Texts: Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4 & John 3:1-17
Americans are losing faith. At least, that’s the conclusion of a new poll on religion. Jointly conducted by NBC and The Wall Street Journal, the poll found that 21 percent of Americans feel religion is “not that important” in their lives. (HuffPost Religion) 1 in 5 Americans say that religion is not that important to them. This, NBC News writes, “is the highest percentage recorded since the survey was first conducted in 1997.”
When I read this new poll my first thought was, “Does that mean that 79 percent of Americans feel that religion is important in their lives?” If so, that seems like a pretty good statistic to me. But later, I did wonder about the 21 percent. Why? Why do 1 in 5 Americans feel that religion is not that important in their lives?
I have a theory that I want to posit this morning and it comes by way of another news headline. This headline read: “One Kentucky Church’s Outreach Now Includes a Gun Giveaway.” This headline is no joke. In an effort its spokesman has described as “outreach to rednecks,” the Kentucky Baptist Convention is leading “Second Amendment Celebrations,” where churches around the state give away guns as door prizes to lure in nonbelievers in hopes of converting them to Christ. As one blogger put it, “The Kentucky Baptist Convention is willing to give lethal weapons to random strangers in a giveaway because they think that giving killing weapons might bring people closer to their interpretation of the Prince of Peace. I thought we had reached the limits of crazy. I was wrong.”
But the Kentucky Baptist Convention is not alone. The flier for the raffle at Grace Baptist Church in Troy, New York, shows an assault rifle altered to make it legal in the state, with a quote from the gospel of John, “My peace I give unto you.” It seems that Grace Baptist Church, like the Kentucky Baptists, are doing what it takes to get people into the pews to hear religious and 2nd Amendment messages—even raffling off guns at their Sunday services. The pastor of Grace Baptist told Albany Times Union, “I’m just trying to be a blessing and a help to the gun owners and the hunters and give away a free AR-15. It’s the right thing to do.” He actually said, “It’s the right thing to do.”
The new poll says that 1 in 5 Americans feel that religion is not that important in their lives. After reading religious headlines this past week it seems to me that people don’t see religion as being important in their lives because religious people and religious institutions use religion to make religious statements about personal beliefs and political opinions that often contradict what their religion teaches. Which leaves us with empty religion.
Here are just a few headlines in the religious world from this past week.
- Student Settles With School That Called Buddhism Stupid
- Saudi Cleric Issues A Religious Edict Banning All You Can Eat Buffets
- What Happened After This Pastor Confessed He’d Cheated On His Wife
- This Congregation Can’t Wait to Tear Down Their ‘Ugly Church’
- Franklin Graham Thinks Putin’s Got The Right Attitude About The Gays
- When Jews and Muslims Got Along
- John Boehner Invites Pope Francis To Address Congress
- TV Station Explains Cutting Reference To Evolution In ‘Cosmos’
- Therapeutic Rituals in Leviticus Shed Light on the Abortion Debate
- World Poll Finds Striking Connection Between Wealth and Belief In God (Can’t get away without at least one prosperity gospel headline.)
Religion is being used for everything from banning all you can eat buffets to sanctioning giving away guns in our churches to win people to Christ. Religion is being used for everything except for possibly the one thing it was intended to do—to give us abundant life by bringing humanity into a closer relationship with God. Institutionalized religion has so lost its way that we are now, from Kentucky to New York, giving away guns in churches. And not just a few churches—the whole Kentucky Baptist Convention is urging all of its churches to participate in these “Second Amendment Celebrations.”
So, when people today read Matthew 5, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you in the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well, and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.” (Matthew 5:38-42) Then they hear churches say, “Come to church and we will give you a gun.” What do we expect this generation to say except that religion is not that important in their lives? When intelligent, thoughtful people know these words, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…” and then are invited to a church that is giving away guns for door prizes, why not say that religion is really not that important in our lives?
By now you are probably wondering if this sermon is about how far off course religious people and institutions have gone with religion or is it about guns and the 2nd Amendment. It’s about both because they are connected.
