Douthat is pretty excited, in fact he
wrote multiple articles about it.
In the first he takes three categories
he fleshed out in his book Bad Religion--Biblical, Spiritual, and Secular, and looks
how those groups fair in the survey. He argues there are a lot fewer “Biblical”
folk around, instead they’re bleeding into the Spiritual center, even if they
identify as “Biblical.” So, even people who are claiming orthodoxy are doing so
while not connecting to orthodox traditions. Similarly, they are evangelical,
but not members of an evangelical denomination. So, a self-identified
“biblical” population may not change much for reporting purposes, but the
denominations connected to them may decline.
In his second article he takes a
slightly different route to say a similar thing. He points out that the Pew
study is about identification, not practice. So, someone might go to church the
same amount, but no longer identify as Christian. He then goes on to wonder if
the whole thing just reflects the atypical maturation process of Millennials—that
they’re not getting married so they’ve not boomeranged back to church in order
to connect with a community to help them instill values and a sense of the
transcendent in their children.
In some ways, both these articles point
to the polarization and atomization of modern America. On one hand, people
today are strongly encouraged to pick a side, either atheist or fundamentalist—middle
ground is discouraged. On the other hand, it points out non-practicing
affiliation is a value for many Americans.
One might wonder, if a war was
called between the two factions, would anyone show up?
Kevin Vallier of Bleeding HeartLibertarians has a different take away from this poll. He points out to his
Atheist friends, who are gloating at the demise of Christianity, that the kind
of Christianity that is disappearing is the reasonable kind. Their shadow-self,
the Fundamentalists, are going strong. He mourns the disappearance of the
reasonable mainline-middle-man (he describes such a person as a father figure)
who could bridge the gap between a fundamentalist mother and atheist son.
He sees the Pew Report as a product of
masochistic mainliners. We, he claims, have a deep seed of self-loathing within
us, and therefore these reports (or at least how they are read) are shaped to
cater to that impulse. The very categories different denominations are put in
are categories only mainliners would use. In short, there is a much richer
religious story in America than this report would show, so we should pull our
heads out of our belly buttons and take a look around.
My own take is as it has been for a while;
mainline decline has to do with the 3D’s, Demographics, Decentralization, and
Disestablishment. Sometime this summer I'll be preaching on this subject, so wait with bated breath!
Matthew and Luke’s Gospel, we have 2 forms of the Lord’s Prayer. In Mark we get
a very truncated bit about forgiveness… In John’s Gospel, we get something
structurally quite different—imagine for example, if we prayed today’s Gospel
lesson every week… woe to the Sunday School and Confirmation Kids who would
memorize that Lord’s Prayer.
perhaps we could shore things up, summarize this prayer spoke by our Lord:
You have chosen us, we are Yours and You have given us to Your Son.
dwell, we abide, with Him who is Word of God.
have revealed Him to us, He who comes from You.
we faithfully live in this relationship—may we live weirdly for the sake of Your
us not alone O’LORD, but give to us companions upon this journey with You.
to summarize more starkly “Lord, may we be weird together.”
may we be weird together.”
prays that his sanctity might sanctify us. To sanctify means—to make or recognize a thing or a person as Holy.
quote one commentator, “Holy things and
people are the same as normal things and people, but kind of different. “Kind
of different from normal" sounds like a definition of "weird" to
followers—we Christians—are a little weird…
we live in a different reality.
a little weird because we’re people who’ve been chosen by God—we’re people
who’ve grasped that God has knelt down and grasped us—grasped up our life and
called us by name, and chose us to be freed from all that would oppress us.
We’re a people struck with the
question, “What should I do now that I don’thave to do anything.”
We’re a people promised life eternal,
and therefore our life is forever changed—our way of being forever altered.
a little weird because we’re people who abide—people who are steeped—in God’s
Word, Jesus Christ the Lover of our Soul.
We are people too, whom Christ steeps
That relationship shapes who and what
we are—God’s Word within our hearts and upon our lips, a relationship with God.
a little weird because we’re people grappling with Jesus’ origin—that he’s from
God and is God.
What does it mean that the Creator of
all that is, seen and unseen:
-Stood upon particular ground in Galilee?
