February 23, 2014, Psalm 25: 1-10, James 1:22-27
I’ve been thinking about the church’s future a lot for the past few months. Not just this congregation’s future, but the future of the Christian church in the United States. Christians are made, not born. Let me make that a little clearer. One may be born into an observant, Christian family, but someone becomes a Christian by making one’s own faith statement. No one is a Christian by proxy, so the faith is always one generation away from disappearing.
I grew up in a Presbyterian family. When my brother and I were in grade school, we went to Sunday school every week and we attended worship at least once a month. Going to church was the same as going to school—unless you were sick, you went. Often at lunch on Sunday we would talk about the sermon. My mother liked that both ministers left her with “something to chew on” when worship ended. When my brother started high school and joined the youth group we attended worship nearly every Sunday, because the youth group was so strong. I followed my brother into the youth group. By the time I was a senior in high school, I realized that mom couldn’t force me to go to church anymore, but I went anyway. My closest friends were my church friends. Every summer we went on a work camp. I saw huge parts of the United States through the window of the church van.
I grew up in a baseball family. Before I started kindergarten I collected baseball cards. Before I could read I could recognize what teams men played for from their uniforms. I remember when I got my Ferguson Jenkins card in 1969, I recognized a black man, wearing a Cub uniform, posed as a pitcher…I was so excited, I asked the babysitter if she would help me call my brother who was at home so I could tell him! Every Sunday afternoon, the Cubs played a game and we always watched it on Channel 31. I attended my first Cub game on July 22, 1970. It was my brother’s 10th birthday, so mom planned something special. We rode the train to Chicago, stayed in a hotel that visiting ball teams stayed in and we watched the Cubs beat the Reds 10-2. No one ever said to me, “Tom, in this family baseball is really, really important, and we are Cub fans.” At least no one said that in words. I caught a love for baseball and a loyalty to the Chicago Cubs, because I was surrounded by both. What my family did around major league baseball, has shaped the way I have behaved as long as I can remember.
Let me make that point again, what my family did shaped the way we behaved and what we regarded as important. Our behavior came before my beliefs.
A year ago the University of Wisconsin Press decided to publish a collection of essays on pilgrimages, people making journeys to important sites. They asked me to contribute an essay and I chose Wrigley Field as the destination of my pilgrimage.
When I was in seminary I entered this letter in a contest, in 25 words or less explain why your mother is a Cub fan. Of course, my essay was one of 25 winners. So my mother received a standing ovation at Wrigley Field—along with about 15,000 other mothers who were in attendance that day!
Sometimes when I meet people and they find out I’m a minister they tell me that they want their children to make up their own minds about faith. I agree. In fact I lead confirmation classes with that as the stated end, each person should make his or her own decision about the Christian faith and church membership. Usually, though what these fathers—they’re always fathers—mean is that they not practice any faith tradition and they also do not want their children to have any experience of a faith tradition. Somehow, they seem to think, this will enable their children to embrace or not embrace a faith tradition without any bias. This is complete non-sense and it makes me crazy. And I realize that I’m saying this to a room full of people who are here because you’re practicing a particular kind of Christian faith, but I need to rant a little.
Every decision parents make shapes their children. Kids who grow up in families that go fishing are very likely to fish when they are adults. Same thing with gardening or bowling, or taking part in scouts. Parents make decisions all the time that shape what their children know and understand. Let me make this personal and local. Have you ever heard someone in Wisconsin say, “One football team’s about the same as another. I’m not going to root for any particular team, so my kids can make up their own minds about what team to root for when they’re 18.”? You’ve heard people say that about religion, haven’t you? Reality is people will make their own decisions about all kinds of life choices—parents should be aware that they cannot avoid shaping and influencing their children.
Some people become baseball fans without growing up in baseball families, and of course, they’re welcome to do that, but it’s unusual. Some people find their way to Christianity without family support or encouragement, but it’s unusual. Most people catch the Christian faith from their families or close friends. So parents—and grandparents—what you do matters. In fact, what you do matters more than what you say.
Married men who do housework tend to be boys who lived in households where men did house work. Not households where fathers said, “Son, housework is really important.” And not households where fathers said, “Hey, junior, let’s pitch in for a change and give mom a break.” Households where fathers did housework without being asked, produce men who do housework. Kids pay attention to what you do.
And perhaps I do not need to add this, but kids know how this works. If I’m sitting at home with my feet up reading the newspaper in the evening and one of my sons says, “Hey, dad wanna drive me across town to Game Stop so I can get a new game cartridge?” the answer will almost certainly be, “no.” If one asks, “Dad, will you drive me to the library?” the answer will almost certainly be “yes.” I’ve never said to them, “I love the library and will take you there any time you ask.” But they know that’s how it works because that’s what I have done. Sometimes they check the game cartridge out at the library that they had hoped to buy!
The Letter of James makes a very basic point in this morning’s lesson, if you have faith that means you do things differently. If a person only hears and agrees with the words of faith, then faith is meaningless and empty. If religion is to be of any value it will do things like feed the hungry and care for the vulnerable. And the words you say really are not that important, certainly not nearly as important as what you do. Someone told me once it’s easier to preach ten sermons than live one. It’s true. But the lived sermons are the ones that help people catch faith in Jesus Christ.
When I started in ministry I was a lot younger and at my first call I was given responsibility for the senior high youth group. We started doing fun things. My approach was you start with fun, then build in content—you cannot teach an empty seat. Kate Hood our Director of Christian Education is taking the same approach with youth group. We used to go on workcamps, just as I had when I was in high school. I found out much later, the depth of the impact these trips had, when one of the students shared an essay he wrote as part of a college application:
All my life I have been going to church with my parents and sisters. It was always something I did because I had to, not because I wanted to. Religion was never something I focused my life on. Not that I didn’t learn anything in church, I just didn’t let it become part of my life.
This student went on workcamps where we worked hard on hot days with high humidity, we slept on the floors of church basements and we travelled in the church van, which we called “The Beast” which will tell you how comfortable it was. We stopped at a rest area on the last day of one of our trips and celebrated communion. Here’s some more of his essay
Tom had us all stand around one of the picnic tables. He pulled out a loaf of bread for communion,…I…found it a little out of place since it wasn’t Sunday and we weren’t in church…I realized then that Tom had taught us that God was about everyday life and about becoming closer to each other through service to Him. What made that lesson so special to me was that Tom did not first tell us that, he made us discover it for ourselves.
A little later in his letter James challenges believers to live their faith, “Just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead.” [2:26]
And the younger generations in the United States want things to be real and tangible. If our faith is only expressed here in this room for one hour a week, we’re like a body without a spirit. Here are two efforts that are just starting now through which we can live our faith, not just think, say and hear it.
This morning a group of men are going to meet to plan at least one Community Breakfast to which we’ll invite our neighbors, among them, guests from the Day by Day Warming Shelter. The other is a new project being developed by the local Habitat for Humanity chapter, an interfaith build. The Habitat staff is looking for participation from 8-10 different faith communities, who will commit volunteers to work with people from other faiths to build a house next year in Oshkosh. My hope is that this congregation will see this as a chance to do our faith, and that younger people who need hands-on experiences for faith to be real will participate and together we will live a faith in Christ that is both contagious and attractive. Amen.