On Easter Sunday, April 20, 2014, I preached an Easter message from the Gospel Reading for the day, John 20:1-18. Mary Magdalene’s testimony to the other disciples was, “I have seen the Lord.” In this message I explore the idea that it isn’t enough to have seen only Jesus the baby of Bethlehem, or Jesus the miracle worker, or even Jesus the crucified. We must also see Jesus the risen Lord as a reality in our own lives.
For this Palm Sunday, we took a different approach. We combined elements of the Liturgy of the Palms about the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, with elements of the Liturgy of the Passion. This enabled us to move from the joyous crowds which greeted Jesus on his entry into Jerusalem, to the vengeful crowd that cried, “Crucify him!”
We took this approach because many in our congregation will not attend a Maundy Thursday or Good Friday service. If they attended a joyful Palm Sunday service, and then a celebratory Easter service, they might miss the events of Good Friday and the drama surrounding the crucifixion. To solve this problem, here’s what we did:
1. For our first reading early in the service, we read the Gospel story of the triumphal entry into Jersusalem, from Matthew 21:1-11.
2. We sang appropriate Palm Sunday hymns of celebration including All Glory, Laud and Honor, and Hosanna.
3. During our children’s time, the children heard the story of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. Then, they distributed palm fronds to each person in our congregation. When everyone had a palm frond, the entire congregation waved their palm branches and said in unison, “Praise God for the Son of David! Bless the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Praise God to highest heaven!” (Matthew 21:9 – NLT). It was a little chaotic, but then the first Palm Sunday probably was a little chaotic, too.
4. Our organist provided a musical transition from the Palm Sunday celebration to the events after Jesus’ Passover meal with the disciples.
5. During the time alloted for the sermon, I read the following scripture lessons from the Liturgy of the Passion. Because the entire narrative moves from scene to scene, I separated each scene with a corporate prayer of confession. After I read each passage, I then invited the congregation to pray with me the prayer of confession. Here’s the sequence:
Palm Sunday Liturgy of the Passion
Reading: Matthew 26:14-30 — The Last Supper
All: Lord, we confess that just like Judas we have come to your table with thoughts of betraying you in our hearts. Like Judas, we have taken the bread from you hand and the cup from your table while harboring doubts about you and your teaching. Forgive us, O Lord, for this spirit of betrayal that presumes we know more about your Kingdom than you. Amen.
Reading: Matthew 26:31-56 — The Garden of Gethsamene
All: Lord, we confess that when you struggled in agony, we slept in apathy. When they came to arrest you, we betrayed your teaching by fighting back, and then abandoned you in your hour of need. When they accused us of being your disciples we denied ever knowing you. And when the cock crowed, we wept over our own failure to be faithful. Forgive us, O Lord, for our apathy, our fear, and our faithlessness. Amen.
Reading: Matthew 27:1-26 — Jesus Before Pilate
All: Lord, we confess that like the crowd gathered before Pilate, we have chosen Barabbas instead of you. Like the crowd that day, when Pilate asked, “What shall I do with Jesus who is called the Messiah?” — we have answered, “Crucify him!” Forgive us for our failure to choose you and the freedom you offer. Amen.
Reading: Matthew 27:27-66 — The Crucifixion and Burial of Jesus
All: Lord, we confess that we see ourselves in the faces of the Roman soldiers who nailed you to the cross; we hear ourselves taunting you as you hang silently before us; and, we feel the bitterness of one thief and the contrition of the other. May we be counted among those who, in great sorrow, lovingly laid you to rest in the garden tomb, hopefully waiting for God’s salvation. Amen.
I wrote the prayers of confession, so feel free to edit them for your use.
6. After the readings and prayers, our choir sang the anthem, The Hour Has Come, which was a solemn and powerful account of the last days in Jesus’ life.
7. When the anthem ended, the congregation left the sanctuary in silence, with a solemn organ postlude played during their exit. We included this note in the bulletin:
“In the tradition of the Liturgy of the Passion, there will be no benediction after the choral anthem. Please leave the sanctuary in silence as we contemplate the death and burial of Christ, and wait in hope for God’s salvation.”
Many people commented on how powerful and meaningful the service was for them. While it was hard for me to resist preaching on Palm Sunday, the narrative of the events of the last week in the life of Christ needs no explanation.