-Told particular stories that still
work upon our psyche to this day?
-Spent time with the least of these
-Sent us forth and Died that we might
we’re weird because we’re chosen by God, abide in his Word, Jesus, and know
that Jesus is from God.
I don’t want to sentimentalize this weirdness—Stonings, beatings, persecution
and hardship were the consequence of this weirdness for the Early Church
who proclaimed Christ as Lord.
weighed heavily on the Saintly Desert Mothers and Fathers, living as hermits
out in the wilderness with nothing but Jackals and Jesus as their companions.
weird to claim “In Christ There Is No East or West, in Him no North or South”
in a world riven with Civil and World Wars.
to claim “The Brotherhood of Man and the Fatherhood of God” in the Jim Crow
South, or an Apartheid state, or anywhere fellowship between people is denied.
Sanctity—Weirdness, can wear a person down.
It can turn you inward.
It can weary the soul,
or silo us off,
leaving us alone in our weirdness.
that’s why we cry not only “Lord, may we be weird,” but, “Lord, may we be weird
why we are Church, not for buildings or programs, but that we weird ones,
we holy ones,
we sinner/saints struggling to be
faithful in the World as it is,
might bear with one another. So that
it’s not me and Jesus, but us and
think of the witness of that.
Jon, the owner of Flannagan’s pub, saw us there together at Pub Theology last Tuesday,
it was clear he thought, “What it God’s name brings a group of people like this
together.” And that is our answer, “God’s name.”
of the witness our strange fellowship…
brings together Jesus’ disciples—A Tax Collector, a gaggle of fishermen, a
political assassin, a religious radical, and two hot tempered brothers.
united only in following Jesus
—in going out together two by two
supporting one another
—defending each other’s weirdness
from a world seeking sameness.
Feeding one another’s soul,
keeping us looking outside ourselves,
giving one another rest,
and reminding each other we’re never
“Lord, may we be weird together.”
chosen ones, we abiding ones, we knowing ones. We in the world, but not of it.
We bound together, in Jesus.
and brothers, Jesus is the Son of God and our Lord, Savior, and Friend.
know him to be the Beloved of God, and it is in him we have come to love and
It is through him we have found
freedom from the twin terrors of death and sin. In him we find comfort and
consolation in our darkest hours, and it is he who we call upon to celebrate in
times of joy. Truly we can ask him to forgive, save, and sustain us, for he has
already done so for us.
3. In our worship—with the water of
Baptism, the Word of God, and the Bread and Wine of Holy Communion.
Gathered together in fellowship—connected
to one another deeply enough that we bear one another’s burdens—taking each
other seriously enough, that we need to confess and forgive one another
sometimes… familiar enough with one another that we also share our joys and
give thanks to God together…
We are sent out of this building and
into the whole of our lives, to bring all that we have received from Christ out
into the world.
it is in practicing these things here that we share and cultivate the Goodness
of God found in Jesus… but ultimately we can do all this only because Christ has promised to show up in these things—in
community, baptism, confession, scripture, words of thanks, the holy meal, and
service of others.
Yes, these are ours because they were first his.
they are now ours—
They were given to us so we might be
little Christs to the world—and not some hypothetical world, but the world we
A world of wars declared and
undeclared, to which we are called to be peacemakers.
A world of vast and varied
divisions—political divisions, ethnic divisions, religious divisions, racial
divisions—and we are called to be repairers of the breach.
A world of great need, sold on
scarcity—and we are called into it with open hands and hearts.
don’t think you hear what I’m saying—
In a world of ISIS, Putin, and
ongoing wars in the middle east—we are to declare peace.
In a world of scorched earth Partisan
Political Bomb Throwers and whole cities—dear Baltimore—and countries
clenching, worried about the next eruption to quake and further rend the garment
of our national life—we are to be bridge builders and listeners and lovers of
In a world that ignores the needs of
the neediest, and at the same time stokes the wants, the frivolous, the
wasteful—we are to model together what enough looks like, and ensure all have
their daily bread.
help us, this is impossible… yet it is what we practice in this building, it is
what we receive from our Lord—it is what has been done for us already in
Christ’s life, death, and resurrection.
