“I’m spiritual, but not religious” is a mantra for many. Studies tell us that each successive generation becomes less and less affiliated with a religious community. Along with a host of other indicators, we are moving farther away from communal expressions of faith and embracing internal, individualized ideas of faith. It seems like we are all on a quest to privatize spiritual life to the extent that it has nothing to do with anyone but ourselves. The result is that we are more lonely, depressed, and fragmented than ever.
We are divided. Our nation, our communities, our schools, and our churches are all divided. That is not news. We have become a nation of red or blue states and citizens. The divide has driven wedges between friends and family members. Our government is so locked into the red and blue binary mindset that compromise, working for the common good, and so, governance is nearly impossible. Congregations have been torn apart or simply sit in sulking silence unable to find any unity. You are red or you are blue. It is reminiscent of our past when blue and gray divided us
This spring one of the synods of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America had to cancel its annual assembly because they couldn’t gather a quorum. A synod’s assembly elects leaders and adopts budgets. A synod’s assembly affects every congregation in the synod, yet they couldn’t make it happen. Our congregation had to cancel Vacation Bible School this summer due to a lack of interest. Congregations all over are registering lower participation levels in all aspects of congregational life. The pandemic did not cause this – but it accelerated it. Twenty years ago, the average church member attended worship twice a month or more. Today it is once a month or less.
In the pre-modern age, asking the question, “Who needs God anyway?” would have been unthinkable. Everything in heaven and earth was an expression of the transcendent reality of the divine. Today, this question is a quite mainstream question, even a rhetorical question that assumes the answer is, “No one!” Now, there are still plenty of folks who would answer that we all need God in some way. We might bemoan the fact that so many people even think such things. We might blame the problems of the world on those who don’t think we need God.
The most common form of greeting for just about anyone we meet, close friend or total stranger, is, “Hi. How are you?” For most of my life, the standard response from an optimist, or one who wants you to mind your own business, was, “Fine.” Others might answer with something less committal like, “I’m upright.” George Carlin, the late, great comedian once said he liked to respond, “I’m not unwell,” just to throw people a curve. These days, however, the most frequent response to my query, “How are you?” is, “I’m busy.”
Though she had watched many years go by in her long journey of life, she possessed a gentle and joyous spirit. The wrinkles and creases of age in her face framed normally sparkling eyes and a quick laugh. She was one of the saints. She exhibited the “fruits of the Spirit” Paul talked about (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. - Galatians 5:22-23) as naturally as anyone I knew. Yet, in this visit, she appeared troubled. When I asked why, she looked at me and asked, with great sincerity, “Pastor, am I saved? I mean, will God let me into heaven?” I answered, “Without a doubt. God loves you.”
This week we will celebrate the Festival of Pentecost, the culmination of the season of resurrection which began on Easter Sunday. Some think of Pentecost as the “birthday of the Church.” Luke the Evangelist, writer of the gospel that bears his name and of a sequel, the Book of Acts, certainly helps that along a bit. The prayers, expectations, and announcements of the first chapter of Luke and the first chapter of Acts set the scene for God to break into human history. First, in the birth of the Messiah, fulfilling the prophecies of Jewish scripture. Then in the events of Pentecost which are the fulfillment of the prophet Joel’s vision.
When I left college and started a career (the first one), life seemed full. I had my job. As I was back in my hometown, I had family. I had friends. I was still an active musician and often had a band to play with on a lot of weekends. Life was full. As life became more complicated, I found my way back to church. It seemed a worthwhile extracurricular activity, something to fit in the spaces - when there were spaces. I thought I would meet new friends, or maybe even a cute young woman (that happened later and is a story for another day).
In last Sunday’s gospel lesson, Jesus asks Simon Peter three times, “Do you love me?” Each time, Simon Peter says, “Yes, I love you.” Then Jesus commands him to “feed my sheep” and “tend my sheep.” This lesson is often used at the ordination of a pastor to drive home the charge to tend or care for the flock – the congregation, the people of God.