Hi Friends -
This past weekend I got to preach for friends and colleagues at the Presbytery of Plains and Peaks, tie-dye t-shirts with a fabulous youth group, and enjoy watching the faces of the congregation I serve as they realized yes, we were going to play REM's Losing My Religion in church. All in all, a great weekend.
A few of you asked to see the manuscript from Saturday / Sunday's sermon so here you go.
Psalm 22 , John 21:15-19
1 John 4:16 -21
Losing my Religion
Presbytery of Plains and Peaks
May 2, 2015
First United Presbyterian Church, Loveland on May 3, 2015
Rev. Laurie Lyter
And a reading from a more modern prophet.
The barman looked…. And He suddenly shivered: he experienced a momentary sensation that he didn't understand because no one on Earth had ever experienced it before. In moments of great stress, every life form that exists gives out a tiny subliminal signal. This signal simply communicates an exact and almost pathetic sense of how far that being is from the place of his birth.
- Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
My sisters and brothers, my colleagues and mentors, acquaintances and dear friends, pros and cons, retired and active, rulers and teachers, I have this clear sense that we are very, very far away from home. The more I notice it, the more clear it becomes to me – maybe it’s not all of us - but I, for one, am losing my religion.
Religion was once a stronghold for me. It was that weird paradox of freedom giving and social control, that let me know clearly where I stood, and that I was a good person. It let me know that Jesus loved me, which was, you know, pretty cool. Religion was where we figured out what was expected of us, in Sunday school and VBS, in sermons and song. Where I grew up, religion brought us together in a suburban neighborhood where we rarely knew who lived at the other end of the street.
But it seems the deeper my entrenchment in the institution of the church, the less patience I have for religion at all.
When religion clings on to old grudges, operates in little circles designed to keep clear lines of power and clear boundaries of “teams”, when we define one another solely by our votes, living and dying by Roberts Rules of Order and a frantic grip on a church that might be but never was … I have no interest in that. Maybe you think I have no frame of reference here, like a child who wanders into the middle of a movie… But I have to ask, what’s the point? Though I know I am very much a part of this system at work. When religion means upholding injustice, exclusion, fear, and contributing to systemic oppression, I am not interested in religion.
What I am interested in is people. I am interested in you. Yes, you. In what brings you to this place, and what brings you to these people, and what keeps you here, in spite of everything. I am not sure if we could call that religion but we could definitely afford to pay it some Godly heed.
But when religion means I will throw myself down on the altar, not to secure food for the hungry child, but to bar access to the table for those whose views oppose my own. I have to confess I have no desire to participate in religion like that.
Religion is locked in that moment when Christ asks me if I love him, and I answer yes of course. With what I imagine was the same “duh” voice that Simon Peter delivers in Scripture. How could you even ask me that? Look at what I am doing with my days and years! Look at how hard I work for love of you!
And then when he asks me again in the form of a trafficked eight year old, sold again and again for the same surgically re-created virginity in the slums of Calcutta, Christ asks … and do you love me? And all I can answer is my most defeated…. yes and for such a faith as this, I shall form a committee. I shall analyze and provide thoughtful, long-range studies and try to be just with my personal economy but anything more than that would be a lot of work and maybe even some personal risk.
So instead, as the institutional church, my response to Christ’s question of “do you love me” is a clear and resounding resolution to redecorate!
You know, that rug really tied the room together, and we used to have flowers at the pulpit every Sunday.
The church answers in her behavior – that I will shout down the voices of those who disagree with me, and carry shoulders full of hurt into my next meeting.
We shall dismiss each other. Feel no compassion for the stress and strain we each experience. Condescend. Fight. Gossip. Shame. Is this all that the followers of Jesus Christ can be?
No. No. That might be what religion has descended into, but it isn’t faith. Or hope. Or love. Or God. Though maybe those are all the same thing. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. 19 We love because he first loved us. 20 Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. 21 The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.
