Sermon: Riding My Hobbyhorse

08.03.2014      Preaching Text: “But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns.” (Matthew 14:13b)

The genie is out of the bottle. Contemporary culture has become rife with objections and counterarguments to the Christian story. No longer is society informed explicitly by Christian ideas. Instead, an attitude of public dismissiveness, both heated and blithe, is now de rigueur.  Christianity is both embarrassing and unfashionable.

In a recent Matters of Faith article in the Cape Cod Times, William Field, a retired Episcopal priest living in East Orleans, asks the question “why?” Why have our churches lost so much ground over the last decades? Why don’t people come to church the way they used to?

“An answer to why more and more people are choosing alternatives to attending church on Sunday mornings,” he offers, “may have to do with the instruction people are not receiving at church.” [Italics mine]

“Never before,” he continues, “have the media played such an important role in our daily lives. Newspapers, magazines, television, the Internet, etc., generate a constant avalanche of ideas, authoritative studies, scripture interpretations and a variety of theologies that challenge some of our most basic beliefs and values.”

(To this list I would add pop culture, the entertainment industry, as well as academia, each of which routinely disdains and/or mocks Christian belief.)

Despite this, “many churches,” he adds, “tend to ignore the doubts and confusion people have as a result of this media bombardment, leaving young and old to wonder if there are any rebuttals they can believe in.”

Which brings us to today’s sermon title. About a month ago, I was talking to one of our members about this very subject of church and culture. To which the member offered a good-natured jibe about how I once again was riding my “hobbyhorse.”

My response is “guilty as charged!” It’s hardly a secret that this has been a major preoccupation of mine. For I firmly believe that the future of the church is premised on how we understand and respond to the challenges from the wider culture. And as we continue our work in the Study Group, this same issue keeps presenting itself over and over.

As long as I’ve been in ordained ministry, and even before, I’ve argued that the biggest problem in the mainline churches has been the clergy! Rather than teaching the faith, the tendency has been to focus on changing the world. Yet without first making disciples, without training and equipping the saints for the work of the church, that very work is very much compromised.

As if echoing my rant, Father Field says this: “In the past, clergy were thought of as the most highly educated people in the community, especially in biblical matters. If the clergy believed, that was a sufficient basis for the laity’s faith. This is no the longer the case.

“Those who are struggling with faith issues today expect the clergy, armed with their theological education and training, to provide answers to hard questions. But, in avoiding such questions from the pulpit, clergy give the impression there are no answers.”

In his concluding paragraph, he offers this: “Members of the clergy who abandon their role as defenders of the faith by ignoring the challenges of nonbelievers, deserve to be confronted by the laity. In truly attempting to recognize the laity’s needs and respond to them, maybe then we would begin to see our pews fill up again.”

I’ve often wondered why clergy avoid their teaching role. And why they shy away from confronting the secular challenge.

Is it because we want to fit in? Be liked? Or do we fear we will be seen as unsophisticated or uncool? And why does the contemporary church in general seem so utterly feckless in “defending” the faith?

There is, of course, some history behind this. Back around the turn of the century, the church found itself on the defensive about any number of things.

It was being challenged by the insights of Darwinism and other newly formed scientific assertions. Evolution – and science in general – was presented as the alternative to the mystical mumbo-jumbo of religion in general, and Christianity in particular.

Having reached a kind of civilizational apex, many of the “best and brightest” bought into the notion, made popular by G.W.F. Hegel, that history was moving away from religion, that though religion might have played an important role at the dawn of civilization, it was now being replaced by “pure philosophy.”

Rather than depending on the God no one can see, the idea was to marshal the vast storehouse of human knowledge (both scientific and rational). Humanity, as such, stood on the verge of solving every intractable problem the world had ever faced.

Last week, after coffee hour, I met the historian who spoke at the World War I program (commemorating its 100-year anniversary) held in our sanctuary later that day. I shared with him my amazement at the then widely-held belief that this “Great War” would be “the war to end all wars.”

The idea fit perfectly into that era’s overweening confidence in the inevitability of evolutionary progress. After successfully completing that one war, or so the thinking went, and through expertise and the proper application of scientific and rational prescriptions, wars would become a thing of the past.

Ironically, the specific beliefs and values that had brought civilization to this heretofore unimaginable apex were now thought passé.  Within this new evolving sensibility, the church came to be viewed by many as a mere relic from a lost past.

The church, thus, was forced either to resist or accommodate. In choosing the latter, it decided to deemphasize theology, which was thought hopelessly arcane and outmoded, in favor of these more secular, progressive trends. The “social gospel” (as it came to be known), promised to remake the world and in the process render the church relevant, less backward.

In a recent communique from the MA Conference, I saw an article referencing last year’s keynote speaker at its Annual Meeting. Summarizing the message of his book, the faithful are urged to “recapture the spirit of the early church with its emphasis on what Christians do rather than what they believe.”

Yet if Father Field and I are right, what we believe is exactly what people are yearning to know more about. Having vacated the public square with specifically Christian norms, values, and beliefs, the culture, left to its own devices, has developed many questions, deep questions, for which Christianity has profound answers.

Not only that, what the church “does,” I would argue, has a lot to do with what it “believes.” This in addition to the fact that much of what the church traditionally has done through its “social gospel” is being done today by countless secular agencies and organizations.

In today’s gospel, we read of the feeding of the five thousand. Perhaps especially in today’s world, this requires not just physical food, but spiritual food.

For if all human beings are created, first and foremost, by God, and for God, then the deepest yearning of the human heart, the human soul, is the spiritual food only God can provide.

When it comes right down to it, the one thing the church possesses that no other organization or institution possesses is religion. And that has everything to do with what we believe. Amen.