So, for any who might be interested, here is my sermon for May 30, 2021, more or less as delivered.
"Don't just do something, stand there"
One of the things that weighs on all of us these days is the (real or perceived) decline of American Christianity – and our own church along with it. We are living in a “post-Christian” age, they say. And one of the major signs of our decline is that there are so few young people who find the Church attractive.
What happened? One colleague a few months ago posted online this comment: “They have been converted to another gospel.”
"They have been converted to another gospel." That hit home to me. For there are other gospels out there, in particular one which belongs to the Spirit of the Age, and with which we find it hard to compete.
You can call it Progressivism. Or you can single out its more intense forms, such as Critical Theory, or Intersectionality – what they call “woke” these days. And you’ve heard me talk about this before. It’s everywhere, in every social institution -- in our workforce training, in government, in entertainment, in school, and our young people have it shoved at them every day.
Now this Progressivism Is a political ideology, but it is a totalizing belief system, and so captivates those who believe in it that it functions like a religion. For those who continue to do church, progressive ideas and definitions gradually replace traditional Christian ideas and definitions. But for many, having received the progressive gospel into their minds and hearts, in full agreement with the Spirit of the Age, Church seems but a pale shadow of the real thing – with duller music.
For the Progressive ideology has its own version of morality, its own definition of ultimate purpose, and its own understanding of conversion and identity, which compete with -- and seek to replace -- those same categories of Christian teaching.
Its morality is based upon a peculiar understanding of justice – but the meaning of that term is not the same as “justice” or “righteousness” as we find it in the Bible. There is no reconciliation offered, and no mercy. No recognition that life is complex and good people do bad things, even as bad people do good things. There is no joy over a sinner who repents, just a fierce desire to punish the oppressors.
The ultimate purpose – the goal that Progressivism offers – is the remaking of society. It looks for no kingdom from heaven; it is entirely concerned with the kingdoms of this world, and with the seeking of power. The idea of a God who empties himself of power in order to suffer the fate of the powerless, and who dies forgiving those who sent him to his death, has no counterpart in its creed. For power is always good: good to have, and good to use. And they have no self-doubt about their use of it when they get the opportunity to wield it.
As for identity – I should say, identities – today’s Progressives have that in spades: economic identities, racial, ethnic, and national identities, sexual identities. And their whole understanding of morality and purpose is bound up in celebrating one’s understanding of – or even, conversion to, one’s special identity. To some, this looks like freedom: permission at last to be whoever you feel you were meant to be. But there are hierarchies of identity within that freedom, and you may find that the promised liberation can prove elusive.
Our current bishop has declared that one of the prime purposes of the Annual Conference is “dismantling racism.” But the obsession with racial categories – of defining the races and policing the boundaries and enforcing benefits and penalties based upon the categories – shows that this is just the same old racism with different sauce.
Intersectionality denies that in Christ (or anywhere else) “there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female.” But this is essential to Christianity: the idea that we were called before anything else to give up our Self to him and receive a new identity from him – “a shining stone, with on it a new name written which no one knows,” as the risen Christ promised to the Church at Pergamum. We were called to leave behind the old categories of the world and know each other, love each other, in a new way, as befits citizens of the kingdom that is to come.
Friends, the Church is not a pale shadow of the Spirit of the Age; the Spirit of the Age is always a pale shadow of the Church. If we want to see the Church renewed, we must first refuse to surrender the truth we have lived by to these new ideas that would re-define truth in ugly ways.
Now, having warned you of the seductive power of this alien ideology coming from the left, let me turn to the right and say a few words. (“Leave no ox ungored” is my motto.)
There has been a trend going on for a while now, which came into sharp relief this past election, which has genuinely shocked me. For those who resist the Spirit of the Age are not all in the Church; indeed, many of them think their cause includes all the important stuff the Church offers in a comprehensive package that doesn't really require participation in actual church.
As a f’rinstance, the term “evangelical” used to be simply a religious term used by religious people to describe religious things. But now, the media talk a lot about “the evangelical vote” – and they’re not just talking about church folk. I realize that most newspeople don’t “get” religion, but when they describe various people as “non-church-going evangelicals” they are not making this up. That's how the people describe themselves.
“Non-church-going evangelicals”: how is that even a thing? But it is. And they have been joined by some genuine church-folk who have tried to fight politics with mere politics – and who have, I am afraid, sold their birthright for a mess of beans.
This last election, I had friends – colleagues – spiritually mature Christians (I thought) – who bought into the weirdest conspiracy theories you ever heard; who passed on (when they did not simply make up) prophecies from God; who proclaimed Donald Trump as the new Cyrus (obscure Biblical reference). They have had a very hard time coming to grips with the reality of what happened. Some of them haven’t come out of the rabbit hole yet. And some may never emerge.
You cannot surrender to the Spirit of the Age and stay comfortably in the kingdom of God, but neither can you abandon the kingdom of God because “at least so-and-so fights” against whatever you dislike. There is no real difference between surrendering the fort to the lefty-loonies and abandoning the fort to go fight a counter-revolution with the righty-tighties.
