According to recent surveys on religion, people in the United States are more spiritual than ever. But the old forms of religion are no longer used by many to express the spiritual side of life. In fact, the fastest growing religious group in America is called the SBNR’s (Spiritual but Not Religious.) God, Jesus, and spiritual living seem to matter a great deal. But people are not interested in organized religion or traditional forms of religious expression.
As organized religion declines and spirituality seems to flourish, more and more people are constructing their own faith, hammering out their own convictions, building meaning as they see it, and developing their own spiritual practices. Traditional religious expressions, denominations, structures, and processes no longer speak to perhaps a majority of people.
So despite a high level of interest in spiritual things, religion in America is actually on the decline, especially in denominations like the ELCA, our denomination. The ELCA, has lost about ¾ of a million members in the last thirty years. The Lutheran decline is part of a general decline that seems to affect all groups regardless of their positions, politics, or faith.
Perhaps a parable would illustrate the situation in which the church finds itself. Let’s say that the church was in the business of baking and selling cookies. And let’s say that the Lutheran Church especially was very good at baking and selling its cookies in the stores where people bought cookies. Lutherans produced the best store bought cookies anyone could buy, full of the best ingredients and made with extreme care by bakers trained for centuries in excellent cookie production. People bought Lutheran cookies with confidence and pride for years, and looked for them on the shelves of the grocery store.
Then rather suddenly, the buying habits of cookie consumers shifted and the market changed. The quality of the cookies did not change, but nobody was interested in buying store bought cookies anymore. It was now the rage to bake your own cookies at home. Home baked was better than store bought. People made their own cookies out of their own ingredients and with their own recipes. People were eating more cookies than ever, but the sale of Lutheran cookies in the stores plummeted along with all the other pre-baked cookies on the shelves.
Soon the Lutheran bakery was laying off bakers and closing ovens in an attempt to stay afloat. But some in the Lutheran bakery realized how this shift in the market required fresh thinking, and began to make some changes at the bakery.
Oh, the bakery would still produce cookies for sell in stores. That line of the business would continue. But the emphasis of the business would shift. Lutheran bakeries would use their long standing experience, their connections with suppliers, their expertise in equipment and processes, to offer the home baker access to high quality ingredients, outstanding home equipment, and a series of resources and recipes to assist the home baker in making their own baked goods.
As the new set of products developed, there was of course stress in all Lutheran bakeries, but there was also a renewed vigor as the bakery became a supplier of baking resources, equipment and materials. Lutheran bakers began to sense the possibilities in this new way of providing cookies in a home baking business climate.
In the United States, at this point in the twenty-first century, we are in this time of renewed vigor as we no longer stress adopting the prepackaged Lutheran faith, and instead figure out how to assist those who are constructing their own faith, building their own meaning, hammering out what it means to be a good human being in this time and place.
SBNR’s (and all of us really in the process of considering faith or reconsidering it) no longer use ancient dogmas to define what we believe. Yet the construction of a functional personal spiritual life that will stand the tests of time is challenging. In building the faith we need, we will find ourselves turning to ancient wisdoms and rituals because they provide insights, direction, purpose and frameworks we can use to construct our own faith.
In today’s lessons from the Bible we sense one essential recipe of faith, or at least some of the ingredients that are helpful in holding our cookies together as we go through life.
If today you are working on constructing a faith that works for you, if you are trying to construct a workable meaning for life and values for living based on your own spirituality, these three lessons today may assist you in that project, deepening some insight you already have.
In Deuteronomy we have two of the basic ingredients of a good spiritual life. The author of the ancient passage points to two things for which the people are God are to be remembered. One is the importance of workable and just guidelines, rules or ordinances which remind us to pray, which help us all get along, which build up the common good, and which help us build a just and good society. This is the point of the Ten Commandments in Deuteronomy and Exodus.
We need guidelines to help us shape everything from prayer, to our court system, to how we treat our family, friends, and the strangers among us. Without this ethical sense life disintegrates. Actually all of the lessons today point to rules that are important. James contains many guidelines for living well. Even the rule that Jesus seems to break in the gospel lesson is not a bad rule: wash your hands before you eat. The ancient truth behind this rule, he says, eventually got out of hand. If you are constructing a faith, it will need some ethical principles and some guidelines for living.
However, there is a second thing about the ancient faith in Deuteronomy. Rules alone will never lift the spirit, and will never draw us close to God. Deuteronomy says a faith also is founded on a relationship with God. God relates to the people. In our relationship with the divine, in our encounter perhaps daily in prayer, song, praise, lament, shared meals, and meditation: in all of these ways our relationship with God deepens and our faith is nourished. If you are constructing a spiritual life, it would be good to consider not only the rules for a good life, but the best ways to build a relationship with the sacred, ways to feel the presence of God active in your life, ways to rejoice with, complain to, and celebrate with the God who loves you.
Rules and relationship with God matter in the construction of the cookies of faith. But James, the second lesson today, lifts up an underlying principle. All faith construction is helped along by or even based on an underlying principle. We have one of them here at the end of the passage. True religion is not necessarily organized religion. True religion is not a set of dogmas or beliefs or even an ethical system in James. True religion is the showing of compassion to the widow and orphan. True religion is founded on the principle of compassion. To have compassion is a foundational principle for faith construction.
Jesus embodies this principle of compassion in Mark when he says it is far more important than following any religious system or rules. Human compassion, mirroring the compassion of God, is the foundation for Christian faith building. But this principle is also the cornerstone of many other of the major faith traditions of the world.
If one is building one’s faith, one will need every day guidance and guidelines, one will spend time relating to God, and one will begin to build a life on a foundational principle such as compassion. But there is one more thing offered by Jesus this morning. In the important task of baking faith’s cookie, it is important to remember that it is what goes on inside of us that matters rather than all the stuff going on around us. We can be so focused on the world and the problems we face, we forget that what’s inside of us is very important. Our souls matter long before we go to heaven. If you want to be your own spiritual person, what will matter most is finding the way of God in your own heart. That seems simple at first, but we all know that caring for, nurturing and sustaining the inner life is a difficult thing. Along the way we will need friends, both contemporary and ancient to help us find our path.
No matter how you feel about organized religion, if you are constructing your faith today, these ancient lessons call us to develop the ethics we need to live together with justice and peace, to strengthen our relationship with God, to build on the founding principle of compassion, and to attend to our inner life so that our outer life may reflect the light within. Jesus, a long time ago when he was building a faith said something like, “love God with all your heart and soul and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.”