Sermon preached by the Reverend Nicholas Lang
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Eighth Sunday after Pentecost – July 22, 2012
I detest bullying and those who engage in that damaging, discriminatory behavior. Over the past few years we have seen the devastating impact of bullying in the number of suicides occurring as a result of it. Some of us in this community have rallied around anti-bullying campaigns and tried to raise awareness about how pervasive and destructive a thing it is.
Bullying was on my mind this week because it strikes me that the Episcopal Church has been the target of this bad behavior in the wake of our General Convention that ended on July 12. Two prominent newspapers and some less impressive have taken digs at us in light of some of the work done in Indianapolis. They were only opinion pieces, filled with assumptions about our faith and motives as Episcopalians that cause me to wonder why any entity but yellow journalism would publish them.
The Wall Street Journal and New York Times articles take delight in what they perceive as the “death” of “liberal Christianity.” They add two and two and get eight. They see decisions they don’t like — such as the Episcopal Church’s recent endorsement of a rite for blessing same-sex unions. They see declines in church membership. These “liberal” decisions are destroying the church, they say, and alienating young adults they must reach in order to survive. Never mind that a recent study by the Barna Group isolated six main reasons why young adults tend to leave Christian churches as they grow up:
• a sense that young adults were receiving an unsatisfying or “shallow” version of Christianity
• feelings that the church was overprotective
• the perception of judgmental attitudes around sex and sexuality
• churches’ unfriendliness to members grappling with doubt
• the sense that Christianity was too exclusive,
• and finally, the tense relationship between Christianity and science.
The reality is that most all denominations are also in decline. Mainline denominations began to decline in the ‘60’s, not because of liberal theology, but because the world around them changed and they refused to change with it. There are some pretty constipated churches out there and their future is clearly not bright.
The error and downright ignorance displayed in these articles is for me two-fold: First, just as my nephew’s peers poured out their venom on one aspect of their perception of who he is as a person—ignoring some of his greatest assets and gifts—these journalists focused on a very few of the hundreds of resolutions considered at General Convention that address injustice, the global oppression of peoples, poverty, and our basic baptismal commitment to respect the dignity of every human being.
Secondly, as with all gloom and doom stories in the media, the writers don’t tell the story about the number of growing, dynamic, exciting communities of Episcopalians—like St. Paul’s—that are seeing new faces all the time and that are trying to be faithful to the core message of the Gospel—that of radical hospitality and the opportunity for everyone to experience the grace of restoration, healing, and reconciliation. Why not write about even three or four of these congregations and ask the question, ”Why are they thriving?” These journalists might be very surprised at the answers.
And these know-it-all-about-the-Episcopal Church-writers might also be surprised to witness our conservatism in the way we celebrate the Eucharist. Yes, conservatism, from the Latin for “to preserve or keep” for we have cherished ancient ways of worship handed down to us, some from the earliest Christian communities, and executed worship with a commitment to excellence and dignity, yet not idolized it or crafted it in such a way that to the guest it looks so very “precious.”
Am I concerned and saddened by the reality that churches are declining? Of course. Unfortunately, some congregations are their worst enemies and simply refuse to ask themselves the hard questions about why that is and what they can do to reverse the trend before they hear the death rattle.
What I do know is that people have a deep, innate, thirst for experiencing more than the rough and tumble of life, for a glimpse of the other side—whatever they may call it—I call it the Kingdom of God. We need a place where we can feel safe and accepted, where God’s dream for us is preached with chutzpah and clarity, where we are encouraged to dream with God and join God in God’s work in the world, where we can laugh and mourn together, try to make sense of the horror of events like the killing in a Colorado theater, lift one another up when one or the other is down, believe enough for all of us when some of us just can’t. People want to know that there is a way to make a difference with their lives and to have a place where they can be supported I that. I think we call that the church and I know that it is not the dying entity or fossil described by the journalists who have taken their punch at us.
So what will convince young adults to back to churches? I suspect what brought many of you who have come here. What they want in a church is a community that encourages social justice activism, a place of creativity and critical thinking, and a space free from judgment. Perhaps most important, young adults believe that churches should “focus their engagement on actions that serve the common good or speak up for the oppressed rather than opposing a controversial issue because of theological objections.”
In her own response to the Times and Journal articles, the Reverend Winnie Varghese, answers the question “What happened at General Convention?”
“Besides beginning to think about restructuring the church and passing a whopping huge budget, we made many statements of belief in the resolutions we passed. Here are some: We believe that God cares more about the nature of your relationship than its biology, and we have a beautiful blessing to offer. We believe that God created you to express your gender the way you feel moved to express it. We believe that no one should be assumed to be breaking the law because of his or her appearance. But mostly, we believe that we are received into the household of God in baptism and partake of the body of Christ in the Eucharist, and through the sacrament are given a glimpse of God’s vision for a just world, and the courage to make it real, and we want you to join us. That’s some crazy stuff, but that’s where we are in The Episcopal Church in 2012.”
Neither the Episcopal Church at large nor this one local expression of it is a perfect church. We live and minister in a very imperfect world. We are a mix of all kinds of folk and we are as diverse as all of God’s splendid creation, including diversity of opinions.
For me, however, the Episcopal church is like discovering and entering into a long term relationship—there are things that bug me about it and I don’t always understand this partner I have invited into my life, but I love it and can’t quite imagine life without it. And I believe with all my heart that, by the grace of God, it will survive because God needs this kind of church on the planet.