Word of the Week

I'm Spiritual but Not Religious

 I’m Spiritual but Not Religious: James 1:17-27

Today’s excuse in our "Excuses" series is among the most commonly cited why people don’t come to church. I’ve heard countless versions of it during my tenure as Pastor at Washington Plaza, even.

“Pastor, I don’t think I need to come to church. I’d rather commute with God by watching the birds on Sunday. This is my spirituality.”

“Pastor, I don’t think I’m coming to come to church anymore. It’s nothing against you or the church people. You all are nice and all. I just don’t need a church and it’s religion for my faith.”

“Pastor, I just don’t know how you can stand working for the institutional church. Have you read history books? Have you read the news lately? The church hurts people. I just don’t get how you could be in the ‘religion’ business.”

And, as I’m preaching to the faithful this morning, a crowd gathered here to worship God in August (yes, the traditional low attendance month in churches across the country), I know I’m preaching to the choir. I’m preaching today to a congregation of folks who apparently aren’t hung up in all of the “spiritual vs. religion” cultural debates because you are here.  You understand the importance of a communal spiritual life. And different from some of your peers, you’ve been able to reconcile the idea of your spiritual life finding a home in an institutional house of worship, in particular Washington Plaza Baptist Church.

But, today, I’m musing about this statement, “I’m spiritual but not religious” in hopes of opening up a larger conversation that I hope we can continue together later around the lunch tables in the Plaza room. It’s a conversation we need to have and keep having together.  Because most of all it’s a topic that we in the modern church must stop fighting snarky word wars over. Instead, we must commit ourselves to understanding why the “spiritual but not religious” folks are among the fastest growing group of seekers in our country.

The thing is—you can find very passionate, insightful and God-loving people on either side. Though we are quick to judge, no matter where we stand on it.

Those of us who choose to practice our faith in the context of a community called a church often do so for more than just reasons of “It’s what I’ve always done” or “It’s what my parents brought me up to believe.” Those who make church membership and attendance a priority in their lives often say that God meets them in worship, in study groups with fellow disciples, and in close-knit fellowship of community life. We aren’t necessarily without a rich inner life that those in the spiritual community boast they only found outside the church.

And in the same way, spiritual but not religious folks, are good people too. Many of them think Jesus is a pretty rad dude and frame their lives around his teaching. Their lives aren’t void of faith practice. In fact, they often are full of them! The seriously spiritual pray, read, meditate, etc. with great furor and discipline. And because of this emphasis on preparation for the divine, they often use their keen intuition to seek out God wherever they find themselves—places those of us with our heads in the church might miss. It’s not a question of laziness—but in many cases actually a choice based on hard work that puts the “religious” to shame.

But, even with this true—we in the church often feel like our spiritual but not religious friends are the distant step child that we’d just wish would get with the program, stop being so independent and critical of our structures and join our membership rolls.

We often feel tempted to criticize their faith, especially as their attitude of “My faith can survive without your unnecessary institution” seems like a big slap in the face, to what we’ve worked so hard to hold together all of these years.  We feel tempted to talk about their egos without even considering our own. And, in light of this, I could easily stop this sermon this morning and invite us to all go home and re-read the Prodigal Son story from the perspective of the older son who got mad when the son left home and the father loved him the wayward younger son the same . . . But I’ll wait for that exhortation for later.

But regardless, our culture seems operate with these assumptions—spirituality is good; religion is bad.

Spirituality equals pure faith and God’s presence. Religion equals corruption, human made flawed structures.

We find religion in churches. We find God in spirituality.

Yet, into this conversation enters our New Testament lesson for this morning, taken from the book of James, most likely written by James, the brother of Jesus.  And while it’s a book that Martin Luther was known to say is the “epistle of straw” for its practical approach to faith instead of theological—it’s ancient text wrestling what might not be truly modern problem after all.

To the community in which James wrote, a group of believers in Jesus struggled with how much this new movement called Christianity was about truth statements and how much it was about actions which spoke without words.

Though there were many who said: “We’d better get our theology in order. We need to write more doctrine.” There were others who said, “Theology is well and good, but what does it mean? What does it look like?”

And to these questions James answers by saying let me tell you more about who God is and what that means to you. It’s not that I want to throw out all the great work that Paul has done, helping us to understand the essence of faith. But, I do want to tell you something else and that is this basic wisdom: you can talk a good game for a long as you want, have all the right answers with what you think Jesus meant about this and that, but if your life doesn’t show what you believe then it’s all rubbish. Pure rubbish

Look with me at verses 26 and 27: “If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”

James is getting to the heart of the manner which is religion for religion’s sake is worthless.  Yes, truly!  If we keep up tradition, for tradition’s sake, it’s worthless.

