This sermon was part of a missional preaching seminar hosted by the Presbyteries of De Cristo and Grand Canyon in Tucson, Arizona, with support from the Worldwide Ministries Division of P.C.(U.S.A.).
Each of us speakers was asked to select a “people group”, a text that might speak to them and craft a sermon directed to that group of people, as a way of modeling missional preaching to pastors and elders attending the seminar. My “people group” was young adults in their 20’s and 30’s (sometimes termed “Millennial’s”) who self-identify as being “spiritual, but not religious.” I am not sure that a sermon is the best way to engage this group of passionate and disillusioned folks, but here is my attempt.
Prayer for Illumination
God, we have before us an ancient book, one that can lead us in many different directions. At times, this book is used to make us feel good and comfortable just as we are. At others, it is used to point fingers at those we disagree with. And often, like any ancient book, it just sits in the corner, gathering dust, willed into irrelevance. But somehow, O God, this is not just any book. Somehow, your Spirit breathes through it and it becomes your Word to us, here, now, today as much as it ever was your Word to others so long ago. So help us to dust off these pages, to hear them with fresh ears and open hearts, that we might find within them the courage to be more than we are. Speak through this Word, Spirit, for we long to hear from you, Amen.
Amos 5:6-15, 21-24
Seek the Lord and live, or he will break out against the house of Joseph like fire, and it will devour Bethel, with no one to quench it. Ah, you that turn justice to wormwood, and bring righteousness to the ground.
The one who made the Pleiades and Orion, and turns deep darkness into the morning, and darkens the day into night, who calls for the waters of the sea, and pours them out on the surface of the earth, the Lord is his name, who makes destruction flash out against the strong, so that destruction comes upon the fortress.
They hate the one who reproves in the gate, and they abhor the one who speaks the truth. Therefore because you trample on the poor and take from them levies of grain, you have built houses of hewn stone, but you shall not live in them; you have planted pleasant vineyards, but you shall not drink their wine. For I know how many are your transgressions, and how great are your sins— you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe, and push aside the needy in the gate. Therefore the prudent will keep silent in such a time; for it is an evil time.
Seek good and not evil, that you may live; and so the Lord, the God of hosts, will be with you, just as you have said. Hate evil and love good, and establish justice in the gate; it may be that the Lord, the God of hosts, will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph.
I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
I am weird. It’s true. I have the opening sentence from the Hobbit plastered on my living room wall. I often refer to my dog as “my child” and force pictures of him upon total strangers. (Don’t worry, I’ll show you later.) I read Game of Thrones, adore Doctor Who and consider Hermione Granger to be a hero. Like I said, a bit weird. But my weirdness doesn’t really come from all of that. It mostly comes from what I do.
You see, I’m a pastor. And anyone will tell you, pastors are weird. There’s little that’s normal about us. This is especially evident on an airplane. I often wind up seated next to a person who will, without fail, spill their life story to me because of this strange profession of mine. You know how the perfunctory small talk goes:
“So, are you headed home to (insert destination here)?”
And then…“What do you do?”
(At this point, I can assume that “Read Game of Thrones and cook Thai food” is not the intended answer.)
Sometimes, when I’m tired or grumpy, I say I’m in “non-profit work” and leave it at that.
But usually, I tell them the truth. It’s quite fun to watch their reaction, really it is. Those three words “I’m a pastor” have the same reaction as “I’m an alien” might produce. They look me up and down, taking in all of my non-male, five-feet-tall glory, and say, “Really?!,” like I would make up doing something so strange.
And then, once the shock has subsided, it begins. The pouring-out-of-the-life-story-bit. I hear about how their Grandmother used to take them to church, or how their parents forced them to go as a child, and they used to like it okay. But then, without much explanation, it sounds like they just grew out of church. You know, like growing out of believing in Santa or the Easter bunny. (I hope I haven’t just ruined your day.)
Then every single one of them sums this up well with the same five words.
“I’m spiritual, but not…religious.”
I’m betting many of you might describe yourselves that way. It’s a wonderful category, really, because it covers a lot of ground.
You can be into yoga and meditation but distrust organized religion.
You can appreciate the mindlessness of Buddhism, pray with Orthodox beads and drink the beer of monks.
You can go to your grandfather’s church on Christmas and Easter and feel profoundly connected with something bigger than yourself, and also get a similar feeling hiking alone in the mountains.
You can think of “God” as the Supreme Being, as Jesus Christ, as Mother Nature, as the Force or as the poor in your city.
“Spiritual but not religious” fits all of these perspectives.
