Tuesday, March 10, 2009

USA Today's religion report resonates with today's assigned Bible lessons

"More than ever before, people are just making up their own stories of who they are. They say, 'I'm everything. I'm nothing. I believe in myself,' " says Barry Kosmin, survey co-author.

This is from the recent USA Today feature on religion in America.

The article points up the problem of the Episcopal Church and other old "mainline" denominations. They served as a chaplaincy to a cultural consensus that no longer exists - and so suffer some of the worst declines in membership and participation today. "Organized religion" that is soft on doctrine and discipleship has little to attract a person that has already dispensed with doctrine and discipleship. In fact, such people have no need to surrender their time, talent and treasure to organizations that have already surrendered to individual autonomy.

Today's readings (Tuesday following the 2nd Sunday in Lent) speak to "do it yourself" spirituality and to religion that endorses it. The portrayal isn't flattering.

Through the Prophet Jeremiah, God told his chosen people,

Be appalled, O heavens, at this, be shocked, be utterly desolate, says the LORD, for my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns, that can hold no water.

People who become their own God become their own unreliable "source." Nominal Christians who stray from the sources of their revealed faith to mix, match and follow their feelings will be unable to carry the "living water" of Christ.

But the problem takes in the whole human race, not just wobbly church people. In his great Letter to the Romans, the Apostle Paul writes,

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of men who by their wickedness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse; for although they knew God they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking and their senseless minds were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man or birds or animals or reptiles.

This is a picture of the American religious scene described by USA Today. The "glory of the immortal God" has been exchanged for a false image - that of the self as "everything and nothing", the holy and the mysterious, the object of faith.

The Episcopal Church ordains clergy and adopts resolutions that reject the revealed sources of Christian faith, and assert the "we're all holy just as we are" dogma of the culture. The denomination ages and dies. The Prophet Isaiah expresses the irony well:

You boast, "We have entered into a covenant with death, with the grave we have made an agreement. When an overwhelming scourge sweeps by, it cannot touch us, for we have made a lie our refuge and falsehood our hiding place." So this is what the Sovereign LORD says: "See, I lay a stone in Zion, a tested stone, a precious cornerstone for a sure foundation; the one who trusts will never be dismayed. I will make justice the measuring line and righteousness the plumb line; hail will sweep away your refuge, the lie, and water will overflow your hiding place. Your covenant with death will be annulled; your agreement with the grave will not stand. When the overwhelming scourge sweeps by, you will be beaten down by it.

The Episcopal Church and other denominations that have rejected God's justice and righteousness, the sure foundation stone of Christ as revealed in the Old and New Testaments of the Bible, find themselves crushed by that very stone, as Christ foretold.

Returning to the daily lessons, we see that holy power comes to those who believe the Word of God, are transformed, and bring the Word to others:

When he heard that Jesus had come from Judea to Galilee, he went and begged him to come down and heal his son, for he was at the point of death. Jesus therefore said to him, "Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe." The official said to him, "Sir, come down before my child dies."Jesus said to him, "Go; your son will live." The man believed the word that Jesus spoke to him and went his way. As he was going down, his servants met him and told him that his son was living. So he asked them the hour when he began to mend, and they said to him, "Yesterday at the seventh hour the fever left him." The father knew that was the hour when Jesus had said to him, "Your son will live"; and he himself believed, and all his household.

The dad in this passage must become the pattern for American Christians today.
  • +He sought Jesus and brought him the burden that was on his heart.
  • +When Jesus, in Rabbinic fashion, tested the man with a harsh reply, the man did not go off to dabble with other religious figures. He persisted in seeking a word from Jesus.
  • +He believed the word that Jesus spoke.
  • +He interpreted the events by looking to Jesus, recognizing "the hour when Jesus said to him, "Your son will live'."
  • +His testimony brought those around him to faith in Jesus.

To borrow Jeremiah's language, this dad went right to the one fountain of living water. To echo Paul, this dad honored the one God and received his glory. Christians and their churches in America, if they are to have life and give life, must do the same.

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