My sermon from Festival of Homiletics

It’s always an honor and pleasure to speak at the Festival of Homiletics (#Homiletics2017). Here’s the text of my sermon. Thanks for the interest and warm reception in San Antonio!

(I’ll include the slides from my workshop in a separate post.)


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Why People Hate Organized Religion

Before I read today’s text, I need to explain that I’m going to make a few simple word substitutions in the gospel reading today. I’m going to do so for two reasons. First, as you may know, the negative portrayal of the Pharisees in the Gospels has been used by Christians through history as a resource for anti-Semitism, something we need to leave behind once and for all. And second, it’s important that we don’t deflect the words of Jesus away from ourselves toward someone else. So I hope you will indulge me in a few small acts of rhetorical substitution.

While he was speaking, a [representative of organized religion] invited him to dine with him; so he went in and took his place at the table. The [representative of organized religion] was amazed to see that he did not first wash before dinner. Then the Lord said to him, ‘Now you [representatives of organized religion]  clean the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness. You fools! Did not the one who made the outside make the inside also? So give for alms those things that are within; and see, everything will be clean for you.

‘But woe to you [representatives of organized religion]! For you tithe mint and rue and herbs of all kinds, and neglect justice and the love of God; it is these you ought to have practised, without neglecting the others. Woe to you [representatives of organized religion]! For you love to have the seat of honour in [denominational gatherings] and to be greeted with respect in the market-places. Woe to you! For you are like unmarked graves, and people walk over them without realizing it.’

It has been 11 years since I left the pastorate where I served for 24 years, but I can promise you, I haven’t forgotten how important and difficult, how rewarding and impossible, how exhausting and exhilarating the pastorate can be. On some days, I would say it scarred me for life, on some days I would say it saved my life, and on most days I would say both are inextricably true. If I could do it over again, I would, and I want to begin by honoring you all for persevering in your calling and caring enough to be here.

What is the pastorate like, and to what can I compare it? Is it like being the press secretary for the president of the United States, because you sometimes feel you have to explain the unexplainable and defend the indefensible? Is it like being the CEO of Exxon Oil or Arch Coal, knowing your industry meets a vital need while harming the global atmosphere and threatening future generations? Is it like being a parent with six kids, two of whom are vegan, two of whom are lactose intolerant, and two of whom are gluten intolerant, so that whatever you cook, you make someone you love happy and someone you love sick?

Whatever the pastorate is, it’s challenging and becoming more challenging. And it’s not your fault.

It’s not your fault, my brothers and sisters. It’s not your fault. I’m tempted to bring up that famous scene in the movie Good Will Hunting where Robin Williams screams in the face of Matt Damon, except that I think there would be too many F-bombs even for the Lutherans and recovering Southern Baptists here to handle. But I wish I could grab each of you and stare in your eyes and say it to your faces. It’s not your fault.

It’s not your fault that in 1452, Pope Nicholas V issued the Doctrine of Discovery that created the twin nightmares of White Supremacy and Christian Supremacy, which are still dominant in most of our Catholic and Protestant organizations today.

It’s not your fault that American religion has always had a racist subtext.

It’s not your fault that the Christian religion became the gaudy hood ornament on the gas guzzling SUV of Western Industrial civilization.

It’s not your fault that liberal Christianity and conservative Christianity have competed for dubious roles of dominant and subdominant expressions of American civil religion.

It’s not your fault that the Fox News of Rupert Murdoch has more influence on many of your church members than the Good News of Jesus Christ.

It’s not your fault that the mainline church’s one foundation, the Lily Endowment, has done beautiful and gracious work to help you survive in the current system of organized religion, but that no comparable endowment has yet invested to help that current system be radically transformed.

It’s not your fault that 59% of millennials raised in the church have dropped out, and that among Mainline Protestants, the percentage of dropouts is 63%.

It’s not your fault that 23% of Americans are religiously unaffiliated, about the same percentage as are Evangelicals (25.4), and more than identify as Catholic (21) or Mainline Protestant (14.7).

It’s not your fault. It took decades for these trends in organized religion to build momentum, and no single one of us can turn around that train ourselves.

The decline in organized religion is not our fault. Nor is it our responsibility to patch up the glorious Titanic of organized religion and keep it afloat. Jesus did not come to make the Temple priesthood great again. He didn’t come to enhance the sacrificial system with rock music, light shows, smoke machines, or pipe organs. He came to model a new way of life that could outlast the decline and fall of organized religion of his day. And that, I believe, is our opportunity at this critical moment: to model a new way of life, as individuals and as faith communities, that can outlast whatever crises lie before us in the unknown future.

Based on our text today, I think if Jesus were given a vote, he would not vote to save organized religion in America today as it is. Nor would he vote for it to be returned to its pinnacle of glory (!) in the 1950s or early 1960s. Consider his indictment against the organized religion of his day.

1. First, he says, organized religion is obsessed with external trivialities at the expense of inner realities. And let’s be honest. How often do we strain at the gnats of doctrinal or liturgical correctness, but swallow those camels of greed, prejudice, and fear?

