Third Sunday after Pentecost (B)
June 14, 2015
It’s that long awaited email from your son or daughter or grandchild at college, short and to-the-point:
Dear Mom and Dad.
I can’t believe my junior year has ended. I turned in my last exam and
pulled an all-nighter to write my last paper. I can’t wait to get home for
the summer. I even have a lead on a summer job. By the way, I’ve become a
Buddhist! I’ll tell you more when I get home.
Your son or daughter.
How do you respond when your adult children or grandchildren choose a different direction in their spiritual life?
Over the years, parishioners have spoken to me about their adult children or grandchildren who were raised in the Episcopal Church. They frequently begin by describing how involved these children were in the past, worshipping on Sunday, going to Sunday School, becoming acolytes or singing in the choir. Then there is a long pause…and they tell me that these same children have wondered off to another denomination, dropped out, or even joined another religious faith.
How do you respond? I would like to explore this question this morning, thinking about the very nature of the young adult period of life. Let’s wonder how we as Christian understand other religions, and let’s relate the questions to our own spiritual journey.
Many of us who have a meaningful connection with the church today remember a period when we wandered away, perhaps searching for an alternate religious experience. I am one of those people. I remember travelling to the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City with friends in my teenage years. We arrived at the Cathedral just before closing, and as we sat in the nave, a Buddhist chant group was meeting in one of the side chapels. I remember peering down that long nave to the high altar, seeing the cross, and hearing the sound of eastern chant. My soul was on fire!
It was not too many years later that I discovered Thomas Merton’s writings, especially the book Mystics and Zen Masters. Merton, a Trappist monk, had a passion for helping western Christians rediscover the interior spiritual life, and close to the end of his own life, was inspired by eastern religions.
During this period of young adult life, I walked away from my parent’s ways and explored the world, searching to discover my own understanding of God. Many young adults turn to this quest at the same time when they are separating from their parents.
Let’s add another dimension to the picture. There has been a huge change in our religious culture in this country over the past fifty years. Many other religious groups have been established and are growing, including Buddhist, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Jain and Zorastrian. This leads me to the work of Diana Eck, who has directed the pluralism project at Harvard University since 1991. In her book, Encountering God, she names three ways Christian view other religious faiths in our changing American culture. These three positions are exclusive, inclusive and pluralist.
The exclusive Christian hears about religious diversity and quotes scripture, for example John 14:1-6, where Jesus says, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” For this believer, being a follower of Jesus Christ is the only way to salvation. All other belief systems are considered inferior.
An inclusive Christian will say other religions are not evil or wrong, they just represent partial truth. This person believes God hears the prayers of all people, but Christ represents the ultimate expression of the Godhead.
The third category Diana Eck names is pluralist. The Christian pluralist remembers the hymn, “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy, like the wideness of the sea.” This person no longer speaks about our God because that statement is too limiting. Instead, he or she experiences the transcendence, wonder, and expansiveness of God. Many religions are not a problem for the pluralist; they are simply an expression of the mystery of God, “who is beyond our understanding.”
No matter where you find yourself on the continuum from exclusive to pluralist, I believe God is calling Christians to understand and respect people who follow other religions. You and I witness far too many tragic examples of religious conflict in the world today. We can make a positive difference in our own community by listening and learning from others. Holy Trinity has a history of encouraging dialogue with other religious groups. We will build on that history in the coming years.
So let’s go back to the email I composed at the beginning of this sermon and to the questions I raised about our adult children and grandchildren. How will we respond as they wander away from the church and go in new directions?
I have enjoyed listening to parents and grandparents who say they continue talking about their own faith in a steady quiet way with their adult children and grandchildren. This is called “witnessing.” However, these Christian understand such witnessing is offered in order to encourage conversation, not put pressure on the younger generation. And I ask you to think about this Gospel passage for today, Mark 4:26-34. Let us think about the seeds that have been planted in our young adults. There is a wonderful mystery about seeds growing and developing. The passage says we wake and sleep, and God brings about the growth of the seed. So stay in touch with your adult child or grandchild. Find out what is important to them by listening. The only time I could imagine being more directive or forceful in my relationship with a young adult is if I fear they have become involved in a cult or a closed community that distorts their thinking and puts them or others at risk.
Perhaps you and I will grow in faith through these fascinating discussions with our young adults. Maybe these conversations will encourage faith to grow inside of us.