Jeremiah 31:31-34, John 12:20-33
There has been a certain amount of hand wringing, in recent years, among church leader types, about people who consider themselves “spiritual but not religious.” These folks tend not to find their way to church on Sundays. They tend not to join churches, or sign and submit pledge cards, or serve on parish committees.
Reasons for people to characterize themselves in this way are as varied as the individuals themselves. But generally it comes to this: no longer is there the social pressure to go to church because it’s “what people do”. Church membership is no longer a requirement for work positions of a certain level. People’s neighbors aren’t super likely to look at them funny if they don’t see them pulling out of the driveway at 9:15 on a Sunday morning. Spiritual But Not Religious people interviewed for research studies on this subject talk about seeking encounter, and avoiding religious practice purely as a matter of expectation. In his book The Future of Faith, Harvey Cox claims, “The experience of the divine is displacing theories about it.” And, frankly, people are looking for those encounters in places outside of church…in nature, in yoga, in a morning run on the lake.
People in church leadership positions like mine often wring their hands about this. “The church isn’t the same as it was 50 years ago,” they say. And they are right. It’s not. “The pews aren’t as full as they were 50 years ago,” they say. And they’re right. Usually they are not. “The budgets aren’t as big as they were 50 years ago,” they say. And they’re right. Often, though not always, they are not.
Spiritual but not religious folks are often more likely to spend Sunday morning reading the New York Times at Starbucks than teaching Sunday school, more likely to eat takeout on a Thursday night than come to a parish potluck, more likely to sing to their favorite music by themselves in the car than they are to join a parish choir.
Today’s Gospel might be the perfect one for the SBNR crowd.
Some Greeks come up to Philip, and say: “Sir, we would see Jesus.”
Now let’s stop right there for a second. Notice what the Greeks don’t do: they don’t ask for Jesus’ bio. They don’t ask about his teachings or credentials, or for a statement on his authority. They don’t ask what the requirements are for association with his band of followers. They don’t ask what it costs.
They don’t ask about him. They ask for him.
And notice who the Greeks are, and are not: they’re not Jews. They are not the tribe of friends and neighbors that have been following Jesus since he extended his first seaside invitation. They are Gentiles. They are outside the circle. And there is zero obligation whatsoever to do this, based on their social position, their family history, or their status at the office. In fact, all of these things would point them away from exactly what they are doing.
They are Greeks, Gentiles. They grew up in the same mixed-heritage community that Philip did, and they speak the same language, and they know he’s following Jesus. And they want to see this Jesus for themselves.
In today’s first reading, the prophet Jeremiah issues God’s promise to the People of Israel: “I will put my law within them, I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people…no longer shall they teach… ‘know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me…”
God’s promise is so dear, that for God to write this on tablets or scroll makes it too far away, too easily lost or forgotten. “I will be your God, and you will be my people,” God says. Talk about personal experience. Talk about direct encounter. This may be as personal and direct as it gets. This covenant is the promise “at the core of (our) being.”
Next Sunday we begin the journey through Holy Week. Over those sacred next days, I pray that you would see Jesus. I pray for your own direct encounter, your very own experience of the divine in our midst.
I pray that you would see Jesus as we raise palms and sing “All glory, laud and honor” next Sunday, as we hear the words of the Passion read at the end of our worship, as we leave this space in quiet. I pray that you would see Jesus on Maundy Thursday, as we share the agape feast and recall the Last Supper, as we wash each others’ feet, as we strip the altar of everything that adorns it, as we keep watch hour by hour through the night. I pray that you would see Jesus as we kneel before the cross on Good Friday, pray the solemn prayers of our faith. I pray that you would see Jesus as we gather in the Columbarium on Saturday night at the Great Vigil, light a fire in the darkness, chant the names of our beloved dead. I pray that you would see Jesus as we find ourselves once more clothed in the light of the resurrection, with fanfare and music and joyous celebration.
This Holy Week and Easter, I pray that you would see Jesus. Because he promises that he is right here.
This is the promise, to those who teach Sunday school and to those who read the New York Times; to those who stop to pick up Thai food and eat it in front of the TV, and to those who make great food to share with church friends; to those who sing alone and to those who join their voices with others: “You will be my people,” God says to each one of us, “And I will be your God.” It’s God’s covenant with us all, written at the very center of who we are.
We are not the same church we were 50 years ago. We are a different institution than we were back then. And for that, honestly, I give thanks. Our pews may not be as full as they were 50 years past…but you are here. And you’re here because you have decided to be here, among a multitude of places you could choose to be, without social obligation hanging over your head to make that decision for you. Our budget may be proportionately smaller than it was 50 years ago, but we have everything we need to do the work we’ve been given to do, and people have given generously to support that good work, and we’re growing into a fuller manifestation of living as the church we’re called to be. Our leadership looks different than it would have looked 50 years ago. 50 years ago, not one of the clergy now serving this parish would have been welcome to pursue ordination. 50 years ago, only one of our two wardens would have been accepted by the canons, the laws of the church.
This is the promise, to the church of our heritage and to the church of this moment and to the church of the future, to the people who count themselves among that church and to those who define themselves as Spiritual But Not Religious: that God will be our God, and we will be God’s people. This is God’s promise: that when we say, along with the Greeks, “Sir, we would see Jesus,” we will.
This is the promise, as we follow the cross toward the hill and the tomb, as we wait again and still for that third day. This is the promise, written by God on our hearts, tended by the Spirit, sealed by Christ himself: that God would be our God, that we would be God’s people. That in looking for him, we would see him.
Because he’s right here.
 Harvey Cox. The Future of Faith. New York: Harper Collins, 2009. 20.
 Fred Craddock, ed. Preaching Through the Christian Year: Year B, A Comprehensive Commentary on the Lectionary. Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press, 1993. 162.