2. Second, he says, organized religion is driven by the dark forces of greed and money. Later, in Luke 16, he makes the point even more strongly.

No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.’ The [representatives of organized religion], who were lovers of money, heard all this, and they ridiculed him. So he said to them, ‘You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of others; but God knows your hearts; for what is prized by human beings is an abomination in the sight of God.

Now look, I know this isn’t the branch of organized religion that is praying for a new Maserati or a larger McMansion. But let’s be honest. How many of us sometimes feel like the lapdogs of a few wealthy donors who jerk our chains if we dare to challenge their economic and political ideology? Can we deny that dark money too often drives organized religion, just as it drives electoral politics?

3. Third, along with being obsessed with trivialities, and mastered by money, Jesus says that organized religion neglects what matters most, namely, justice and the love of God. And let’s be honest. When the organist is angry at the youth pastor, or when both the women’s toilet and the fellowship hall roof are leaking at the same moment, who among us has time for justice and the love of God?

4. Fourth, he says, in addition to being obsessed with trivialities, mastered by money, and distracted from justice and the love of God, representatives of the organized religion industry want to be liked, respected, thought well of. And let’s be honest. Who among us does not have our little inner political ego perched on our shoulder, chattering insecurities in our ear, fretting about our crowd size, and desperately craving another compliment?

So there Jesus goes again, turning over the tables of organized religion. He diagnoses our obsession with trivialities, our captivity to money, our distraction from the prime directives of justice and the love of God, and our desperate need to be liked. For his dramatic conclusion, he compares organized religion to walking on an unmarked grave. You look underfoot and you see sidewalks and manicured lawns, but just below the surface, there’s rot and death and buried corpses.

You know this already: Jesus’ disdain for organized religion is echoed by millions of people around the world today. They are painfully, angrily disappointed that we are not focused on justice and love, working to save the planet, help the poor, make for peace, and uphold the dignity of all people, no exceptions.

But listen: the problem isn’t that religion is organized. Our problems wouldn’t be solved if religious organizations would just get sloppier in their structure, looser in their time management, and less rigorous in their financial oversight. No. The problem isn’t that religion is organized, but that it’s super well-organized for the wrong purposes.

Which raises the question: what would the right purposes be? I think Jesus’ whole life and ministry provide an answer. Notice, Jesus doesn’t just walk away from religion. He doesn’t open up a bread and fish restaurant in Galilee that he turns into a multi-million dollar miraculously fast-food franchise around the Roman Empire. Nor does he retire to a retreat center on Mount Hermon, where he smokes Egyptian cigars and drinks fine Italian wine with Mary Magdalene and a few close friends. No. He doesn’t sell out or give up. He devotes his life – he pours out as alms all that is within him – to passionately direct people to the right purposes around which life, including religious life, should be organized: justice and the love of God.

And that’s your great opportunity, my fellow professionals in the industry of organized religion. Each of us can play a role in using the assets and resources to which we have access, the assets of organized religion, and directing them toward justice and love.

We don’t know if the organized religion industry is in for a total collapse, like, say, the banking industry in 2008 or the stock market in 1929 – or the Jerusalem Temple in AD 70. There may be catastrophic collapses ahead, but if the good news of death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus teaches us anything, it teaches us that the end of the world as we know it isn’t the end of the world as God sees it. Whatever happens, our work is the same, and we can’t lose hope.

When Jesus saw the failures of organized religion in his day, he didn’t give up. He got organized – for the right purposes. He organized 3 and 12 and 70 and multitudes and he led a migration from what we might call organized religion to organizing religion, from religion organized for self-preservation to religion organizing in justice and love for the common good. And even though it’s hard – God help us, I know it’s hard – that’s a dream I hope you won’t let die.

I hope you’ll see the disdain for organized religion today not as a threat, but as a gift, an opportunity, an opening door … so that we can together build a movement of vibrant, Christ-centered, Spirit-empowered, world-transforming disciples, in, with, through, around, beyond, and when necessary, in spite of the current structures of organized religion.

Listen, I know that there are plenty of people organizing religion for dangerous, even deadly purposes. I know that there are many blind leaders of the blind today, as in Jesus’ day.

But I also know that you and I could be the seeds of a spiritual revolution, a great spiritual migration, an emergence and convergence for a new day in Christian faith.

I know from personal experience that we have allies … Jewish allies, Muslim allies, Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh, and other allies … who are facing the same realities and working for the same transformation on the margins of their religious industrial complexes.

If they do their part, and we do ours, we can be part of a powerful movement or organizing religion, religion organizing for justice and the love of God.

How will we do so? That will only become clear to us when we have decided that we will do so.

It has been 11 years since I left the pastorate. But I have not left the struggle. Many of us, most of us, I dare pray that all of us … are standing shoulder to shoulder, ready to move from a dead or deadly organized religion to vital and life-giving movement of of justice and love, religion organizing for the common good, so that God’s will may indeed be on on earth as it is in heaven. Amen.