Today I want to talk about faith – our commitment to our faith and our call to share that faith with others. And I want to start by asking your opinion about why, in the United States in particular, people are so much less committed to going to church. If you were here in person I would ask you to actually give me your answers, but since we are not together in person, I invite you to take a moment of silent reflection to consider why this might be.
In the Exodus passage for today we are given a glimpse into one of the reasons people slip away from their faith. In this Exodus story, Moses has gone up on the mountain to commune with God and he has been gone a long time. This leader for the Israelites has been the person who, like the Saints for Catholics, has been the intermediary for them with God. The Israelites seems to be unable, uncomfortable, or unwilling to connect to God directly, so they rely on Moses to do it for them. So when Moses, their connection to God, is gone for too long, they beg for something else concrete to connect them to the divine and to lead them forward…in this case, they beg for an idol – a golden calf – who will “go up before us.”
This story shows us that one reason people leave church or leave their faith is that they have no one to help them experience God. Do you think this applies to today as well? I would say it absolutely does. That while many more of us recognize that we can connect with God directly, for many people experience of God does not come easily. For whatever reason, many people don’t hear God’s voice or experience the mystery of God in direct, personal, acknowledgeable ways. Or, maybe what’s more accurate, we all go through dry spells in which we don’t recognize God’s actions or don’t feel God’s presence or hear God’s voice in the way we may feel we need at that time. I think that this time where we connect to each other virtually only, through zoom or phone or YouTube or Facebook or whatever medium you use is in some ways a mirror for the ways we successfully or not so successfully connect with God – not face to face the way we like to connect with one another. And for those for whom this way of connecting to one another is hard, think how much harder it is for them to feel and experience God’s presence.
The shared experiences of others who are connecting well with God, who are feeling God, seeing God, then, can be very helpful to us during those faith crises. Hearing the stories of others’ experience of God can help us to remember times when we did feel more connected to God in a concrete way, and can help us to hold on to the faith as we remember and experience God through other peoples’ experiences of God.
But in our mainstream churches, and perhaps especially in the Presbyterian Church, we don’t share or hear these stories very often. As the “frozen chosen” Presbyterians are, we have become so intellectual, and so suspicious of the experiential and emotional when it comes to spirituality, that we won’t talk about or share our living and real experiences of God: or we don’t share them very often. Not to say that there isn’t good reason for this suspicion. We’ve all heard about folk who claim God has led them and who do horrific things, or worse claim that God is leading them to do the specific horrible things that we see. We’ve all heard about leaders of various kinds who lead others to mass suicides and other acts of destruction under the guise of Divine guidance.
But we also, as people of faith, are called to trust that God really does communicate with us here and now. And when we do have those experiences, but fail to share our stories, when we fail to stand up and say, “well, this is how I’ve experienced God, this is how God has touched me, and through that I hear God’s call to love my enemies and to care for all people and all creation – not to destroy it” – when we fail to communicate this, then the only voices that get in the news as claiming connection with the Divine are often voices of hatred, voices of people who claim God hates all the people they hate, people claiming God’s voice as justification for outrageous and cruel behaviors, or people who know that they can claim divine connection as a way to control and hold power over others. Is it any wonder in the face of this, that so many are leaving the faith and leaving the church? The only thing they hear about faith is from people who spew hatred and claim it is God’s will that they do so. People don’t hear about the beautiful and life-giving experiences of those connecting with God on a regular basis because we are afraid to share those stories, afraid we will be labeled as crazy.
While it may sound like I’m lecturing you on this, I’m really not. I’m not because I think that pastors are especially culpable in this. In talking with my pastor friends about why they are pastors, most of them became ministers because of their real and tangible experiences of God. And while it used to be that preaching was testimony – an every week sharing of the experiences, informed and interpreted by scripture, of the real and living God, we no longer do this, or we don’t do it to the same degree.
So, one of the reasons people slip away is that they don’t connect to the Divine and don’t hear enough from people who do. We fail to translate for folk the experience of a present God into today’s world, leaving people to build idols of work or money or fame, or sometimes even unhealthy relationships because they have been left out in a faith desert for too long.
In today’s passage from Matthew we see another reason. The Matthew passage shows us a God who invites into the faith and into God’s kingdom those who are God’s “chosen” people, beloved people, who seem like they would be most anxious to come and express gratitude for what they have. But the master in the parable is surprised by their response. Instead, those God invites in first often choose not to come, but rather they go about doing their own thing, oblivious to the fact that everything they have is a blessing from God – sure of their own self-sufficiency in what they have achieved and gained in their lives. So we see from this that some people turn away from the faith because they are, frankly, too comfortable. They claim credit for their own comfortable situations in life and don’t feel they have a need for God.
Jesus continues in his parable to show that God is angry with this response, but God turns instead to those who seem less likely to come, those who are struggling, who are suffering, and invites them in instead. And most of these, who need God, and need God’s banquet, come – and come prepared to delight in the feast God has spread for them. But even then there is one who does not come prepared. There is one who chooses not to make any effort, but assumes that the grace of the celebration that is offered comes without any effort on our part. He comes dressed inappropriately – or rather, he comes without respect or a committed heart. This part of the story can be hard to understand, so let me flesh this out a tiny bit. As my lectionary group discussed this, someone said it was like the person showed up right now at this big celebration without a mask. They did not come prepared to think about others, take care of others, do what was generous and compassionate by showing up appropriately for this wedding celebration.
He, too, then is left out of the party. Because faith does require a very minimal effort on our part. Continuing in genuine faith requires more than just showing up for the party. It requires offering respect to God, and love to God’s people. It matters what we do. And there are consequences for our actions. And for some, the responsibilities of faith will seem to outweigh the gifts of faith. They, too, then, do not remain.
In our adult study some of us read a book called Mary Magdalene Revealed by Meggan Watterson. And she says it this way, “Spirit is ethical. You have to ask in order to receive.” This has stuck with me for a number of reasons. God’s love is always offered, God’s grace is always offered. But God does not force it on us. It is in our asking for it that we open ourselves to receive it. That means it is a mutual meeting, again a meeting within the contract of genuine, respectful relationship. God will not force God-self onto us, will not force us to join the party. God makes the biggest effort, always, to meet us, to find us, to seek us. But we are never made to join, to be open to that grace, to recognize the blessings that are there for us every day.
So today’s scriptures show us three of the reasons people do not remain in faith or in church. They fail to experience or be shown others’ experiences of the Divine, they feel they don’t need God but are self-sufficient, and they don’t want the work that comes with being people of faith.
In his book, Have a Little Faith, Mitch Albom also describes some of these reasons and adds some others as to why he, too, had slipped away from faith. He explains it this way, (p11-13): “It wasn’t revolt. It wasn’t some tragic loss of faith. It was, if I’m being honest, apathy. A lack of need…Who had time? I was fine. I was healthy. I was making money. I was climbing the ladder. I didn’t need to ask God for much, and I figured, as long as I wasn’t hurting anyone, God wasn’t asking much of me either. We had forged a sort of ‘you go your way, I’ll go mine’ arrangement, at least in my mind. … Over time, I honed a cynical edge toward overt religion. People who seemed too wild-eyed with the Holy Spirit scared me. And the pious hypocrisy I witnessed in politics and sport – congressmen going from mistresses to church services, football coaches breaking the rules, then kneeling for a team prayer – only made things worse.” At another place he says, (p.6) “[Humanity] likes to run from God. It’s a tradition. So perhaps I was only following tradition when, as soon as I could walk, I started running…”. Albom slipped away out of apathy and the sense of self sufficiency, just as the rich folk in our parable. He slipped away because for him it was an intellectual exercise rather than an experience – just as in the passage from Exodus. He slipped away because the religious people he saw and heard from most weren’t made perfect by their faith and that seemed hypocrisy to him. He slipped away because the culture is suspect of religion, and it was easier to not participate in something others judge and see as superstitious, or as he put it in another passage (p157), “Part of the reason I drifted from faith was that I didn’t want to feel defensive about it. ” And he slipped away because it is easier to run from God – because God does call us to a life that is different from what our culture says is acceptable and appropriate. Again, as with our parable, faith requires commitment and action on our part as well…and that is not easy. To quote once more from the book, his Rabbi said, “’Now commitment is something you avoid. You don’t want to tie yourself down. It’s the same with faith, by the way. We don’t want to get stuck having to go to services all the time, or having to follow all the rules. We don’t want to commit to God. We’ll take Him when we need Him or when things are going good. But real commitment? That requires staying power – in faith and in marriage.” And if you don’t commit, I asked. ‘Your choice, but you miss what’s on the other side.’ What’s on the other side? ‘Ah,’ he smiled. ‘a happiness you cannot find alone.’”(P 145).
These are just some of the reasons that people drift away or fall away or stay away from faith. And yet our scriptures tell us to “go and make disciples of all nations.” Again, in the Presbyterian faith, we tend to be afraid of the “e” word- evangelism. So I want to ask you, why should we care if people don’t have faith, don’t go to a church? What business is it of ours? Is evangelism important and if so, why? Let me put this another way. What does your faith do for you? What does your church do for you?