The kingdom of God is bigger than the kingdoms of this world, and politics – however important it might be – is less important than the life of Christ in the Church. And the answer to the problem of church decline is not to be found in the political causes of the day, whatever they are, or in control of school curriculum, or passing laws in defense of religious liberty.
Friends, if you want to see a renewal of religion, then you gotta be . . . religious. (I know, radical, right?) You have to find in Christ that pearl of great price that you are willing to sell everything to obtain. You have to know the truth that sets you free not as a set of right answers, but as an experience of liberation that comes from being in the right relationship with God through Jesus Christ.
There's a story they tell down South of a traveling evangelist coming into town on a train, back when passenger trains were how people traveled. And as he pulled into the station, he looked upon the people he hoped to serve, and saw a few people hurrying across the platform to get to their places, and one old guy leaning back against the wall on two legs of his chair, his hat down over his eyes. And this preacher, who must have thought he was bringing God in his luggage to this spiritually desolate place, called out his window in his best stained-glass voice, "Friends, do the people of this town enjoy their religion?" And the old guy leaning back in his chair replied, without even lifting his hat brim, "Them what has it, do."
We need to enjoy, that is, possess, the fullness of what we proclaim, of the peace and joy and love that are in Christ. We must give up our craving for novelty, for being “cool,” for being like the rest of society; for you cannot renew the Church by trying to be something other than the Church. This means rediscovering prayer, and intimate spiritual relationships, and the Bible, and worship. It means teaching the faith.
In the end, we have to care more about winning souls to Christ than Winning the Argument. It is neither surrender to this ideology nor abandonment to join that ideology, but a resolute defense of our unique position, where our Lord has placed us.
This passage from Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians – usually called “the whole armor of God” -- is full of fascinating imagery, comparing the resources of the Christian with the arms and armor of a Roman legionary: the breastplate of righteousness, the sword of the Spirit, the helmet of salvation, and so on. Many a preacher has gone through the legionary’s kit, item by item, enlarging on Paul’s extended metaphor. I even have such a sermon in my barrel, and some of you have heard it. But never until this last time through did I realize that for Paul, those images aren’t the focus of the passage. Paul’s emphasis is on the operational command, given to the Roman soldier: to stand. He even says it three times:
"Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil." Then, "Therefore take the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand. Stand, therefore, having girded your loins with truth," etc.
Didja ever wonder how the Romans conquered so much of the known world in just a couple of generations? Throughout the First Centuries BC and AD, the Roman legions faced various enemies on a hundred battlefields. They were frequently outnumbered, sometimes 2-1, even 3-1. Their enemies were fierce and strong, and well-equipped. They were fighting on their home ground, while the Romans were operating in hostile territory. These huge warriors – Gauls, Germans, whatnot (the Romans were short) – would come streaming down the hillside, shrieking with bloodlust, and crash into the Roman line. How did the Romans keep winning?
They won because they took that charge on that big tower shield, with their knees flexed, each man covering the flank of the man next to him. If they staggered back a bit, the men behind would reach out hands to push them back in place.
Then, the big warriors with their big swords would swing down and batter on the Roman shields. But ya know, a big ol’ three-foot longsword -- a spatha -- is a pretty slow weapon to wind up and deliver a blow with, and you have to expose yourself in order to reach out and connect with your enemy. Meanwhile, the Romans had the gladius – a short, stabbing sword -- and they would thrust forward and up, just past their shield, into the guy opposite. And the line behind would reach forward with their spears and go stabbity, stabbity, too.
Eventually, the bodies would start piling up in front of the Romans. Finally, even if help didn’t come to the Romans, the barbarians would have to take a step back to reconsider their efforts, and with that, their line would lose confidence. And then the retreat would begin, and would turn into a rout as the Romans pursued and cut them down in their thousands.
The Romans won, time after time, because they couldn’t be broken. Their gear and their training was all aimed at enabling them to stand and let the enemy break himself on their line. As Paul might have said, “don’t just do something, stand there.”
Stand against all the wiles of the devil. Don’t surrender, don’t compromise, and don’t give up your position for a less advantageous one. Be the Church. Be the People of God. Know that you have the better cause and the larger understanding. And as long as you stand on the morality, the purpose, and the identity that God has given you, as long as you enjoy – that is, fully possess -- your religion, it is ultimately the world that must retreat.
Will that bring your young people back to you? I don’t know. I know that unless you know who you are – and whose you are – nobody else, young or old, is going to see much profit in joining with you, But in the end, the Church is of God, and the Church will survive.
Back in the days of the old Soviet Union, when repression of the Church, with State-sponsored atheism, was at its height, you could lose your job if you went to church. If you had your children baptized, you could lose your membership in the Party. Fear reigned, and informers were everywhere. And there was this local commissar, who loved to deride Christianity to the local Orthodox priest, brag and hoot over him for his backward ways, pointing out the fraudulence of his faith. But he couldn't understand how the Church hung on. So he asked him, "How does the church keep going? Nobody still attends but a few babushkas [grandmothers, old ladies]." The priest mildly replied, "God keeps making more babushkas."
Causes and commissars come and go, but the Word of our God will stand for ever. Amen.