We have gone over the line to a point where the church stands only for herself. We have become idolatrous of our own institution, and this aggression we have against each other and therefore against God – this will not stand. We hurt one another in an effort toward self-perpetuation in the form of institutionalized performance. This is an expression of fear, not love, and I am glad to lose religion such as this.
I – and surely not I alone – I am beginning to think that religion was never the point. Institutions like this one will die and die again, and it’s time to step out of our fear of what that might mean for us.
So I hope I am losing my religion and finding something else.
For the love of Christ, I hope we are finding a way to feed his lambs. Not just the sweet lambs it is easy to pity and comfortable to help. Not just the lambs we find funny and gracious and easy to talk to. But those mean and smelly sheep who wander around and stir up trouble and lead the herd astray and generally trek mess everywhere they go. Let us tend to those sheep. Let us love each other, or perish.
While we’re at it, let me reiterate that pivotal point of why I agreed to get up here in the first place today. Because I need to tell you - I am losing my religion. My, me, mine, I, I , I, aye, aye, aye. That’s me in the spotlight. Look, we all do it. We all advocate a God who is personal, invested in our individual lives, seeking us out for relationship. I can only speak for myself – I am tired of facing down the God of my own creation. This is not a worthy adversary or deity. I’m learning in amidst a culture that teaches all of us to fear for our own income and insurance and security and pension and predictability first and foremost, I am learning that life does not stop and start at our convenience, and nor does God. The fact that I ever thought religion could make God “mine” illuminates multitudes. I am willing to lose the religion that was mine rather than ours. We need to lay down the life of the church comprised of the Holy Me.
So I am losing my religion. It is not where I left it and I don’t even know if I want to find it again. I have a natural predilection for getting lost. Call it a gift.
Sincerely, I couldn’t with one hundred percent accuracy tell you how to get to my house from here without double-checking a map. My internal compass is almost always entirely, ludicrously, comically wrong. I’m no stranger to being lost in a city – new or familiar – and depending on the kindness of strangers to steer me right. I recently returned from a trip to Belfast where the common refrain was “oh don’t worry, love. It’s just down that pass there, up the cobbled street, over the main road, part way up the alleyway, just tucked in on the left. You can’t miss it.” Wanna bet? For the record, they were ALL cobbled streets. So please believe me when I say I know what it is to be lost.
It’s a look we can all recognize. Eyes scanning for signals of the familiar, for landmarks and known entities. Worry bubbling just below the surface, not knowing where we were, where we are going, or whom we can trust to get us headed on the right path. Being lost tends to come out in just a few different tones– fear, bravado, or just a sad little signal that we realize we have wandered very far away from home.
We are living into perceived scarcity and loss and the jaw-clenching, gut-dropping anxiety that comes with it. We are conforming to the pattern of a world enveloped in the language of fear. Danger. Hostilities. Terrorism. Riots. Looting. Death. We are conforming to the same fears in our own institution. We are choosing to choose sides and trying to keep our grip on understanding who stands where – you’re either with me or you’re not. In or out. Black or white.
Except if we are well and truly losing – if our institutions are crumbling and we are letting them die for the sake of Jesus Christ, if we are losing our stronghold of power and our tight grip on declaring public morality, maybe our fists can finally unclench, and our hands can be opened. Maybe losing our sense of rightness in the community and in the world is exactly what needs to happen to us. There’s really not much point in being found if we aren’t willing first to lose.
Christ insists that those who love Him walk in with eyes entirely open. He’s not trying to trick us. The cross is no quaint symbol of comfort or ease. Loving the least of these might hurt. Following the shepherd might mean leaving behind every known green pasture. It might mean we are losing our edifice, our building, our money, our religion.
And yet – it never means losing hope. Hope does not live in our walls, our stained glass, our well-worn pews or comfortable hymns. Hope lives in people. In that mysterious place that is neither you nor me, but God alone, drawing us back together towards a common goal of peace in an unjust world, compassion in response to violence, and hospitality for the weary soul.
I am losing my religion. I have lost my religion. I am seeking love in the space between us. I have lost my religion. But I am finding God in each of you.