So welcome to week 2 of our stewardship season. Last Sunday, we began a four-week sermon series on “Choosing to Say, ‘Thank You.’” The question we were exploring last week was, “What am I thankful for?”; and to me, at least, the answer to that question is that I’m most thankful for the gift of relationships. So today, as we continue with this series, the question is, “Where do my blessings come from?” And here’s the answer: They come from God. There you go – the shortest sermon of all time.
Well, maybe not. There’s a bit more to it than that. I mean, we all know our blessings come from God. But how does that work, exactly? On one level, it’s the simple truth we recognize every time we say grace before dinner or say the Lord’s Prayer: that God is the source of our daily bread – and our houses, and cars, and clothing, and on and on. But when it comes to our deepest blessings, the blessings that make our lives meaningful – blessings of love and laughter, care and compassion – God has designed a particularly ingenious system for sharing those blessings. It’s all around you. In fact, it is you. God uses us, the people of this church, as instruments for blessing one another and those around us. In fact, that’s really what the Church is all about. It isn’t God’s only way of blessing the world, but I do think that’s why we’re here.
So it’s ironic that, since we gathered here last week, one of those news stories has come out that puts Christianity on the front pages for a day, at least. According to a well-respected research group, the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, we’ve reached a watershed moment: Protestant Christians are no longer a majority of our population. This is the first time that’s ever been the case.
And the primary reason why? It’s not that our Roman Catholic neighbors are outdoing the Protestants. It’s because of the growing segment of the population that chooses to opt out of the religious marketplace. Today, 20 percent of the population chooses “None” as their religious affiliation, an increase of five points in just the past five years. Some of the folks in that 20 percent are avowed atheists. But many of them are part of a growing segment of the population, the SBNRs – “spiritual but not religious.” They are the topic of many a continuing-education event for clergy these days, because the SBNR option is the Church’s primary competition. The SBNRs do see themselves as people of faith – at least their own individualized, cobbled-together faith. But they have no use for religion, which they find gets in the way of being “spiritual.” (http://apne.ws/SIZ6VG)
Should we take this as an indictment of the Church? Yes, absolutely. There are many other social factors at work, too, but – Christian religious institutions have spent way too much time and energy being religious institutions, rather than the Body of Christ on a mission to reveal the kingdom of God. We’ve focused on internal squabbles and often preached a Gospel of self-perpetuation. It’s not a healthy pattern. The more time we spend focused on ourselves, the less time we spend on blessing people nearby and far away.
I think there’s a lesson for us in our Gospel reading today about this call not to be an institution but to be the primary delivery system for God’s blessings. It’s the story of the rich man who comes to Jesus asking, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Mark 10:17). Jesus tells him he needs to follow the Law of Moses – no great surprise there – which the man says he does … religiously even. But Jesus sees that something else is getting in the way. This man is trying to secure what’s coming to him, both in this life and the next. He’s probably sincere in following the rules, but what he’s trying to do is to solidify his spiritual position just as he’s built up his worldly holdings – trying to put the pieces in place in his spiritual portfolio so he can get the same success in the next life as he’s had in this one. The malady this man suffers from is consumption – being consumed with what he has rather than who he is, and consumed with getting to eternal life rather than being in eternal life.
We’re also at risk for consumption. That’s not a surprise to any of you. You don’t have to watch TV or surf the web very long to notice what our culture asks of us. Buy; possess; consume; repeat. By count of the messages we receive, that’s clearly our primary function in the culture’s eyes. Preachers have been railing against it for years, with not a lot to show for the effort. But Jesus didn’t show a lot of success along those lines, either. After all, the rich man in the Gospel reading “went away grieving,” back to his “many possessions,” rather than following Jesus to reveal the kingdom of God (Mark 10:22).
It’s a matter of whether we put our focus on the things we have or on the relationships we have. Deep down, at our core, each one of us is a child of God designed for relationship with other children of God. Even in this individualized culture, we’re still wired for relationship. It’s where we find our greatest blessings, as I said last week, and where we find our spiritual healing. When Jesus diagnoses the rich man with consumption, being consumed by the things he has, the prescription is to get rid of his possessions – but not because possessions are inherently bad. They’re not. They’re blessings from God. Instead, the prescription is to sell them and give the money “to the poor” (Mark 10:21) – which, to me, implies the need to connect with people the rich man would have otherwise never known, and to bring them God’s blessing.
For churches, we face the same kind of choice between focusing on the institution we have or focusing on relationships yet to be made. If we want to turn around that trend toward SBNR and “None” being the fastest-growing religious categories, then our choice has to be building relationships. No matter the beauty of our buildings, or the acumen of our theology, or the richness of our tradition – where the rubber meets the road is where Jesus is leading the disciples in today’s Gospel: to the blessings of community. Those who turn away from their consumption, and turn toward relationship instead, will find their blessings multiplied by a “hundredfold,” Jesus says – “now in this age … and in the age to come” (Mark 10:30).
At our best, that’s what we experience right here in this parish, our spiritual and relational home. In fact, you may be surprised to find out just how much blessing happens through the life of the people of this church, week in and week out. I took a minute, and looked at the parish calendar, and started counting. In the week that’s just passed, if you were here all day and all evening long, you would have encountered 30 different gatherings and meetings – everything from Intercessory Prayer to Youth Group to choirs to Cancer Support to 10 different adult learning opportunities. And in the week ahead, we’ll see 33 more gatherings and meetings among people of this church. If you estimate eight people at each of those gatherings – and that would be a conservative average – that’s about 250 times someone walks into this building each week for something other than worship. Across the year, that’s 13,000 times the doors open for a moment of blessing.
And that doesn’t even count the funerals and the weddings. It doesn’t count the hundreds of pastoral appointments and conversations Mtr. Anne and I have – and even those are only the tip of the iceberg when you consider all the caring conversations taking place among the people of this church every week. It doesn’t count the fellowship of coffee hour or a greeeting from the ladies in the gift shop. It’s no exaggeration to say that tens of thousands of moments of blessing happen in this church, and among its people, every year.
This is the secret of Christianity’s endurance, the reason for our persistent presence in the world after 2,000 years, despite our own failings and the forces working against us. Our blessings come from God – but just as important, our blessings come from God through each one of us. The polls may show that we’re slipping, but nonetheless you are part of a mighty force – a holy company of saints making the blessings of God real and concrete, incarnating Christ’s love, and opening the door to the reality of eternal life happening right now.
So rather than seeing yourself as part of an institution, be part of the movement Jesus is leading. Be part of the life of the body of Christ here. Pledge yourself to support it, in time and talent and treasure. Say “thank you” for the blessings God is pouring out on you, and let them flow through you to bless people nearby and far away.
That’s not just how the institution of St. Andrew’s will thrive in its second century, although that’s true. It’s also our witness to the SBNRs we know. The next time someone says to you, “I’m spiritual but not religious,” you can say to them, “I’m spiritual, too. But, you know, you get a lot more out of being spiritual together.”