Wednesday, March 15, 2006

The Word with a Good Heart but Unlikable Reputation

May 1, 2005

The Rev. Richard A. Lord, M.Div., S.T.M.
Church of the Holy Comforter, Vienna, VA

Sixth Sunday of Easter
ACTS 17:22-31

I’d like to share a short excerpt from an email I received recently:

Dear Fr. Lord, I am a philosophy teacher at James Madison High School in Vienna. My philosophy class has been undergoing an in depth examination of metaphysics and discussed many questions involving topics like God, immortality, and the soul. I would like to expand this discussion to incorporating various organized religions and their beliefs. I have two morning classes and I was thinking that you could speak/answer questions for about 45 minutes. As far as focus is concerned we have discussed issues such as God’s existence (arguments for and against; specifically Aquinas’s ontological argument and Descartes argument), where we derive our morals from, is there such a thing as a soul, what happens to us when we die. If you want to share your knowledge/view on any of these issues that would be great.

I think it’s an extraordinary opportunity in this day and age, when an Episcopal priest gets invited to speak about the existence of God at a Public High School. I couldn’t resist. So this past Friday, I had the pleasure of speaking at both the first and second period philosophy class at Madison High School. Each class had about 25 students, and they were not shy in the questions they wanted to ask me. After giving them a general overview of the history and spirituality of the Anglican Communion, and sharing a bit of my own spiritual journey, I opened it up for questions. They were not hesitant in the least. What are the differences between the Episcopal Church and other denominations? What does the Episcopal Church teach about abortion, birth control and pre-marital sex? What do you think about the place of homosexual people in the Church? Why does religion have to be so organized? Why does organized religion cause so much division in the world? Do you believe the only way a person can know God is through Jesus Christ? Do you believe that God sends some people to hell?

I answered as many questions as time would allow, but it was that last question that seemed to be the most urgent one that was asked. I spent a little more time on it. I told the students, that in spite of what they might hear T.V. preachers say, or those who advocate a more literal interpretation of the Bible, I do not believe God sends anyone to hell; in fact, I said, I do not believe hell is a physical place where people endure eternal punishment for their sins. The greatest danger of seeing hell in this way is the desire to see others punished—including the desire to do the punishing ourselves.

I told them that the first and deepest thing about every human being is that they are created in the image of God. This gift of uniqueness, or our deepest and truest selves however, is not a right, and automatic possession; it is the gift of God himself. It’s like a wonderful instrument bequeathed to us by a loving parent. And the way to keep the wonderful instrument in tune is to play it—to play is for all its worth; to practice reflecting the image of God, which you do through loving God, loving your neighbor as your love yourself, you do it by bringing goodness and compassion to this world. But we can get out of tune very easily. We need to learn to respect the image of God in our selves and one another. If we don’t, we will become less human. It is possible, I said, that people could progressively choose to be less and less genuinely human, until they eventually cease to be human at all. In the end, I think Hell is a metaphor for what happens when we cease to practice God’s image. Jesus put it this way, “What does it profit a person, to gain the whole world but lose their soul?” God does not willingly want any human being to lose their humanity. In the end, the choice is really our own. “So keep practicing a good human life,” I added. “God truly believes in you.” It was not all I wanted to say about the matter, but it was enough for one day.

I was pleased to receive applause after that answer. When the classes were over, the teacher said to me, “The students really responded to you. I think they really appreciated your openness, your willingness to listen to their points of view without giving them hard-line answers. Last week we had a fundamentalist Christian pastor who told them with no exceptions that those who do not accept Christ as their savior are destined for hell, including those of other religious faiths. I think they were pleased with the way you handled their questions.”

It’s not a very popular word today. But what I was engaged in with those wonderful students at Madison High School was a little evangelism. It is a word with a good heart, in spite of its unlikable reputation. To the average person today, evangelism is equated with pressure. It means selling God as if God were just another commodity to add to your other possessions. It means shoving your ideas down someone’s throat, threatening him with hell if he does not capitulate to your logic or Scripture-quoting. It means excluding everyone from God’s grace except those who see it your way. When preceded by the world television or radio, the word evangelism grows even darker, more sinister, and even sleazy. There are good exceptions of course, but in general, what is portrayed as evangelism on the higher end of our cable channels leaves a great deal to be desired.

