Sunday, February 23, 2014

Trying Difficult Christianity

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
February 23, 2014

Year A: The Seventh Sunday after Epiphany
Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18
Psalm 119:33-40
1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23
Matthew 5:38-48

Trying Difficult Christianity
            So, have you ever wondered what clergy talk about when they get together?
            Oh, we talk about all the same kinds of things as everybody else: for example, the latest styles of vestments, which communion wine tastes best, the benefits of using whole wheat wafers, and so forth.
            Seriously, one topic that comes up a lot is church attendance.
            Since I’ve been rector here a number of my clergy colleagues have been checking in with me.
            “How are things going?” they ask.
            And some bolder and, yes, nosier colleagues ask, “What’s your average Sunday attendance?”
            Now, since, thank God, we’re growing, I don’t really mind be asked about our attendance, though it really isn’t any of their business. But, some people are very uncomfortable getting asked that kind of question because a low or dropping average Sunday attendance, or ASA, unfairly indicates some kind of failure on the part of the priest, the vestry, and even the congregation itself.
            The disturbing truth is that church attendance has been dropping in the Episcopal Church and in most other denominations for years. The decline has begun to affect the Southern Baptists and even the nondenominational mega-churches, whose growth not too long ago seemed unstoppable.
            So we clergy and others church people puzzle and worry over the decline.
            Why don’t people come to church like they used to?
            Well, there are lots of reasons, of course.
            Over the years the Church has lost credibility with a lot of people because of various scandals – usually either sexual or financial or both.
            And then some supposedly Christian leaders have hurt all of our reputations, stained us all, by the hate that they spew from their pulpits and over the airwaves and on the streets.
            Some people get turned off or even rejected by the church they grew up in. Rather than looking for another Christian community where they might be welcomed and fed, they drop out, or dabble in another religion or create their own religion or describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious.”
            And then in this age of skepticism there are lots of people just don’t find our claims about God and Jesus and life to be believable and so they fall away.
            And, then we all know that in recent years, for better or worse, American culture has changed a whole lot.
            For example, for many Americans Sunday used to be set aside for church and family – even here in Hudson County.
            I’m old enough to remember the days of the Blue Laws, strictly limiting shopping on Sundays. (Most of you probably know that Blue Laws are still in place in Bergen County.)
            Not too long ago, the idea of schools or athletic teams scheduling Sunday morning practices or games was practically unthinkable.
            I’m not really sure how it is here in the city, but certainly out in the suburbs church has a lot of tough competition from soccer, football, ice hockey, field hockey, lacrosse and all the rest. Out in Grace Church in Madison I saw many parents really torn by having to make the choice between sports and church. Some would just figure out a way to do both, coming to an early service for example. But, others would reluctantly give in and drive their kids to the field or the rink.
            And then there are people who are simply exhausted. Sunday is maybe the one morning they get to sleep in; the one morning they get to have a real breakfast; the one morning they get to spend with family and friends.
            So, you see we’ve given some thought to the decline in church attendance.
            But, I wonder if there might not be another reason why not as many people show up for church.
            Christianity is difficult.
            Now, Christianity isn’t so difficult if you’re just going to go through the motions, if you’re just going to come here and say the words and sing the songs, eat the bread and drink the wine and then go out into the world and live just like everybody else.
            That kind of Christianity is easy.
            But, of course, that’s not real Christianity.
            Real Christianity is hard.
            Thinking about how hard it is to be a Christian reminds me of a famous quote by G.K. Chesterton, a writer who lived about a hundred years ago.
            He wrote: “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and not tried.”
            I think that’s absolutely true. Christianity – real Christianity is difficult and is usually not even tried.
            And this Sunday and last Sunday we’ve been reminded just how difficult Christianity is – this Sunday and last Sunday we’ve heard the highest expectations that Jesus sets for us.
            Those of you who braved the ice and were here last week may remember that we heard Jesus dig down into the roots of God’s law – we heard Jesus dig down to the heart of the Law.
            Jesus teaches us that in his view, in God’s view, hate is as bad as murder and lust is as bad as adultery.
            Jesus teaches us that we are to keep our promises and commitments – and we are to be absolutely honest.
            Jesus sets the highest expectations for us.
            And then today difficult Christianity gets just a little more difficult.
            Jesus calls us not to resist the evildoer, but to turn the other cheek.
            Jesus calls us to give away to those in need not just our coat but our cloak as well. That may not sound so tough except when we realize that in the First Century if you gave away you coat and your cloak, you were naked.
            Difficult Christianity.
            In the Roman Empire soldiers could force civilians to carry their stuff for one mile. Jesus calls his followers to go a second mile.
            Jesus commands us, “Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.”
            Very difficult. So difficult that I’m surprised some people haven’t begun to make their way out the door!
            Jesus demands that we love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us.
            And, finally, Jesus calls us to be perfect as God is perfect.
            G.K. Chesterton again: “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and not tried.”
            And, yet.
            And yet we need to try to live this difficult Christianity because Jesus’ way of love, forgiveness, and sacrifice really is “The Way.”
            We need to try because Jesus’ way of love, forgiveness and sacrifice is the way to true joy and fullness of life.
            We need to try because Jesus’ way of love, forgiveness and sacrifice is the way things were always meant to be, the way we were always meant to be.
            But, real Christianity, the way of the Cross, the way Jesus, sure is difficult.
            So, as I said last Sunday, that’s why we come back here week after week.
            That’s really why we get together here each Sunday – to get the support we need to meet the highest expectations that Jesus has for us.
            That’s really why we get together here each Sunday, to receive forgiveness for the many, many – too many times to count or remember – times that we fail to meet Jesus’ highest expectations – that we fail to follow the difficult way of Jesus.
            That’s why we come to church, to receive the help of God’s grace, the help of God’s grace that we receive in and through the Scriptures, our prayers and songs, our fellowship, our service to one another and to the wider community, and most especially in the Body and Blood of Christ that we take into our bodies and into our hearts.
            We may wish otherwise, but Jesus has set the highest expectations for us, his disciples and followers.
            Jesus has called us to his way, the way of the Cross, the difficult way of love, forgiveness and sacrifice.
            And, together, with God’s grace, we can begin to rise to Jesus’ highest expectations.
            Together, with God’s grace, we can actually, finally, try this difficult Christianity and take even just a few small steps towards perfection.
            So, actually, yes, our average Sunday attendance is pretty important after all. Amen.