Sermon For Sunday, June 17, 2012

Mark 4:26-34 (See also Matthew 13:10-17)

“Ambiguity & Creativity As Core Doctrines Of The Faith”

This summer’s sermons will explore evangelism through

the lens of basic Christian theology.  Today: Certainty & Doubt

Franklin Circle Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)

Cleveland, Ohio ~

Rev. Allen V. Harris, Pastor & Preacher

To hear the podcast of this sermon, click HERE:  120617SermonPodcast

Today’s Question from Beyond These Walls: “Does God really know my deepest fears, care about my soul-wrenching questions, or judge me for my crazy doubts?”

Let me begin by asking you a question.  Tell me by raising your hands, how many of you identify yourself as “Christian?”  In Diana Butler Bass’s recent book, Christianity After Religion: The End Of Church And The Birth Of A New Spiritual Awakening (1) she explores the research that is showing that persons who are willing to identify themselves as “Christian” in America has declined dramatically, ten full percentage points since 1990, and the number of people who claim no affiliation with any faith has doubled. She believes that the United States, and indeed much of the world, is experiencing a spiritual awakening.  But this isn’t our grandparents’ “great awakening.”  She writes, “Traditional forms of faith are being replaced by a plethora of new spiritual, ethical, and nonreligious choices.  If it is not the end of religion, it certainly seems to be the end of what was conventionally understood to be American Religion.” (P. 44)

She goes on to report, and I think quite accurately, that, “All sorts of people – even mature, faithful Christians – are finding conventional religion increasingly less satisfying are attending church less regularly, and are longing for new expressions of spiritual community.” (P. 48)  I’ve had several conversations with folks, including some of you, about how our children, grandchildren, nephews and nieces declare that they don’t want to be a part of “organized religion,” to which I declare “I’ve never even pretended my religion is organized!”

But jokes aside, Bass’s research shows that the younger you are in America, the less patience you have with the way Christianity is shaped by churches, and not just us Mainline Protestants who have been famous for our long, slow decline over the last century, but the Catholic Church, the Southern Baptist church, and even the newer non-denominational Mega Churches.  Trust, respect, and loyalty to the way the Church has shared the Gospel of Christ is down and almost out.

Why is this so?  In a chapter called “Questioning Old Gods,” Butler Bass explores the concept of “choice” in our religious lives and makes the case that we modern folks have thousands of options for all aspects of our lives that our forbearers did not have, from how we take our coffee to how we express ourselves religiously.  She writes, “Americans, even those of modest means, exercise more choices in a single day than some of our ancestors did in a month or perhaps even a year.” (P. 130)

Contrasting the options we have in our faith lives today with the time not too long ago when Christianity was what she calls the “obligatory faith,” she writes, “The economic, social, and political world in which we live has opened up the possibility for eighty-two thousand choices at the coffee shop and probably about ten times that many when it comes to worshipping God and loving your neighbor.  Some will choose well, others badly.  Some will choose thoughtfully, others not so much.  Some choose something new, others choose what they have always known.  In the end, however, everybody chooses.  Contemporary spirituality is a little like that line at the coffee shop.  Everybody makes a selection.  Even if you only want black coffee.”  (PP 135-136)

I don’t think it is too much of a stretch for us to understand that “choice” was really what Jesus was all about.  Yes, he was bringing about a new way of understanding God that was different from the “obligatory faith” of his day and location, Judaism, but it was even more than that.  In choosing his disciples he invited them to consider the options.  In the way Jesus worked with persons who needed healing or freedom from bondage, he would inquire what they wanted.  And in the way Jesus taught, he did not make declarative pronouncements as much as he opened up a dialogue and discussion about the faith.  I hear in Jesus’ oft-spoken opening line, “You have heard it said… but I say to you…” a modeling of real theological inquiry.  And his teaching in parables is a perfect means to open up the choices of interpretation, and therefore choices in belief and behavior that the New Commonwealth he was ushering in would require.  Jesus never criticized anyone for having doubts.  His most biting words and righteous anger was focused most consistently on those who seemed most certain, those who appeared to have faith “all tied up.”

Another way to say this is that I think that as our generation moves away from “obligatory faith” and into the sometimes confusing, sometimes exciting, but always demanding crucible of ambiguity, doubt, and choices we are moving closer and closer to the way Jesus would have us live.  Wow, I can just see that on the evening news, “Preacher proclaims ‘the more you doubt the more Jesus loves you!’  Details at 11.”

But, lets be honest, if having all these choices and fully seeing the ambiguity of life around us was exactly what Jesus wanted for us, then our society should be experiencing enormous relief and incredible excitement in regards to this “spiritual awakening!”  Right?  Jesus understands and blesses our doubts, our confusion, our wonderings and wanderings!  Maybe, but that’s not how the Church (capital C) responds.  Instead there is enormous hand-wringing and brow-beating on the part of denominational leaders and mega-church gurus alike.  Instead of embracing the creative chaos of a life of parables, the church seems to instead dig its heals in and try to make the faith more and more concrete, specific, and certain.  This leaves your average person on the street experiencing something somewhat like depression as all the options tumble upon us and the uncertainty overtakes our minds and hearts.  The church offers more and more definitive guidance on every topic under the sun and people just discount the church as being less and less relevant to their chaotic, choice-laden world.  The average person loses what should be an important guide and counselor, and they are left to their own to make out in this world.  This leads, in part, to depression.

