May 29, 2011
SS Peter & Paul E.C.
Please pray with me. Dear Lord, be good to us; the sea is so wide and our boat is so small. Amen.
Pleased to be here. You know, I got a little surprised when I sat down to write this sermon. I have not preached very often outside the congregation I serve, and it struck me, as I was writing, that I guess I’m normally in conversation—in my head, at least—with God and with my congregation when I write a sermon. I think the very cool thing about that is that preaching happens in the context of relationship. When I preach, I’m not an “expert” telling you what you need to know about the Bible. When I preach, I really think of it as a conversation. So I felt a little disabled, writing this sermon, because you and I are not in relationship—yet. I hope that will change. It’s starting to change today. I guess what I want to say is, I pray that this conversation, starting with a sermon, will develop. But I don’t know you very well yet. So I hope you’ll forgive me if I say things that you’ve maybe heard too much about already, or that don’t fit with your view of the world. I trust you’ll let me know J
Now that I’ve done my disclaimer, I’ll tell you that I’m going to talk about evangelism today. Yeah. I know. That can be a touchy topic. Possibly not smart of me, on our first Sunday together. I can only say God made me do it. This is the sermon that God and I came up with, and I can only trust that God knows more about you all than I do, and I can hope that it’s good news for you this week.
The gospel this Sunday is wonderful. I love the poetic way John’s Jesus describes the dynamic relationship between God, Jesus, and the Christian. It’s dynamic—always moving. Love flowing back and forth and around. But the reading that caught my attention this week was Acts 17. Because it speaks to me of some of the same things Diana Butler Bass talked about a couple of weeks ago at our Diocesan clergy conference. In Acts 17, Paul has been traveling around the Roman Empire, teaching about Jesus to all sorts of audiences. And Paul is nothing if not zealous. A priest I used to work with said that our greatest strengths are often our greatest weaknesses. (I think he’s right, by the way.) And I think this was true of Paul. He zealously persecuted Christians, and then, after his conversion, he was just as zealous in promoting Christianity. It’s his personality: passionate, a little self-righteous, and with the stubbornness of a mule. So Paul is in Athens. And—I love this—he knows his audience (such a great skill) and he crafts his message for the audience he’s speaking to. He starts out by affirming the Athenians. He says, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way.” This is good! The Athenians know that Paul understands them because he has been with them, taking note of what they do and how they do it. He tells them that, in his walks through their city, he’s noticed temples, and among them is an altar “to an unknown God.” Again, Paul affirms them. He says, my friends, you are right to hold God in awe, and to leave space for that which you don’t know or can’t comprehend. Then he tells them, this unknown God, this God that you already acknowledge, is here among you, and I can tell you about this God. This God is, in fact, as close as your own hearts.
A couple of weeks ago I was with Father Kurt and Tracy and most of the other clergy in the Diocese at our annual clergy conference. Diana Butler Bass came to be with us and speak to us, and she was talking about the research she’s doing for a new book on spirituality and religion. When she started talking in those terms, religion and spirituality, my little ears perked up. Because that’s familiar language to people living in this part of the country. In fact, Diana told us that here in the Pacific Northwest we are already living the future of Christianity in America. In the sense that we’ve already lived with the decline in church attendance for about 50 years and we’ve already started to re-think church so we can see what rises from the ashes of what the Church used to be. I grew up in the Northwest, so none of this was news to me. But when I visit my clergy friends in places like Virginia and North Carolina, I see what she’s talking about. In those places, church is still pretty central in most people’s lives. Churches aren’t doing things much differently than they were 50 years ago because, for the most part, those models are still working. Diana told us that people in the South look at the statistics about 40-45% of people attending church weekly, and they think the statistics must be lying. Because in those places, it seems like 95% of people must be in church on a Sunday. Or at least they say they are. Whereas people in the Northwest think the statistic is a lie because here it seems like maybe 5% of people go to church every week. Right? Diana is excited about what she sees happening in the NW. This is the land of “I’m spiritual but not religious.” And while—I admit it—I can be pessimistic about what this means for the church, it actually gives Diana Butler Bass hope. I joined a facebook group once that’s called “I’m religious but not spiritual.” It was sort of a knee jerk backlash against what I saw as wishy washy, zero-commitment, watered down way of expressing spirituality. Which is funny, because the whole concept of spirituality is very precious to me. What is spirituality? That which feeds our spirits? And isn’t this one of the main purposes of religious faith? I’m drawn to the spirituality section of the bookstore. I love prayer. When I hear people’s stories, I’m attuned to the work of the Spirit in them, and to the ways people’s experiences affect their spirit. I am spiritual! I’m spiritual and religious because how could I possibly separate the two? Diana’s hope is that churches—which can tend pretty heavily toward the religious (which is, the institutional, structural, committee-oriented business)—can start to incorporate more of the spiritual—which is, the transcendent, awe-filled, beauty of transformation, and start to meet the needs of people who express faith in spirituality but not in religion. The Church really is already in the business of spirituality, but it can often be bogged down in the religious. Diana’s interest is where the two—religion and spirituality—collide.