For me, there are a number of reasons to be part of a church: our faith communities provide care. 80% of soup kitchens and food pantries are supported solely by faith communities. Faith communities provide safety nets and places of care for us and for others. More close to home, our faith communities support one another when we are in tragedy or crisis, they send cards, make phone calls, offer rides, bring food, offer child-care, pray with one another. One of my favorite movies that really shows what community can be is “Lars and the Real Girl”. It’s an odd movie about a person suffering a mental illness crisis. But when he went through a tragedy that, for all intents and purposes was not even “real” for anyone else, the community of faith still showed up to support him. They still brought casseroles and sent cards and presents and offered support to Lars when he was in crisis, despite the fact that he was grieving something that didn’t exist. They came by the house with their knitting and with food and they just sat. “We sit. That’s what we do when tragedy strikes. We sit,” a church member declared. That’s what we do for each other in faith communities. When tragedy strikes, most people find their help and support from their faith communities.
Secondly, churches tell us “I am somebody because God loves me.” I am somebody, because I have the love of God. Isn’t that worth sharing with others?
Granted, for some people faith is just about fear and guilt and shame. But we claim to believe in a good God, and my personal experience of that God is that She/He is a God of life, a God of daily resurrection, a God of love.
I want to share with you a piece of my experience of God today (today’s “testimony” for you). I remember having a conversation with a pastor friend in which we were discussing hard times that we both had gone through. And he asked me if the hard times had changed my faith at all. “Oh absolutely!” I responded. “So, does that make it harder for you to preach, especially whenever you were or are in the midst of crisis?” he asked. And for a minute I couldn’t answer because I was confused by his question. It really took me a minute to understand that he had assumed that difficult times threw my faith into crisis. But that is not what I meant when I said that challenges and crises changed my faith. The crisis in my life has indeed changed my faith – but always, every time, by deepening it. Each time, I’ve had to look hard at things I never wanted to see. I have had to face things I never, ever could have imagined or dreamed that I would face. But through it all, God’s presence each time has become tangible for me in a way that I cannot deny. It has been tangible through the love of people in my congregations; through their words, hugs, smiles, care. It has been tangible through the love and outreach of my friends and community – and the deepening of those relationships. It has been tangible as faith has encouraged people here and elsewhere to share their own hard experiences at a much deeper level, deepening both my ability to pastor to them and our mutual friendships. It has been tangible as I have received e-mails right when I needed them expressing love, care, support, and encouragement. It has been tangible as music with words and sentiments I needed to hear showed up in my life exactly when I needed to hear them. It has been tangible through the scripture passages that have come up or that I have read right when I needed to hear them. It has been tangible by the strong, strong sense of God’s presence with me, by the whispered words from the Holy Spirit, by the face of Jesus remembered and shining through you. It has been tangible through my children, their words, their challenges even and of course their daily blessing. That is the God I know.
Finally, while God does ask of us commitment and while God calls on us to be God’s people, which is not easy, at the same time, what we gain from the giving is always so much more than we actually give. Again to quote Mitch Albom, “As is often the case with faith, I thought I was being asked a favor, when in fact I was being given one.”
God gives us life. Our faith gives us life. For these reasons, we are asked to share our faith.
If you had just discovered a wonderful restaurant wouldn’t you want to share that? If you had just discovered a wonderful new food, wouldn’t you want to share that? People recommend books to me all the time, movies, YouTube videos.
We feel like somehow sharing faith is different because we don’t want to be pushy and our experience with most evangelists is that they are. But we don’t have to be pushy about our faith. We can share our excitement about our church, our community and our faith in the same way we share about a good book, or good food or a good restaurant. We can share our excitement without insisting that people commit to something they know nothing about yet! The people who say, “Commit to Jesus now and he will save you,” without first inviting people to get to know Jesus are really missing something. How can you commit to something or someone you don’t know? We don’t marry people we don’t know. And if you do commit to something you don’t know, in these days, what is likely to be the depth of that kind of commitment?
So one of the ways we share our faith is simply by expressing our enthusiasm for it. Another way is by living that out in such a thorough way that people are excited by what they see and want to be part of it.
Jewish tradition actually tries to discourage converts, emphasizing the difficulties and suffering that the Jewish people of faith have and do endure. Maybe we should try that. I mean, frankly, I am much more intrigued by something when people tell me I can’t be part of it then when they try to convince me I want to be part of it. After all, as the saying goes, many of us don’t want to join any club that would have us as members, right? And people like to suffer for a good cause, something they really believe in.
Finally, I strongly encourage you to share more of your experiences of God with one another. Because these tie us to each other in the hard times and boost our faith when it may waver. Bottom line, there are lots of reasons why people fall away from faith or their faith communities. But there are more reasons to share our faith and to invite people to be part of that. So I invite you to try, to invite others into the good news of your faith. We have little to lose. They have everything to gain. Amen.