This past summer, I attended a continuing education conference led by Diana Butler Bass. Butler Bass is a theologian and professor of Christian Education at a seminary in the Washington, D.C. area. The conference was focused on gratitude, the title of her new book, and I’ll be sharing more with you about some of her thoughts and reflections on gratitude in two weeks, as part of our Pledge Sunday focus.
The first part of the conference, however, focused on spirituality, religion, and belief. Specifically, she focused on the changing trends in American religious life. Those of you who attended the Sunday school class earlier this year on the ‘End of White Christian America’ were exposed to some of these trends and patterns, but Butler Bass elaborated on them through the lens of a Christian educator, which was equally helpful.
She began with a question, the same one I ask you now: ‘What is the biggest religion in the United States?’ No religion at all. To be fair, that’s not entirely true, as the survey she cited divides Christianity among Catholicism, Protestantism, and non-denominational evangelicalism. Taken together, Christianity is still larger, but as separate categories, no religion was the largest.
As supplemental evidence, she cited a different survey, where 31% of all respondents identify neither ‘spiritual or religious,’ 29% identify as both ‘spiritual and religious,’ 22 % identify as ‘religious, but not spiritual’, and 18% identify as ‘spiritual, but not religious.’ In this dialogue, she asked ‘what is OUR – the church’s – identity in this shifting cultural pattern? She observed that the beauty of our traditions and what we think our language in church communicates just isn’t being communicated any longer. She encouraged each person present to reflect upon what it is that we love about being who we are. And then to reflect on what do we believe? And, what is it that we love about what we believe?
Those are interesting questions, aren’t they? What do we love about being who we are? What do we believe? What do we love about what we believe? We’re going to take a few minutes during this worship time to discuss these questions together. Find two or three people sitting nearby to you and discuss those questions for five minutes. The questions are on the bulletin insert and will be on the screen. Please write any thoughts you’d like to share on the insert and put them in the offering baskets when they come around, and we’ll include the reflections in an upcoming church newsletter. A new song will call you back from your groups and then I’ll continue the sermon.
Question time – 5-6 minutes
Believer – Imagine Dragons – 3 minutes
In a setting like a continuing education conference, it’s perhaps easier to analyze why people do or don’t believe than it is to discuss why belief is important and how do we gain greater depth, breadth and clarity in what we believe. Jesus did both. Belief was important to him, perhaps the most important thing. He was an advocate for the marginalized, a healer of the ill, an effective teacher for many, and the primary example of God’s love. But his core mission was focused on belief. In many of his interactions, that was the point he circled back to.
Frequently, when Jesus performed a miracle, he didn’t dwell on the miracle, even though those around him did. He pointed back to God, to faith, to belief. His constant refrain to them – ‘Go, your faith, your belief, has made you well.’ He told Thomas after the resurrection – ‘Because you have seen, you believe. Blessed are those who believe without seeing.’ And in conversation with a man asking for his son’s healing, Jesus says, ‘Everything is possible for one who believes.’ In response, the man says, ‘I do believe. Help me overcome my unbelief.’
Isn’t that the challenge many of us face? Help me overcome my unbelief. This text from the Gospel of John, ironically, is one where Jesus speaks profoundly of belief in the context of his own death. He moves from the previous direct speech about his death to a metaphorical description of his ministry. He never speaks of himself directly here, but instead cloaks everything in the metaphor of darkness and light. He gently reminds his listeners to actually listen to him, because they won’t have him physically among them for much longer.
But what Jesus is doing here goes even deeper than that. He is asking them to delve into what his listeners truly believe – about God, about themselves, and about him. His absence from there brings those elements of belief into stark relief. It’s one thing to ‘know’ God when the divine son of God is among them. It’s another thing to ‘know’ God when Jesus is gone. That’s our reality – to ‘know’ God, to ‘know’ Jesus when they are not tangibly here, but we still experience them nonetheless.
Richard Rohr offers some thoughts for us on this dynamic. He writes, “You cannot know God the way you know anything else; you only know God or the soul of anything subject to subject, center to center, by a process of “mirroring” where like knows like and love knows love — “deep calling unto deep”. The Divine Spirit planted deep inside each of us yearns for and responds to God — and vice versa. The contemplative is deeply attuned and surrendered to this process.
We are not so much human beings trying to become spiritual. We’re already inherently spiritual beings and our job is learning how to be good humans! I believe that’s why Jesus came as a human being: not to teach us how to go to heaven, but to teach us how to be a fully alive human being here on this earth.”
How to be a fully alive human being on this earth. Our belief in God, in Jesus, in one another, these guide us in our quest to do just this. Belief is not something we can plan or build. It is something that is. It is something that does not emerge because of us. It is something that grows because of time we spend in relationship with God. To move towards spiritual peace and well being. To identify our meaning and purpose for life. To live in a state and expression of gratitude for God’s blessings. And to experience awe and wonder for the minute details and the grand designs of God’s creation.
There have been so many influences on what I believe – more than I can count. I imagine the same is true for many of us. Reflections and conversations with family, friends and perfect strangers have moved me and challenged me. Places I have been where I have witnessed the beauty of God’s creation or the profound wonders of ancient and modern art and architecture have inspired and grounded me. The Christian church has offered a formational foundation for what I believe. This church has impacted what I believe and how I proclaim those beliefs in the world.
Belief is a state of mind, body, and spirit. Belief invites investment and passion, in whatever inspires its formation. Investment and passion form the core of our stewardship and generosity. We give our time, talent, and treasure to the church, and to other parts of our lives, because we believe that doing so will be beneficial to us, to our families, to our community, and to the world. There is a symbiotic relationship that bears similarity to our relationship with God. Because our belief in God creates positive associations with other parts of our existence. Belief grows upon belief. Belief leads to powerful experiences of faith formation. Belief helps us to become who God calls us to be. Amen.