If we conduct church business in a particular way because it how they did it back in 1995, it’s worthless.

If we maintain our buildings for the sake of maintaining our buildings, then it’s worthless.

And it’s not that traditions are bad or religious structures like church buildings are evil. But, rather, James exhorts us, that if we do not consider why it is that we do certain things and have certain things then, we really shouldn’t call this faith. We should call it religion for all we are doing is maintaining the framework of what has led us to God in the past but is not necessarily what is going to lead us to God in the future.

And these are the kind of questions we’ve been asking ourselves as a church together over the past year. Questions like:

“Why do we always to have all of these standing committees? Why not staff the committees/ positions of church leadership where we have energy in our congregation to serve and are essential to our life together as a community?”

“Why do we always have to worship just as a single church? Maybe there might be other churches like Martin Luther King Christian who would want to worship with us from time to time?”

“Why do we always have a full meal at coffee hour? Might there be weeks when just bagels will do to provide the same kind of life-giving table fellowship?”

And I truly believe we have more “Why do we always do___?” questions to ask ourselves in the future.

But notice what I didn’t say. I didn’t say that the structures are bad. Rather, mindless choices we make in the name of religious tradition never up for reconsideration are. Because sometimes traditions and religious teaching and practice can be indeed just this—practice from human hands, flawed and in need of a fresh wind of the Spirit upon it over time.

Because the Spirit moves in our world, we believe, right? And if we believe that the spirit moves then, what God wanted from us and what we spent so much time building in 1980 might not be what God wants from us in 2012. When we hold tighter onto tradition than we do Spirit we often have religion. When we hold tight to what the traditions of our religion offer us with room for the Spirit to shake us as needed, we have spirituality.

When it all boils down to it—James begs the church of his day and the church of our day to ask ourselves—are you spinning your wheels on building up what matters or are you just spinning your wheels?

Is your religion that of caring for orphans and widows i.e. those in need of compassionate justice in this world? Is your religion of following the teachings of Jesus or just debating them or pointing out how other Christians aren’t living into them?  Is your religion that of building bigger buildings and structures that leave a mark of “we were once here?”

If so, then, James tells us to re-think our religion.

Anytime I do a funeral service, I find myself repeating a phrase of exhortation to the mourners—a phrase, I hope at least some of them might remember later because it asks them to channel the grief and loss of their loved one into well lived personal lives that bring glory to God.  I guess I should get some new material but I can’t seem to find a better way to say it.

“When you and I die, only one thing matters: not how much money we have, not how many flowers decorate the alter, not how many people attend, not how many groups or societies we belonged to—only one thing—is it well with our souls? Are our lives in harmony with God? What will profit a man or woman if he or she gains the whole world and loses their own soul?”

So, this brings me to the place where I really want to say to those people who tell them they are too spiritual for churchI understand. I hear your frustrations. And you really want to find more God in your life and it just seems like a purer search to go at it on your own. I realize the church can be a messed up place. Institutions are like this. Sometimes we make good decisions that bring us together and other times we miss the mark painfully.  And I consider myself a spiritual person too.

But, I also claim my religion as much as I claim my spirituality. I am a Christian. And with that comes the place called the church where generations of other believers before me have lived out their faith too. Is the church perfect? Has it made way more mistakes in its formation, declarations, and judgments than it has for the good of the world? Probably.

Yet, I won’t leave the church, though; it might be a lot easier in the short turn with a lot less meetings. Why? My faith is communal. It’s communal with the saints and sinners who have gone before me. It’s communal with the saints and sinners who fill the pages of my life right now. I believe the Christian journey, like that of the Jewish journey or the Muslim journey, is one at requires a lot more “we” than “I.” I need the church’s religion for my spirituality to have a home. It may not always be my only home, but it’s my home nonetheless.

So this morning, I’m asking you to consider again how much the spiritual but not religious among us are right—sometimes church we have our noses so deep in the sand that we forget the vastness of God that can only be found outside these four walls.

But our calling to be the church—to love each other, to love God and follow the teachings of Jesus together continues on, no matter who validates our togetherness or laughs at it while riding their boat  or reading the paper on Sunday morning. Yet, knowing when our faith is lived out – being doers of the word, not just hearers only, it might just might look 100% different from any church we ever expected to be.  So if you are with me on this, hang on to your seats and get ready, change is coming. It always does. It's just a part of our spiritual journey together.

May God continue to lead our church by the Spirit with courage to go wherever Jesus leads us.