However you choose to celebrate and commemorate the events of Palm Sunday through Good Friday, give careful attention to including them all, including the betrayals, the trials, the mocking, and the crucifixion. The glory of the resurrection shines brightest when celebrated against the backdrop of evil, suffering, and death.
The more we’re online as a society, the less religious we are.
That’s according to MIT’s Technology Review which features a new study by computer scientist Allen Downey of the Olin College of Engineering. Downey concludes that “Internet use decreases the chance of religious affiliation.”
Downey’s study analyzed statistics from 9,000 respondents to the University of Chicago’s General Social Survey in 2010. In 1990, only about 8 percent of the U.S. population checked the “none” box when asked about their religious affiliation. By 2010, the percentage of “nones” had risen to 18%.
The increase in the religiously-unaffiliated has sparked numerous articles from church thinkers about the reason for this sudden shift. After all, America is and has been among the most religious of all nations worldwide. Evangelicals particularly have increased their profile in the public arena.
However, despite America’s conservative turn, Downey’s data confirms an almost parallel increase in internet usage and lack of religious affiliation.
In 1990, Internet usage was virtually zero. Although the Internet was active, individuals had to access it through portals like AOL or Compuserve. However, in 1994, two factors boosted internet usage. First, new servers were added to increase the traffic capacity of the World Wide Web. Secondly, the Mosaic web browser, the first popular internet interface, facilitated the quick ascent of Internet usage. In 1995, Netscape’s browser added search capability which revolutionized internet surfing. From that point, Internet usage in America climbs dramatically.
Coincidentally, at about that same time, the percentage of the religiously-unaffiliated — the “nones” — also begins to rise in an almost identical arc.
However, as in most studies, Downey identifies more factors in play in the increase of the religiously-unaffilliated than just an increase in Internet usage. Downey concludes that 25% of the rise in “nones” can be explained by a decrease in those who are raised in a religiously-affiliated home. In addition to religious orphans, 5% of the increase in “nones” can be attributed to an increase in the number of college-educated Americans.
Downey’s study contends, however, that the increase in Internet usage explains at least 25% of the increase in the religious “nones.” After adjusting for other factors such as age, rural or urban residence, and socio-economic status, Downey is convinced the data points to Internet usage as the new cause for the drop in religious affiliation.
What does this mean for churches and denominations? I think the study has three implications:
1. It’s not the Internet’s fault. The increase of the “nones” may be one of the unintended consequences of the Internet, but religious institutions should not begin a campaign to demonize Internet usage. After all, Internet access is an essential component of our increasingly digital lives. From email to Twitter to Facebook to search functions, the Internet is our always-on gateway to the world of information.
2. The Internet enables communities of like-minded individuals. Prior to the internet, atheists and agnostics were a stark minority in typical American communities. Now, however, atheists and agnostics can find supportive communities online. An individual no longer has to believe in God to find social acceptance.
In addition many people identify now as “spiritual, but not religious” — meaning that they see no need of an institutional expression of their personal faith. These individuals would also be classified as “nones.” These spiritual “nones” can now cobble together their own spirituality from websites, blogs, Facebook, and Twitter accounts, finding spiritual aphorisms that function as their new inspirational texts.
3. The convergence of Internet usage, religious orphans, and higher education holds clues for religious institutions. The first and most obvious thing this triad of correlations says to me is that religious institutions cannot live in the past technologically, theologically, or educationally if they hope to reach today’s “nones.”
Downey also noted that younger groups reported more “nones” than older groups. That is not a surprising result, as younger adults are more Internet-savvy, better educated, and less likely to be raised in a religious household.
Finally, one interesting footnote to Downey’s findings is this: adding together the 25% of the “nones” who were not brought up in religious homes, to the 5% who are college-educated, and the 25% attributed to the rise in Internet usage, we are still left with about 45% of the increase in “nones” unexplained.
The opportunity for churches and denominations in regard to the unaffiliated might be in figuring out the reason for the other 45%. Rather than railing against the Internet, colleges, or homelife, Christians might be better served to investigate what in our contemporary way of life contributes to loss of faith for about 25-million of our fellow citizens.
On the fourth Sunday in Lent this year, the lectionary reading from the New Testament was John 9:1-41, the story of the man born blind. Here’s the message I preached last Sunday: