August 26, 2018 – The Rev. Dr. Stephen Shaver

Year B, Proper 16, Track 2, Revised Common Lectionary
Joshua 24:1-2a,14-18
Psalm 34:15-22
Ephesians 6:10-20
John 6:56-69

In the name of God: Source of all Being, Incarnate Word, and Holy Spirit.

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“Choose this day whom you will serve,” said Joshua to the people of Israel. This was probably the passage Bob Dylan had in mind when he wrote his song “Gotta Serve Somebody.” “It might be the devil or it might be the Lord, but you’re gonna have to serve somebody.” It was 1979 and he had just entered a born-again Christian phase that would last about three years. Many of his fans were aghast. Here was Bob Dylan, symbol of the counterculture, suddenly turning into some kind of churchy altar boy. John Lennon was so upset he sat down and wrote a response song called “Serve Yourself.”

I just came back from a conference of clergy doing ministry in the Episcopal Church on the West Coast. One of the things that was very clear for all of us is that John Lennon was right: you don’t have to serve anybody! A 2017 Gallup study showed the West Coast tied with New England for the least participation in organized religion. But it’s not just the West Coast. This region is probably an indicator for the rest of the country over the next couple of decades. Participation in religious organizations has been trending downward everywhere, even in the Midwest and the South. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s not the case anymore that people go to a Christian church by default, as they might have a couple of decades ago, because their parents did, or because that’s what ordinary good citizens did. Today, if you’re in a church, chances are that’s because there’s something here that speaks to you—because you have a longing for God.

For Joshua and the people of Israel, atheism was not an option. The question was: what god or gods will you believe in? Would it be the LORD, or one of the gods of the Egyptians or the Amorites or the other peoples of the ancient Near East? It simply didn’t occur to anyone in that context not to worship some kind of god. And that has been the case throughout most of human history. The philosopher Charles Taylor points out that as recently as the year 1500 it was virtually impossible not to believe in God. In the 2000s it’s not only easy but in many cases it’s the default social option. It’s not that there aren’t still people of faith—there are, of course. It’s that even for people of faith, the social map of what seems plausible has shifted dramatically. All of us are aware that the Christian worldview is just one option on a very big menu.

You might be a scientific materialist and believe that only matter is real: that you and I are the product of an amazing but essentially arbitrary chain of physical events from the Big Bang onward, so that morals, ethics, and spirituality are artifacts of the evolutionary process with no independent reality outside human minds. Or you might be more of a spiritual seeker, with a sense that there’s something “more” to life, some kind of cosmic significance or metaphysical purpose, but a wariness of religious institutions. As human beings living in California in 2018, these two worldviews are part of the air we breathe, and if neither of them has ever seemed plausible or attractive to you, then I think you’re surely in a small minority. Most of us who are Christian today have surely wondered, once or many times, “Why should I believe in all this stuff again?”

Theologian Jamie Smith puts it this way: “We don’t believe instead of doubting; we believe while doubting. We’re all Thomas now.”[1]

The fact is, there is no way in this earthly life to have absolute certainty about our  view of the world. I don’t believe God grants us that kind of certainty, at least not if we’re honest with ourselves. And yet our worldviews matter. They make a difference in how we live. Today, in the twenty-first century, it’s absolutely possible and admirable to live a good and humanistic life without God. Many of my most beloved family and friends do. It’s possible to try one’s best to be kind to others, care for your family, try to do interesting and useful work, volunteer and be a member of your community, without taking a stance on some of the big questions, like: why are we here in the first place? What happens when we die? Why is there even a universe at all? And so on. And given humanity’s history of religious violence, it’s easy to understand why we might want to back away from those questions altogether and just try to get along.

And yet I think it’s also true that our society’s increasing orientation toward that very noble and admirable secular humanism tends to lead to what Charles Taylor calls a certain “flattening.” A certain narrowing of our horizons to the here and now. From time to time we might find ourselves yearning for something beyond that flattened horizon—wondering if there really is something more. Some might seek it in the gripping mythology of a J.R.R. Tolkien novel or an apocalyptic movie. Some might find it prompted by the frost on a hillside early in the morning, or a perfectly tuned chord, or the smile of their child.

If you have that kind of longing—that is what this place, and this gathering, are for.

Here in this place we are part of a story that says there really is something more. It’s a story that says we are here for a reason. It says the universe isn’t a random accident but the gift of a God who created everything out of the sheer joy of it. It says God loved us enough to give us free will, and God loves us so much, even when we make destructive choices out of that free will, to call us back to the way of love. It says our lives here and now really do matter: as our reading from Ephesians said today, we really are on God’s side in a cosmic struggle against the forces of evil. And it says God loved us so much that God became one of us, in a historical person named Jesus.

What if it’s true?

I’ve met a lot of people who are suspicious of the church, for very good reasons. But I’ve almost never met anyone who wasn’t drawn to the person of Jesus. Jesus tells us that God is real, that God loves us more than we could have dreamed. Jesus doesn’t offer us certainty—Jesus offers us a way of life. And if we follow Jesus, in the end, it’s not because we have certainty, but because we love him. Because the words he speaks and the things he does touch our hearts at so deep a level we can’t help but follow him. That happened for his disciples. Even when it got hard, even when his teachings got confusing, they knew that this person was the way, the truth, and the life for them. “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

If you’re here today, it’s likely that you’ve felt that. It might be just a curiosity; it might be a deep and abiding lifelong commitment. But at some point this person Jesus has touched your heart. He has the words of eternal life. Listen to him.

[1] Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007); James K. A. Smith, How (Not) to Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2014), 4.