The People of the Way

First Sunday after Pentecost: Trinity Sunday
June 15, 2014

The Rev. Dr. Luk De Volder, Rector —

Our church needs renewal, so what can we do? Our job is to go, go therefore, as Christ says, with all that we are and all that we have, even with our doubts and shortcomings. But all our teaching and going out to the ends of the earth requires that we first embody what we stand for. Therefore, as important as the external work of going out to serve and baptize is to spreading the Good News, the most important work we must do as Christians is the internal work of building a bond with God. Because by allowing God to love us with all the support and tenderness of a father, we learn how to have compassion for ourselves and others, and thereby, are empowered in His spirit to become the Good News we proclaim.

Last week our bishop, Ian Douglas, visited our parish. In between the services, Bishop Ian first met with Trinity’s Vestry at an 8:30 breakfast meeting in the undercroft. And, we had laid out a spread to welcome him. But like a focused professor oblivious to the draw of baked goods, he entered the parish hall, passed right by the marvelous display of toppling muffins and fresh fruit salads, and went straight to the work at hand. Turns out, he was giving our sleepy group of vestry members a pop quiz. We looked at each other with the wide eyes of third graders hoping to earn gold stars. Wanting not to be tardy, we hustled to our seats juggling plastic plates and coffee cups. Class was in session.

Bishop Ian had assigned us all to read Dwight Zscheile’s book, entitled: The People of The Way. And as startled as Trinity’s Vestry members were, I happily report that they scored very highly on their report card leaving this rector as proud as can be.

But apart from my pride in our Vestry, I would also like to report a bit about the insightful book that Bishop Ian asked us to study: The People of the Way.

As a boy the author, Dwight, had not been looking for church. Church wasn’t even on his horizon. In his California beach town there were few churchgoers, and those who did go to church, did not talk about it. Spiritual seekers in his town preferred walks in the woods to attending organized religious services.

If Dwight were to find God, God had to come to him in another way than church.

And God did.

Dwight was a teenager growing up in a secularized household in a secularized community, the way many of the children of the United States are growing up today as well. He hungered for shared meaning in a culture that told him to create his own. He hungered for community in an age where individualism is the goal of intellectual, emotional, and spiritual quests. He hungered, but he seemed to be the only one with such pangs. Because his questions seemed strange, and he could find no answers.

Until God came to him.

God came to him in the stories that Dickens and Dostoyevsky dared to share with the world about their experiences of faith. God came to him in the conversations he had with Christians in his college dorm room. But perhaps most importantly, God came to him in his unchurched best friend who through his generous compassion for people served as the face of God to him.

No sermons. No Scripture. No big acts of charity. No pushy Jesus talk convinced him. What moved Dwight to reframe the vision of reality handed to him by a secular society were people willing to live so honestly that they write about or live openly in their struggle to love God. They used their lives to share their stories. And it convinced him.

What we learn from Dwight’s story is that spreading the Good News has more to do with engaging in the internal work of letting God love us so deeply we radiate the divine, than it does with any other strategy. Forget everything we know about evangelizing, proselytizing or sermonizing. How we live our lives is the most potent advertisement for Christianity.

In today’s Gospel, on this Trinity Sunday, we hear Jesus saying, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Our church needs renewal and our job is to go, as Jesus says, go make disciples of all nations. And many Christians have gone and are going into the world.

The problem is the way they are going. Christians are going in power-hungry ways. Some in self-righteous ways. Others in painfully anti-intellectual ways. Others ignoring newcomers under a big banner that says welcome. And others still are trying to make religion synonymous with a political agenda. Separation of church and state is not just good for state, it’s good for church. When the two are confused, the name of Jesus is diminished and pulled down into the muck of politics. No wonder people don’t want to get involved with Christ. Our sales pitch is not exactly enticing. We Christians have managed to bandy about the name of Christ and mixed it with our selfish purposes to the point that modern people recoil at Christ’s name. That is our doing -as a whole widespread group of Christians.

As Dwight Zscheile highlights in his story, what we are missing in our spreading the Good News is not what we say or do, but how we say and do it. Are we joyful? Not happy clappy, but joyful? That is to say, do we live as though we see that Christ is at work in everything, giving meaning and dignity to all of creation? Do we live as though every last being is raised in Christ and all this drama in life is just each of us learning and sometimes kicking against accepting it? Or do we live as though today’s drama is the end all and be all of our existence.

Anxiety. Anger. Isolation. Jealousy. Greed.

Most of us don’t live all the time with joy, including myself on plenty of grumpy days when I have forgotten the Good News again and succumb to drama. We are slow learners who keep forgetting the truth. Christianity is a practice. Not a one-time dose.

But if we don’t live with joy, then before we go head out to spread the Good News, we need to go back into ourselves and go back before God. We need to go become the Good News.

For most of us that means doing the internal, spiritual work of letting God steep in our lives. We need to let God steep in us like a teabag in a saucer of warm water. Over time, often involving heat in our lives. Permeating.

Jesus even tells us how to steep ourselves. We are to go out into the world steeped in the name of the Father, that is after we have allowed God to love us as tenderly and compassionately as an adoring father.

And we are to go into the world steeped in the name of the Son, with all the openness to the world and readiness to forgive as a child.

And we are to go into the world steeped in the name of the Holy Spirit ready to lift up and empower those around us with our joy and friendship.

In a twitter age, people have developed a radar to detect whether we simply preach or whether we live what we stand for. People are hyper sensitive not only to what we say and do, but also how we do it.

We can print all flyers and banners we want. We can serve at all the soup kitchens of town. But if we don’t apply God’s Trinitarian compassion to our own internal level of pain, frustration, anger or self-rejection, than we risk living in a spirit that is undermining rather than strengthening our mission. We taint the name of Christ. The reasons for church decline go indeed beyond our own individual capacity. But in a time of needed renewal, we, the people of the way, are the ones, and no one else, who can bring this renewal. All research confirms that a new website, a revamped flyer, or the most appealing undercroft will only be in vain if the people of that church don’t actually live the values they promote.

And one final thing to notice, too. Jesus gives authority not just to those who worshipped him, but also to those who doubted. Because doubting helps us realize the questions of those with spiritual hunger, those who may hear the name of Christ today and recoil. We need to listen to what they doubt and meet them there. All are called in all our stages of faith and doubt to proclaim the Good News. We just need to do it with honesty. When we are honest with people about our doubt, about our struggle to live the Good News, that too is integrity and people want to know more.

The great commission is not for us each to be self-righteous, all pious, perfectionists shoving God’s name at people. But rather it is a call to be so consumed by the joy of God’s love, including our doubts and pain, that we radiate light that naturally attracts people to wonder what makes us so peaceful and questful.

Last Sunday we had a great conversation with our bishop. He was down to earth, ready for change, and encouraged us all to continue the reflection of what makes us People of the Way. We concluded the meeting with the realization that today’s climate of church decline is also an exciting time. Although we still face some types of Christianity that are power-hungry, condescending, painfully anti-intellectual, or intertwined with politics, it is, more than in a very long time, a great opportunity to be a Christian leader today. Because by integrating God who cares for us as a parent and God who empowers in us his spirit of compassion, we can become the Good News we proclaim, and bring the renewal we need.