Monday, June 3, 2024



Mark 2:23-3:6

Proper 4 / Year A

Some of you remember Art Bunton, who passed away in 2013.  He had a tendency after church to flag me down in the Parish Hall.  “Sit down here,” he would say to me, tapping a chair next to his.  “I have a question for you,” he would say in droll, drawn out way of speaking.  “Where is everyone?”  I was never quite sure who the ‘everyone’ was he was referring to.  “You need to preach a sermon and tell these people they need to be in church.”  My response: “Why would I preach a sermon about the importance of being in church to the people who are already in church?”  Art and I had this same conversation at least a dozen different times.

I have known clergy who, at Christmas and Easter, jabbingly remind people the church will be open for worship the next Sunday.  I have never found shaming and blaming folks who are not in church to be an effective approach to change behavior.  Nor do I think those not here can be ‘argued’ into attending through a thoughtful sermon addressing the subject (especially if they are not in church to begin with!). 

And many are not.  A study group has learned in the decade since Art Bunton passed away those who say religion is an important part of their life has declined from 63% to 52%.  In fact, almost a quarter of Americans consider themselves religiously unaffiliated.  Researchers are working hard to come up with new names to describe these emerging groups.  “Nonverts” refers to people who were once religiously affiliated, but are no longer.  “Cradle Nons” refer to people who from birth have never been a part of a faith community.

What are the results of this disengagement?  This past week, two professors from the University of Indianapolis posted an op-ed piece which addresses this very question.  They suggest not being a part of a faith community contributes to a loss of identity and the depletion of shared community values.  It creates a deficiency of trust and shallowness of caring about others.  It leads to disconnection and increased loneliness.  Those who are not a part of a faith community on average are less likely to participate in other kinds of civic engagement, things like social groups and signing petitions.

It is a bleak picture, and, as I said, no sermon is likely going to result in you having to give up your favorite pew to the hordes of people who are coming back after I finish preaching today.  Sorry Art.  But here is what I can do this morning.  I can help you to think more deeply about why religious affiliation matters to you and to have more clarity about how it shapes your life.

This morning’s readings from Scripture invite us to reflect on keeping the Sabbath – one day a week set aside solely for religious observance.  How important is it?  Well, it makes it into the Ten Commandments… so pretty important.  These commandments appear twice in the Old Testament: in the Book of Exodus and in today’s reading from Deuteronomy.  The two readings cite different theological rationales for keeping a weekly day of religious devotion.

In Exodus Moses tells us to keep the Sabbath because for six days God created and on the seventh day God rested.  Sabbath keeping, then, is a way of remembering in whose image we are made.  It invites us to embrace God’s communicable attributes at work in us: love, faithful, goodness, mercy, wisdom, justice, etc.  It shifts our focus away from me, myself, and I to Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  In subtle and not so subtle ways, our regular participation in this parish makes us different people; not necessarily better than others but definitely more like who we are created to be.

In Deuteronomy Moses tells us to keep the Sabbath because when we were slaves in Egypt we never had a day of rest.  We worked non-stop seven days a week.  Keeping Sabbath reminds us the world will get along with us for a little while, that we cannot rest only once all the work is done (because our work is never completely done), that we are not human doings, rather we are human beings.  Through Sabbath observance we reject the yoke of slavery in all its many forms and acknowledge we belong to God.

Sabbath-keeping is essential to human health and flourishing, but by Jesus’ day it has become overregulated by centuries of traditions monitored and enforced by religious authorities.  Throughout his earthly ministry – through his actions and teachings – Jesus works to free people from the Sabbath in order to keep the Sabbath.  He strips away the burden in order to reveal the life.

I hope you sense this place to be a place of life, not burden.  The Pew Research Center found people like you and me value our religious affiliation for several reasons.  We come here because it is a place where we can be happy.  Here we make and listen to music.  We learn things here, meet people, and find a sense of peace.  This is where we gain a sense of belonging.  We are able to support others when they need a helping hand and to receive support when we need it.  Here we connect with God through worship, prayer, music, reflection, and the sacraments. 

These human needs are so basic to everyone I trust those who are not religiously affiliated garner some of them through some other kind of involvement.  I am not here to criticize any of them.  I do want to say I believe God’s desire for us to flourish is best nurtured through religious affiliation.  God gave us the Sabbath.  Jesus Christ died for us.  The Holy Spirit came to give birth to the Church.  It is no accident we are here.  It is a part of God’s dream for all people and I trust by being here this day you sense you are living into the dream.