs our witness.

How we reach our nation and communities, and what our life together as communities of faith will look like, we are still figuring out.

What kind of a common life we will be inviting people in to, we are still figuring out.

What it all will look like, we’re still discerning.

The pipe organs and meetinghouses, the way we do worship and religious education and social action, our Web sites and Facebook pages, our newsletters and rummage sales and potlucks—these all may or may not any longer serve our purposes. They are all transient. They are all impermanent.

What is required of us in this historic moment is the faith that what is lasting will endure. And the courage and the staying power and the imagination to gracefully let go of what no longer suits us.

To gracefully let go of what is no longer of service to our ministry and mission.

To gracefully let go of what keeps us from reaching our full potential as a liberal religious movement in this time, this twenty first century.

Because it’s not change that we resist–it’s loss. We resist loss. And we are losing so much.

The good news is, the path of loss leads to new life.

The expressions of our faith have evolved over the decades and centuries, and so we evolve some more.

The restoration of God’s people that the prophet Isaiah envisions is radiant and triumphant. I believe our way way forward is through humility and modesty and accepting our marginalized position in the culture, accepting that what we are, and what we do, is countercultural.

We are going to get used to being on the margins of the social order, to inhabiting the “abandoned places of empire,” to living among the ruins of Christendom and established religion. And, with God’s help, liberated to do a new thing.

We whose work it is to bring us into our future as a vibrant, lively, faithful people need to have the imagination to stretch beyond what we have known, and what we think is the way church is supposed to be, the courage to try something new–to experiment, the imagination to invent something new around which our core is built and expressed.

What is required is attentiveness to the Spirit, to pay attention to the promptings and invitations of the Spirit, to discern the new thing God is doing, to get comfortable with failure as we experiment.

We don’t have to have it all figured out. This clinging to certainty only causes suffering. We don’t have to be in control. We can do our part for reimagining how to be church, the shape of how we are to be faithful together, but the work will always be a work in progress.

“The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision. We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work. Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of saying that the Kingdom always lies beyond us.” (Ken Untener)

This does not allow us to take our hands off the steering wheel and say, “Okay Higher Power, you drive this thing!” We do what we are able to do. We play the part we know is ours to play. We answer the call to serve. And do our best. And let go of the outcome.

In the Talmud, we read: “It is not your responsibility to finish the work of perfecting the world, but you are not free to desist from it either.” (Rabbi Tarfon, Pirke Avot 2:21)

The work continues. It is a work in progress.

Because just like people talk on the telephone in public without public pay phones, without telephone booths, we will continue our shared ministry whatever shape that it takes.

Because just as people still need to talk on the phone in public, people still need what we have to offer.

As long as people search for significance in their lives, we will be there.

As long as people long for meaning in life, we will be there.

As long as people, grieving the death of loved ones, want to celebrate life and bury their dead, we will be there.

We will be there as long as people ask Why?

As long as people want to make a difference in the life of others, as long as the need to serve others arises in human hearts, as long as people ask How? when it comes to living a life of compassion, generosity and gratitude, we will be there.

We will be there.

We whose task it is to love the hell out of the world–

whose task it is to bind up the broken–

to provide salve to the wounded, to heal the hurt–

to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the imprisoned, and, yes, raise the dead–

we whose task it is to minister will not shrink from the work.

Aligning ourselves with the divine will, paying attention to the direction of Spirit, with God’s help, we will be there.

This post is the sermon delivered at the ordination of the Rev. Aaron Stockwell by the First Parish Church in Groton, Massachusetts on 6 June 2015. The readings were Isaiah 65:17-25 and “A Step Along the Way” by Bishop Ken Untener.

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