“The Work Before Us” by the Rev. Neil Elliott

I was pretty good in eighth-grade algebra: mine was the second-highest score on the standardized math test in all of New Mexico.  The first highest score was Bill Cunningham: he sat behind me in class. He was a whiz kid. But when Mrs. Elmendorf handed our papers back, his were covered with red ink: She had written “Show your work!” after each answer he gave.

I’ve written several pretty good homilies for this service, and abandoned them one after another. I think it may be more important this morning to “show my work,” to talk with you about the concerns and considerations that I think go into the responsibility of preaching from this pulpit.

It’s been an intense several weeks as I’ve looked at the lectionary texts and formulated ideas, then had conversations—over dinner with friends, and in meetings and phone calls and e-mail threads with clergy, both here and at other churches. My Facebook feed is mostly other clergy and biblical scholars (some are the same people), some currently attending General Convention. All of them are working very hard to discern What should we be saying in our churches right now?  What should the church be saying in public life right now?

Most of us believe preaching should be a “word on target”; it should address the most important aspects of our contemporary situation in a meaningful way. But what is that situation? I don’t necessarily mean what were this week’s headlines; I mean, what’s going on around us?

Being Episcopalian, we are of course very circumspect when we talk about this in our prayers: We ask for “grace in these times of national tension.” Our presiding bishop declares that these are “perilous and polarizing times.”[1]

U.S. citizens are polarized. Although in poll after poll, solid majorities agree on basic common-sense legislation on all sorts of issues, some political leaders and some media—not all, but enough—thrive on setting us against each other, inspiring distrust and disdain for “the other side.” As Americans,  we don’t agree on “what’s going on around us,” or on whether it’s good or bad.[2]

It would be nice to imagine we could leave all that behind when we came to church and just feel comfortable, uplifted, inspired with people we care about. But American churches are as polarized as the wider society. The director of the Public Religion Research Institute writes that we are watching The End of White Christian America as two factions, white Evangelicals and white mainline churches (that’s us), fight for the soul of the country—even as more and more Americans who don’t identify with either of us wish we would work with them toward the social changes we so clearly need.[3] We know that throughout U.S. history, churches have divided, most catastrophically over slavery.[4] According to polls, the Americans most likely to blame the poor for their own poverty, and most likely to say that we have no responsibility for refugees, are White Evangelical Christians.[5] U.S. churches seem to be polarized to the point we don’t even recognize each other.

Episcopal churches are polarized. They have lost about 30% of the membership they enjoyed in the 1980s, even more since the “glory days” of the 1960s. Some of that is demographic,[6] but historians also note that people have left when churches took controversial stands, over the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement, the ordination of women—we heard Karen speak last week about the disdain and abuse that so many women clergy have faced from angry and self-righteous Episcopalians since the 1970s—and more recently the full acceptance of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender persons into our life.[7]

When I was in seminary, my professors spoke glowingly of the Episcopal “via media,” our “middle way” of reaching consensus among different viewpoints; but it seems many of us have preferred the via mea, “my way or the highway.”

It’s tempting to think we’ll be happier if we just don’t talk about issues that matter to us, but that we might disagree on. But here I remember Dr. Martin Luther King’s letter from a Birmingham jail, in which he declared that the greatest obstacle to full justice in our society was not white racists, but the white liberals—he meant especially white moderate clergy—who cautioned patience and moderation instead of standing in solidarity with those in need. What challenges face us that we dare not be silent about?

So, my question for all of us: What are our expectations when we gather?

Do we come expecting peace and quiet, a space to leave trouble behind for a while, to have a sense of belonging with others?

Do we expect to hear truth spoken, to get some moral clarity about the complexity of the situation we face?

Do we expect to be empowered, as our prayers say, to be sent out to do the work in the world God that has given us to do? What would it mean if we thought of the church—of ourselves—as responsible for equipping and empowering one another to do difficult work, to take courageous, compassionate, convictional stands?

All of those are legitimate expectations; I’ve come to church at different times wanting one or another of those. But those expectations can be at odds. My hearing what makes me comfortable may mean that you don’t hear that you’re welcome here. And if we both feel soothed and at ease, who are the people outside our doors who are out of sight, and out of mind: Do they cease to be part of our responsibility?

And what should we expect to hear preached? It’s tempting to think we could open the Bible (or the lectionary) and the right message will beam out at us; or, that if we repeat a passage often enough, God’s truth will just emerge. But it’s more complicated than that. In the last few weeks we have heard the Bible quoted in our national life, on both sides of various issues, and again and again I’ve heard people ask, Are they reading the same Bible?

Sometimes we’re not. In debates over immigration, many of us look to the commands in Torah to “honor the resident alien in your midst”; others have reached for Romans 13 and insisted, “obey the government!” Does one set of verses trump another? Unless we have a shared understanding of how we read the Bible, we’re doomed to just lob verses at each other.

Sometimes there’s just no effort to take the Bible seriously at all. When powerful men have boasted about sexually assaulting women, we’ve heard their defenders say, “Well, King David had 500 concubines,” so what’s the big deal? That’s not just a ridiculous inaccuracy; it misses the whole point of the biblical epic of David, which is about his rise and fall; it’s a cautionary tale about how power corrupted a king and the people who thought a king would make them great. If we don’t know the Bible, and respect the complexity and diversity of its voices, it will be too easy for crass and cynical people to manipulate us.

I don’t expect these comments have been uplifting or inspiring. I’ve tried to sketch the sort of serious moral questions that I think we need to embrace if the church is to be a community that accepts the weighty responsibility of discerning God’s will. In my mind that’s what the church is called to be.

My prayer is that in the days ahead we will gather with our hearts open to each other, and open to the hard work to which we are called.

 

 

[1] See the statement, signed by a number of religious leaders, ReclaimingJesus.org.

[2] The Rasmussen Poll tells us that 41% of likely voters think the country is “on the right track”; of course, others don’t. Rasmussen also tells us that 31% of likely voters think “a new civil war is likely soon.” See http://www.rasmussenreports.com/public_content/politics/mood_of_america/right_direction_wrong_track_jul02; http://www.rasmussenreports.com/public_content/politics/general_politics/june_2018/31_think_u_s_civil_war_likely_soon. (Interestingly, Rasmussen reports that 31% expect the “civil war” will begin with violence carried out by opponents of President Trump’s policies.)

[3] Robert Jones, The End of White Christian America (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2016).

[4] The Civil War split most denominations in two, and even today the largest Evangelical denomination is the “Southern Baptist Convention”—which defiantly stands apart from other  Baptists.

[5] See Julie Zausmer, “Christians are more than twice as likely to blame a peson’s poverty on lack of effort,” Washington Post, Aug. 3, 2017, online: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2017/08/03/christians-are-more-than-twice-as-likely-to-blame-a-persons-poverty-on-lack-of-effort/?utm_term=.3038084ce34e, and Philip Blum, “The Group least likely to think the U.S. has a responsibility to accept refugees? Evangelicals,” Washington Post, May 24, 2017, online: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/politics/wp/2018/05/24/the-group-least-likely-to-think-the-u-s-has-a-responsibility-to-accept-refugees-evangelicals/?utm_term=.cb2321c6438e.

[6] See David Goodhew, “Facing Episcopal Church Decline,” https://livingchurch.org/covenant/2017/07/24/facing-episcopal-church-decline/.

[7] See Robert Pritchard, History of the Episcopal Church, 3rd ed. (Morehouse, 2014).

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