Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Sunday after the Epiphany: Moral Lives & Better Days

As we heard in readings during Advent, John the Baptist is an intriguing, curious figure. Living in the wilderness, living off the sparse land, and shouting his message to hills, people by the scores came to him to hear his word and to be baptized. His message was two-fold. First, he called on people to live a moral life: share from your abundance, let no one go hungry, tax collectors are not to cheat, and soldiers are not to intimidate or extort. And second, John proclaimed, “Better times are ahead.”

The better times he envisioned were linked directly to the coming of a Messiah. John proclaimed that while he called people to moral goodness and used a baptism of water as a sign of cleansing for a new beginning, the Messiah would baptize with the Holy Spirit: God’s power to transform a person from the inside out. It is fair to assume that when Jesus presented Himself for baptism He was, like everyone else, committing Himself to a godly lifestyle and hoping for the dawn of a new day. He must have sensed the direct link between the two: a moral person living in a moral society is going to be better off than an immoral person living in an immoral society. That is why Jesus, like so many others, responded so powerfully to the ministry of John and thus were drawn into closer communion with God and one another.

Years ago, when I was called to serve as Rector of a parish in Iowa, the people of the congregation told me that they wanted to grow the church. They were excited to have me lead them because I was young and had a lot of good ideas. I have mentioned the church before, citing its beautiful, but cavernous worship space that dwarfed the 75 people or so who worshipped on a typical Sunday. After being there for a little while and sizing up the potential, I announced at the annual meeting that I had come up with a concrete, foolproof plan to double the size of the congregation in just twelve months. The people had a breathless look on their collective faces as they waited for me to roll out my heavenly-inspired idea. “It is this simple,” I said, “every one of us here today has to get just one person to join our church.” You could almost hear the sound the old Pac-Man machine made when the ghost ate the gobbler and the game was over… wahh, wahh, wahh, wahh. Well, needless to say that plan did not bear much fruit.

We Episcopalians are not so good at evangelism or sharing our faith or recruiting new members. There are many reasons for this, I suspect, but first and foremost we don’t have a compelling theological reason to seek converts, at least compared to some other branches of the Christian tradition. At the Saturday morning men’s bible study last week a discussion erupted about why ministers don’t preach more about “consequences” – read ‘eternal damnation’. One of the things I appreciate about this group is that not all of us are Episcopalians and thus we get to hear from a lot of different viewpoints. Two non-Episcopalians expressed with deep, sincere heartache their fear that specific family members will spend eternity in hell because they have consciously rejected the Christian faith. If you look at a friend or loved one or a coworker or even a stranger and see a person who will suffer “eternal consequences” if they don’t “come to Jesus”, well, you have a powerful theological motivation to evangelize.

As you might image, we Episcopalians in the discussion see things a little differently. The God we know, as God has made God’s Self known to us, is more open, less cause and effect, and certainly not reducible to black and white. For my part, I said that I try to cultivate in people a disposition for God. My sense is that God is always receiving, always drawing into God’s self all who desire to be in fellowship with God and with God’s people. So, the more I cultivate godly traits in my life, say generosity or forgiveness, the more I will desire to be in God’s presence. I can read the bible until the pages fall out and I can recite the liturgy from memory on a daily basis, but those things don’t “get me into heaven” (whatever that means). The only way I can come into God’s presence is by desiring to be in God’s presence and that is what I try to cultivate in myself and in others.

I don’t know if that makes sense to you or not, I hope that it does, but here is my point: it does not make for a very urgent, compelling reason to evangelize. I don’t live with a sense of peril regarding my own salvation, nor do I fret for that of others. My sense is that God will work it all out in the end. When I invite people to come to St. Paul’s (and I do invite folks on a regular basis) I usually do so with the caveat that I find the mystery of God in this place and that you, the people, have a wonderful way of living into what it means to be God’s people. The general response I get from the person I invite is that he or she finds God in other ways without being a part of a church. Now, if we lived prior to the Reformation I could simply say, “If you don’t come to church, receive the sacrament, and pay up, you are going to be damned for all eternity, an event which I will speed up by burning you at the stake!” But those days, sadly, are gone.

So if we possess neither a theology to compel people into membership nor the power of the sword to force them into faithfulness, what do we say to those who are not “going to church”? And what do we say to ourselves, what motivates us to share our faith and to invite others to join with us?

My answer comes from what, for a Christian, might appear to be an unlikely source: the British author and Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. In his book, Faith in the Future, Sacks writes about a concept called Moral Capital. It is not his idea, others have written about it as well. It is the notion that certain moral behavior benefits a person and society as a whole. Moral values like justice, from which we derive truthfulness and trustworthiness, and temperance, from which we derive moderation and self-restraint, and benefiance, from which we derive the value of self-sacrifice and giving, are a few of the virtues which have contributed to our moral capital. As people manifest them personally in our common life, the world becomes a more humane place to live. Do you hear in this idea the echoes of John the Baptist: the call to lead a better life connected with the hope that better days are ahead?

Well, Rabbi Sacks, along with many, many others, is now saying that we on this planet are living off of the moral capital of those who came before us. The ethics and integrity that undergirded Western Civilization and made for conditions where humanity could flourish are eroding away. The signs are everywhere: broken homes, spiraling debt, growing dependency on substance abuse… you know the list. According to Sacks, even faster than we are depleting our natural resources, we are depleting our moral reserves. He is saying something I think most of us know and feel: we are not leading good lives and the future does not look so bright.

Perhaps we Episcopalians, and specifically we devoted members of St. Paul’s Church, need to go back to the banks of the Jordon River to find a theology compelling enough to call us to evangelize. We need to invite people to this place, to our manifestation of the faith, because it supports us in leading a moral life. The world we know and love is rotting away right in front of us. The moral heritage of our ancestors has been squandered and must be restored.

I don’t know a single person who does not hope and pray for better days ahead. We in the church possess two things that can turn the tide and restore the moral capital that is being lost at an alarming rate. First, we possess the spiritual resources that built the moral capital in the first place. We have the word of God that guided the faithful and we have the sacraments that sustained them. But even more, more than just a plea to be good people – call it the plea of John the Baptist – we have the Spirit of God to transform us from the inside out. We have a baptism that makes us new and renewed people; not simply people who try harder, but people who have died to self and put on the love of Christ, a love which emanates from our very core.

You know what, if each on of us here this morning dedicated ourselves to the task of getting just one new person to be a part of our church by this time next year, our attendance would be doubled. That would be nice, wouldn’t it! But even more important, it would be twice as many people who from this place are contributing to the moral capital of our community. That, through the power of the Spirit and God’s grace, would give us a hope that better days are ahead.

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