January 26, 2020
The Third Sunday after the Epiphany
Phillipians 4: 4-9
Luke 4: 14 -21
When I began seminary I was rather impressed by the new theological language in which I was becoming fluent. My spiritual director at the time was a priest and an academic. She, too, loved the language, but she cautioned me early on that if we were going to be working in congregational settings, we had to stop using coded language – and thus, the “25 Cent Seminary Word Challenge” was born. We agreed that every time one of us used a word like “eschatology” or “salvific,” we had to put 25 cents into a jar. Our fund grew rather rapidly at first, but we eventually learned. We donated the fund we had collected, but “25 cent seminary words” became an inside joke between us. It is a lesson I have always remembered and respected. Until today, when I am going share with you some 25 cent seminary words, or rather, a 75 cent seminary phrase. Are you ready? “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.”
The phrase comes from the National Survey of Youth and Religion – a study under the direction of sociologist Christian Smith at Notre Dame. Begun the early 2000s, the survey was designed to discover the Christian beliefs of 18-30-year olds – a cohort now described as “Emerging Adults” by developmental psychologists. In the survey, Emerging Adults who still identify as Christian-no matter the denomination in which they were raised –broadly share these five beliefs:
- A god exists who created and orders the world and watches over life on earth.
- This god wants people to be good, nice and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and in most other faiths.
- The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
- God is not involved in human life except when we need God to resolve a problem – either as a divine butler to acquire what we want or as a divine therapist when we need to feel good about ourselves.
- Good people go to heaven when they die.
I suspect that this belief system is not limited to Emerging Adults; they had t get it from somewhere. Christian Smith writes, “Most American youth faithfully mirror the aspirations, lifestyles, practices and problems into which they are being socialized.[Emerging adults] may serve as a very accurate barometer of the conditions of the culture and institutions of our larger society.” These beliefs fit right in with the secular humanism we encourage in our larger society – it is civil, respectful, agreeable and nice. But is it Christian?
The Rev. Dr. Kenda Cressy Dean, professor at Princeton
Theological Seminary and a member of the survey team, calls Moralistic Therapeutic Deism “Almost Christian” – the title of her 2010 book. She argues that mainline Christians worship at “the Church of Benign Whatever-ism,” valuing tolerance, lack of conflict and behaving nicely as the goal of Christian community – much like the secular humanist culture around us.
I am certain that God loves good secular humanists, but
The Church is not in the business of making them. The Church’s mission is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the sake of the world.
Jesus’ life, death and resurrection pose a direct challenge to the central goal of “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” – being happy and feeling about good about ourselves. Scripture tells us that Jesus came among us to share our human life in order to reveal just how extravagantly God loves us. This is the Good News of the Gospel that the Christian Church has preached for over 2,000 years. And following Jesus’ example, the Church is called to share that love with the world around us.
Jesus’ public ministry begins with his statement of purpose, as we heard in this morning’s Gospel. He comes, “to bring good news to the poor, proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, and to let the oppressed go free.” Jesus is laser-focused on his mission of serving, teaching, healing others. He embodies God’s love for the world. He isn’t interested in feeling good about himself, nor is he preoccupied with being happy. And he most certainly is not concerned with being nice. His entire ministry is about revealing the great and profound love God has for us, and showing us what our response to that love requires. He pours himself out in love even unto death for the sake of others. “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” encourages us to forget that disciples of Jesus are not here for ourselves. It invites us to forget what following Jesus demands.
Dr. Cressy Dean passionately reminds us: “The God portrayed in both the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures asks not just for commitment, but for our very lives. The God of the Bible traffics in life and death, not niceness, and calls for sacrificial love, not benign whatever-ism. If the God of Jesus Christ crosses every boundary – life and death, space and time- to win us, then following Jesus is bound to be anything but convenient. Jesus doesn’t tinker; he tears down walls, draws up new plans, makes demands: Have no other Gods before me. Love one another as I have loved you. Leave your nets and follow me.”
Living in a society focused on self-fulfillment, Jesus’ call to us is counter cultural. It requires us to shift our focus from ourselves and those we consider our family, friends, and others with whom we agree toward those we do not know and with whom we might never agree. Furthermore, following Jesus calls us to pour our own lives out, as Jesus did on the cross, for a cause that might not be of our choosing. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor executed for participating in the bomb plot to kill Adolph Hitler describes Jesus’ call as “an invitation to come and die.”
This call is sobering and it is about as far from Moralistic Therapeutic Deism as we can go. No one of us is likely to be called to sacrifice our lives for our faith. We live in a society that allows us to love others through the funds we donate, the volunteering we do, the practices we adopt to preserve our planet, and so much more. These are valid means of pouring out ourselves in love for the sake of others. They matter.
But Jesus continuing call to us is to go even deeper. If a man asks for your cloak, give him your shirt too. If you are asked to carry something for a mile, go two. The Christian life is one that turns expectations upside down:”the first shall be last, the last shall be first, those who seek their own lives will lose them, but those who lose their lives for Jesus’ sake, will find life.” Being a disciple of Jesus requires daily practice in ways big and small. This is part of the reason why we have churches; we need a community of faith that supports and encourages us to grow into the people Jesus needs us to be. But there is also a reason why churches, particularly Congregational ones, are built facing the public square: the purpose of growing our life in Christ together inside the Church is to take that life of love and pour it into the people outside our doors.
Eliot Church has the perfect opportunity to dive right into this mission. We are in a time of both the celebration of how we have lived Jesus’ love in the world for the past 175 years and in a time of discernment as to how we go forward. We have the space and time to explore how we will follow Jesus from our call to this place out into the world God loves so very much that God sent us Jesus. This is a new and exciting time in the life of this church, but the mission remains constant – you will find a description of that mission posted around the building and on our literature. Eliot Church is still called to “grow faith, build community and live love.” These are NOT 25 cent seminary words. They are the faithful words of invitation to an ever- deepening Christian life. Thanks be to God.