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Sermons

Spirit and Truth

It seems I’m not the only one who read carefully the article about millennials and the church in the Washington Post. It obviously created significant buzz in some circles. A friend of mine sent me an article by David French in a certain magazine, without endorsing its content. It was a rather hateful attack on the same Post article that I referred to last week.

He accuses that millennials will destroy the church because:
  • They want an end to the culture wars. They want a truce between science and faith.
  • They want to be known for what they stand for, not what they are against.
  • They want to ask questions that don’t have predetermined answers.
  • They want churches that emphasize an allegiance to the kingdom of God over an allegiance to a single political party or a single nation.
  • They want their LGBT friends to feel truly welcome in our faith communities.
  • They want to be challenged to live lives of holiness, not only when it comes to sex, but also when it comes to living simply, caring for the poor and oppressed, pursuing reconciliation, engaging in creation care and becoming peacemakers.

When I combine this list with what I read in that Washington Post article – authenticity, inclusivity, sacraments, faith, community – I don’t see much difference from what Jesus preached and did. And yet, this David French, asserts that if you want to destroy your church, do what these millennials are asking!

Jesus and the Samaritan woman1

Let’s see what Jesus says and does in the Gospel reading of the Samaritan woman. It’s not far from what the millennials look for in a church.

  • He broke down barriers – he spoke with a woman; a Samaritan; and a sinner by the definitions of religion!
  • He is inclusive. He treats the woman as anyone else, no distinction of nationality and religion.
  • His vision of salvation is universal.
  • His vision of worship is spiritual, not tied to any tradition. “In spirit and in truth” – that’s what millennials call authenticity!

Do you think Jesus would have treated her differently if she were lesbian? Or conservative? Or liberal? Or Chinese? Or Cuban? We label people AND ideas too easily. And have you noticed? We usually label people we don’t like or we disagree with. So labeling is primarily negative, not positive!

Our Gospel reading is a powerful reminder of what was most important to Jesus: People, not labels or categories! This woman was by herself at the well in the hottest part of the day because she was labeled and everyone gossiped about her. When others gossip about you the last thing you want to do is go to the well in the morning when all the other women are there – who will look at you and whisper about you. Jesus does exactly the opposite. And he brought this woman right into the kingdom.

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The first thing the Samaritan woman did after her encounter with the kingdom of God was to preach to the people who had shamed her!

 

The church has given her a name – a Greek name, as was customary in that unique form of Byzantine cultural imperialism. She obviously was not Greek; but it’s a good name, nevertheless: Photini. The name means shining with light! According to church tradition, she became an evangelist and was martyred in Rome with her two sons and five sisters during the persecutions of Emperor Nero. She brought the light of Christ to many, starting with some of her own townspeople, maybe even some of the women who used to shun her!

st-photine-the-samaritan-womanHere’s what her Apolytikion (Feb 26) says: Illumined by the Holy Spirit, you drank with great and ardent longing the water that Christ the Savior gave to you. With the streams of salvation you were refreshed, and you abundantly gave to those who were thirsty. O Great Martyr and equal of the Apostles, Photine!

She was labeled, she was judged – but not by Jesus. He brought her into the kingdom of God and the church wisely elevated her to the status of apostle. We are all called to be full of light and light-givers to others. Just like the Samaritan woman!

 

The story of the Samaritan woman at the well was one of the first gospel scenes to receive iconographic representation, as in one of the catacombs of Rome in the late 2nd or early 3rd centuries, illustrated here. (click to enlarge)
The story of the Samaritan woman at the well was one of the first gospel scenes to receive iconographic representation, as in one of the catacombs of Rome in the late 2nd or early 3rd centuries, illustrated here. (click to enlarge)
Categories
Sermons

Church Without Gimmicks

 

Sermon of 3 May, 2015, Audio file:

 

miracle-healing-of-the-paralytic-sheeps-poolJohn is called the Theologian in the Orthodox Church, for good reason. There is much theology in today’s reading of John 5:1-15; but there is theology in all the miracle stories in the Gospels, as I always try to point out. At the heart of today’s miracle story is a rejection of superstition – and religious beliefs practices that are little more than superstition! Thus the double attack in this reading: the water and the sabbath!

Command to sin no more = don’t go back to the same old same old! Follow a new path, the path of Christ, the Word of God incarnate. It is amazing how people can twist the written word of God and each person interpret in his/her own way. But the living Word of God, the one who is a person rather than a page in a book, is different. His way is different. He is the end of religion; not all religion, but religion that relies on rules and magical beliefs.

