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Sermon preached on the First Sunday after Trinity (7 June 2015) by the Reverend Christine McSpadden, Associate Priest
The Reverend Christine McSpadden looks at people who are spiritual but won't accept religion, and says: "This isn’t surprising. I don’t think the church, on the whole, has done a great job lately of showing Jesus to the world."
2 Corinthians 4.13 – 5.1; Mark 3.20-end
I had lunch with a Development Director recently. At a lull in the conversation (after he had sealed the deal on my donation), I think because I was wearing my clerical collar, talk turned to matters religious.
It turns out that he grew up in a household that was not only atheist, but decidedly hostile to any religion. I shifted uncomfortably in my seat.
But for most of his adult life, because he longed for a sense of mystery, and sought answers to the deeper questions of life, he searched for experiences which might connect him to powers greater than himself. He considered himself to be highly spiritual. But not religious.
I don’t think I am breaking any confidence here in recounting this story because I hear it all the time: people who consider themselves spiritual but not religious. People who don’t want to associate themselves with organised institutions.
Maybe you consider yourself in that category. You are not alone. The Pew Research Center just released a study in the US, where I am from, that fewer Americans than everwant to be called Christians. Here in the UK, in a statement published on Tuesday, former Archbishop George Carey said that The Church of England is one generation away from extinction.
This isn’t surprising. I don’t think the church, on the whole, has done a great job lately of showing Jesus to the world. We stay silent on the issues about which people desperately want to hear. Ironically, we have volumes to say about our brothers and sisters in the faith whose opinions differ from our own. We fight constantly amongst ourselves, bickering over one issue after another.
A kingdom divided against itself cannot stand, Mark’s Gospel warns.
Set on this course, we’re turning off those who might turn to the church. The more we in-fight, the more we will sink into oblivion.
I heard an example of this slide into oblivion at the most recent installment of the Westminster Faith Debates held the other evening at St. James Piccadilly (here in London).
A panel of nine people discussed what difference women bishops make in the Church of England. Vicar Kate Bottley, of Gogglebox fame, told a cautionary tale: Thrilled to be chosen as a panelist, in preparation she went to get her hair done. At the salon, Kaylee the hairdresser trimmed Mother Kate’s hair while she described how excited she was to talk about women bishops, what a huge impact this decision would have on the future and life of the church!
“Amazing, don’t you think?” Kate asked Kaylee, hoping that the young hairdresser would share her enthusiasm for the utter transformation of the church! Kaylee kept cutting, and then with a note of confusion in her voice she responded, “Yeah, that’s great. But… what’s a bishop?”
It is a sobering wake-up call to realize that for all our self-importance, we can have so little impact when we focus inwardly. As a priest, a purveyor and guardian of the repository of Christian faith, sometimes I worry that I can get caught up in being religious but not spiritual!
If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. Divisiveness and conflict pervade most spheres of our lives as 21st century people. Twenty-four-hour news cycles manufacture crisis and conflict to sell air time. Blogs rant to garner followers. Politics have never seemed so partisan, the drive to be right so desperate, the anxiety so high to cede even an inch to an opponent. A deep primordial fear seems to lie at the heart
of rising fundamentalism and growing contention.
The church’s endless conflict merely mirrors the rest of the world, when we could be standing above the fray and proposing a different way. It obscures the fact that we have so much more to offer! When you feel alone, it’s a place to find community; when broken-hearted: to be lifted up in song and praise; when life feels meaningless: to be equipped and sent out with purpose. It’s a place to bring shame and feel forgiven; to bring desolation and find someone with whom to pray. It’s a place to find communities gathered around a living word and a generous table, plumbing the mysteries, and taking up the great questions of life, together. We offer nothing less than a tried and tested way, truth, and life.
In this season of Pentecost, we hear the stories of how the Holy Spirit entered and created the church, breathing power into her people so that they might be sent into the world to proclaim the good news of God’s reign. When we stand together, even amidst our disagreements, the billions of us strong, we help to build up the kingdom of God.
What if we chose relationships first over being right?
I was part of an experiment that tried this. Close to 300 priests in their 20s and 30s came together for a conference entitled Gathering the Next Generation. At the outset we decided that we would not gloss over our issues; but, however we differed, we would continue to worship and pray together. We started with the relationship and then moved out from there.
At one poignant moment, gathered for a eucharist in the sanctuary, different members of our group stood up and talked about their struggles in the church. One member talked about his pain of being a gay priest in a parish where he had to keep his full identity a secret; another priest talked about his pain of standing against the ordination of women in a church that increasingly marginalized his view. For both, the pain was equally wounding. But both bravely, and with absolute vulnerability, offered up their pain in prayer and trusted they would be heard and honored.
For all its gloomy predictions, the Pew Center research did say that, while people interviewed feel disconnected from the church, the vast number still voiced a strong desire to pray, to do important peace and justice work, and to serve the community with others.
Here is where I hear a call back to our foundational roots of mission. The criticism of irrelevance is an exhortation for us to re-anchor our work back in the practices of discipleship and evangelism: focusing foremost on proclaiming the good news, making disciples, and being the body of Christ. If we do that, we have a vibrant future—a vision toward which to yearn.
I think about the wisdom attributed to Antoine de Saint Exupery:
"If you want to build a ship, don't drum up the [people] to gather wood, divide the work and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea."
We gather together in this great cathedral from all over the world and are then sent forth into communities around the globe. Standing together, by the power of the Holy Spirit, God can do in us, and through us, infinitely more than we can ask or imagine. As St Paul says to the church in Corinth (that we heard read today), “so that grace, as it extends to more and more people, may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God (2 Corinthians 4.15).”
By the grace of God, let us yearn together for the vast and endless and marvelous that we can be!