Pentecost 11 August 8, 2010

Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16                                                        

Luke 12:32-40                                                                     

 I’m thinking that we should replace the old Nicene Creed that we say each Sunday with something more up to date, something that better reflects what we actually believe. Something like this:

  •  We believe that a God exists who created and orders the world and watches over life on earth.
  • God wants people to be good, nice and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
  • The central goal of life is to be happy and feel good about yourself.
  • God is not involved in my life except when I need God to solve a problem.
  • Good people go to heaven when they die.

This “creed” is the religious outlook of American teenagers, according to the National Study of Youth and Religion, a study of looking at a wide spectrum of congregations, Protestant, Catholic and Jewish. And of course it is not just the creed of our teenagers; it is what we adults actually believe, for we are the ones teaching our children – or failing to teach them.

The authors of this study sum up our religious outlook as Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. That is, it is moralistic in its emphasis on the importance of our being good, nice and fair to each other – without much thought as to what good, nice and fair might mean. It is therapeutic in being oriented to individual happiness and “feeling good about yourself.” And it is deistic in believing in a God who is not involved in life except when we need this God “to solve a problem.” Overall, it is a faith centered on us, not on God; one with an easy assumption that good people will go to heaven and that we are basically good; and a faith so bland and banal that it requires very little effort and makes very little claim on our lives. If we have anything better to do on Sunday than to devote a couple of hours to this faith, well, go do it – and given the blandness and banality of this faith, almost anything is probably better to do.

Now compare this faith with the gospel we’ve just heard. Jesus tells us to go and sell all our possessions, give our money to the poor, and in so doing build up for ourselves “an unfailing treasure in heaven.” He warns us that judgment is coming, the return to earth of the Son of Man, “at an unexpected hour,” and that we must be prepared and ready.

Underlying this message are some convictions very foreign to the creed of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. First, that God is intensely involved with our lives at every moment, that God controls history and cares for us and for all creation. Second, that how we live here and now has eternal consequences; that God rewards and punishes us in the future life, that hell as well as heaven is real. And third, that God has already established his rule among those who believe in him, has “given us the kingdom,” so that we live not in this world of chaos and insecurity, but in a world governed by the grace of Jesus Christ. In a word, this is a creed anything but bland, anything but banal.

Now imagine a teenager – imagine an adult! – who took that creed, that gospel faith seriously. Imagine, for instance, a young man named Jon Daniels growing up in Keene, New Hampshire, going to high school there, then on to college. Imagine him filled with the usual adolescent uncertainty about what to do with his life, what to be when he grows up. (And which if us, however old in years, is ever “grown up”?) Imagine him going to church one Sunday, Easter Day as it happens, and hearing the gospel read, receiving the Bread and Wine, and suddenly finding himself “converted,” convicted, overturned in heart and mind, in the very direction of his life, by the very message that we have heard today.

Off he goes, Jon Daniels, our young man, on a journey of faith like Abraham of old – “called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; . . . not knowing where he was going.” Off he goes, like the saints before him evoked in the Letter to the Hebrews, “strangers and foreigners on the earth, . . . desiring a better country, that is, a heavenly one.” And you know, because you know who this Jon Daniels actually was, that his journey led to Alabama on a dark night in the Civil Rights Summer of 1965, where he was gunned down by fear and hatred while shielding from death a sixteen year-old black girl. “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”

And of course I don’t recount the story of Jonathan Daniels to suggest that the only response to the Gospel of Jesus Christ is to go to seminary or to work for civil rights. It is God who gives us our mission when we open ourselves to receive the Gospel, to make Jesus the radical pattern for our own self-abandonment, our own lives. Jon Daniels is just our local saint, one of us, so he comes in handy at these moments.

Well, we started these reflections by quoting the “creed” of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism reported by the National Study of Youth and Religion. Another study, of Exemplary Youth Ministry, finds that churches in which young people exhibit highly devoted faith are likely to

  • portray God as living, present and active
  • place a high value on Scripture
  • explain their church’s mission, practices and relationships as inspired by “the life and mission of Jesus Christ”
  • emphasize spiritual growth, discipleship and vocation
  • promote outreach and mission
  • help teens develop “a positive, hopeful spirit,” “live out a life of service” and “live a Christian moral life.”

These congregations view young people, and I would add adults, “as Christ’s representatives in the world.” They see every one of their members as a potential Jonathan Daniels, because every one of them is called to nothing less than the life of Jesus Christ.

So there is a difference, there is a choice. What then do we believe? What do we want for our children – for ourselves? What is holding us back? What do we need to do? The Gospel of Christ is clear: We “must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”

 ___________________

The studies referred to are the subject of an article by Kenda Creasy Dean, “Faith, nice and easy: The almost-Christian formation of teens,” in Christian Century, August 10, 2010, pp. 22-27.

This coming Saturday, August 14, is the commemoration in the calendar of the Episcopal Church of Blessed Jonathan Myrick Daniels.

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