Has not, from Christ’s side an
unquenchable river of life filled every emptiness we have offered him—made
scarcity into plenty.
Has not all become one in Christ—have
we not been clothed with him, and so there is no Jew or Gentile, Slave or Free,
Male or Female—have not all divisions ceased?
Has not the mighty war machine that
was the Roman Empire come crashing down, the cross of a common Galilean rending
it’s gears and calling it’s people to practice war no more?
calls us to be his hands in the world as it is—our lives as they are.
Surely he is with us in this and with
us here, in this very moment.
Here as we practice in our work and
in our worship, practice becoming who we are and remembering whose we are.
We are Christ’s. We are his and He is
ours. He is our Lord, Savior, and Friend.
of my favorite riffs I do with the Confirmation Students is comparing the three
johns—The Gospel of John, the Revelation of John, and the Letters of John.
the first, particular points are emphasized by affirming, as we read today, “I
am.” “I am the bread of life, the light of the world, the good shepherd, the true vine.”
the book of Revelation particular points are emphasized with bizarre and more
importantly, memorable, images—for example: Christ is the light that lights the
city of God, and is a multi-horned, multi-eyed slain lamb that is also a lion,
and there is found by the water of life a tree with leaves that heal the
then there is the letters of John. It makes its points through repetition.
It makes its point through staccato snarled
sentences squished together and snagging up against the soul of the reader.
It repeats points again and again
with slightly different jabs and punches until it knocks out its audience.
If you haven’t heard me yet, I’ll say
it a fourth time, it wears you down with repetition going at you again and
again with a wrestler’s prowess, holding onto you heavily and hoping to grapple
and grab onto the listener’s whole person and pull you down to the mat.
if you prune, separate out, and poke at, the messy message found in the 4th
chapter of the 1st letter of John—you come up with this fairly straightforward
Love one another.
Love one another, because it reveals God.
Love one another, because it connects us to God.
Love one another, because of Christ’s love.
Love one another, because God first loved us.
Love one another. Agape, in the Greek.
one another in an active way—This
isn’t sentiment or internal stuff, it’s loving action—it’s the kind of love you
can do whether or not you like the other person.
one another in a sacrificial way—love
like Christ loved us, all the way. Love while running on empty, love out of
your weakness, love so it overflows.
one another in a way motivated by God—there
are other compasses that can point us to active sacrificial love, but the one
that motivates us Christians has both it’s essence and origins in the God
revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Love one another, because it reveals God.
we love in active, sacrificial, Godly ways, we often have aha! Moments. Moments when we glimpse God.
is a long tradition of Christian saints having aha! moments—moments of glimpsing God while loving in an Agape kind of way.
is said Francis of Assisi knelt down and kissed a leper, and he realized he had
in fact kissed Christ.
the mythical St. Christopher took a small child upon his back in order to ferry
him across a deep river—and half way through he recognized this child to be
Jesus, and his strength gave out and he was pressed down into the water and
rose up a Baptized man.
think of Luther, who had an Aha! moment
that continues to shape how Lutherans talk about the connection between God and
While changing his son’s
diapers—Luther realized that act of service was just as holy—served God by
serving neighbor—just as holy as his entire time in the monastery.
think about the hard but needed task of listening to sisters and brothers with whom
we disagree—in doing so we might see the face of God—after all, upon the cross
Christ seemed ungodly too—just as those holding opposite opinions to us so
we glimpse God when we love one another.
Love one another, because it connects us to
we love one another that aha! moment
can become something more—it is not a one-time event
—it’s like birth—it takes a while.
It’s motherly embrace—that doesn’t
just happen once
It’s becoming family.
It’s knowing from experience, knowing
it in your bones and in your soul.
It’s abiding—that is living,
dwelling, being in it. Moving into the presence of God.
about it, practicing love and becoming connected to the One Who Loves.
about anything you’ve practiced.
every moment on the baseball field is home runs and Gatorade on your head—it’s
callouses, blisters, and sore muscles, time taken out of your day, and commitment…
and yet in doing that you become
you become part of something else
it is glorious.
too, loving one another shapes us, sticks with us, becomes part of us, we
become part of it, we’re being reborn.
we are changed and connected to God by loving one another.
