Have you heard about the “Nones?”
A few months back the Pew Forum released another one of their polls about American Religious Life. They found that a full 20% of Americans—that’s 1 in 5—they found that 20% of Americans responded by saying “None” when asked for their religious affiliation. One fifth of the U.S. public as a whole, and a full one third of adults under thirty. These are the “Nones.” You may have heard of them.
Now, before you go thinking that the U.S. is about to be overrun by Godless heathens, note that only about 6% of Americans self-identify as atheist or agnostic. The rest of the Nones are more what you’d call Spiritual But Not Religious. A lot of them believe in God and pray. They’re interested in religious ideas and they spend time with religious books and religious media. Some of them might even identify themselves as “Christian” if the label wasn’t so loaded. They are, most of all, individuals. And just like the rest of us they ultimately beyond label or category. A while ago a Methodist minister witnessed a young woman leave her backpack behind at a restaurant, and when he looked inside her bag in attempt to find contact information he found the following: an iphone, a wallet with a Jesus-fish emblem, a strip of seven condoms (5 opened and empty and 2 fully intact), a well marked Bible with 4 stickers on the cover: 1) “Abortion is murder” 2) “We stand with Scott Walker” 3) “All means all—support Lesbian and Gay Rights and 4) Capital punishment is a Hate Crime. Oh, he also found a pint of raspberry vodka that was two-thirds empty. And a .22 caliber handgun.
I know, I know. It’s a colorful example. But this is part of the story of the “Nones.” With which congregation that you know of would this woman fit in? None that I know of. I’m willing to bet she’s a “None.” Plenty of “Nones,” are spiritual-religious but not capital-R Religious. That is, they don’t identify with any particular organized denomination or tradition. In fact, most aren’t interested in finding one.
These are the “Nones.” They are the misfits of the American religious landscape, and now you’ve heard of them.
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Let’s be honest. No one can be blamed for staying away from church or organized religion. It’s not for nothing that more and more people are branding themselves Spiritual But Not Religious. Very often to call someone religious is simply a polite way of pointing out that they are a little old-fashioned, or neurotic, or maybe a bit crazy. To say someone is “very religious” is seldom a compliment. And I’ve noticed something. I’ve noticed that Godliness somehow tends to make people less personable. The very religious are oftentimes close to God and insufferable to their fellow humans. What’s the old joke? “Heaven for the climate and hell for the company.” There may be something to that.
I think the church is meant to be a place that appeals to the unchurched, to the “Nones,” to the Spiritual But Not Religious. But please note, this is not a numbers game. The point isn’t to fill seats or build the endowment or seek relevance at the expense of meaning. The point is to be faithful. There is, after all, a difference between faithfulness and belief; a difference between the faith of Jesus and a religion about Jesus. It’s the difference between hopeful living and wishful thinking, and it’s a distinction we can’t avoid on Palm Sunday.
Here’s what faith is not. It’s not about affirming beliefs for the sake of beliefs. One of my professors recounted the story of being approached by street evangelists. They said, “have you heard the good news?” My professor says, “No, what’s the good news?” They say, “Jesus is risen! He came back from the dead.” And my professor responds, “Good for him!” (Which I cannot imagine is a response they’d heard before or since.) And the point is, So What? What does a belief require of me? How does it shape us? What does it tell people about living in this world. Faithfulness is more than claiming a belief.
Another thing that faith is not: Faith isn’t thinking that if we believe or hope enough, someone or something else will make the world the way we want it. It’s uncanny, really, how often a person’s conception of God’s will lines up perfectly with their own will. So faith becomes whatever it is that keeps us humming along smoothly, and if we’re really faithful, then we might be blessed with tremendous health and wealth. This is prosperity gospel. It is wildly appealing and it is wildly toxic. Because when wealth is a blessing it’s a sin to be poor. And before you know it people are passing their homeless brothers and sisters and clutching their pocketbooks tightly while thinking, “Welp, too bad, but they should’ve believed a little harder…” Whatever that is, it’s not faith. And what about those who believe with all their heart and soul and might and still don’t get their blessing or healing or wealth? One of my chaplain friends spent a summer ministering to hospice patients. He met an Evangelical pastor, about 50 years old, and the guy was dying of cancer. He said, “I know if I believe enough, then God’ll heal me.” And he believed fiercely and prayed without ceasing and still cancer. Refused to come to terms with his sickness and prayed and believed and died a troubled death. Died thinking there was something wrong with his faith, or that it was maybe God’s will that he die an early death. No, not everything that happens is God’s will. Some things must be cause for lament, because surely God grieves deeper than all of us in the face of sickness and death and a broken creation.
