September 3, 2006
“increase in us true religion…”
I got on the wrong side of more than a few people when I preached at Michael Spencer’s ordination to the priesthood here at St. John’s.
The reason for the irritation I caused—with our Bishop, among others—was a line in the sermon I addressed to Michael. “Michael,” I told him, “always remember that you are a mostly irrelevant functionary of an essentially irrelevant institution.”
On the one hand, I was urging humility in his role, reminding him not to get “too full of himself” because he could wear a collar, dress in rich garments and have people listen politely to him when he preached or celebrated. That is good advice, I believe—it is a warning I take to heart.
On the other hand, I was also speaking what appears to me to be the Truth—the church is an essentially irrelevant institution. The church is no longer—as it once was—the center of our cultural life. Bishops and preachers are no longer thought of as the spiritual spokespersons of our national life. Nor should they be. Christianity is so fractured and divided on most of the issues of modern life that either side of any debate has Christians lined up to support it. Look at the Episcopal Church as an example. Why would society look to us for moral clarity and spiritual insights when we have broken into warring tribes with all the antipathy of Shiites and Sunnis?
(Someone is bound to remind me that Fundamentalist Christians and groups like The Moral Majority still have influence on some public policy. But I would suggest that the Religious Right is essentially a “political” movement—not a “spiritual” one. The politicians who encourage and pander to them do so, not because of the profound “spiritual” insights of their positions, but because of their power at the ballot box in certain parts of the country.)
But the irrelevancy of the church as a cultural power is not the irrelevancy that is most telling. The church has lost a bigger war than that—the religious institution no longer has a franchise on “Christian spirituality”.
Listen to what Reynolds Price, a novelist, wrote in a recent memoir called A Serious Way of Wondering: “Though I am not a churchgoer, for more than sixty years I’ve read widely in the life and teachings of Jesus; and since at least the age of nine, I’ve thought of myself as a Christian.” I know it is true for me—and I suspect you as well—that I know lots of people who are deeply spiritual and who consider themselves to be “Christians” who would rather have oral surgery than darken the door of a church.
If you held a gun to my head, I’d tell you that I think “being a Christian” is defined by being part of the Body of Christ, the worshiping church, the community of faith. And yet, I am surrounded, in my life, by compassionate, moral, spiritual people who have absolutely no use for the church.
And when someone tells me, as people often do: “I can find God (take your pick) in my garden, on a walk in the woods, by meditating, by living a ‘good life’”—I must admit that they are most likely right. If God is everywhere (as I believe) and if God is always ‘accessible’ to us (and that I believe as well)—then I am hard pressed to disagree with someone who finds God in a sunset or by walking by the ocean or by spending time in silence and reflection.
Of course God is THERE. God is always THERE, seeking us, longing for us, welcoming our seeking the Holy One.
The church doesn’t “own” God. The church doesn’t “own” Jesus. I’d think we’d all agree to that. So, how much more irrelevant can we be?
The question becomes: “what is the church for then?”
As an institution, the church is bankrupt—all form and no substance, all doctrine and no action, all law and no spirit. (question about “right doctrine v. right action”)
As an institution, not much….but as a “community”, a great deal.
- Church as community offers “relationship” not “individuality”
- Church as community invites us to hospitality, not self-absorption
- Church as community calls us into “self-giving” not self-fulfillment
- Church as community demands “sharing”, not “having”
- Church as community requires “loving others”, not narcissism
There’s a story about a little lost girl who goes up to a complete stranger on the street and tells him she’s lost and would he help her find the nearest park.
“Is that where you live?” He asked.
“No,” she told him, “but I can always find my way home from there.”
Just show me how to get to ‘community’. There’s my church. I can find always find my way ‘home’ from there.