Discovering Our Nerve: Bishop Lee's Convention Sermon 2018
November 17, 2018
Inspired by the thought of Ray Suarez speaking to us about demographic trends in this country and their implications for the future of the church, I took note of a recent report in a church news website called The Episcopal Cafe. In August of this year the Pew Research Center released a report on what it identified as seven major “religious typologies” among Americans. Researchers discovered these typologies by using a statistical analysis of responses to an extensive nation-wide telephone survey. Turns out a lot of people who identify themselves as Christians in some sense can also be said to fall into such snappy categories as “Sunday Stalwarts,” “Relaxed Religious,” “Diversely Devout,” “Religion Resisters,” and “Solidly Secular.” This all feeds into (or flows out of) the now well-noted rise of people who say they are spiritual but not particularly religious.
So a young professor of political science in Kentucky decided to see what he could make of that particular subset of American Christians who identify as … well … us. Episcopalians. What kind of categories might a researcher be able to identify among our little tribe? He applied some respectable-sounding statistical rigor to his study and here’s what he came up with. He determined that we fall pretty reliably into three broad categories.
The first he called “Devout Believers.” This group makes up about half of all Episcopalians—48% or so. Three quarters of this group believe firmly in the existence of God with another 22% saying that they are “fairly certain” about it. More than two thirds of Devout Believers say that the Bible is the word of God, although only a tiny number believe that it should be interpreted literally. About four out of five in this group say that they attend church at least monthly and about half pray daily. They have mixed views on the role of religion in American society, with about half thinking that religious institutions focus too much on rules, power, or money and are too involved in politics. Half identify as Republicans and a third as Democrats.
The second group our researcher identified he calls “Uncertain Optimists.” This is about 20% of us. Less certain about our religious beliefs, but pretty optimistic that God exists. Over half of these optimists believe in heaven, but virtually none of them believes in hell. They attend church at least monthly and nearly half say they pray daily. Fully three quarters of this group says that the Episcopal Church should tailor its beliefs and practices to the realities of our modern world. Sixty percent are women, with 4 out of 5 having advanced degrees. Half are Democrats and a third Republican.
Then finally there come the “Skeptical Cynics.” My favorite. This group makes up about a third of Episcopalians and not only are they more than a little skeptical about God—less than half of these folks are certain about the existence of the Almighty or that the Bible is somehow definitive, they’re skeptical about the church too. They believe the church is too focused on rules, too involved with politics and obsessed with money and power. And here’s why I love this group—despite all of that, about three quarters of them say they attend church at least monthly and that they pray almost every day. Two-thirds are Democrats and only a quarter identify as Republicans. I’ll leave that last little factoid to your own interpretation.
We Episcopalians have got a long list of our own self-deprecating jokes, but this whole analysis reminds me of a joke I have heard more than once from Unitarians about their own church: What do you get when you cross a Unitarian Universalist with a Jehovah’s Witness? Someone who knocks on your door for no apparent reason.
But on a far more significant note , as our Presiding Bishop said recently, “Apart from Jesus, we’re just a nice association of mostly nice people,” or as I like to say, Rotary International with hymns.
When Jesus sent his first friends out into the world, he commanded them to tell the good news of God’s deathless love and mercy and to make new disciples by teaching them everything Jesus had taught them. He did not ask them to talk people into swearing allegiance to a particular theological viewpoint, he did not hand out membership criteria for entrance into a new religious society, he did not prescribe a set of religious rules designed to keep God happy with humanity. And what did Jesus teach them? What did he send them to the world to give away? His own example of selfless love, his commitment to serve the least and the lost, his consistent compassion for those on the margins, the outcast, the sick, the hungry, the lonely. He sent them to make God’s love and mercy real in the lives of people who could never imagine such a thing could be true for them. He commanded them to do all these things and promised that in doing them, they would encounter none other than Jesus himself … to the ages of ages he promised that they, that we would meet God.
And here’s where the survey menu of different flavors of Episcopalians comes in. It’s that Pentecost reading from the Book of Acts. The Great Commission as we call it, Jesus’ marching orders to his first friends, that “Go and make disciples of everyone” command of his that gives many of us the heebie-jeebies because, well, evangelism is just not really our thing — at least not the caricature of evangelism as door to door sales the way we so often think of it.
But think about the bible’s description of that first Pentecost, the wind and fiery power of God the Holy Spirit. Blowing the doors off the fearful little world view of those disciples and sending them out into the streets, and the offices, and the soup kitchens, and the statehouses, and the blogosphere. Compelling them to get out in the world and tell the good news, and to tell it in all those languages the people of this world actually speak and understand.
Friends, we know how to do that. So much of the world looks on with blank incomprehension when they hear all this presented in the language of religious certainties, and as I never get tired of reminding people, the opposite of faith is not doubt … it is certainty. Damn certain, as we say. Language gives us away. A whole bunch of folks run screaming in the other direction from the presentation of God as twelve impossible things to believe before breakfast. Or when they hear believers speak of God as a magical fixer of all problems, or the great Santa in the sky, or the blasphemous invocation of so-called biblical faith to justify discrimination or hatred or violence. When people who will have none of that, or who have been wounded by the practice of that kind of religion—when they encounter us, please God make this to be true, they just might find among us some friends. They’re likely to find that we recognize one another—at least some of us—they’re likely to find a home in this messy, rangy, uncertain, faithful, sinful, redeemed, big-hearted, narrow minded, generous, stingy, stumbling, longing, prayerful, beloved church. I cannot tell you how many times I sit with people who have found themselves among us, usually when I’m about to receive them formally into the fellowship of this church, who say to me something like what a young couple said to me recently in Peoria, “We were on our way out of Christianity,” they said … “Until we stopped here. We didn’t know you could be Christian like this.”
So I’ve got a charge for us, church. Let’s recover or discover our nerve, our confidence that God has given us a way of being Christian, a way of following Christ that leads to life, a way of living not for ourselves alone but for the One who died for us and was raised again. A way of loving and giving and caring for a world that seems bent on suicide. I think that’s the mission of God, that God has chosen of all creatures you and me —I do believe I’d have chosen somebody else—but God has chosen, for some reason, us, to be partners in God’ project of saving this world from self-destruction.
Let us rediscover the wild, unprovable, too-good-to-be-true proclamation that Jesus Christ is alive and will not leave us comfortless. Whether you think you’re a Skeptical Cynic, or an Uncertain Optimist or a Devout Believer, do not be afraid to share in whatever ways are natural for you that somehow, in some mysterious way, you have found in the company of the church something that’s worth sharing — maybe even in ways and for reasons you do not quite understand. Because here’s the truth that I believe with everything I’ve got: You did not choose this, not anymore than you chose to be born. God chose you. Jesus Christ has chosen us, all of us, to be his own. The Risen Jesus, dear friends, is not absent … either from the church or from the world. And that is the best news there could ever be.