Sermon: What Kind of Church Will Our Children Inherit?

06.22.2014     Preaching Text: “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid…[Let] your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:14, 16)

My mother is, I think it fair to say, “a piece of work.” She’s always had a bit of an eccentric streak, that is. And as a child, this used to embarrass me to no end.

Though I could cite example after example, perhaps this will do. While calling her four children to dinner, she would walk out onto the back porch outside the kitchen door and yell out (or sing out, to be more accurate): “Christy, Bobby, Tommy, Martha, Ashcan, Rover!!!!!!!” Needless to say, the whole neighborhood could hear it – with no difficulty whatsoever. (The last two names, in case you were wondering, were cats!)

Of course, I remember all this fondly, not only because of her motherly esprit but because it reminds me of what was in many respects a carefree childhood.

We would all be out doing this or that, having fun under the sun, running around, hiding, seeking, whatever. And then we’d hear the comforting, albeit wild call of Mary Leinbach beckoning us back home, the cheering, assuring, nourishing center of our universe.

It strikes me in retrospect that we were carefree precisely because we were so cherished and protected. There was this firm center of existence that’s origins we knew not. But within this firm center, we found love, protection, and joy, though also, it must be said, any number of inviolable rules, limits, and expectations.

As I say, I don’t remember wondering why this was so. I simply accepted it, both the limits as well as the freedom, as most children do. Only later did I discover that without this sacred center life could be very different, especially without all those seemingly arbitrary rules and limitations. For without these I would not have known such freedom and abandon.

Christian faith, in a very real sense, mimics this truism. Without the given-ness of the gospel’s paradoxical freedoms and limitations, each taken on faith, life can be chaotic and bewildering. Which is to say that freedom without limits compromises genuine freedom.

Perhaps I was fortunate to grow up in the fifties, a time New York Times columnist, Ross Douthat, in his surprisingly sophisticated book, Bad Religion, calls “the Indian summer” of religious consensus in America.

Symbolizing in some sense the apex of this public, religious consensus was the dedication in 1958 of the so-called “God Box” on Riverside Drive in New York. It was a 19-story building commissioned by John D. Rockefeller (who also had built Riverside Church just down the street). Its cornerstone was a piece of rock taken from Corinth, Greece, where the Apostle Paul had spent the most time, evangelizing and bringing countless people to Christ. This building housed, among other denominational entities, the National Council of Churches. The cause of religious unity had a decidedly bright future.

In attendance was President Dwight Eisenhower, as well as many of the giants of this golden moment, figures such as Reinhold Niebuhr, representing the public face of Mainline Protestantism, Billy Graham, who had brought the Evangelical church out of it self-imposed wilderness of fundamentalism and absenteeism from public life, as well as figures from the Roman Catholic church, such as Cardinal Bishop Sheen, who had helped the Catholic church to overcome its perceived sectarianism, offering a winsome face to a public that in many respects had feared Catholicism as anti-American.

It is generally believed that without this religious alliance or consensus, one that cut across sectarian divides, the Civil Rights movement never would have succeeded. Anecdotally, President Clinton remembers, while growing up in the Jim Crow South, how struck he had been by Billy Graham’s famous refusal to segregate one of his planned revival meetings in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1958.

Yet just at the height of the groundbreaking success of this religious consensus, the decade of the sixties was about to bring about its dissolution. Issues such as Vietnam and the Sexual Revolution, to name but two major social conflicts, found the various religious traditions taking different sides. And because the Civil Rights issue had been so formative, each new issue was seen as having the same moral force or ethical claim as had segregation.

With politics now on the ascendency, the Mainline churches sided with the Democrats while the Evangelicals and, to some degree, the Catholics, took the Republican view. With religions now seen through the lens of partisan politics, things got pretty ugly pretty quickly.

As a result, and after the ensuing decades of intense political infighting, the sex abuse scandals, as well as the myopic stridency of the various religious camps, many Americans rejected the faith of their youth, often pursuing a more mystical, Eastern type of religious sensibility.

The end result of this complex and troubling period is that today we have a kind of “DIY” religiosity, a “do it yourself” faith, where each person picks and chooses what they like from the various religious and non-religious sensibilities of the world. It’s also been called “cafeteria spirituality” or “Sheilaism,” coined from a 1980’s interview with a nurse who expressed perfectly her generation’s pick-and-choose religious stance.

Released and disconnected from any primary community of faith, or religious consensus, and their inherent limitations, disciplines, and commitments, the DIY’ers have constructed a very personal religion loosely based on ancient Gnosticism. The idea is that each Self possesses all spiritual wisdom within, encompassing all religions and cultures, all nature and science, all notions and expressions of God, etc. All traditional or non-traditional religious beliefs and values are scrutinized in terms of how they accord with the Sovereign Self. Here the purely subjective self decides what it will accept or reject.

I’ve always defined heresy as any system of thought that takes part of the truth and makes it the whole truth. So that while DIY religion rightly celebrates the God within, it denies the equally real otherness, or holiness, of God. It rightly assumes God’s forgiveness and love, but denies God’s justice, which admits to divine judgment and human sin. DIY religion rightly celebrates feelings and experience, but denies the exacting mind of Christ.

At its worst, this pursuit of the self actually denies genuine engagement with the Other, whether that other be God or people. In a very real sense, then, the DIY’ers are communing with none other than themselves!

The mystery of the Trinity, the three persons of the Godhead, presumes, among other things, community, personality, difference. Yet if I perceive everything and everyone as a mere extension of myself, I’m not dialoguing with anybody or anything other than that other trinity: “me, myself, and I”!

Douthat, at the beginning of Bad Religion, argues that there once was a centering story which allowed for all manner of freedom, creativity, exploration, and experimentation, in the same way that my home life enabled the same remarkable freedoms of my childhood.

Within this sacred center, with its limits and freedoms and disciplines intact, people are free to safely pursue all manner of things, including, he says, heresies, knowing there are fences strategically placed around us to protect us! Without this guiding center, however, there is nothing left but heresy – along with its attendant dangers.

That, as I see it, in a very general way, is the spiritual world in which our children are growing up today. It’s not that contemporary culture is non-religious, mind you, as some atheists and agnostics would claim. Rather, it’s that our culture is a disaffected culture, one that has rejected all traditional “organized religion,” having replaced it with a most subjective, some might say narcissistic, “spirituality,” mostly in pursuit of the self, the God within.

Jesus said, in the Sermon on the Mount, “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid…[Let} your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”

In this difficult time, the church has a sacred responsibility and a blessed opportunity. To shine the light of the gospel, that all may be saved by and in its animating light. Amen.