Do you remember those books that were popular back in the 90’s, the “For Dummies” books? I think they became popular when computers were starting to become common in private homes. I am pretty sure we had a “PCs for Dummies” book at my house. These were big, bright books, with their characteristic yellow covers, with lots of pictures and easy to follow instructions. There was a time when the simple act of turning on a computer was not intuitive and required a flow-chart, so those books were fairly useful. Out of curiosity, I Googled the “For Dummies” series to see what other things they tried to teach in the simplest of terms. As expected, many were about computer programs or systems. But – here are a few other titles: “Parenting for Dummies,” “Politics for Dummies,” “Law for Dummies,” “Dating for Dummies,” “Divorce for Dummies” – likely geared for those who had chosen to follow ‘Dating for Dummies’ to find themselves a life partner. On and on the list went. And in that list of published books you can buy yourself “Christianity for Dummies.” It is currently going for $13.30 on Amazon. Here is how it is advertised: “Curious about Christianity? This friendly guide helps you understand the basic teachings of the Christian faith, exploring the common ground that all Christians share, the differences among the major branches, the key events in Christian history, the key theological issues, and the many ways Christians live out their faith in today’s world.” If only I had known such a resource existed when I was applying for seminary – I could have saved myself $55,000 in student debt.
I couldn’t help myself, so I read a few of the reviews of people who had purchased ‘Christianity for Dummies’ because I was genuinely curious about the audience for a book like that. While some of the reviews terrified me, for instance the youth pastor who purchased the book to help him teach confirmation, most of the people who purchased and then reviewed the book online stated a real appreciation. Many wrote about their desire to understand a loved one whose beliefs differed from their own. Some wrote about a desire to have the big picture of a very diverse religion. And one person talked about no longer feeling stupid when they went to church, and that one hit me hard. I had read these reviews as a source of entertainment while I was procrastinating writing this sermon, and instead found myself thinking about how the Church still falls short of offering true and genuine hospitality.
Let me explain – this week I also read an article published by the Religious News Service, which is a well-respected news source for topics on religion, spirituality, and culture. All that to say, this article that I am about to cite is one I have confidence in. This article was written by Ryan Burge, an assistant professor of political science at Eastern Illinois University and someone who describes himself as growing up as an evangelical Christian in a small town but left that environment because he started to have questions about what he believed. In this article, data is crunched from the General Social Survey to confirm what most of us already know – that fewer people are going to church on a regular basis. But there was another statistic that really caught my eye. In just 30 years, from 1990 to today, people who describe themselves as having a connection to a religious faith, irrespective of whether or not they attended worship has declined sharply. In 1990, 95% of Americans stated they were connected to a religion. Today that number in 75%. Put another way, 1 in 4 people today have no faith system that they identify with. 1 in 4.
But, the data shows – those who do go to church regularly still have a strong belief in God. Now, the first response to such a data point is – Whew! Well, we may have fewer people in the pews, but at least they are not just here for the coffee afterwards. But, let’s think about that statistic in another way. And, to do this, I want to quote the author of the article: [a] chasm…exists in religious belief. While two-thirds of those who attend at least sometimes have no doubts about their belief in God, half of those who rarely or never attend struggle to believe in God most of the time. This may make it more difficult for churches to attract these never attenders. Can people who are plagued with doubt feel welcomed by a church that is filled with those who are certain about what they believe?” That was the question I could not help think about when I read that online review of “Christianity for Dummies’ that said at least the reviewer no longer felt stupid when they went to church.
So, Pastor Danielle…what are you trying to get at? Fair question. We are in the season of Epiphany. The season of the church year that is all about revealing who Christ is. Last week, in his baptism, he was marked by God as God’s chosen. God’s beloved. This week, we hear John the Baptist shout to the crowds that Jesus is the Lamb of God – the first time we hear that. And more importantly, we hear of the first two followers to drop everything in their lives and follow Jesus. This season of the church year is all about that holy and mysterious draw Jesus had. A holy and mysterious draw that still attracts people today.
But that draw, to worship God incarnate in Jesus Christ in a religious community, that draw is shrinking. In just 30 years we have gone from 5% of the population having doubts about God, to 25%. And at the same time, there has been a stark decline in church attendance. Is that because those who doubt don’t feel welcome in church? Is that because those who doubt or have questions, or are just not sure, feel like church is only for those with perfect belief? To quote once again the author of that article – “can people who are plagued with doubt feel welcomed by a church?” The answer, when Church is at its best, is yes. Doubts are welcomed. Questions are welcomed. Uncertainty is welcomed. But that is when Church is at its best.
