Religious…and Spiritual

Sixth Sunday of Easter – John 14:15-21;25-27, Acts 17:22-34; Religious…and Spiritual – Groups of five and six Presbyterian ministers sat at round tables under a high beamed ceiling. Laughter and excited conversation sparkled throughout the room. At a CREDO conference last week, we tried to nurture in participants healthy life physically, emotionally, financially, vocationally, spiritually. There were tearful conversations, poignant moments of insight and inspiration. And we had fun!  For our party celebration that night, leaders like me donned superhero capes and masks and Rosie the Riveter outfits to set the tone. Around their tables, participants created titles, theme songs, outfits, and scripture passages to express superhero powers they imagined possessing. Now, like I said, these are ministers. So we had the peacemaking Guardians of Shalom. And some kind of Transformers, quoting Romans: “not conformed to this world; transformed by renewing our mind / heart to discern God’s will for what is good.” Another group I can’t remember … something with water – maybe their superpower was baptism – they wrapped up their mascot (a guy) with blue-green plastic like a mermaid and sang “Under the Sea”. Finally, poking fun at our thoroughly Presbyterian ways, there was SULC – the Super Ultimate League of Committees! I wonder what Marvel could do with that one! Presbyterian ministers having fun … and in a way, playfully reinforcing a purpose for the week to create a “Rule of Life”—a pattern, rhythm, orientation of the heart to guide all of life, everything we do. How do we ground who we are and guide all we do in the power of God’s love?

It’s not just ministers. Isn’t that what we’re all called to in our living faith? That’s how Jesus set the tone in his ministry, death, and resurrection. That’s the holy super-power Paul helps people possess. That’s why he went to Athens, which in ancient Greece is something like New York and Washington, D.C. combined. He’s fleeing contentious attacks that ran him out of other smaller cities. Now he arrives in the bustling center of culture, and quickly ends up at the Areopagus. It’s akin to Capitol Hill, where the highest governmental council meets—our Congress and Supreme Court combined. Where Socrates was on trial and executed for not properly worshipping the gods.

However threatening Paul’s encounter was, he claims an opportunity to engage the vast scope and very heart of Greco-Roman culture. “I see how extremely religious you are,” he begins. It’s a complement. He builds a positive connection with those listening. Athens teemed with temples and altars to gods with various superhero powers. Paul invites them to go a little deeper in relation to the Holy One we worship.

It reminds me of conversation we hear in our time about being “spiritual, but not religious.” When someone says “I’m not religious,” what does that mean? Usually feeling some holy impulse without regular routines of faith. I wonder, is there a particular expression of faith against which someone rebels? Maybe a particular experience or perception of church that wasn’t so positive? And I wonder if there’s another way to view this question. When we look at contemporary culture, do we see something like the opposite? Can we see how religious we are, yet often needing more spirituality? Here’s what I mean, by way of two basic observations about being human.

First … In many ways, we live religiously. We have daily rituals, patterns, and routines (what coffee or tea or favorite breakfast do we commune with in the morning?). We invest our heart, time, resources regularly (what teams or shows do we follow devotedly? what causes do we support generously?). We share these activities with others (viewing parties, shopping trips, or Facebook anyone?). At best, these practices give pleasure, even nurture inspiration. Beyond dogmatic creeds, we trust certain kinds of knowledge, like science or a favorite news source, to turn inspiration into action. And amid all these patterns and activities, knowledge and emotions we develop a frame for how we view our world and we seek something more-than-mundane. In some way, don’t we all live “religiously?”

Second … Through all our routines and responsibilities, don’t we know life is more than surface experiences strung in sequence? We often face deeper questions about purpose and relationships. In our work, health, families, community, we feel restlessness inside us, yearning for meaning and peace. A sacred desire for goodness, hope, joy, beauty pulses with every heartbeat, even in the most difficult places and experiences. Of course, we vary in particular ways we seek and express spiritual depth. Still, all “our hearts are restless,” St Augustine famously wrote, “until they rest in God” (however we define and relate with the Divine).

For St. Paul, people in Athens must have seemed as restless as Batman without his gadgets, or Wonder Woman without her lasso of truth, or children here at church after donuts or a men’s breakfast! Rather than contesting and criticizing their many restless religious rituals and deities, he connects with those human impulses already so evident. Affirming their spirit, even quoting their poets, he relates their “altar to an unknown God” with the Holy Ground of All Life in whom we “have our being.”

