Sermon November 18, 2012

“Around the Thanksgiving Table:

How to Share Your Faith with the None’s and Un’s”

November 18, 2012

The Reverend Dr. Joanne M. Swenson

Mark 13:1-6

13As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” 2Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”

3When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, 4“Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?” 5Then Jesus began to say to them, “Beware that no one leads you astray. 6Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray.


We’re entering the holiday season, a time of great family gatherings, and sometimes, great family revelations – secrets get spilled, announcements declared, hard news get served with the Turkey.  I recently heard about a local elderly couple who made such an announcement, right before Thanksgiving.  The father called his adult son in Chicago, and told him, “Son, I hate to ruin your holiday, but I have to tell you that your mother and I are divorcing.”

“Dad, what are you talking about?” the son yelled into the phone.

“45 years of nagging and arguing over every little thing– we just can’t go on this way,” the father said. “It upsets me to talk about this, so call your sister in California and you tell her,” and he hung up.

Frantic, the son called his sister, who exploded on the phone. “Like heck they’re breaking up,” she shouted.  “I’ll take care of this.” She called New Canaan immediately, and screamed at her father, “You are NOT divorcing. Don’t you do a single thing until I get there.  I’m calling my brother back, and we’ll both be there tomorrow. Until then, don’t do a thing, DO YOU HEAR ME?” and she hung up.

The old man hung up his phone, too, and turned to his wife and said. “Okay, they’re coming for Thanksgiving. Now what do we tell them for Christmas?”

That’s one sort of family revelation.

But here’s another revelation you may hear during your holiday times with family and friends.  And this announcement is becoming all too common: not believing in God.  Someone you know and love has ceased to believe in God.  They may have been battered by tough times, like the death of a spouse.  They may be surrounded by a new social group that dismisses church.  They may assume that religion must agree with science or history, and they just can’t make these line up.  Whatever the impetus, some in our circle may quietly declare, “I just don’t believe in God.”

What should be our response?

Would you pray with me about this?  Lord may the meditations of our heart and the words of this sermon bring us to a vision of how each of us might share our faith.  Amen.

Let’s go back to this morning’s scripture lesson.  It envisions the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, an event that could have destroyed the faith of both Jews and early Christians.  The Temple was the focal point not only of Jewish worship and memory, but also for early Jewish-Christians, who still, at this early date, understood themselves as within the Jewish family.  On July 29, 70 A.D. the Temple was enveloped in firestorm, set by a Roman soldier who, in the words of the ancient historian Josephus, “…without awaiting any orders…snatched a blazing piece of wood and…hurled the flaming brand through a low golden window… Such was the height of the hill and the…magnitude of the blazing pile, that the entire city seemed to be ablaze…”[1]

Historians estimate that the Temple was destroyed on a Sunday.  But by the following Friday evening this traumatized community returned to one of its most beautiful practices, the keeping of Sabbath: resting and sharing food, giving thanks and reflecting.  Their Sabbath practices continued in the shadow of the burned out Temple.  The symbolic depth and beauty of their Sabbath rituals carried the Jewish and Christian people through a time that could have destroyed their faith.  The destruction of the Temple could have driven them into the idol-worship of their Roman captors – the winners rewriting religion.  But that didn’t happen.

Could it be that faith is as simple as this?  That faith is as simple as keeping the Sabbath, as simple as following our spiritual practices?

This question is prompted not only by today’s Gospel lesson, but also by the release of two new polls on religious belief: The first, from the Pew Research Center, finds that one out of five adults today lists his or her religious affiliation as “none.”  And these “none” ’s – as demographers call them – have grown from six percent in 1990 to almost 20 percent today.[2]  Over the brief span of about twenty years, these “none” ’s have tripled!

The second poll, from the University of Chicago, discovered that much of the increase among these “none”’s is generated “by people who previously didn’t have many religious practices.”[3]

So, here’s the picture as you gather around your Thanksgiving table.  For every five adults there, one is likely to be non-religious – a little skittish as you say, “Now, let’s hold hands and say grace.”

