Welcome to the second in our six-week sermon series, “A Critical Conversation: Exploring the Church’s Harsh Reviews.” The idea is to take seriously the perspectives of people who find churches out of touch with the real world, opposed to science, overly political, hypocritical – and, this morning, people who find churches to be judgmental and self-righteous. For many of the 43 percent of Americans who are staying away from church,1 this describes the church they’re staying away from.
And hearing today’s readings, you might see why some people associate “church” with judgment and self-righteousness. I mean, the word “sin” comes up nine times in the Scriptures we just heard. In the Acts reading, Peter lays it on the line to people of Jerusalem, telling them they rejected “the Holy and Righteous One,” Jesus, “and killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead.” He says, “Repent, therefore, and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out.” (Acts 3:14-15,19) The reading from the First Letter of John says, “No one who abides in Jesus sins; no one who sins has either seen him or known him” (3:6). I’m sure in many churches using the Common Lectionary, the folks are hearing a nice diatribe on specific sins in today’s world right about now.
If you’ve encountered churches as judgmental and self-righteous, I’m sorry. There have been times in the Church’s history, and certainly ugly moments on the nightly news, when supposedly faithful people have been more than ready to point out the speck in someone else’s eye while avoiding the log in their own. Some of it’s just hating – a disfigurement of Jesus’ message of love, beating up on other people out of bigotry and calling it “good news.” If you see self-proclaimed “Christians” carrying protest signs saying that God hates some class of people – God’s own children, by the way, people God created – that’s all it takes for a lot of us to say, “No, thank you.”
That’s easy to understand. But most churches aren’t of the Fred Phelps variety, literally carrying signs of hate into the world. I think the temptation for churches more often is to imagine themselves as open and accepting while unintentionally making some people feel excluded. In the Episcopal Church, for example, that can sometimes manifest itself as the intolerance of the tolerant – the sense that, if you don’t meet the litmus test of having no litmus tests, this may not be the right community for you.
So for me, here’s the question. If we reject the notion that God’s always looking for someone to condemn, how do we avoid going to the other extreme? How do we keep from turning God into a whole lot of nothing and making Jesus into a bland poster boy for “It’s nice to be nice to the nice”? We talk a lot about how the Episcopal Church is a “big tent,” a place where people who differ in background and perspective can come together, an image of the reconciled diversity of God’s good creation. But, as Fr. Marcus and Mtr. Anne and I were discussing a few weeks ago, don’t even big tents have walls? If the risen Jesus isn’t interested in seeing the Church, his body in the world, being an instrument of judgment for those who don’t toe the party line, then what does Jesus want the Church to be about?
I got a glimpse of at least one answer from an unlikely source this week. Driving back from Springfield after visiting my parents, I was listening to All Things Considered on the radio. And, in one of the rare moments when they weren’t doing the annual spring membership drive, there was a story about a new book from the columnist David Brooks.2 The book’s title is The Road to Character; and in it, Brooks is contrasting a past collective mindset of humility with what he calls our “culture of the Big Me,” a culture that celebrates the opinions and accomplishments of the self. As a pundit and a “recovering secularist,” Brooks has come to see himself as the epitome of this cultural shift from humility to self-promotion. He says, he’s “paid to be a narcissistic blowhard, to … appear more confident … than I really am, to appear smarter than I really am, to appear … more authoritative than I really am.” He’s come to see that he’s been on a slippery slope toward judgmentalism and self-righteousness – a slippery slope that churches would do well to watch for, too.
In contrast to a culture where he says we “present the world with a highlight reel” of our lives, Brooks’ new book tells the stories of historical figures who came to “the turning point in a life toward maturity,” asking themselves, “‘What's the weakness I have that leads to behavior I'm not proud of?’” In the stories of people like the social activist Dorothy Day, civil rights leader Bayard Rustin, and President Dwight Eisenhower, Brooks says he found a common element: that they each looked deeply into themselves, confronted some core place of brokenness, and found a way to heal it. As Brooks said, “By the end of their lives, they became strong in their weakest places.” They managed to build characters that helped change the world. They avoided our more common temptation: staking out positions without doing the hard, introspective, transformative work of cultivating virtues – virtues like courage, honesty, and especially humility. As Brooks says, “Character is a way of living. It's not a series of positions you take.”
So maybe that’s a lens to help us read Scripture like some of the readings we just heard. In each of these readings, there’s that hard word, the “S” word, the word that nice people like us don’t like to use: Sin. For all the people who are wired to point at others and wag their fingers and rail against things they don’t like – for everyone who’s wired like that, there are those of us who are wired to avoid the conflict entirely, nice people trying to be nice to the nice. But still that word is there, with a big letter “S” – Sin.
And that big-letter-S kind of sin is what Jesus is concerned about, in Scripture and in the ongoing life of the Body of Christ, the Church – the sin of separating ourselves from relationship. No matter our perspective – progressive, conservative, libertarian, whatever – no matter our perspective, it’s easy to draw lines between what we see as right and wrong and then find ourselves separated from each other instead. Now, we can have great conversations about specific issues – why one person thinks it’s sinful to ignore carbon emissions and climate change, while another person thinks it’s sinful to limit the productive capacity of business and industry. That’s a great conversation. But we’re never going to move past the art of dueling statistics and snarky catch phrases unless those conversation partners come together in the virtues of honesty and humility, recognizing their common brokenness first and foremost.
And – even more important – recognizing their common redemption, too. Much to the chagrin of political pundits and religious judges, we are not saved by getting the answers right. We are not saved by pointing out how the other side misses the mark. We are saved, in the end, by following the risen Christ who heals our sin. We are saved by following Jesus, who comes to us with nail holes in his hands and feet, gaping wounds that mark an astonishingly strong, life-giving, resurrected body – a body real enough to eat a piece of fish but operating on a whole different plane than our small world, a body that walks though doors that everyone else finds to be locked.
We are that body. We, the Church. We are the risen body of Christ in the world – wounded, yes, but able to show the world a reality just beyond our self-centeredness, able to practice the virtues that bring the kingdom of God to life.
The sin, the brokenness, the locked doors in our relationships with God and each other – those don’t disappear either by condemning the other or by wishing our differences away. We have to look at those shut doors with our eyes wide open and then do the hard work of picking the lock. We have to remember that each one of us isn’t any more holy than the person with whom we disagree the most. We have to look to the examples of the saints we’ve known to build the virtues through which we imitate Christ, to deepen within our hearts the well of love that gives itself away.
And we who love the Church have to cultivate a faith community in which honesty and courage and humility guard us from the temptation to become the pundits of our own small worlds. “Beloved, we are God’s children now” the First Letter of John says. “What we will be has not been revealed. What we do know is this: When Jesus is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.” (1 John 3:2) In the meantime, as we come to see the risen Christ more and more clearly, our call is not to be judges but to be witnesses – witnesses of the power of “repentance and forgiveness of sins” (Luke 24:47), witnesses of the long, slow, hard work of characters built, hearts transformed, and lives made new.
1. Barna, George, and David Kinnaman. Churchless: Understanding Today’s Unchurched and How to Connect with Them. Tyndale, 2014.
2. “Take It From David Brooks: Career Success ‘Doesn’t Make You Happy.’” All Things Considered, April 13, 2015. National Public Radio. Available at: http://www.npr.org/2015/04/13/399391894/take-it-from-david-brooks-career-success-doesnt-make-you-happy. Accessed April 16, 2015.