Psalm 40:21-31

Mark 1:29-39

February 8, 2015 by Ken Dale

The first chapter of Mark?s gospel is so full that the ribbons marking it in the lectern Bible have not been moved in weeks. Today we hear of Jesus healing the mother-in-law of Simon, and then others. Jesus then goes off to a place by himself to pray but the demand of the crowds continues and he responds saying, ?Let us go to neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came to do?? Jesus? spiritual life is tended to with solitude and personal time but also then broadens out to service to others. Such is the nature of healthy spiritual life ? it has been described as leaven for the whole loaf.

For quite a few years now there have been various writings on our living in a time of transition in the life of the mainline Christian Church. Last year during Lent we considered the writings of Diana Butler Bass in her book Christianity After Religion. In past sermons I have mentioned the Nones and the Spiritual But Not Religious categories or groups of people who believe but have no affiliation with the institutional church. If we were into marketing the church that would be our target group. Recently I skimmed a book review in the Christian Century where Tony Robinson reviewed a book by Nancy Tatom Ammerman who after researching the SBNRs, concluded that they are a ?unicorn ? a species that does not exist in reality.? She found that for most people organized religion and spirituality are not separate realms but one. People most active in ?organized religion? were also most committed to spiritual practices and a spiritual view of the world. The other side of the coin is that SBNRs were actually neither S nor R. The label was actually called ?boundary making discourse? ? a way that people who want nothing to do with religion to say to religious people and institutions ?don?t bug me.? I was disappointed ? I thought that group might hold some potential for the UCC as I thought we?re just what they?re looking for.

What Ammerman did discover however, is that the old model of assigning religion to one clearly defined compartment in life and society no longer works. Ammerman uses the term ?sacred consciousness? which is an awareness of a transcendant or more than mundane dimension to life. In fact religious/spiritual people today experience this in the home, hospitals, recovery groups, art, nature and the workplace. It is not something that can be captured in a creed or understood through a doctrinal statement. The religious landscape that used to be captured in ?Protestant, Catholic, Jew? has itself given way to many forms and expressions often determined by shifting individual choice.

Ammerman also found the local congregation to be important as the setting or vessel that gives shape and encouragement to the spiritual life and practice of individuals and families. With a congregation, a person is more likely to be spiritual, and without that community of spiritual discourse and practice, individuals then tend to be less spiritual or not spiritual at all. Congregations are less likely to be definers of religious truth and more apt to be framers of sacred experience and consciousness. I like the sound of that!

There is, in our time, a hunger and thirst for the Spirit or the spiritual. It has been described as a sea change that spans several generations and something that may have the significance of the Great Awakening in the 18th century. Bass noted that in her writings. In her book, Soul Feast, Marjorie Thompson sites four cultural factors. First, Western culture has been steeped in the world-view of rationalism which makes reason the highest authority in determining what is true. Second, technological advances have led to exponential change at every level of our lives. The developments in transportation, communication, industrial invention, medicine, marketing and information have given us many benefits for sure. But they have caused enormous social dislocation. Communication as an example ? that development has not necessarily lead to better or more meaningful communication. Just the other day in an e-mail from a friend the question of whether the sarcasm was coming through was mentioned. Another factor is that we live in a culture that glorifies superficial values lacking a deep sense of purpose that calls us to sacrifice individual desires for the sake of a larger good. And finally, our culture seems increasingly paralyzed by fear. She also lists personal and spiritual factors such as suffering and tragedy, being restless about our church experience, actually finding church a challenging place to talk about God and experiences of God, and living with a perceived ?second hand faith.?

I really loved her thought that God was actually behind it all. God is the primary factor behind the spiritual seeking of our time and the Holy Spirit stirs things up when our societies and sacred institutions get complacent, corrupt, or simply fall too far behind the evolving knowledge and ethos of the times in which we live. She speaks of God?s hunger for relationship with us.

So the plan is that beginning with the first Sunday in Lent the sermon will focus on spiritual practices as shared in Thompson?s book. Our focus will be on the spiritual life, which has to do with God?s way of relating to us and our way of responding to God. It begins with God, depends on God, and ends in God. It is an ongoing journey ? we never ?arrive? or ?attain a goal?. As she says, the spiritual life is not a task and there is no fix-it-yourself kit or manual promising five easy steps to the complete spiritual person. It is actually the work of divine grace with which we learn to cooperate.

The practices help us to practice the presence of God. She likens us to the prodigal son ? far from home and starving. What path will bring us home ? home being the heart of God. Some of the practices may excite us while others may not. Some will work for some while others may not. Having reservations about it all is natural. Thompson acknowledges that our Christian tradition has fostered an unhealthy split between earth and heaven, body and spirit and that those concerned with the social implications of the gospel are often concerned that spirituality is an escape from active discipleship. But she assures that this is not about navel gazing. Her basic assumption is that the Spirit of God is the depth dimension of all that we know as life. The spiritual life is not one slice of existence but leaven for the whole loaf. It concerns deep feeling and concern and compassion for all people. It is practical and concrete. She writes: ?This is where God is at work. If the Word I hear Sunday morning or during my private prayer has no bearing on the way I relate to family, friend, and foe or how I make decisions, spend my resources, and cast my vote, then my faith is fantasy.? She understands the Christian spiritual life includes both nurturing the inner life and addressing social realities. One is not more or less spiritual than the other and either by itself is less than a full embodiment of the life we are called to in Christ.

So ? I wonder where it will take us? My original thought was that we would have a study group on the book. I had the hope of maybe attracting some SBNRs to join us. If we consider this in worship more of us will be exposed and can share. So each week the sermon will focus on a practice or two to consider. I will share that from her book each Sunday and on Wednesday?s during Lent we will gather at 6:30 PM for an opportunity to discuss or experience the practice and at 7:00 conclude with a Taize worship service. Sound good? If you?d like, feel free to pick up her book ? Soul Feast is the title and her name is Marjorie Thompson. You can get it online at thethoughtfulchristian.com for $10.

Let?s pray together: Good and gracious God, we thank you for this church and for the diversity of people that make this church who and what it is. Some of us may be focused on being and others on doing. In Christ you call us together to be together and to work together. We thank you for the unique blend of be-ers and do-ers that we are. May our consideration of things spiritual be a means by which we are drawn closer to you and closer to one another so that together we can reach out and share the good news of your love in every way. We ask this in Christ?s name and for his sake. Amen.

Contents of this sermon are from Not Religious, No Spiritual by Anthony B. Robinson in

The Christian Century, February 4, 2015, p.30 and Hunger and Thirst for the Spirit in

Soul Feast ? An Invitation to the Christian Spiritual Life by Marjorie Thompson, pp. 1-16.