Friends, I love this story. And after a week at CREDO, returning home to y’all to share again our joys and sorrows, plans and questions, I love the church. Yes, we’re imperfect. Yes, there are times people flee conflict and threat like Paul did long ago. Yes, the church is not at the assumed center of society like it once was.  Still among those ministers at CREDO and in our ministry together I see hope. Clarity Paul offers in Athens is what we can find and provide here in Kalamazoo. It’s clear that in all we do in church God calls us to engage the vast scope of culture and the very heart of our lives with good news of Love Divine. It’s about our Bible study and service, programs and property, finance and fellowship all fulfilled in social ethics. It’s about bringing spiritual depth to everyday life. It’s about the risen Christ coming again and again among us.

As John tells the story, Jesus engages his disciples in a farewell conversation. It’s his last attempt to encourage them to continue in his Way, Truth, and Life as he just told Thomas. It’s his final appeal for us to frame and infuse all we say and do with the greatest commandment loving God and loving neighbor. Friends, Jesus promises that as we open our hearts and minds to be empowered by God’s Spirit, we can meet hatred with love, pardon injury, and bring hope, light, joy amid darkness, sadness and despair. And the risen Christ will live as we live in that abiding love; as we share his gift of peace, channeling the fullness of life God intends for all. Our lives and world will be judged, Paul says, in the righteous power of this Divine Resurrection, so much greater than ancient Greek gods or the best super-hero imagination.

Now does Paul do a little bait and switch with the Athenians? Is it a little carrot before the stick? A little good humor before the hammer blow? Is that how we in the church should engage the world with good news? Judging the world in righteousness seeks not so much condemnation as correction—God’s order of grace and mercy coming to fulfillment, in which all people share abundant life. No exploitation, prejudice, insensitivity, arrogance that seems powerful at times today.

Yes, amid our daily religiosity and the deeper responsibilities we bear, we have judgments to make. But Paul’s word doesn’t carry the full caustic connotation we sometimes hear. It really means to separate, distinguish, consider and decide. To live informed not ignorant. When old categories and distinctions don’t work, to look for new ones. To travel right roads, share kindness, live service in the grace of God. Friends, be aware of our personal routines – how do they fill us with love and goodness or fear and frustration? Be thoughtful about what’s really important in the way God wants our world to be. Be conscientious about how our lives impact others in choices we make—what we purchase, how we work or have fun. As much as possible, be passionate in every moment filled with potential for love divine to dwell in our hearts and be revealed in our human life. Living with awareness, thoughtfulness, conscientiousness and passion … that’s how we repent, as Paul says.

If Paul came to Kalamazoo what do you think he might say today? How might he encourage spirituality amid all our religiosity in every way? Amid all the regular routines and deeper questions of our day, how can we search for, trust in, and spread good news of God’s love? Living faith is not escape from realities of our lives and world; not weekly respite in our favorite sanctuary alone. Living faith becomes meaningful and inspiring precisely when it relates with the struggles we face, the news we hear, the direction we seek.

Today we celebrate with our youth as they graduate high school and with Rob as he graduates from leading our youth ministry program. They commence life through years ahead, as we all do and will come to discover by the grace of God special powers maybe we didn’t know we had. Through all we learn in classes and life experience; more than power in money, education, privilege or positions we achieve, friends, find our superhero power in Love Divine, all loves excelling … entering every joyful, humble and trembling heart. Through all the daily routine ways we are religious, keep searching for God. Search from our personal lives, through our church life together, unto our whole community and world. Sure, be real about potential threats like the corrupt human powers that crucified Jesus and that Paul must have faced. Yet, trust that the Sacred Spirit who raised Jesus from death brings us new life by the grace, mercy, forgiveness, and hope embodied in the risen Christ. Be grateful that God created us and all people in goodness and God loves us still! And when we seek God in and among all things, then like Paul look to find and express positivity, hope, goodness, possibility in and among others. Build on affirming connections rather than criticism, contention and condemnation. And if even Presbyterian ministers can do it, then let’s have a little fun! Just maybe then our religion will convey the Holy Promise and ultimate power of resurrection. Some will still surely scoff. Just maybe others will hear us again and one day come to share the Way of compassionate service, the Truth of sacrificial love, and the abundant Life in peace God leaves with us and intends for all in Jesus Christ.

Thanks be to God. Amen.