Finding our place in “a world come of age”

Bishop Steve Lane’s address at Spring Training 2016
St. Paul’s, Brunswick
April 9, 2016

[More than 135 Maine Episcopalians gathered on April 9 for day of learning and sharing in workshops on church leadership, spiritual growth, ministry and advocacy. At mid-day Bishop Lane called everyone together to worship and consider his remarks on Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who called Jesus a man for people, and how we will meet up with God’s mission in the world.]

bishop4-9 (1)Today we mark the Feast of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer, the brilliant theologian, pastor and seminary professor, was a member of the so-called Confessing Church in Germany during WWII and also a participant in the plot to kill Adolph Hitler. He was executed at Flossenburg Prison just before it was liberated by the Allies.

Bonhoeffer’s writings are of great interest today, not only for his acute Biblical and theological insights, but also for the way in which his writings seem to anticipate and predict the world of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Bonhoeffer spoke of a world come of age, a world which had no need of religion – particularly in his view, the denominational religion that had failed completely to stand up to the Nazis. What the world needed now, he said, was “religionless Christianity,” that is, a devotion to Jesus Christ, whom Bonhoeffer called “the man for others.”

As a devout Christian, a Biblical scholar, a Lutheran pastor, Bonhoeffer did not advocate doing away with the Bible or the sacraments, but he saw no point in the church unless it pointed to Jesus and encouraged its members to follow Jesus.

We live now in an age when most people no longer participate in a religious community. The United States is among the most religious countries in the Western World, with more than 80% declaring belief in God. Despite that confession, however, fewer than 20% are in church or synagogue on any given weekend. More than ⅔’s of adults 30 and under have no contemporary religious experience, and people declaring no religious affiliation are now the largest single group of young adults. Although many Americans see themselves as connected to a religious tradition, increasing numbers simple describe themselves as “spiritual, not religious.” Maine is one of the four least-religious states in America, along with Vermont, New Hampshire and Massachusetts.

Moreover, many people no longer see the church as the place to go for spiritual enlightenment and fulfillment. That’s frustrating for all of us who love our churches, but the fact is that many folks experience the church as being more interested in its own needs and in people’s wallets than in them.

Some of this reaction is the unintended consequence of the Reformation, each denomination competing with others over worship and doctrine. (We Episcopalians sometimes pride ourselves on having the best stuff, the best worship. We don’t do guilt – that’s our poke at the RCs. We aren’t fundamentalists – that’s our poke at the Baptists. Every other denomination thinks about itself in similar fashion – as superior to the rest.) As a result, every church is a destination church, drawing people out of the community into more homogeneous groups on Sundays. Sunday morning remains the most segregated time of the week, the church being far less diverse than business, education or the military.

And some of this reaction is related to the vast cultural changes we are all experiencing: the declining income of the middle class, the cynicism of many about large institutions, including the church, the distrust of the intentions of leaders of all stripes, the patriarchal culture of the church, etc., etc. The church is in decline, and the bottom is nowhere yet in sight.

So… what to do? What kind of response can we make to all this which is not simply defensive, not simply a matter of self-preservation?

Well, this day, Spring Training, is a partial response, growing from my conviction that if we are to serve God’s mission, then we must find our personal stories in the Biblical story, must be deeply grounded in the traditions of our faith, and must learn the skills needed to follow Jesus into the world.

More of a response can be found in reshaping our common life not around our survival as institutions, but around our faithfulness to the man for others. In preparing for this day, invited each of the workshop leaders to consider three principles in shaping their workshops: Follow Jesus… into the neighborhood… travel light.

Our fundamental conviction as Christians is that God is present and active in the world God has made and that Jesus is the key to understanding God. We discover God by following Jesus. Jesus shows us who God is and where God is.

Jesus leads us into the world. God may be found in the church, to be sure, but not exclusively so. God is in all the places where people live, and it is to these places that Jesus leads us. We go into our communities not because potential members live there. We go to meet our neighbors because that’s where Jesus is.

And as we follow Jesus, we need to travel light, to leave as much baggage behind as we can. Our task is not to make Episcopalians, but share the good news that God is present. We’re not in search of clients or missionary targets, but friends – friends who, through us, might discover that they are also friends of Jesus.

This movement – following Jesus into the neighborhood traveling lightly – is what Bonhoeffer called religionless Christianity and what some of us are calling Going Local – moving beyond our doors into the places where Jesus is.

God is not finished with us yet. I  believe that God is intent on completing the work of reconciliation.  God is inviting us into the work of reconciliation. “Do you not know, says Paul, that you were baptized with Christ in his death…”

Dying and rising is what this is all about. Our work is Easter work. Death to ourselves and perhaps to our way of doing things, so that God’s reconciliation might take place among us. As long as it is necessary for people to be like us in order to be saved – in our minds or theirs – there is no reconciliation. Only in moving toward one another, in serving Christ together, across all our difference and diversity, will reconciliation take place.

Bonhoeffer was involved in the plot to kill Hitler, and he has been roundly criticized for that involvement. Bonhoeffer, for himself, never tried to justify his action. He knew he would face God for his part. Yet he believed that in the face of evil, Christians have to act. Christian faith is not simply a matter of piety or intellectual assent. It is rather a matter of action on behalf of others. The task of reconciliation is the lifestyle of Christians. We are called not to save the institution, but to be Christ’s body – to bring our gifts and skills to bear on the work of making friends for Jesus. Bonhoeffer put it this way: “This is what we do with the world that inflicts such suffering on us. We do not abandon it; we do not repudiate, despise or condemn it. Instead we call it back to God, we give it hope, we lay our hand on it and say: may God’s blessing come upon you, may God renew you; be blessed, world created by God, you who belong to your Creator and Redeemer.”

May the work we do this day help to center and steady us in the work of reconciliation. May we find inspiration and hope to follow Jesus… into the neighborhood… traveling light. Amen.

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