But here’s the crux, here’s the point driven home by that second poll: If your Thanksgiving tablemates don’t sing in a choir or meet with a prayer group, don’t study the Bible or go to worship – don’t have a spiritual practice – they can easily become a “none.”  And from this position of “none,” it’s a short distance to “un” – becoming an unbeliever.

Our Adult Bible Study groups recently grappled with the question of how to share our faith, how to speak to our “none” ’s and “un” ’s about faith.  On this question, we considered the advice of St. Francis of Assisi.  St. Francis said, “Preach the Gospel at all times.  If necessary, use words.”

The Lord has provided us with profound ways to preach the gospel, without words, during this holiday season.  Simply by sharing our spiritual practices with our none’s and our un’s, we are bringing them into an experience rich with the symbols of faith.  Almost a buffet of symbols – where there’s no turkey, but we’re serving up symbols rich with meaning, layered with memory and powerfully relevant for our lives – where we can, as Psalm 34 says, “taste and see that the Lord is good.”

You know, we may have a mistaken notion that “faith” is a bundle of information that we carry around in our heads and have to tell others about it – that we tell others our information and then they tell us their information, and then we argue – and go home. End of Thanksgiving!

No, that’s not what faith is.  Faith is not a bunch of propositions – faith is a practice.  Faith is not a set of facts we carry around in our intellect.[4]  Faith is a way of leaning into the world with our minds, our hearts and our bodies.

Indeed, you could say that faith is a habit, a reflex, a patterned response to life – to our friends and family and enemies, to life’s challenges and its joys.  What shapes these habits of faith?  The same thing that shapes any habit – practice.  By immersion in the practices of our religion – worship, prayer, Bible study, service and music – we come to have faith – faith in God.

These practices create a space for the reality of God.  These practices train our minds, hearts and bodies to look for God, and to try to live as God’s people, to yearn for holiness. In the last decades of the 20th century, under the influence of Ludwig Wittgenstein and other philosophers, theologians are recognizing that faith is a set of practices that shape us, not a collection of claims we try to pin on a reality we cannot see.

Facts, data points, declarations and propositions do not convert people.  Rather, spiritual practices convert the heart.  They “preach the gospel, without words.”

That’s how Eileen Zaninni came to us.  Eileen joined our church a few weeks ago.  As Eileen shared her faith journey with the deacons, she said that something happened to her, as she stood on God’s Acre in the dark, Christmas Eve a year ago.  The lighted candles, the carols – it was beautiful and moving. Then, she climbed the sidewalk and peeked into our sanctuary, serene and simple, full of light, and she sensed something here.  Here there was a space for God.   So, she resolved, “I will come back some day.”  And she did:  Eileen came back, with her children.  It was these practices – lighting candles, singing together, this beautiful room – that brought her to us, and to God.

In fact theologians have not only shifted their focus from propositions to practices, but even more – they have shifted their focus to beauty – to considering how the beautiful can be a powerful compass that directs our religious practices.  It’s not enough to say, “Let’s do all these religious practices!”  Which ones, and to what end?  Our practices should result in lives that beautiful of spirit, daily work that produces goods and services of functional and moral beauty; and advocacy that creates communities of beauty, where everyone can thrive.

When Beauty shapes our spiritual practices, God is there, because God is beauty.

And so, when we invite others to one of our beautiful spiritual practices this holiday season, we’re not just being friendly; we’re being theological!  Invite our none’s and un’s to a sunshine-drenched Sunday service in late November.  In December meet up with them in the early morning, to sit in the chapel for Advent meditation.  Let’s invite their kids to church school, where they can sing in our choirs and work on plays, like what was enjoyed at the 9:30 service.  Let’s bring our unbelieving friends and family to serve at a shelter, where, every day that line from Luke’s Gospel comes true:  “There was no room for them at the inn.”  And especially, let’s invite them to light candles with us on Christmas Eve, a sight that may move them, and leave them wondering, “Why does this light stir me so?”

Preach the gospel at all times; if necessary, use words.  Amen.

[1] Josephus’ account appears in Cornfield, Gaalya ed., Josephus, The Jewish War (1982); Duruy, Victor, History of Rome vol. V (1883).



[4] This point is nicely made in Desiring the Kingdom:  Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (2009, Baker), by James K. A. Smith, pg 57 ff.

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