Sunday, September 04, 2011

"I believe in God; its the institutional church I don't believe in..."

We clergy are often called upon by strangers to administer the sacraments. Not long ago, I got a call from a perfect stranger, and was asked to go to the bedside of a dying woman. There I stood with a grief stricken family, no questions asked, no invoices sent, and administered the last rites of the church as any priest worth his or her salt would do.
Hundreds of baptisms, weddings and funerals of perfect strangers have come and then they've gone, never to be heard from again.
They believed in God; all of them, it was just the Institutional Church they didn't believe in.
Then I thought about it and wondered how in the world we'll ever get to proclaim the Gospel unless we do that in community. Today's Gospel lesson is set within the context of conflict. If two folks are at disagreement, they are to grow up and work it out together. If that doesn't work, then grow up; get a few others and get your facts straight. If that doesn't work take the matter before the church; lets say the vestry, for instance, lay the matter before the church, grow up and figure out a way forward. If that doesn't work treat the offender like a Gentile (outsider) or a tax collector. Interestingly enough, we know how Jesus treated Gentiles and tax collectors. According to the Gospel accounts, Jesus found room in his heart for all. So should we too.
So it seems that at the heart of the Christian Gospel there is the skill of conflict management. And thus when two or three are assembled together, we're told there too is God in their midst.
This is a model for modern life. The call has gone out to work out the particulars by growing up, facing facts, face to face with others, particularly when you find yourself at loggerheads with another. We find the rule honored more in the breach than in the observance so often.
Thus much of the world lets itself off the hook though this classic cop-out. "I don't have to go to church to be Christian or to believe in God".
How often I have heard that go by me and just let it go. "I find God in nature, down at the seaside, or in the forest, in a beautiful sunset," or my personal favorite; "at the golf course".
This is all a giant cop-out.
It is like saying; "I believe in Democracy; its just Government and Politicians I don't believe in."
Or; "I believe in Justice; its just the Courts and the lawyers I don't believe in".
What brought this home to me was a conversation I had not all that long ago with an attorney. The same predictable cop-out; "I believe in God; its just the institutional church I don't believe in."
"Well then, why do you want your daughter baptized here?" Oh well, some grandmother somewhere or another insisted, and so, of course I gladly baptized that baby. I joined all those other hundreds in marriage, and being rather late in the game, I commended the dying and the dead to God's keeping. It is quite simply what I was ordained to do, and as a matter of fact I was only too glad to do it.
But, I cannot help but think, if I end up in jail in the middle of the night, and call on a lawyer to bail me out, I'll get a hefty bill in the mail.
A man of God doesn't get to send out invoices in the same way.
So I am left to wonder with you; if you want your democracy, you with have to put up with your government and your politicians; if you want your justice, you will have to put up with your courts and your lawyers; but if you want your God, the church and her men and women of God may simply be dismissed with a casual dismissal; "I believe in God, its just the institutional church I don't believe in".
Folks I don't buy that any more.
I hope you don't either.
And when you hear those words again I do hope you challenge them. If you use them yourself, I hope you'll think twice before using them again.
And most of all; I hope we'll grow up a bit and face facts in community. Our Churches, our Government, and our Courts need us to salvage what we can of this civilization. I believe it is still worth saving.
Fr. Paul


Anonymous said...

Amen! I am often dismayed at the utter lack of conviction in the voices of the parents and godparents during the Baptismal Vows. A likely indicator of whether we will see them again I would imagine!

Anonymous said...

I agree with your assessment of America's class war; but you will not unite us under your Christ, let alone in your church. Yawn!
Gods, unlike judges or presidents, are presumed to be perfect and everpresent; all powerful and encompassing the universe. the ideal of democracy depends on politicians to administer it; justice on judges to decide. But countless people have individual, personal, private relationships with their gods, spirit animals, etc. There is no need for an organized church or anointed clergy to act as intermediaries to a god, any more than one would need the intercession of saints (to petition an angry Old Testament father). if there is a god, it depends on no church for its sustenance or to do its bidding, or to distribute its arbitrary blessings, channel the prayers of the faithful, or issue forgiveness. and good luck to the citizen deciding which church or which rituals (or god) to follow. It's worse than Baskin Robbins.

I have the greatest admiration for the Christian congregations that unite to manifest compassion; as I do for the Buddhists. I have close friends who are Christian. There are few secular soup kitchens. But the 'spiritual but not religious' are growing in number, and here to stay, as churches and clergy and antiquated religions do not speak to them, make sense to them, or have failed them. This is not the downfall of civilization, just change, which is inevitable. If we are smart we will harness the best ethics of our traditions apart from their supposedly supernatural origins, and reach some consensus on right and wrong in our democracy and justice system. If spirituality informs that, or undergirds the difficult work in doing so, fine. But methinks you will need a bigger tent to overthrow the corporate overlords.

In peace, solidarity and love,

random atheist neighbor

Fr. Paul said...

Thank you my dear friend, "random atheist". I too have dear friends who are atheists, and find much to admire in anyone with conviction and compassion. When I built a homeless shelter, a soup kitchen, food pantry, transitional housing for battered women and their families, I found it was the atheists who gave the most money to help with those efforts. I know I am a splendid anachronism, and will die off soon enough, as as will so many of these churches I've served, some of which have closed already.
We are closing up the Episcopal Churches rather quickly. What is really taking hold are the right wing houses of worship..those safe harbors of bigotry and ignorance.
So be it.
They win we loose.
It is increasingly difficult to be a priest of this or any other church given what passes for Christianity these days. It is enough to make an atheist out of this priest.
I am semi-retired now anyway, they'll be putting me out to pasture soon enough.
When I was younger, I had lots of ideals...civil rights, gender equality, the embrace of the LGBT community.
The church I love is becoming much smaller. I am fine with that. So long as it never loses its heart for the outcast, it will always be my church. The day it forgets to be the Christ for the world as I understand it, will be the day I throw in the towel on the thing.
But I see much to encourage me in a small salty presence in the world of faith.
In the meantime the vast majority of the world of faith used the word "God" "Allah", "Yaweh" etc as an excuse to kill; the ultimate blasphemy.
I know I will not unite my atheist friends in this effort. Yawn if you wish.
But this I ask...allow me to be part of an effort to engage the forces of wealth to seek justice. Don't join me for God's sake, (oops, sorry I used that word). But allow those few of us who do seek justice who happen to be folks of faith to join you and other like minded people.