This is the reputation evangelism has for most people. But think about this: What if there really is a great and good and kind God, and we human beings are really God’s creatures, though we lose our ways sometimes? And what if our deepest dream is really true, that the God, who really exists, really loves us? And what if one of the best ways for God to get through to those of us who have lost our way is by the kindness and influence of those others who have been brought back to a good path? And what if for every obvious and sleazy religious huckster out there, there are in fact a dozen subtle but sincere examples of spiritual authenticity and vibrancy whose influence would do the rest of us a lot of good? Consider for a moment if it is not evangelism, but rather late twentieth-century styles of evangelism that deserve our criticism and avoidance. What if evangelism is one of the things that our world needs most?

In our first reading today, we have the story of Paul in Athens, and a fine example of sensitive and respectful evangelism. He came to what was then the intellectual and cultural capital of the Mediterranean world. He was distressed to see that the city was full of idols: temples, shrines, statues, and altars. There would have been images of Apollo, Jupiter, Venus, Mercury, Bacchus, and Neptune, all the gods of Olympus. And these images would have been beautiful to the eye, elegantly fashioned by the finest Greek sculptors.

Paul appreciated their beauty, but they troubled him as well. Paul felt compassion. He believed and knew in the depths of his heart that there is one great, and good, and kind God, and that we are created in the image of this one God. He wanted to enter into conversation with the people of Athens about their views on life and death, and he hoped to share with them the Good News of God’s love revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. He went to the synagogue every day and spoke with people in the market place. Finally, some philosophers wanted to hear about the resurrection, this “new religion,” they hear Paul speaking about and invited him to the Areopagus, the ‘council of the philosophers.’ What is beautiful about Paul’s approach is his sensitivity and respect for his listeners. This is what he has to say:

“Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we too are his offspring.’

Paul does not condemn their religious hunger, but points them to the one God who has placed that hunger within them. This God does not live in shrines, nor is this God dependent on human help. God gives life to all human beings, and since we are his offspring we should not think that God is like gold or silver or stone or an image of art created by our own imagination. In fact, God has appointed someone to show us how to know and experience this God, one who invites us to change our perceptions about God, and who will eventually bring justice to our world. This God assures us this will happen by raising this man from the dead.

Now truth be told, Paul did not have much success in Athens, but there were a few who did respond. More important in this story, is what we learn about sensitive and respectful evangelism. Let me close with three suggestions:

  1. Show respect for the worthwhile qualities in people’s lives. God has been at work in their lives long before you came on the scene. Listen to their stories. You may be surprised by the openness that is there.
  2. After you have made it clear that you are not there to “correct” their point of view, tell them your story. Be gentle about this by asking permission or opening the door for further conversation. “Sometime if you’re interested I can tell you about my own spiritual journey.” Or engage their curiosity, “A few years ago my life took a big turn for the better.” Or share with them what’s going on in your life these days, “I heard a really good message at church yesterday.”
  3. Be an inviter or an includer. If someone is interested in learning more, invite him or her to church, or to your home for more conversation, so they can see your personal life and what difference faith has made in the way you live.

There are many people outside these doors who yearn to explore and talk about things that really matter to them—their sense of God, their experiences of meaning or transcendence, their attempts to cope with their own mortality, their struggles with guilt and goodness, their hopes and longings. We are those whom God sends and wishes to use in bringing them to a good path. We are the ones who can be gentle, sensitive, and influential. Like Paul standing among philosophers at the Areopagus, we have a story to tell. Let us tell that story with respect, inviting curiosity, including those who seek a community where they can ask hard questions and know that they belong.

* I wish to gratefully acknowledge my friend Brian McLaren for his ideas regarding evangelism with young people today. See his book More Ready Than You Realize: Evangelism As Dance In The Postmodern Matrix for a more thorough discussion of the approach I present in this sermon.

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