Love one another, because of Christ’s love.
command to love one another, is told while he demonstrates that very thing. He
kneels and holds onto his disciples feet, washing the dirt and the dust from
those feet, as he says, “Love one another.”
feet trampling along, following after him to worried parents, outcast women, blind
men, and faithful Centurions—serving with feet and hands—loving in a
sacrificial way, following his Father’s calling upon his life.
to the end—loving with arms outstretched upon the cross, outstretched for you
and for me.
too beyond the end—opening the tomb so that he might abide with us, bearing and
birthing us out into the world, meeting us in our acts of service—that we might
entertain him unaware that we do those things.
Jesus loves us so deeply and we can show that love by loving one another.
Love one another, because God first loved
reasonable to fear loving one another in an Agape
a lot to lose, potentially—it’s risky.
tension between emotion and action might be too much
—the hard ongoing outpouring of love
drains you and does nothing to the recalcitrant heart of the beloved, they
never love back
—and you grow bitter.
sacrifices might be too much
—you give and give and never see the
results of your labor. You plant and another reaps.
even the actions become ends in and of themselves, the compass is lost, the
north star of God is obscured.
beloved, it’s worth the risk!
worth loosing too much love, because the
loving has already been done.
first loved us, and so we respond by loving our neighbor in need and loving our
sisters and brothers in Christ.
acted first, God loved first.
entirety of the Acts of the Apostles could be read as God acting first and the
Church catching up.
God acted first,
God welcomed first,
God loved first.
Pentecost fire showed God’s love for
Gentiles—then the early Christians had to spend time and treasure on them.
made the Gentiles table servers, but God acted first and made them powerful
preachers of the Gospel.
as we see today in Acts, God is already acting with this rich and powerful
Ethiopian Eunuch before Phillip can do a thing—Phillip has to catch up and
that’s the story—God loved us when yet sinners and oppressed, sending his son.
loved us when we clung to an unjust society, by sending the prophets.
loved us when we blamed each other for our sufferings, by sending the wise ones
who wrote the book of Job and Ecclesiastes and short-circuited that attitude.
loved us when we were in slavery and crying out with deepest need, by bringing
us through the sea and on to freedom.
loved us before we even existed, calling forth over the deep, Spirit calling
all things, seen and unseen, into being, that they might be loved.
God first loved us, let us love one another.
Love one another, because it reveals God and connects us to God.
Love one another, because God, in Christ Jesus, first loved us.
was a time in the 70’s and early 80’s, or so I’ve been told, when preachers
decided that the sermons in the book of Acts were examples of the Earliest
Christian preaching. Then, they added, that time period in the book of Acts was
a period of enormous church growth…
So, they concluded, if modern preachers
were to use those sermons as a model for their preaching, they would have the
same kind of success.
are a few flaws in this theory—two that come to mind right off the bat are that:
a lot easier to double Christianity when there are only 12 or so members.
of the preachers of these sermons in Acts—the Apostles and Paul, were martyred
(that is killed for the faith) which is, I would venture to guess, hardly the kind
of success those 1970’s preachers were looking for.
these sermons in the book of Acts, do pack a certain punch—they’re worth
mimicking every now and again.
today’s case, we read of Peter assuring the people the miracle performed before
them, when he healed a bent over beggar—he makes clear that the healing isn’t
his doing, but instead is from God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The
same God found in Jesus, who is the righteous and living one—the one promised
to us to save us from our sin—and therefore we ought to turn to him and be
Let us pray.
what Peter is getting at today could be summed up by the ELCA’s tag line—God’s Work, Our Hands…
that we recognize none of this—none
of what our church, or synod, or congregation does, is from us—ultimately our hands are empty, our work is
not our own—they are from God.
Yes, over 6 millions Americans who are
suffering and in need are touched by the ELCA’s service arm, be they immigrants
escaping persecution and being resettled, or a family looking to adopt, or just
folk with too much hunger and not enough pay check—yes 6 million people a year—the equivalent of the ELCA serving the
entire state of Massachusetts.
Yes, we recently helped plant a
congregation in rural China—no small feat.
