September 17, 2017
The “Nones,” the “Dones,” and the “Doers”
Then Jesus said: “There was a man who had two sons. The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property now that I’m supposed to inherit.’ So the father divided his estate between his sons.
Not long after that, the younger son packed up everything and took off for a distant country, and wasted all his money in wild living. About the time his money ran out, a severe famine swept that whole country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.
When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have more than enough food, and here I am starving to death! I will get up and go back to my father and say to him: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; please take me on as a hired servant.”’ So he got up and went to his father.
Introduction to the second reading
The story begins with the younger son taking everything, losing everything, and regretting everything. That’s the nature of sin, isn’t it? We do things that hurt ourselves or other people, and, if we’re lucky, we come to our senses and realize what we have done. Regret is always, always, always a part of repentance. But so is desire – the desire to take what was wrong and make it right, the desire to heal what is hurt and fix what is broken, the desire to come home.
The story begins with the younger son wanting to come home, but it doesn’t stop there. There are others who have a voice in this story.
Listen again for the Word of God.
But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.
The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.
But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and slaughter it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate! For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.
Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. ‘Your brother is back,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’
The older brother got angry and refused to go in. So his father came out and pleaded with him. But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been working like a slave for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours comes back, who has squandered your money on prostitutes, you kill the fattened calf for him!’
‘Son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’”
* * * * *
Most people I know have a love/hate relationship with this story. If church people identify with anyone, it’s usually the older son. They’re good, hard-working people who carry the load of supporting their families, their community and their church. They feel protective of the Father, and would be incensed that someone they love was treated so badly and then abandoned, like the younger son did to the Father. They would be angry, too, about being left to do all the work, and have it be completely invisible. They would feel hurt that their Father was so excited about the ne’er do well younger brother when he came crawling home. And they would be baffled at the Father’s expectation that they’re supposed to be excited, too.
That’s how most people I know feel about the story. Maybe you’re different. If you don’t get it, how the older brother feels, then bless you.
I mean, let’s be honest. How are we supposed to feel about people who abandon ship and ignore their responsibilities? We shake our heads in wonder that anyone could be so thoughtless and self-centered. How are we supposed to feel, we who are the keepers of hearth and home, we who serve on Boards and work at the food pantry, who check in on our neighbors and spend countless volunteer hours at church. We’re the doers, not the slackers. What would people do without us, and all the hours we log in just taking care of what needs to be done? Do the slackers think it just happens by magic?
And boy, when we get going, that attitude really has legs. Just get us going on all the slackers in this world.
And notice, I said, “us.” Me too. Me too.
Down deep, we have the best of intentions. We don’t mean to be judgmental and angry. We don’t like feeling self-righteous. It feels awful, to be honest, and we know it doesn’t do anyone any good to get cranked up. We just care so much about the people and institutions we’ve devoted our lives to. We’re invested in them and we don’t understand why others aren’t, too. We know how much good can be done in the world when people roll up their sleeves and pitch in together, and it doesn’t make any sense that other people aren’t that way. Somebody’s got to do it, and we just don’t want it to always have to be us.
Because we’re afraid that if we stop, it will all fall apart. Everything’s just going to fall apart.
And sometimes it does fall apart. And that is really, really hard.
My sister just preached at a little church in Des Plaines, Illinois. They were having a special service to close the church’s doors. The church was down to six people in the congregation. Everyone else had either died or left. They did everything they could to keep that place running. It practically killed them. It’s sad when an institution has to shut its doors because no one else cares anymore. A few people were left to do all the work, and after a while, they just couldn’t do it any more. You know how that goes. You’ve seen it, too.
There’s a lot that’s been written about the future of the mainline church, about how it seems like it’s falling apart. So many churches are shutting their doors, or keeping them open with a fraction of the members they used to have. Huge buildings with empty pews. Church attendance hit its high point in the early sixties - there were new churches sprouting up in every suburb. Congregations grew like gangbusters; it didn’t even matter whether your pastor knew what he was doing; the church grew anyway. Everybody assumed it would always be that way; they’d just keep growing and growing.
But it turns out that was the heyday, and they’ve been declining ever since. Volumes have been written trying to analyze what happened. Was it the rise of the Evangelical churches and the non-denominationals? Was it the secularization of America? Was it simply that people became so busy with 1,000 other options that didn’t used to be part of the landscape? Those are some of the explanations people have come up with.
In any case, it’s different these days. Sociologists have even developed new categories to describe the kind of people who used to populate churches but don’t any more. “Nones and Dones” they call them. Nones are the ones who have never belonged to a religious organization and don’t intend to. They don’t miss it because they were never part of it. Church is something other people do, but not them.