I keep thinking about that online reviewer of ‘Christianity for Dummies’ who bought the book so they wouldn’t feel stupid in church. The question that must be asked is, what had happened to make them feel stupid in the first place? Were they surrounded by people who appeared to have a perfect faith, who appeared to know all of the words of the hymns, who appeared to know the scripture word for word because they nodded along in a knowing way, who bowed their head and folded their hands appearing to be in profound moments of prayer? Did our friend look around a church and feel like they didn’t belong because they didn’t already know everything about God that they were supposed to?
When church is at its best, we are all honest that we are just fumbling our way in the shadows, trying to make sense of this word in light of God, trying to figure out our place in the universe, and trying to decide what it is that we need to do to win God’s favor. When church is at its best, we are honest. We are plagued with questions, we think that new hymn is silly, admit we had never heard that scripture verse before, and bow our heads in prayer even though sometimes we are just thinking about our grocery list. And Church is at its best when we admit we really don’t have any of it figured out at all.
In today’s scripture, Andrew and Simon saw Jesus and were intrigued. John the Baptist, the person they had been following – pointed to Jesus and said ‘there he is. There is the one you need follow.’ That does not mean that Andrew and Simon had perfect faith. That does not mean they knew who Jesus was and why they should follow. But that holy and mysterious draw grabbed them, if just for moment, just long enough for Jesus to notice. “What are you looking for?” he asked them. “What are you looking for?”
What if that was the question that greeted people at church every Sunday. ‘Welcome to First Congregational Church of Winona. What are you looking for?” What is it, in this moment, you are trying to find? Is it answers to the big questions? Is it a place to find unconditional welcome? Is it a community of family and friends? Is it a place to rest from the weariness of the world? Is it God? Is it hope? Is it more questions? “What are you looking for?”
The truth is – most of the time we don’t know what the answer to that question is. Simon and Andrew didn’t have an answer either. They responded with another question, “Rabbi, where are you staying?” At first glance, that is such an odd response. But, unfortunately – and one of the many reasons we have so many questions in the first place – the translation doesn’t really work. “Rabbi, where are you staying?” would be better translated as “Teacher, where is it your soul finds rest?” The Greek word for “staying” is the same word that John uses earlier when he describes the Holy Spirit descending from heaven and remaining with Jesus. It’s the same word that we find later in the John that quotes Jesus as saying “Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me.” When Simon and Andrew are asking Jesus “where are you staying?” they are really asking Jesus “where is it that you have found your purpose and place with God?” “Where do you rest your soul to do the work that you have been called to do?” What are they looking for? They are looking for their own place in the world and they are hoping Jesus, the Rabbi, the Teacher, can help show them the way.
“Come and see.” That is what Jesus says. Jesus, the Teacher, taught by showing them how he lived his life. The Gospel says they went and stayed with him for a night – they lived with him. What they experienced the Gospel does not say. Did they see Jesus healing the sick? Did they see him caring for the poor? Did they see him touching the unclean? Did they see him showing the love of God to people who were told they were unworthy? Did they sit with him and ask their questions and find grace in the asking? We don’t know. But what we do know is after that night – when Jesus told them to come and see where his soul found rest and purpose – they left everything behind and became his disciples.
“What are you looking for?” is a question that we need to ask everyone who asks about our faith. “What are you looking for?” is the question we need to ask ourselves. That question, that encompasses all questions – that question is blessed here. That question, your questions, your doubts and uncertainties, your worries and fears, your wonderings and conflicts – they are blessed here. The appearance of perfect faith and understanding is not a requirement of God and therefore not a requirement of this worshipping community. You don’t need to know – all you need is a willingness to wonder. To admit that holy and mysterious draw is tugging at you and you are wondering where it is that your soul can find rest and purpose. The teacher of our faith welcomes those questions and helps us to see where he is staying, where he is abiding, where we can find him. Jesus Christ did not turn away from the questions, he said “come and see.”
Beloved community in Christ, if I do one thing in my ministry correctly here, I want it to be that you know you are welcomed and blessed just as you are, even if, especially if, you are someone in this moment whose faith feels precarious. I bless you in all of your imperfect humanness and I bless those questions and I am eager to wonder aloud with you. “What are you looking for?” Amen.