Yes, we are decimating the disease of
Malaria in 13 countries.
it’s not us who do these things
—these amazing life giving, miraculous things
—no it is God.
Yes, our own Bishop, Bishop Tracie
Bartholomew recently shared a pulpit with Roman Catholic Bishop Thomas Donato
in Bayonne, an unprecedented act of ecumenical hospitality—a Roman Catholic
Bishop inviting a female Protestant Bishop to share in proclamation of the
Yes, the New Jersey Synod has called my
colleague and cousin Beau Nelson to serve as chaplain to the homeless folk in
Yes, the Red Cross recently had 166
people still displaced from Sandy in need of help, and Lutheran Disaster Relief
responded, “Don’t worry, we got this.”
it wasn’t we who had it—it never is—always
it’s God who’s got this!
I think of the ongoing embarrassing
thing that keeps happening to me at Synod Council Meetings—the meeting is going
along, they’re talking about innovative stuff in the Synod, and next thing I
know they’re talking about me and about St. Stephen.
--Look there is a Pub Theology in
South Plainfield, they gush, and there I am cleaning wax out of my ear, or
looking at cat videos on my cell phone.
--Or they start saying, “Pastor Chris
must be a managerial genius the way
from 3 different towns—Edison,
Plainfield, and South Plainfield, in a state where people take boarders between
towns very seriously,
congregations, even of different
racial and ethnic backgrounds,
are finding ways to work together and
strengthen one another’s ministry. Good on you Pastor Chris”
And I just kinda perk up like a cow that
leaned against an electric fence.
didn’t do any of that.
Any good thing, and good fruit, in this
place—that’s God’s doing.
Yes, good things are afoot among God’s
people in South Plainfield and New Jersey and all across this nation and this
world—with bare hands outstretched and a befuddled and joyful look all we can
do is look up and say, this is God’s
doing… always God’s doing.
admit, just as our forbearers of the faith did, that all good things come from
disciples were betrayers, deniers, and distrustful—yet God made them bold proclaimers of the Gospel.
was a wayward son of the Church and Francis of Assisi was a spoiled rich kid—yet upon one God built our minds and the
other our hearts.
detractors called him a drunken little monk, and so he was—yet God poured from his pen and formed from his temper, a rediscovery
of grace that stoking the engine of a great reform.
Yes, the God of the Disciples, the God
of the Church Fathers, and the God of the Reformers, reveals the goodness of
the one whom we call Lord, Jesus Christ.
the righteous one, rejected, the author of life, killed.
Jesus Christ, Righteousness returned—
if there is anything you regret in
any time you’ve missed the mark or
fallen short of any goal
the goal has been obtained,
the mark made,
the regret held, honored, and healed.
Jesus Christ, Life revived—that deep and dreaded whisper that
ends our days, that holds us all in it’s grasp, Death
—does so no longer,
the grave’s weight and death’s sting,
have no power over us
—Christ has shattered them so that we
might live in fullness, dying with him and rising with him.
pray that all that we do—serving 6 million, swapping pulpits in impossible
ways, partnerships across towns and Gospel-exploration in pubs—that it all
point’s to this promise of Resurrection
the message to us from God found in
the Old and New Testament,
the message passed on from Pentecost
to the present day,
the message I preach from this pulpit
the message of every part of the
the message of our lives the moment
we step out of these church doors.
have resurrection and righteousness through Christ.
your Baptism into his death and life.
yourself in the one who makes us whole and alive.
can hear you whispering “Look, the doubter. Look, Doubting Thomas.”
really not fair.
don’t name any of the other disciples that way.
don’t say “Look, Abandoning Peter.”
don’t even say “Look, Betraying Judas.”
that matter, why can’t you call me “Twin
Thomas”—that’s what the gospels call me…
Or you could even call me “Brave Thomas”
After all, when all the other
disciples were whining:
“Oh, if we go back to Judea
we’ll get stoned to death… poor us.”
I said, “Well, then we’ll go to Judea and die
you could call me Inquisitive Thomas—after
all, there was that one time when Jesus told us that he was going someplace—and
he claimed we already knew where that was (Truth be told, Jesus really gives us too
much credit sometimes)
Everyone else just nodded
solemnly like they knew what he was talking about
—Not me though, I actually wanted
to make sure I knew what this was all about
—I chose to ask the dumb question
that no one else wanted to ask, “Where
are you talking about?”