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In his book, Christianity and the Religions, author Jacques Dupuis quotes the opening prayer of the Koran, the fatiha:516XBCKXN3L
In the name of Allah, Most Gracious, Ever Merciful.
All praise belongs to Allah alone,
the Lord of all the worlds,
Most Gracious, Ever Merciful,
Master of the Day of Judgment.
You alone do we worship and You alone do we implore for help.
Guide us along the straight path –
the path of those on whom
You have bestowed Your favors.,
those who have not incurred Your wrath, and
those who have not gone astray.

 

Some scholars call this the “Our Father” of Islam! I totally disagree. There is almost nothing in common between this prayer and the Our Father. The fatiha could have been prayed by the Pharisee in the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. The Our Father is not a prayer of religion or the religiously righteous. Thy kingdom come; thy will be done on earth as in heaven; give us this day our daily bread; forgive us as WE forgive; etc. Nothing in here about worship, or judgment, or how we’re different from those who have displeased God and gone astray, etc.

Sin no more, Jesus tells the man. In the context of this miracle story there is ONLY ONE thing that this command could possibly mean: “Don’t go back to the old ways of magical and mechanical religion. I healed you and I will continue to heal you and guide you. I am the way, the truth and the life.” And those are his words to us as well. I value our church practices and traditions. Our worship is beautiful. Religion is God’s gift to human beings; but it is meant only as a guide, a means of sharing life with others who are on the same path. But the path is Jesus. And the end-point is Jesus. Anything that stands in the way of hearing the voice of the Word is an obstacle, like the water was an obstacle for 38 years to this man.

For many people, churches are an obstacle to finding God. And churches often scramble to find new and creative ways to attract people. So churches resort to marketing and gimmicks. Churches try to be current and relevant. Churches try to make worship as comfortable and non-threatening and warm and fuzzy as they can. So I found it very insightful what Rachel Held Evans wrote in the Washington Post last week. She is a millennial. That’s the usual name given to people born from the early 1980s to early 2000s. Here are some extensive quotes from this article (you can read the full article here).

Millennials prefer classic to trendy churches, sanctuary over auditorium. For a generation bombarded with advertising and sales pitches, and for whom the charge of “inauthentic” is as cutting an insult as any, church rebranding efforts can actually backfire, especially when young people sense that there is more emphasis on marketing Jesus than actually following Him. Millennials “are not disillusioned with tradition; they are frustrated with slick or shallow expressions of religion,”

Blogger Amy Peterson: “I want a service that is not sensational, flashy, or particularly ‘relevant.’ I can be entertained anywhere. At church, I do not want to be entertained. I do not want to be the target of anyone’s marketing. I want to be asked to participate in the life of an ancient-future community.”

According to Barna Group, among young people who don’t go to church, 87 percent say they see Christians as judgmental, and 85 percent see them as hypocritical. A similar study found that “only 8% say they don’t attend because church is ‘out of date.’

In other words, a church can have a sleek logo and Web site, but if it’s judgmental and exclusive, if it fails to show the love of Jesus to all, millennials will sniff it out. Our reasons for leaving have less to do with style and image and more to do with substantive questions about life, faith and community. We’re not as shallow as you might think.

You can get a cup of coffee with your friends anywhere, but church is the only place you can get ashes smudged on your forehead as a reminder of your mortality. You can be dazzled by a light show at a concert on any given weekend, but church is the only place that fills a sanctuary with candlelight and hymns on Christmas Eve. You can snag all sorts of free swag for brand loyalty online, but church is the only place where you are named a beloved child of God with a cold plunge into the water. You can share food with the hungry at any homeless shelter, but only the church teaches that a shared meal brings us into the very presence of God.

What finally brought me back was the sacraments. Baptism, confession, Communion, preaching the Word, anointing the sick — you know, those strange rituals and traditions Christians have been practicing for the past 2,000 years. The sacraments are what make the church relevant, no matter the culture or era. They don’t need to be repackaged or rebranded; they just need to be practiced, offered and explained in the context of a loving, authentic and inclusive community.

Did you hear the key words? Authentic, non-judgmental, inclusive, sacraments, faith, community. Not marketing, not trendy, no gimmicks. The water in today’s miracle story is a gimmick, a marketing tool. Jesus ignores it and reaches out to the man in need. That’s what the church should be, and that’s what we will continue to strive to be. Most of all, I love that phrase: “an ancient-future community.” Let’s be that; let’s explore what it means to be that.