I preached from the prophet Micah for the first time in ministry this past Sunday. The reason I preached from Micah this Sunday as opposed to never having preached from Micah in 23+ years of ministry was a very pragmatic one: the lectionary passage for the Gospels was Matthew 5:1-12 (the Beatitudes), and I just preached an entire series on the Beatitudes back in the fall. As I prepared my preaching calendar, I thought to myself, “self, you’ve never preached from Micah.” So, I decided it was time. It was a hard sermon to write!
In the process of writing the sermon, I used a word that I’m uncertain as to whether I’ve ever used it in a sermon before–religiosity. Someone even made the remark after the sermon that they had a new word to add to their vocabulary, and would try to use it in a sentence this week (wonder how that’s going?). I’ve heard the word before (obviously), but I can’t recall ever using it in a sermon. Webster’s Dictionary defines “religiosity” as “the quality of being religious; religious feeling or sentiment; religiousness.” Makes sense, huh? I guess it really boils down to “how religious are you?”
Here’s how I used the word in the my sermon:
It’s interesting how the people answered. “Just what do you expect from us anyway? Is there ever anything we can do to please you? Really, we’re good Jews. We go to the Temple. We make our sacrifices. You want us to give more sacrifices? You want us to give our first-born? Is that what you want?” For them, they thought the “right stuff” was the outward demonstration of some religiosity. The problem was the outward religiosity wasn’t translating into a transformed world. It wasn’t translating into right relationships either with God or with the people around them.
I won’t bother to go into all the details of how I came to employ the word (twice in the same paragraph, mind you!). Suffice it to say, the Hebrews were demonstrating a public religion, but it wasn’t translating into a changed culture (sound familiar?). Imagine my surprise when I log on to the web this week and find an article dealing with “religiosity” in the United States. Coincidence? I don’t think so! The author actually employed the word twice in the same paragraph just like I did (am I sensing a new trend here?).
The article was reporting the findings of a Gallup poll for 2013 gauging the overall religiousness of the nation, and actually gave the rankings for the most and least religious states in the nation. Rankings were gauged on a continuum from being “very religious” to “not religious,” with those falling in the middle as “moderately religious.” You can see the entire article by clicking here. A “very religious” person was one who attends worship every week, or almost every week, and considers religion to be very important in their life. 41% of Americans consider themselves “very religious.” I wonder where those 41% are on most Sunday mornings. A full 29% of respondents considered themselves “not religious” (meaning they don’t attend services and don’t consider religion an important part of daily life), with another 29% classifying themselves as “moderately religious” (falling somewhere between the two extremes).
Honestly, I thought the number of non-religious people would be lower in the United States, and the number falling between the extremes higher, but the Gallup organization stated the numbers are virtually unchanged since they started tracking “religiosity” in 2008. So, the long and short of it is that the United States is a somewhat religious nation, and there are some places where religiosity is higher than others. For once, it was good to see Louisiana at the top of a list instead of the bottom, although it might actually be a dubious distinction, especially in light of the fact that we deal with such a high level of poverty and we find ourselves on the lower end of educational achievement. Perhaps the findings of the survey prove the point of my sermon.
The ten most religious states are:
Mississippi: 61 percent are very religious
Utah: 60 percent
Alabama: 57 percent
Louisiana: 56 percent
South Carolina: 54 percent
Tennessee: 54 percent
Georgia: 52 percent
Arkansas: 51 percent
North Carolina: 50 percent
Oklahoma: 49 percent
Kentucky: 49 percent
Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana (along with Utah–it’s the Mormon’s, you know) top the list, yet all three states struggle with poverty and all its companion social ills. I don’t know whether to find that disturbing, alarming, confusing or infuriating. Perhaps it’s some combination of all of them. I’m simply asking the question “Is our religion making any difference in the transformation of our culture?” That was pretty much the point of my sermon on Sunday. I must admit, though, the egg is on my face. This is not an indictment of everyone else. It’s an indictment of myself. I’m a “religious leader,” and if the people are largely unchanged, is it because I’m largely unchanged? If we’ve failed to transform the culture, is it because we’ve failed to submit ourselves to the transforming power of the Holy Spirit? Have I spent my life simply going through the motions, checking off a list of religious “do’s and don’ts” thinking this is what God wants from me? Dare I ask Him the question: What do you want from me, Lord?
I dare not ask Him that question. He might answer, and if He did, He might say, “It doesn’t matter what you do on Sunday, if you are not walking humbly with me Monday through Saturday.”
I might protest and say, “But Lord, I live in a Christian nation. I’ve spent the better part of my life proclaiming the Gospel to the world.” And He might say, “It doesn’t matter if you post the Ten Commandments on all your public buildings if only certain people get justice. It doesn’t matter that you stand up for prayer in schools, if you fail to pray at home and at work. It doesn’t matter if you are adamantly pro-life, if you refuse to provide the resources to keep them fed, healthy and educated once they’re born. It doesn’t matter that you protest loudly when somebody wants to take ‘In God We Trust’ off your currency, if your whole life is consumed with consuming, with acquiring, with buying the things those dollars can buy.”
I dare not ask Him because that’s exactly what He’s likely to say, and perhaps I don’t want to hear it because I know I might only be “moderately religious.” I might actually discover it’s not my “religiosity” that matters. It’s my relationship with Him. He transforms me, and the long and short of it is that I’ve not allowed Him to do His best work in me. Yet, one more indication of how much I need His grace–of why I’m not the perfect pastor.
Huh? Maybe I’ll just put the word “religiosity” out of my vocabulary. It might make life a lot easier for me.
Until next time, keep looking up…