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But then there is faithfulness. The Gospel confronts us with the faith of Jesus—a faith that shows us what it means to be a people with God’s own heart.
Jesus is reaching the end of his ministry. He’s headed towards Jerusalem and he’s bringing the Reign of God with him. He’s proclaiming peace and showing everyone what it looks like. And “as he came near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, ‘If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes.’” Jesus grieves for the city because it can’t recognize the peaceable purposes of God. He tried to show them; made it plain as day.
A couple miles back, an hour or so earlier as Jesus is still standing outside of Jerusalem, Jesus sends two disciples after a colt. And he says, “if anyone gives you trouble about borrowing the colt, tell them the Lord has need of it.” And then he rides the Colt into town and people are shouting Hosanna and waving palm branches and laying down their cloaks. You know the story, I’m sure. And it’s a nice story. Everyone likes a parade.
But if we’re caught up in the pageantry we might miss the deeper meaning. Yes, the Palm Sunday parade is a political statement; it’s fantastic political theater. But it’s more than that. This is Jesus at his most prophetic and the Gospel writer at his most theological. We’re talking about the very character of faithfulness.
Faithfulness isn’t about hoping for the world to act in your favor. No, faithfulness is staking out a bold claim about the way the world is already and then acting accordingly.
When Jesus sends for that colt, he’s making his claim. We talk about the Colt being a humble choice, about how it signals meekness. And that’s true. But there’s something else. In the tradition of the Hebrew Scriptures, a king would ride in on a colt to signal that they’d been victorious, that they’d won the battle, that they’d secured the peace. Of course, as Jesus is approaching Jerusalem there’s been no battle. And yet he’s riding in a Colt, claiming God’s peace is already secured, and that there’s no more need for violence or injustice. God is in charge now, and God has decided on peace. That’s quite the claim isn’t it? Romans are all around and their empire is strong but God has decided on peace. So Jesus is living into that peace, announcing that God’s will for the justice is a more present reality than any construction of injustice. Jesus is riding a Colt and making his claim.
God’s decision for peace may seem just as outlandish in our own time. We’ve been at war almost continuously for the better part of 60 years now. The enemies and locations change but always we’re at war. And now we’re fighting a war without borders or objective or time limit. There is no longer such thing as war time. All the time is war time. It’s in this environment that we’re asked to find ways to live into the faith of Jesus. Somehow we have to proclaim that, all evidence to the contrary, peace is the most primary and elemental human reality. And there’s an even bigger claim to be made, because God’s plan for peace isn’t just about humanity. Biblical faith tells us that it’s wired into the entire creation. Some Pharisees ask Jesus to tell his disciples to stop shouting their announcements of peace, and Jesus says “Well, I could, but it wouldn’t help.” He says, “If these were silent, the stones would shout out.” Jesus believed that God’s decision for peace wasn’t just a human notion. No, part of his faith claim was that God’s purposes are expressed by the entire creation. Isn’t this what Paul was talking about when he said the whole creation groans in expectation of its redemption? Faithfulness is staking out our claim about the nature of the world and the arc of history, and part of the claim involves living as if it were already true.
Jesus was religious. There’s no doubt about it. The scripture indicates he was a law-abiding Jew. He goes to the synagogue. He prays. But he never let his religion get in the way of his faithfulness. Jesus found the Kingdom of God played out most clearly in his dealings with folks who fell outside the bounds of religious respectability. Sometimes the most faithful expression of his religion put him most at odds with religious leadership. I think the church might be called to follow suit. Surely we have a great deal to learn about God and relationships from people who would never step foot inside churches. And maybe through engaging with the “Nones,” the church might became more faithful, and in becoming a more faithful church we’d become a place for the “Nones.” Jesus’ Palm Sunday faithfulness runs deeper than creed or doctrine. It’s all about the very building blocks of our shared life together, and a state of affairs he called the Reign of God. Faithfulness calls us to be the voice of the God’s peaceable Reign in our own time.
“Why? Because we pray daily, ‘They Kingdom come, thy will be done,’ and so must do something to bring it.
Why? Because time changes nothing; people do.” (Joan Chittister)