The Common Good

The Nones: Saving Perfection

"Jesus, looking at him, loved him ..."

Photo: Leap of faith, Matthew Williams-Ellis / Shutterstock.com
Photo: Leap of faith, Matthew Williams-Ellis / Shutterstock.com

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"Jesus, looking at him, loved him ..."

This right here is the crux of all three of these passages that are so carefully linked together in Mark's story about Jesus and his expectations for those who follow him.

"Jesus, looking at him, loved him ..." 

(From Mark 10:17-21)

It's a rather challenging story to have to preach here in Palo Alto where multi-billionaires live around the corner, and the likelihood that The Next Great Thing will be invented within a mile of our building is so high.

It's tempting to spiritualize the whole passage ... you know, turn it in to one giant metaphor about not being spiritually or emotionally attached to all of our possessions, but we can still have them. We can still claim all the stuff as our own.

It's tempting to hope Jesus wasn't talking about us. It's tempting to assume we, who are not multi-billionaires, are like Peter in this story. Thus, justified, we can pretend that we are the simple followers of Jesus sleeping under the stars with our heads on stones.

Of course, we're not . ..not really. I don't know many people who have given everything they have to the poor. I know I haven't.

Ric Hudgens, a (distant) cousin of mine recently reminded me that we domesticate our faith so easily. We domesticate Jesus so easily when he's actually calling us to is something rather wild and unpredictable. Jesus is calling us to leave all of our security behind. Jesus is asking us to live with him and as he lives. It's not safe. It's not easy. Not everyone will do it.

***

A poll went out not too long ago about religious life in America. Maybe you've read somewhere this week or saw the special report on PBS, but the fastest growing "religious group" in the United States are the "religiously unaffiliated." They are called the "nones" by sociologists because they check the "none of the above" box on surveys. Nones. In California they are the second largest group in the state ... larger than the entire mainline combined. Larger than the evangelicals. Nones.

Who are they? What are they doing? Does it really matter? I don't know. Maybe it's not for us to speculate. But I'm curious. This is an age of Do-It-Yourself spirituality. Spiritual-But-Not-Religious is no longer a trope but a legitimate expression of faithfulness. Heroes like Mother Teresa, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King, Jr., Desmond Tutu, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer with his "religionless Christianity" are often named as exemplars of the spiritual-but-not-religious. Religion is synonymous with institutional maintenance and doctrinal adherence; spirituality is synonymous with prophetic justice, peace-making, economic simplicity, and mysticism.

Of course, there are critiques about sex scandals and politics mixing so completely with some brands of religion. Then there is this verse from today. When I speak to critics of the church they often cite this verse. They know the story of the rich young man and they know what Jesus says here and what Peter says here and they look around and ask me, “Why don't Christians actually do that?” They recite history and Christian leadership's collusion with the agents of empire-building and warfare. Then they say something like, “I'd rather live like Jesus than be a Christian.”

They see the Church as the rich young man and they wonder if anyone actually follows Jesus anymore.

Of course, this is not the only demographic shift at work in the religious life of the world.

There are more Anglicans in Nigeria than there are in England.
More Presbyterians in Ghana than in Scotland. ..
More Baptists in Southeast Asia than in the Southeastern United States.
More Christians go to church in China than in Europe.
In 1900, 71 percent of the world's Christians were in Western Europe. By 2000 that percentage dropped below twenty percent in some European nations.

Here's the real kicker: these are not problems to fix. They are simply realities to be faced.

Frank Yamada is the new president of McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago. He's the first Non-Anglo to serve as president in any Presbyterian seminary in the U.S. He's also a friend of mine. In his inaugural address he very carefully and clearly presented the reality that is facing the church in the U.S. and what he thinks might be one response of many.

By 2040, no one ethnic group will be a majority in the U.S. Seminaries in places like Chicago and Berkeley are already reflecting this statistical trend. The times they are a-changin.' We'll need to learn new skills, new ways of being church, of worship, of doing theology. We'll experiment, mash-up, remix, and invent theologies, liturgies, and even institutional forms like congregations. We'll do this in a spirit of play if we are wise and generous as we know we can be.

Frank reminds us simply that it is all changing. We don't have to "change it." "It," the Church, religious expression, life, faith, etc., has already changed, my friends.

We are already in the change.
We are already in the Wilderness that Ric Hudgens spoke of.
We are already in the wilderness that Jesus calls us to.

And is it possible that when we talk about God doing a new thing in this world, when some of us have prayed again and again for the Holy Spirit to move, that this is what it looks like?

It looks like something wild!

Is it possible that Jesus wants us to step into the untamed wildness of the Kingdom of God and away from our habits of domesticating the Church, to set it free, if you will,
free from all the expectations that a good church person is financially successful
or that a good church must necessarily be expensive
or that, perhaps even more tempting,
God requires our successful church institutions in some way?

God will not vanish.
God is not going away.
God is, instead, living in the wild places,
and in the buildings.
But those of us in the buildings have a task before us.

Jesus does look upon us with love.
Jesus looks upon us, grateful that we have kept the commandments.
But Jesus also wants us to live recklessly.
Jesus wants us to be perfect as he was perfect.
Jesus looks upon us and loves us.
Jesus looks upon us and loves us and says...if you want to be perfect...
... I invite you into a new life ...

It's not an easy call. And Jesus won't love us less if we choose not to do it. But it is the call and people are looking to us to answer it ... to leave everything and to follow Jesus into the blessed wild. 

 

Tripp Hudgins is a doctoral student in liturgical studies at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Calif., and associate pastor of First Baptist Church of Palo Alto, Calif. You can read more of his writings on his longtime blog, "Conjectural Navel Gazing; Jesus in Lint Form" at AngloBaptist.orgFollow Tripp on Twitter @AngloBaptist.

Photo: Leap of faith, Matthew Williams-Ellis / Shutterstock.com

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