Isaiah 56: 1, 6-8
Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32
Matthew 15: 10-28
A prayer: Lord, inhabit our hearts with your word, that we might shine with your truth and your love, through the holy trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
One of the most mysterious aspects of our faith is the Word of God. Most often associated with the Bible, the Word is actually much more than a gathering of lines on a page. The Word is more than a book. The Word is actually a living thing, a moving, breathing, dynamic thing that when nurtured to full life it inhabits your soul, shapes your life and enhances the world around you. The Word of God is life, it is truth, it is hope.
The Word is Jesus Christ.
John writes, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people” (Jn 1:1-4).
Yes, the Word is primary. Yes, you read it, yes, you hear it… But you also live it, and it lives through you. The Word of God is a force unto itself, a powerful force. That is at the heart of our faith. And when you understand that, then you understand there is no such thing as ‘self’ as separate from the Word. You are in God’s and God is in you. The words on your lips, that is, what you say, reflects the Word in your heart, that is, the will of God. Denying the Word means denying your true nature and the goodness that lives in you (naturally). It is possible to deny the Word, of course, and that is what I want to talk about today.
I have just returned from a trip to Sweden where I visited my father’s side of the family. It was a wonderful trip! As part of my travels, I went to see many of the fabulous old churches of Sweden, most Lutheran, and built hundreds and hundreds of years ago. They are great wooden cathedrals split from the abundant pines of Scandinavia. Painted over every inch with scenes of scripture, folklore and national pride; they are distinctively Swedish.
When I went to the grand old church in Kalskoga to run my hand over the font that had baptized my great grandmother, Eva Olsson, I was filled with a great pride. But I was also deeply saddened. That church, and most like it in Sweden, is empty. Much of Europe, you see, has lost its interest in Christian faith. They simply aren’t going to church. The scriptures are not being read, the people are not praying and the great cathedrals stand empty. They are apathetic to the faith and the church in many ways is paralyzed in response to that apathy.
You see the great threat to the message of Jesus Christ is not Islam. It is not modernity with all of the distractions of consumer culture, nor is it even the individualism of the post-Enlightenment West. No, the greatest threat to our faith, which has already emptied so many of our European churches of worshipers, is apathy.
Apathy comes from the Greek meaning “without passion” and it means absolute and total indifference. It is so terrible, worse than hate or anger or even disbelief. It is worse than all those because it doesn’t even grapple with faith, it doesn’t question or struggle or seek deeper meaning. Apathy is the ultimate whatever when it comes to life.
Research on the subject of social apathy finds a drastic rise of apathy among populations that have experienced great psychological traumas such as war and the widespread suffering that accompanies it. Perhaps, then, it is no surprise that a great plague of spiritual apathy has spread unchecked all over Europe in the last century given the devastating wars and privation so much of its populations have endured.
From the outside, apathy creates a dominant culture that, at best, treats religious faith as a quirky personality trait and, at worst, dismisses it altogether as irrelevant and ineffectual. It thins the membership of churches and renders the voice of church authority impotent in much of mainstream European politics, culture and ethical debate.
Apathy has a way of stripping the sacraments such as baptism and Eucharist of their holy meaning, redefining them as mere celebrations of birth and community instead of the holy and divine encounter they actually are. Apathy discourages deep formation of faith, forcing adults to navigate the world with a child’s understanding of Christianity, under-prepared and easily overwhelmed. It keeps families from making prayer a priority and makes church attendance tertiary to work and play.
Yes, apathy is an insipid and real threat to Christian faith. And left unchecked, apathy is more destructive than a swarm of termites would be on those great Swedish churches.
As a guest lecturer in religious studies at VCU several weeks ago, I found that apathy is alive in American youth. As I talked about the changing face of Christianity in world mission and outreach I was bombarded with the bold and faithless questioning of the students. They did not want to know about the great work of our missions, they wanted to convince me of the irrelevance of my faith and the weakness of the whole Christian enterprise. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t turned off, I love a good argument. But what saddened me was they really didn’t know much about the Christian faith they had rejected. They had not read the scriptures, had never been taught prayer and while most had been baptized, it holds no meaning for them because they have no church community. None of them has experienced God’s goodness… only the cruelty of religious war. No wonder they were apathetic.
While the incredulity of those students and the emptiness of those Swedish church could be discouraging, I am actually heartened. They are a stark reminder that hope is a precious and delicate gift of faith and it must be nurtured so that it might be shared. We all, each of us, must fight the threat of apathy so as to encourage the tender shoot of hope in ourselves as well as the many people around us who so desperately need it. There is so much goodness, freedom and absolute JOY in Christianity. And it is meant to be shared. Confronting apathy is not easy, but neither it is impossible.
The place to begin is within ourselves. We must root out and rid ourselves of the apathy that has weakened our own faith. We must return to the essentials in our faith of prayer, sacraments and study and always keep out hearts filled with the Word.
In the scriptures this morning, Jesus is fighting apathy. He is angry at the way the religious leaders have lost their faith and are trading on the authority of God’s laws to gain power and influence. He is angry that the precious word of God is being cheapened and adulterated, used to gain power and dominate others. He is angry that the hope of God has been clouded by the selfish desires of men. He knows well the threat of apathy and he wants to stop it from driving a wedge between his people and holy hope.
The thing is, that with the people who do not know Jesus Christ and claim that they have no interest in knowing him, there is still a desire for hope. Within every human being, no matter how apathetic, there is still a desire for truth and there is still the seeds of God’s Word. As creations of the Word, all people crave the Word, even when they don’t know what it is! People want you to share it with them. They want the truth and they want the hope. They don’t want a watered down, weak, compromised version that’s safe and easy and as dispensable as the latest “I’m OK you’re OK” trend. They want to be told that God cares about their pain and does not tolerate injustice or abuses power. They want to know the Word and we, as people of the Word, have a special role, indeed a calling to share that word, to be that dynamic life giving word for them.
All of you are called, in one way or another, to share the Word in such a way that it shapes the world into the just, hopeful, loving and passion-filled place God wants. This is the beauty of the universal gift of Jesus Christ, which has built churches from the deserts of Palestine to the tundra of Sweden to the shores of the James River.
The love of God is relevant and passionate and life-giving for every human being in the world. Whether it alleviates pain, overcomes injustice or combats the death of apathy, the Word is life changing. Therefore, brothers and sisters, do not be discouraged by apathy, but take it on with the Word as your strength. Be bold, be true and proclaim the Word, not only with your lips but in your lives, by giving up yourselves in the service of the Word for the sake of the world.