Saturday, July 28, 2012

From Center to Edge, But Still Center

Ephesians 1:3-14
July 29, 2012
William G. Carter

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,
   who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places,
   just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. 
He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ,
   according to the good pleasure of his will, 
   to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. 
In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses,
   according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us.
With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will,
   according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time,
   to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. 
In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, 
   having been destined according to the purpose of him
   who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, 
   so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory. 
In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him,
   were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; 
this is the pledge of our inheritance towards redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory.

And then these words again from our call to worship:

    Matthew 13:44-45
Jesus said, “The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in a field,
which someone found and hid;
Then in his joy, he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.
The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls;
On finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.”

Happy birthday, Church. You are aging well. You don’t look a day over 99 years old. But I have noticed that something has changed. There aren’t as many people who think you are as important as they did one hundred years ago.

I realize that is an awkward thing to bring up, but it is the truth. There aren’t as many people as interested in the church as there were one hundred years ago. A century ago, any community in America would welcome a Christian congregation right in the center of town. These days, the church contends with the zoning board.

Like that Presbyterian start-up in Rancho San Diego, California. As the congregation worked with an architect to design the building, the neighbors began a protest. They didn’t want a noisy congregation on their streets, or noisy Vacation Bible Schools with noisy kids. They certainly didn’t want a steeple to block their view of the mountains. The neighbors paid a lot of money for their property, and did not want their housing values to drop when a church was built.

These are awkward times. Especially for Christians, for Protestants, for Presbyterians.

When the Disney empire decided to build a planned community in Florida, they designed it to look like Stepford, Connecticut. They called it “Celebration, Florida.” The middle of the designer town, the planners made room for a church. But it couldn’t just be any kind of church. They wanted to be a church that would not offend anybody. So they invited the Presbyterians to bring in a non-offensive church. I, for one, was offended by that. So much for the radical, transforming power of the Gospel! If there’s a church, they didn’t want it to upset anybody.

What they did not understand, in Rancho San Diego or Celebration, Florida, is that times have changed. If you simply put a church in the middle of a community, it does not mean it will be a stabilizing force. For much of our lives, the church was just that – a place for people to come together, a place for strangers to mix, a place for friendships to be made, a place to keep our kids busy, a place that determined much of our social life. I have heard many of the old-timers report how they remember fondly the meals that they enjoyed with others when everybody was younger. The church is not in the center of the town any more.

Gone, too, is the easy presumption that everybody is Christian. Even the Roman Catholic diocese of Scranton has discovered that everybody is not Roman Catholic! People don’t agree on the same life principles, the same governing themes, or the same deities. Nobody can presume that any more. American life is far more diverse than that.

And there is no assumption, either, that the people who say they are religious are following Jesus. One of my friends introduced me to a new comic strip called “Coffee With Jesus.” Have you seen it? A recent strip pictures a woman speaking to the Lord, “I find it encouraging, Jesus, that seventy-five percent of Americans, when asked, identified themselves as Christians.” The Lord responds, “My figures are a bit lower.”

She says, “So people can think they’re believers and not really be? How sad.” And Jesus says, “Wearing a cowboy hat doesn’t make you a cowboy, Ann.”

You have heard me say the statistics before: on any given weekend, only 22 percent of the people in this zip code are attending in a church. And I’ll bet we can brainstorm a number of reasons why:

·         Religious faith has little to do with how they live their lives.
·         They never outgrew the faith of childhood, and it does not fit the complexity of adult life.
·         A church or one of its people damaged them.
·         The religious people who speak on television sound like bigots or fools.
·         The church once fit everybody’s socializing plans. Now people make other plans.
·         People are too busy. Or their families are too busy.
·         Or their families are spread out, due to widespread mobility, and they go to visit them.
·         The culture makes fun of churches. Pay attention to how they are depicted in movies and on TV.
·         The culture is horrified at clergy abuse and disgusted at the official cover-up plots.
·         The culture doesn’t use religious language any more. It defines itself without God.

For instance: somebody said, “That was a nice song that they sang at the opening of the Olympics. I’ve never heard it. What was that?” It was “Abide with Me,” the Christian hymn!  Oh wait, you didn’t see it? The American network edited it out of the show. Instead we had to endure some more insufferable blathering by Ryan Seacrest, whoever he is.

            A hundred years ago, the church was at the center of American culture, just as it was once the center of British culture. There are still residual traces of respect, if you know where to look. On Friday’s opening ceremony for the Olympics, Rowan Williams was seated directly behind the Queen of Great Britain. Know who he is? He’s the Archbishop of Canterbury, leader of the Church of England. Like most television networks of the world, NBC did not bother to identify him.

            We can kvetch all we want, but the church has moved from the center of society to the edge. No amount of shouting or complaining is going to change that. We can lament about it, we can grumble about it, we can study it, we can move to South Carolina and pretend it’s not true – but the sidelining of the Christian church has been one of the most significant changes during the hundred years of this congregation’s history.

            And I think this is more of an opportunity than a tragedy. The cultural Christians (with a small “c”) are floating away. Those of us who are Left Behind have the great opportunity to figure out why Christian faith is so important. We didn’t have to do that, when everybody generally agreed with the Christians. The church got lazy, and spoke in 1950’s generalities. Believe me, I’ve read the old sermons – they rarely said very much, and they said it in such flowery language. Advancement in life was pretty much equated with advancement in faith. Preachers assumed conformity. Church goers were rarely challenged to take risks for God’s kingdom, to forgive the unforgivable, to take a stand against all forms of violence, or to speak out on the dignity of every human being.

            Why is Christian faith so important? Because it’s about Jesus. Christianity is Jesus. In the opening words of the Ephesian letter, the church sings of Jesus:

God has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing
God chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world
God adopted us as his children through Jesus Christ
In Jesus, we have redemption, we have forgiveness.
In Jesus Christ, all things find their final purpose.
In Jesus Christ, we have obtained an inheritance.
In Jesus Christ, we receive the Holy Spirit, God’s own presence.

            Over and over, the faithful church sings about Jesus. That is our calling, and that is our core. The church of the future will focus entirely on Jesus Christ – because he is our very reason for existence. We learn his stories. We chew on his teachings. We follow his example. We give our lives as he has given his life. And if there is anything in the church’s life that does not have to do with Jesus, it can be dropped. We can let it go.

Our purpose is to proclaim that Jesus Christ is the life of the world, that his way is the real way. Jesus is why we are here. He is at the center of all life – he has always been the center. Even if people and institutions have tried to push him to the edge, he abides at the center of all things.

That’s why I like the words that we used to begin our worship service. Jesus said, “The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy, he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.”

The kingdom is like a hidden treasure. The kingdom is like valuable pearl. Jesus is this treasure, this precious pearl. He is waiting to be found – but you have to go looking for him. We don’t gain him by sitting passively, or assuming that wearing a cowboy hat will make us a cowboy. Christian faith is the search for the Christ who has already found us. He knows us intimately. He loves us, forgives us, he has the power to make us new. But we can’t really know this in our bones until we go looking for him. And should we find him, we will get rid of everything else so that we can be part of him – just like the man who stumbles on hidden treasure, just like the merchant who finds the most expensive pearl.

            I know, I know, the world has changed. Meanwhile Jesus is waiting to be found. And when he becomes real to us, everybody around us is going to know it.

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

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