And here’s where I come back to Paul in Acts 17. He’s talking to the Athenians. He wants to share the Good News of this guy, Jesus, with them, and he knows how to speak their language. That makes me wonder: what is the language of spiritual-but-not-religious people? That is, what is the language that our friends, colleagues, family members, fellow preschool parents—who are spiritual seekers—will resonate with? It seems to me the NW is full of people who are looking for that ultimate spiritual experience, for enlightenment, for rest. They may go into churches looking for real, live God…but too often they find real, live institutions.
Now, I want to make a little side note here. I don’t think evangelism is a dirty word. I think evangelism is what we are called to do as Christians. But I think there are different ways of being evangelists—that is, people who are, who live the good news. I have personally been burned—as possibly some of you have—by the kind of evangelism that assumes someone has the corner on God, and I don’t, and they need to give it to me so I can be saved. I don’t assume that everyone is looking for religious faith. I don’t believe everyone should be a Christian. What I do see in the world, especially here in the NW, is that plenty of people are searching for more. People are calling themselves spiritual because they want to engage their spirits. And I also see that, for many people, Christianity is their ancestral faith. Christianity is somewhere back in their consciousness—maybe a few generations back in their DNA. It is something they still claim—if pressed to declare a religion, but not something they identify as an important or relevant part of their life. I’m going to be a little bold and go as far as to say that I believe there are a lot of people out there who are open to the Church…but who don’t experience the Church as open to them.
I have conversations all the time that go something like this. Someone says to me: “oh, you’re a Christian?” “yeah” “you know, I would love to have the community/the ritual/the fill-in-the-blank of the Church, I just can’t get over the…virgin birth/the politics/the rules/the fill-in-the-blank.” So, my question, thinking about Paul and his brilliant ability to speak to the Athenians’ need in language they understand is, how can we speak to our community’s need for a deeper spiritual life and belonging in community in language that makes sense to them? I remember, with sadness, a painful learning experience that nearly ruined a friendship. A dear friend of mine, in high school, was going through a hard time. This particular friend had been almost hostile to Christianity, I think because of a bad experience her dad had had in a church. Well, I said to my friend in her pain, “you need Jesus.” Wow. I had a lot of repair work to do after that. Thanks be to God, we are still close friends, and I can tell her about the work I do loving and caring for people in church and she tells me about her work loving and caring for people in a hospital as a nurse. On the other hand, I’ve found that in relationships characterized by love and respect, people get really curious about my faith and start asking questions. And maybe that is the language of evangelism today: listening. Not talking to people about our faith, but asking about theirs. Asking what they believe and why. And not approaching strangers because we think we have something they need, but doing mutual sharing in relationship with people we know and love. That’s where Jesus got his start, isn’t it? Amen.
The Rev. Jennifer Creswell, rector St. Luke's Gresham