Several weeks ago, through our partnership with the Alliance of Baptists, I pledged to participate in National Gun Prevention Violence Week. My pledge meant that I would preach a sermon today on gun violence prevention. Today, places of worship across the nation joined Washington National Cathedral and Faiths United to Prevent Gun Violence—a coalition of nearly 50 denominations and faith-based organizations—to reflect, unite and act on the issue of gun violence. Today, we are encouraged to remember those who have lost their lives to gunfire, pray for those whose lives have been forever changed because of the loss of a loved one, and to continue the discussion on how communities of faith can work together to help reduce gun violence.
There is no question that the United States has an indisputable gun violence problem. It is well documented that the U.S. rate of firearm-related homicide is higher than that of any other industrialized country; 19.5 times higher than the rates in other high-income countries.
Here is the big picture.
- Every year in the U.S., an average of more than 100,000 people are shot, according to The Brady Campaign To Prevent Gun Violence
- Every day in the U.S., an average of 289 people are shot. Eighty-six of them die: 30 are murdered, 53 kill themselves, two die accidentally, and one is shot in a police intervention
- One person is killed by a firearm every 17 minutes, 87 people are killed during an average day, and 609 are killed every week.
- A child or teen dies or is injured from guns every 30 minutes.
That means that before we leave our worship today, two children have died or been injured by gun violence. Their shoes sit on our communion table as a reminder of their lives. And churches in America are giving away guns as a way to get people to come to church so that they might “save their souls.” The irony is unbelievable. The church is not saving souls, its killing souls—literally. Instead of giving away guns the church should be crying aloud with Habakkuk:
O Lord, how long shall I cry for help,
and you will not listen?
Or cry to you “Violence!” and you will not save?
Then God answered me and said: Write the vision:
make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it.
For there is still a vision for the appointed time…
Not all churches are like the Kentucky Baptists or Grace Baptist Church in Troy, New York. Take for instance the Middle Collegiate Church ofNew York City—the oldest of the Collegiate Churches in New York, which was organized in 1628 and is the oldest continuously active congregation in America. Last year, while on study leave in New York, I visited some of the staff of Middle Collegiate Church. I had heard about it through various people and wanted to understand more about its multicultural congregation and its arts-centered worship. I learned that several months before my visit, as a part of their Sunday morning Martin Luther King memorial service, they had a blacksmith set up on the chancel area and throughout the service he transformed a gun into a gardening tool. “Write a vision; make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it…”
There is also the First Presbyterian Church in Dallas that began their year with a gun buyback program to get guns off the streets in Dallas. And other churches from Dallas to Detroit to Wilmington, NC have participated in similar programs. These churches have heard God’s call: “Write a vision; make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it…”
“Write a vision; make it plain…” that is the true work of religion, and the work that makes religion relevant and important in our everyday lives. At our worst, religious institutions are merely sanctimonious amplifiers of the polarized and polarizing forces at play in the larger social, political and cultural arena. We take the Republican or Democratic or conservative or liberal view, and we bring it into our houses of worship, and we proclaim them as the word of God. But at our best, we “write a vision.” To write a vision means to do our work, to love our God and our neighbors as ourselves. To write a vision means to try to take ourselves and our opinions out of the way so that we can be receivers and transmitters of the love of God. To write a vision means to dedicate ourselves to discerning our part in hastening the kingdom of God here on earth—a peaceful, non-violent commonwealth. To write a vision is to literally transform a piece of metal that kills into a useful tool that nurtures life and growth and to do it in our houses of worship. I believe that if we write a vision and make it plain, we will become important to the 1 in 5.
When it comes to adhering to a religion that carries importance and significance in our lives and when it comes to issues like gun violence our vision must be plain. It has to be a vision that brings about life—one that teaches us how to be fully alive, a vision that in all things shows us how to care for our world and one another. It can’t be a vision born of the flesh, but rather it must be a vision born of the Spirit. It must be a vision that does not condemn the world but is not rooted in this world. It is this vision that Jesus was talking about when he said to Nicodemus that you have to be born again—not of the flesh but of the Spirit. That is the vision…that we live as Spirit people—resisting that which takes away from life and taking on that which draws us closer toward loving God and loving our neighbor.
In the end, I believe that humanity isn’t losing faith, rather we are looking for faith. And for those 1 in 5 Americans who feel that religion is not that important in their lives, they need to see faith communities that are living as Spirit born people rather than flesh born people. They need to see the kind of religion that literally is turning guns into gardening tools. My prayer on this day is that we may we be one of those faith communities that takes the risk to be Spirit-born people.