“Dones” are the ones who used to be in church but aren’t any more. They just don’t see the point. They don’t miss it because they’ve got better things to do. They’re still spiritual, but organized religion doesn’t mean much. Many of them believe in something mysterious – a kind of benevolent higher power - and they have spiritual experiences, just not in church. They have communities of friends, they have a moral compass, they often donate to and volunteer for good causes – but they see no need for church. It just doesn’t seem necessary.
“Nones” and “Dones.”
My guess is that if we did a show of hands, almost all of us who have adult kids have at least one who isn’t involved in a church. We try not to judge – we love our kids, and they are wonderful people – but it baffles us. We raised them with church to be part of their lives. But in a lot of families, no one in the next generation is part of a congregation. You start to wonder, what did we do wrong?
The nswer is, probably nothing, and there’s little gained by casting blame or looking for faults.
But if they came back? We’d be just like the father in that story – we’d run out to meet them with open arms, no questions asked. We would be thrilled to see them home. We’d probably have to work at not fussing too much, lest we scare them off again.
You know what? Sometimes they do come back. They come back to church; just maybe not the same church they left.
When I was working on this sermon, Trip pointed me to an article from the Washington Post about a church in D.C. that’s thriving. It’s called “the District Church,” and it’s made up mostly of millennials – that generation that supposedly has abandoned the church in droves. If you ask them what religion they are, they’ll self-identify as “none” – they don’t identify with a traditional faith group. They don’t see themselves as religious.
But that’s not the whole story. The pastor of the District Church, Aaron Graham puts it this way: “[P]eople aren’t automatically checking the box for which religion they are, like they used to, [but] many young people are very engaged with their faith.” At the District Church, “social justice, multiculturalism and unfiltered evangelicalism” come together to form a powerful mix. There’s incredible energy there. It takes a lot of volunteer hours and a lot of money to support their ministry, but people do – because it matters. Their lives are changing, and they’re challenged to have their lives change the world. It’s growing like crazy – because people care passionately, and they’re inviting their friends to feel it, too. [i]
Not all churches are struggling. There is life, and liveliness. It’s just not what it used to look like. And it really shouldn’t stay the same, should it?
Now, I have to say, we’re fortunate here. We have a healthy church with lots of families and ministries that matter to people. Most Sundays the pews are full – at least at the 11:00 service!
People here care deeply about the church and its well-being. And it’s not so much about keeping the institution alive, it’s about what the church does – how it forms our faith, how it connects us so deeply to other people, how we have those moments in worship when we’re moved or inspired or lifted up, how it shapes us to live in the world in a way that really matters, in a way that shines Christ’s love…
And people don’t take those blessings for granted. From what I hear, people here aren’t worried about keeping the doors open, they’re intent on having open doors so others can have those blessings, too.
And yes, it takes a lot of time and money to maintain this church and help it grow. But I don’t hear complaints about “those slackers.” We’re not looking for a new crop of “older brothers” to handle the workload and carry the weight and step up to do their share.
Because it isn’t about workers and slackers, is it? It never has been. At least from the Father’s perspective, it never has been. It’s about having a family to celebrate with. We’re looking for family to celebrate with. There’s work to be done, for sure. But it can wait sometimes, can’t it? It can wait, when there’s something to celebrate? Like someone we love coming home? Like somebody new at the table?
You know what I find amazing about the Father? He runs out to meet both sons. Both sons. Both the younger one who came home after being away, and the older one who stayed put and did all the work. He came out to meet the first one without knowing the son was repentant; he just saw him and welcomed him home, no idea why he came home, no questions asked. And he came out to meet the second in spite of the son’s anger and bitterness. It didn’t matter what issues either son dragged in with them; the father just wanted them home. The Nones, the Dones and the Doers. All of them.
For a few weeks now we’ve been talking about Evangelism – the “E” word we’ve called it, because for many mainline Christians, evangelism is almost a dirty word. But it’s not about cramming religion down someone’s throat; we know that. It’s about inviting people to join us; it’s about running out to meet people where they are. They may not embrace the faith in the same way we do; in fact, they probably won’t.
It’s inviting someone to join something wonderful – a place at the table of grace.
Rev. Karen Chakoian
[i] Amanda Abrams, “A new crop of D.C. churches has discovered the secret to appealing to millennials,” The Washington Post, September 10, 2016. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2016/09/10/a-new-crop-of-dc-churches-has-discovered-the-secret-to-appealing-to-millennials/?hpid=hp_hp-cards_mhp-card-local%3Ahomepage%2Fcard&utm_term=.6cf82c2687bb