It might just be the most widely used label for our generation. But guess what? We’re not the first to use it. A mistrust of organized religion when it seems “organized” to give the powerful more power, a righteous anger at greed and hatred being labeled as “God’s will”, a frustration with communities who look, think, sing, and speak exactly the same, a belief that religion is completely disconnected from real suffering and struggles (and chooses to be that way): this is an ancient feeling.
We hear it in the words of the prophet Amos. “I know how many are your transgressions, and how great are your sins — you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe, and push aside the needy in the gate…I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies…take away from me the noise of your songs, I will not listen.”
That’s God speaking through this prophet. That’s God saying that God is “spiritual but not religious.” Whoa. But it’s important to realize that these words are speaking about a very particular kind of “religious.” They speak of a religion founded on words-without-works, on one-upmanship. A religion that is co-opts the divine for profit.
No, not prophet like Amos. Profit like bottom line. That particular kind of religious in the time of Amos was a homogenous gathering of the wealthy who went through the motions of praying and sacrificing and worshipping, while cheating the poor through unfair trade agreements and debt programs.
While building up temples of wealth with good strong locks and security systems, and good strong hateful us-versus-them theology, to keep out the “wrong sort” of folks.
And do you know what? That really pissed God off. It still does. God didn’t say, through that outspoken prophet Amos, “Um, excuse me, y’all, it’s just, um, that you might practice what you preach a little more, you know, if you don’t mind. Please.”
God said hate. And hate is a word God does not use often at all (though we religious folk sometimes use it too much). God didn’t say God hated the people who were oppressing the poor. God said “I hate your festivals, your solemn assemblies,” in Hebrew your “chag·gei·chem,” literally meaning, “feasting.”
The Bible never outright says, “Love the sinner, hate the sin.” But this is the closest we ever get to that. That sin, though, is the sin of feasting while the poor starve right outside the gates. Of thinking that this is only what it means to be religious.
If this is the only meaning of religion, then no one should ever be religious. But to let this example of systemic, greedy sin be the only voice of “religion” would be a mistake, like letting the Westboro Baptist Church be today’s only voice of religion. It’s akin to saying the Twilight series has a monopoly on true love, or that Justin Beiber fully embodies what good music is. (It’s a lie, y’all!)
Which is why God was so angry! God knew that the religion of Amos’ day was a lie, that religion should be so much more. And so God sent prophets.
God knows that some of religion in mainstream America is a lie. And so do you. Allow me to be presumptuous enough to put words in your mouth for a moment: I think this is why you call yourself “spiritual but not religious.”
My word for you today is not that you need to abandon that label. I’m not going to tell you you’re wrong, because I don’t think you are (and I don’t think God does either.) I’m not even going to tell you that you need the Church to be spiritual.
But I will tell you this. We need you. Religion needs you, just like that self-righteous people needed Amos, way back in the 8th century BCE. We don’t need you because we want our age demographics to look better, or because we think we have so much to teach you. We need you because, like Amos, you are our prophets, sent by God. And no, I don’t mean money-profit.
I mean you are the ones who bring the vision of religion as it should be. Not a watered-down, Live Your Best Life Now Joel Osteen religion. And not a religion of personal relationship with God, detached from the needs of anyone else.
But a religion where our relationship with God is intimately connected to our relationship with the poor, and the silenced, and the judged. And even, even the hipster.
We need you: your wisdom, your doubts, your questions, your passion to serve others. Forgive us for not communicating that well. Now, I know, I promised I wasn’t going to preach at you that you need us. But, I’m a weird preacher, I warned you. So I do need to say this:
We are not a perfect community, we religious. We never were, and we never will be. But we are here for you, in a way that your Twitter feed and Facebook friends never can be. We might piss you off sometimes, as we certainly do with God, and we might let you down. But so will anyone else in your life.
What we can do is be a radical place of forgiveness, a place to discover the God who cares enough about the world to become one of us in Jesus Christ…a place of healing and hope when that spiritual encounter hiking alone in the mountains gets awfully lonely, when everyone in your yoga class is more concerned with $100 workout clothes than what’s really going on in your life, when another beer, even if it’s a gorgeous hand-crafted IPA, just won’t take away your worries like it used to. We are here. We are messed up, we are hypocritical, we are obnoxiously opinionated, but we are here.
You don’t have to come and join the community of weirdoes we call the church. But you do need to know that we need you, and that, in some forgotten way, you need us too.
It is time to take back the word religious, like the prophet Amos did, because being spiritual and being religious should not be opposites. We can only do it together, with prophets like you. Through you, God will reshape this dry and dusty religion into something alive and new, until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. Amen.