Sunday, May 14, 2023
The Sixth Sunday of Easter
Teaching like Paul
The Rev. Mark D. Wilkinson, Rector
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church
Katy TX 77450
In our Acts passage Paul has his hands full. He is in Athens. While no longer a military power this ancient Greek city was a center of learning, philosophy and religion. While there were a few synagogues there were far more temples to Greek and Roman gods. A city full of idols to be worshipped and served. Paul is looking for ways to turn the people of Athens away from those idols and introduce to them this new small sect which someday would be called Christians.
He is called before a council and invited to present his case for the “God who is not named.” This is not a trial, but in true Athenian culture a debate, an exchange of ideas. Religion was very important to the people of Athens and while open to the debate they were skeptical. Paul has to take a totally different approach than he had in the past in Roman cities because his audience is different.
There is a message here for us today in how we talk about and live our lives as Christians today. For both what we do, our actions and what we say are being judged by those who are watching us and many do not have a favorable impression of the church as presented in the world today.
I was talking with Harlen on Monday of this week. We had a vestry meeting last Wednesday and we are going over the agenda for the night. When done we got to talking about last Sunday and he said, “You got really passionate during the announcements at 8:00” Well yes I did because I was very upset about the message that I had watched on YouTube from the rector of All Saints in Pasadena California. I briefly mentioned it in the prayers and talked a little bit more during the announcements at both services.
The rector of All Saints Mike was talking about the bomb threat and the death threats that the parish had received during the week. The threats said that someone had planted or would plant a bomb at the altar and that someone was going to assassinate him as the rector during church on Sunday. Why, because they are a safe place and a leading advocate for LGBT rights in their community and in their state. I know members of their staff from my work with the national church so yes it was personal and my heart was deeply grieved that they were coming under this type of attack. They had to involve the police to sweep the building to check for the bomb, hire security for Sunday morning, change the programming for the day moving the children’s programs online for the day. Sadly, they had plenty of places to consult with about security plans, like the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh where there was exactly this type of attack several years ago.
All because the Christianity, the gospel that the folks in All Saints proudly proclaim doesn’t agree with some other people who also call themselves Christian. The problem was the subject of the first of a series of articles in the New York Times written by an atheist. Why would I read an article about the problems of the church written by an atheist you might ask? Well you have to know your opponent! Just as Paul had to tailor his arguments to his Greek audience we need to understand our audience. People like this author are still rare, but somewhere around 30% of the population in the United States are now considered nones, not with a habit, but they are not affiliated with any church because they are so disenchanted with what they have experienced. That number has risen sharply in the last 15 years. I know we have people sitting here today because of how other churches have treated them. Ways that were anything but loving.
Now it is important to realize that most of these people have not given up on God, but they have given up on the church as they have experienced it. This is the spiritual not religious. This is not a new problem but is a growing one. Brian McClaren a well known author and religious writer did a townhall type meeting at a college several years ago. He had two of those big easels with chart paper. On one he wrote religion and on the other he wrote spiritual. Then he asked the students to tell me what words they associated with each term. The vast majority of the words under religious were negative like, judgmental, shame, rules, divisive abuse etc. Under spiritual they were all positive, loving, meditative, accepting etc.
Wednesday at vestry I showed them a video in a series that I have been using this year made by Brenee Brown. I always start out meetings with some theological reflection for if your vestry is going to guide our parish we need to ground our meetings and our decisions in prayer and sound theology so we start each meeting with both. She said churches are either places of hurt or healing. There is no in-between she said. Unfortunately, at the moment the churches getting most of the publicity in the media are the ones who are in the hurting category. Some are just flat out in the abusive category especially in the area of sexual misconduct. Many use shame and blame to control the actions of their members. Drawing hard lines that say either you agree with us or you are wrong and of course going to hell. What’s more they feel the need to force their shame and blame on all churches. This is driving people out the door in droves over the past twenty years.
This is why I chose to preach the sermon on John that I did last week. I wanted to offer an alternative view to what many would think or believe the passage said. By the way thank you to all who told me how that view was helpful and many who wished family members of theirs had heard the sermon. The general feeling was maybe they might be still attending a church.
We had a family that was considering joining us earlier this year. They had been rejected by everybody else because they had a trans daughter. Only the mom was willing to come in the door. The rest of the family had given up on church because the church had not only turned their back on them, but had condemned them to eternal damnation. Mom liked what she saw here and was getting close to risking one more time to believe that a church could love her family. However, they decided to move to Colorado because they no longer felt safe living in Texas. This is not an uncommon story. I can name you several other people who have moved out or sent their trans child to a safer state. One of them is an Episcopalian from Houston who is continuing to lead the fight in Austin whose child is now in college in California. And the church gets the blame, even those of us who are trying to be a place that shares the love of God and doesn’t threaten damnation if you don’t agree with us.
Our challenge is like that of Paul in Athens. How to be a voice crying in the wilderness that offers an alternative the what seems to be incredibly steep odds. He presents a “god” that had no name, but he told them that he knew who that God was and then went on to talk about Christ and a God who created everything. Our challenge today is to talk about and show God as one of love and welcome. Maybe even start by affirming the person’s negative view. “Well if that was how I viewed God I wouldn’t be in church, but we understand God differently….” That’s one way to start the conversation. “You know that is not how I understand God,” is another alternative. It is important to start where the person is. Acknowledge that yes their hurt, anger, frustration, shame, whatever is real. Then offer the alternative. This takes courage and a willingness to be rejected, but we have to try to counter the negative that is out there. We are in many ways like Paul pushing against a vast tide of poor theology for so many.
You see we must be a church of healing to counter all the hurt that is being done out there in the name of Christ. As I wrote that sentence an old song by Crosby Stills and Nash entitled Cathedral came to mind and it was one all about being rejected by a rejecting the church. “Get me out of here” was one of the lines. It was from when I was in High School so I guess that goes to prove just how old the problem was. There is also a Beatles song from the 60s along the same line so we have our work cut out for us, but just like Paul in Athens we can and must be faithful witnesses of a living loving God.