I’m stuck with that name
I’m stuck as Doubting Thomas.
Doubting Thomas. All because of that one
He’d died for crying out loud!
--we’d all seen it. Our Lord, hung
out there like a criminal.
then, later, Mary told us he’d risen from the dead.
didn’t believe her. None of us, not one!
We ALL doubted her.
why the other disciples locked themselves in the upper room. They didn’t trust
that if Jesus could come to Mary he could come to all of us
—yetI get the bad
wrap as “Doubting Thomas.” …
My point is this, we all doubted.
at least went outside
—I wasn’t afraid to die
—I didn’t lock myself in that
room out of fear
—I figured if they killed me, for knowing Jesus, then so be it…
Yet I’m the doubter
wasn’t in the room the first time.
I missed out.
time I saw them
—the other disciples
told me about being breathed on, how that changed
everything for them.
seemed kind of strange to me, honestly… being breathed on by a dead guy…think of the halitosis…
But I couldn’t knock it. It gave
—it changed them from frightened
fishermen hiding-out, to bold preachers front and center.
was jealous of that—maybe that would be a better name for me “Jealous Thomas” I’d cop to that.
was jealous of their new status—their new boldness.
mean, I was the bold one, after all.
not after seeing them.
felt like the person who misread the worship time for Easter and got to church
in time to pick up a Lilly and go back home… without even hearing the good
felt like I’d missed Easter.
I couldn’t believe them
—I couldn’t believe they’d seen him.
I couldn’t believe the transformation that had overcome them.
I couldn’t believe…
(hmmm)Well, if I’m really honest… I couldn’t
believe I’d missed it.
I missed Jesus
I missed this
peace they all felt.
I felt left out.
I was jealous of them.
I went so far as to cut myself off
from the community by not trusting their words…
And I want to be clear, it was their words I doubted—not him… never him. Never God and never Jesus…
just missing his
return, missing out on what they all had …that changing moment… I missed it.
And it didn’t help that they were so
excited about that forgiving and retaining sins thing.
In fact, they
tried it out on me. I think they were
meaning it well—but…
it felt like they believed doubt was a sin.
you know what it feels like to have your brothers and sisters whisper, and even
say aloud, that you are a sinner because you doubt? A sinner because you
weren’t there in that room.
A sinner because
you missed out.
A sinner because
they were all certain… and your uncertainty makes them feel uncomfortable.
1They were changed, and I missed it /
they were gung-ho and I was still in the depths of mourning.
2It made me pull away from them, even
though they were trying their best to continue to be my brothers.
3They went so far as to call me a sinner
for missing that moment… for doubting.
And because of all that I blew up—I said something I didn’t really mean.
I said I would
only believe if I squished my fingers around in his wounds.
Pretty gross if you stop and think
about it—macabre even…
but I was in
else had experienced resurrection… I was still in despair.
but despairing. Despairing Thomas / not Doubting Thomas.
Somehow, I toughed it out. I came
back—despite all that, I showed up in that room, with them, the next week.
There … with them… a voice came from
behind me, and said:
“Peace be with you.”
And he took that gross challenge I’d
thrown at my brothers,
and at God,
the challenge of
“poking my fingers in his wounds,” and made it a redeemable moment
—a place from
which I could believe…
a place beyond
And I shouted out, “My Lord and my God.”
That’s where things get complicated.
Most people think what Jesus said to me next was a rebuke… that Jesus too
called me a sinner for not being with them… with the other disciples—for being “a
But it wasn’t a rebuke. He just asked
me a rhetorical question, “Have you believed because you have seen?”
Then he looked passed me, through that
room, and out into eternity
generations… to all of you…
them, saying, “blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to
It wasn’t a rebuke, it was a blessing
for all those Christians who came after us… He was promising them
—his love and
his gospel, for
It wasn’t about me
—but about his blessing,that conquered the grave,
our despair and division,
and continues to
bring life to this day
—to this very
If I’m “Doubting
Thomas” … You all are “Blessed Disciples”