Sunday, May 14, 2023

Show vs. Tell Christianity


John 14:15-21

Easter 6 / Year A

When St. Paul enters the city of Athens for the first time he observes sign after sign of how that culture acknowledges and shapes the mystery its people perceive.  Building on their inherent awareness, Paul begins to preach, saying, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way.”  He then comments on an altar dedicated to “an unknown god.”  He ceases on this as an opportunity to tell the people about the God who is Lord of Heaven and Earth.  He lays out a critique of idols made by human hands and explains succinctly God’s activity in human history.  He has the Athenians eating out of his hand up until he mentions God has appointed a man who will judge the world and we know this because God raised him from the dead.  At the mention of the resurrection most in the audience sneer at Paul.  Then, as now, getting people to join the church is an iffy proposition.

In an op ed published this week in the Washington Examiner, Ian Church, a professor at the very conservative Hillsdale College, sets out to identify why more and more people do not have a particular religious affiliation.  In fact, we who belong to a faith community are now in the minority in our country.  Church does not believe this is a result of atheistic or agnostic ideas winning day, noting most people rarely change deeply held beliefs on the basis of arguments, as Paul discovers in Athens.   

Church contends most people are walking away church membership because of the influence the religious institution is trying to have on their lives.  Specifically, the focus of the conservative right on cultural issues from abortion to wokeness, from gender identity to immigration, from Mickey Mouse to Mr. Potato Head.  Many believers have made subservient their personal faith to their politics.  And it is having an impact.  The Southern Baptist Convention lost half a million members… last year alone!

In his article, Ian Church notes the word “religion” comes from a Latin word meaning “to bind together” or “unite.”  “That is certainly what early Christianity did,” writes Church.  “It was defined by radical love and concern for the ‘other.’  It gave us a picture of love that transcended boundaries drawn by culture, gender, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status.  Men and woman, rich and poor, slave and free, the orphaned, the widowed, the sick, the marginalized were all welcome and bound together in one faith.  It wasn’t through political power, violence, or coercion that early Christianity spread.  It was despite such things, largely because of the early Christian’s radiant, countercultural love and concern for society’s outcasts, outsiders, and sojourners.”  Church contends only this kind of Christian witness will alter the downward trend in religious affiliation.

Well, if Church can critique his conservative congregations, let me tell you what I see ailing many churches in the mainline.

I will be in Ohio on vacation next Sunday and will have the opportunity to choose a church to attend in the morning.  There are several options.  A few years ago I went to an Episcopal church in a down-and-out part of town.  I knew it had a reputation for doing a lot of community outreach.  The people were warm and friendly.  Several folks greeted me and chatted with me after the service.  I accepted an invitation to go to their coffee hour.  There were easily 50 people who stayed; folks of all ages, shapes, and colors.  They asked me to stay for a pizza lunch and the pies looked delicious.  Sadly, I had to decline because I was meeting my nieces for lunch.

The next time I was in town I attended an Episcopal church in a middle-income neighborhood.  The congregation numbered about 10 and no one acknowledged me.  Turns out, I knew the organist from the Episcopal church I first joined after college.  After the service I spoke with him and he was delighted to see me.  I got the impression the rare visitor to the church was an old acquaintance of his and so the rest of the congregation ignored them.   I found my way to the parish hall where two long tables were pushed together end to end and folks were sitting around them.  Someone invited me to take a seat, which I did; squarely in the middle.  Now half the people were at one end talking amongst themselves and half were at the other end doing the same.  No one spoke to me at all or even made an attempt to include me in their conversation.  After 10 awkward minutes I excused myself and drove away.

I think if you told members of each church the word “religion” means “to bind together”, each congregation would say, “Oh, we are very religious.”  But there is a huge difference between the two.  One congregation draws on their binding to welcome others and the other is bound in the way a moat binds a castle.

Our Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, might sum all of this up by saying, “You can’t simply tell people about Jesus.  You have to show them Jesus.”  St. Francis is credited with saying, “Preach always, and when necessary use words.”  St. John the Apostle wrote “Dear children, let us not love with words or speech, but with actions and in truth” (I John 3:18).  No one will be interested in what we have to say about Christianity until they see us living it as Jesus intended.