Let’s take a moment to talk seriously about depression.  I know for a fact depression is pervasive in our society and an all-too-common companion for many in this congregation.  An estimated one in ten U.S. Adults report experiencing major depression. (2)  It is a common and treatable mental disorder.  Causes of clinical depression can be anything from biological to cognitive, related to our gender or to an injury or illnesses we may have or to the prescription drugs we are taking.  Or depression may be situational. (3)  Most depression is treatable, sometimes through anti-depressant drugs, sometimes through counseling and therapy, and most often through a combination of both. (4)  I would add that many of the ancient spiritual disciplines also bring healing to those who are depressed: prayer, meditation, service and generosity, hospitality, and worship (not what the Church of today is focusing on!)

I believe that when we are talking about the kind of depression that comes about due to our situation, one of the precipitating factors is that we live in a world that is more and more experienced as profoundly ambiguous and bursting with choices.  Surely the increase in the number of folks who are depressed has to be related somehow to their being less of a clear path for our lives, whether that is related to careers, living arrangements, relationships, or our faith.  One of the more reliable resources for dealing with depression, faith, has been coopted by a Church more and more anxious about its own survival rather than in helping people deal with their depression.  I think this is because the Church is afraid of choices, ambiguity, creativity, and exploration.  This is why the Church demonizes uncertainty, choice, and self-expression.  This ambiguity then gets blamed for our depression, under the guise of “relativism.”

Perhaps, rather than understanding the ambiguity of life or the vast number of choices available to us as that which is making us depressed, it may be that we still live in a world that expects us to make decisions as if we were living in a simple and clear-cut world.  What if the tension that may lead to the depression so many people feel is a consequence of the expectations, carried over from a millennia of having few choices, that we should be able to decide our behaviors, our beliefs, and our relationships quickly and confidently.

Thus, I think the Church, by holding on to the mantle of “obligatory faith,” either contributes to the depression and anxiety of the population or ends up looking less and less relevant.  Or, more likely, BOTH!  Let me put it bluntly: the more the Church demands certainty about beliefs and fidelity to institutions, the more we push people away.  And, I would make the case, the more certain we are the less like Jesus we are!

Oh, Jesus was convinced about some things, but they are rarely the things that the Church, over two thousand years, has been most sure about.  Jesus was certain about love and loving God, neighbor, and self.  Got that.  Jesus was certain about caring for the so-called “least among us” and calling into accountability those in power with privilege.  Got that.  Jesus was certain that all of life was in God’s hands and that history was moving inextricably towards a fulfillment best described as God’s Beloved Community.  Got that.  But more than that, I don’t think Jesus required certainty.  In fact, I think Jesus provoked uncertainty, entertained ambiguity, and delighted in options!

What if the church became more like Jesus and encouraged ambiguity, creativity, choice, and exploration?  What would that mean?  It could mean more discussion and conversation in our classrooms and less rote memorization and no dogmatic declarations.  It might mean more activities, events, and simple presence out in the community and less church programming in our building.  It may require us to not count participation in Sunday morning worship as the sole indicator of being a church member but count as valuable and worthwhile everyone who enters our building and everyone with whom we come into contact with in a given week/month/year.

What if the church became more like Jesus and encouraged ambiguity, creativity, choice, and exploration?  What would that mean?  It hopefully would mean that we would factor in whether something was beautiful, mysterious, or awe-inspiring when we evaluated the value of objects, our facilities, and opportunities.  Creativity would be cherished and so there would be less and less coloring books and more and more blank paper for our children to draw on.  Every worship service, Sunday School Class, and Bible Study would invite questions, honor doubts, and recognize that no one has it all figured out.  First time visitors would be treated the same as life-long members.  Leaders would include those whose values and perspectives and approaches to faith were radically different from our own.

Thus, the Church could regain its position as a relevant, meaningful, sought after place for those whose lives are chaotic, confusing, uncertain, and beautifully ambiguous!  The Church could once again be a partner with people yearning and searching for meaning, value, and love because it didn’t pretend to have all the answers, just a bunch of crazy parables that cause us to think more deeply about our faith and our future.

I think this community of faith, known as Franklin Circle Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) has a hint of the ambiguous, creative, doubt-honoring nature of God’s Beloved Community.  It’s why many of us are here this day.  But we must continue to let folks in our world who have written off the Church, and some who have even given up on Christianity itself, know that there are places and people who welcome their questions, honor their doubts, who don’t pretend to have the answers, and who speak in parables in order for the wisdom and love of God to be made real in new and ever more wondrous ways.

May it be so.  Amen.

(1) Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening, Diana Butler Bass (HarperOne, 2012), 304 pages.  For more, go online to:

To learn more about Butler Bass’s book, or to order it, please go to Cokesbury Bookstore:




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