“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near, repent, and believe in the good news.” (Mark 1:15)
Have you ever heard young people say they don’t believe in “organized religion?” That phrase always gives me a bit of a smug chuckle. I want to tell the unbelieving slacker, “Dude, if it’s not organized, technically it’s not religion. It’s just some weird stuff that rolls around in your head. It’s not a religion unless you can share it. To share it, you have to have an agreed upon vocabulary and context with someone else. Once you’ve agreed, you’ve organized it.”
Yup. That’s the thing about religion. It requires cooperation. We have to agree on a common mythology, a common interpretation, a way to regularly recognize that common story through rites and rituals, and a common understanding of how that story should play out in our code of behavior and interpersonal relationships. When some millennial tells me that she’s “spiritual, but not religious,” I just think she’s too lazy and self-involved to want to deal personally with a community.
Okay. So maybe I’m just a grumpy old fart, but look around. We in the US are a bunch of folks growing increasingly more isolated. We drive alone in our cars, spend incredible amounts of supposedly interpersonal time staring at the touch screens on our cellular devices, work in cubicles, and shut the world out with our ear buds. I go to my local Starbucks and see a table of millennials supposedly sitting together, yet each is half focused on a cell phone in his or her lap. Our technology, instead of pulling us together as was promised, is drawing us further apart as we each sink into the oblivion on our computer screens and hear only the voices we’ve chosen to hear. I’ve heard that young Muslims have become radicalized—not through fanatical imams in their local mosques—but through zealots on the internet who have tapped into the young person’s feelings of alienation and estrangement.
In the gospel lesson appointed for Epiphany 3 (Mark 1:14-20), Jesus is creating community. He’s calling people into a fellowship which continually gathers and welcomes newcomers like a fisherman gathers fish in a net. That’s what religion is supposed to do—gather people together. We’re all subjects in the kingdom of God, but we could use a little work these days on the togetherness issue.
For my part, as a parish pastor in beautiful Northeast Philadelphia, I’m going to try to work on three issues. The first is young people. If you look at our gospel text from Mark, you’ll see that Jesus really gets his recruiting motor revved up after radical John the Baptist gets locked up for speaking truth to power (v.14). I think it’s interesting to note that Jesus heads right into the neighborhood where John had been preaching. He doesn’t run away from a dangerous mission, he runs toward it. I think young Americans are just itching to speak out, make a difference, and see that justice, mercy, and fairness exist in this country. What better leader could they have than Jesus?
Can we in the mainline Christian church see ourselves as recruiters for those who want to make a change in society? Can we gather those who see Jesus’ love of the poor as a call to mission to redistribute wealth through acts of charity and a voice against the structure which seeks to give tax breaks to billionaires and cut aid to children? In any event, I’m going to make it one of my priorities this year to involve younger Christians in the work of social justice, and—just maybe—teach them a little about the gospel while doing it.
I see another call to gathering in our relationship with Christians of other traditions. My Lutheran congregation shares its worship facility with the loveliest congregation of Seventh Day Adventists. These folks have given us an exceedingly generous facilities use offering, and have been splendidly cooperative and accommodating to our activities schedule. They keep the church clean, and are unfailingly polite. Unfortunately, the way they worship, look, and speak is vastly different from the way we worship, look, and speak. Because of this, we might forget that they worship the same God and Lord Jesus Christ that we do. I think there’s a great need to bring our two communities together at some point so we can know each other, appreciate our differences and similarities, and give thanks to God for the gospel we all share. It’s far too easy for American Christians to think of renter congregations as “those people” who use “OUR church.” The church belongs to Christ, not to us, and our SDA friends belong here just as much as we do.
(Additionally, President Trump has just declared that our Adventist friends—who are Haitian and Haitian-American—are somehow less desirable than people who’ve come from other parts of the world. He should meet these people. They are kind, cheerful, intelligent, respectful, and talented. It is an honor to have them as partners in the gospel.)
Finally, I’m going to try to gather a new part of our community into the net. I have an appointment next week at the Muslim Youth Center of Philadelphia. Our Muslim neighbors have asked Christian churches in the neighborhood to help them articulate their mission, so I’m going to see what I can do to help. I want to practice what J. Paul Rajashakar called the “Theology of Hospitality.” That is, acknowledging what I don’t know about my neighbor’s faith, and trying to see if we can come up with a vocabulary to focus on the beliefs we hold in common rather than dwelling on our dissimilarities. I think God will be glorified by the effort.
I’ll admit that getting together isn’t always easy. Sometimes we just don’t want to engage our neighbor. The Hebrew Scriptures text from Jonah (Jonah3:1-5, 10) is a reminder that God’s desire for togetherness and unity is not always our desire. Jonah didn’t want those dreadful Nineveh people to be redeemed by God. But God wanted it.
That’s what counts, don’t you think?