Everything New

A sermon preached by Christopher L. Webber at St. Paul’s Church Bantam Connecticut on the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul, January 27, 2013.

Do you know how many Episcopalians  it takes to change a light bulb?

“Change the light bulb?  My grandmother gave that light bulb!”

This church is named for St.  Paul but I wonder how often we stop to think about that and take him seriously as an example.  I’m sure you know the story.  Paul comes on stage as an Episcopalian –  well, he acted like one. He had gone to Jerusalem to learn authentic,  traditional, Pharasaical Judaism.  And that was the best.  The Pharisees were the people who tried hardest to do it right, follow the rules, and that’s why Jesus was hardest on them:  because they thought they could satisfy God by following the rules and Jesus wanted them to know it’s not about rules, it’s about love. Rules can be useful guidelines  but they can’t do more than get you started and if you just keep the rules,  you miss the point.  But Paul had given his life to the system  and here were these people, this new sect of Jesus’ people, tearing the system down, questioning the way it had always been done,  changing the light bulbs. No wonder he was upset.

But Jesus literally knocked him off his horse,  struck him blind – because he’d been blind – and turned him around.  And Paul spent the rest of his life,  as he says in this morning’s second reading:  “proclaiming the faith he once tried to destroy.”  He also spent the rest of his life trying to prevent people from becoming Episcopalians. Well, you know what I mean:  becoming the kind of Episcopalians who do exist in some parishes – certainly not this one because we’re named for St.  Paul – but the people who hang onto the old light bulbs  when they’re long burned out, or insist on the old incandescent bulbs  when they could help save the environment by getting those new ones that burn longer for less.

Everywhere Paul went he heard the same refrain:  “We’ve always done it this way; what right do you have to change everything?” And Paul could only say, “God turned me around;  God opened my eyes; God taught our ancestors a law to prepare us for freedom not slavery. We can’t put such value on the past  that it keeps us from moving on to the future that belongs to God.  God has new gifts to give us  if we can just open our eyes to see them and our hands to receive them.”

It wasn’t an easy sell.  Somehow it never is. Do you remember a novel that got some attention over 30 years ago called  The Clan of the Cave Bear? It’s a story set in the time  when Cro-Magnon human beings were beginning to challenge the older Neanderthal species.  Neanderthal, if you ever studied the matter, had larger heads but most of their brain power was toward the back  and enabled them to remember  enormous amounts of information  but they only had a new idea  about once every hundred years.  The Cro-Magnon, on the other hand, like modern humans,  had more stuff up front  where you can imagine  new ways of doing things. The story has to do with a young Cro-Magnon woman  who gets taken into a Neanderthal tribe  for reasons I forget and causes endless trouble  by suggesting new ways of doing things – sort of like a new priest in an Episcopal church.  Because, lets face it,  there’s a lot of Neanderthal in all of us, including the priest, and it’s often the case  that the new priest’s new ideas  are often just some old ideas and habits he or she brought from somewhere else. It’s like the hymns I think everyone knows  because we sang them in the last parish I served. They’re not new to me and I’m not trying to change a thing  but one man’s Neanderthal is another man’s Cro-Magnon.

Now the point of all this is  to ask what St Paul might want to say to us not just here in Bantam,  not just in the Diocese of Connecticut not just in the Episcopal Church,  but in the Christian Church as a whole, world-wide, because God is doing new things  and challenging us in new ways  and holding onto old patterns, old customs,  old ways of thinking won’t do it anymore. Not that long back we were being told that the mega-church or the evangelicals were the wave of the future. Well, that wave has crested and is falling back  and they have less to hold onto than we do with 2000 years of history behind us.

Think how the church has changed in those two millenia. For almost three hundred years the church survived under persecution. Congregations met in homes and secret places and never knew when new orders would come  and new waves of arrest and torture and death. Then for a century or two the church  had the support of the Roman Empire and the challenge of prosperity and wealth. But then came the barbarian invasions and the destruction of the empire and a new era in which the church became  centered on monasteries that kept the faith and the ancient wisdom alive  in a world of chaos and insecurity. Then there were the great upheavals  of the Reformation and entirely new patterns of church life  with more emphasis on preaching and Bible study and less on the sacraments and there were wars between rival sects  and persecution. Just in my lifetime  we’ve had the great burst of church growth  after World War II and now a slackening off.  The Roman Catholic church  that once seemed to dominate the picture can’t find enough priests to keep all their churches open. They’ve closed a good many.  And then the evangelicals, as I said, also seemed the wave of the future  and now they can’t seem to get it right either. A lot of them lined up with the radical right  and became involved in partisan politics and that’s not what the church is about.  But anyway, here we are in another new era  and the traditional church, all the churches, are in trouble. There was a time when 90% of the population  claimed church membership  But the latest statistics show less than half  of all Americans enrolled in a church and it’s probably less than that  because some denominations haven’t updated their statistics in years.

It’s a new era,  and you can bemoan the loss of the old way or you can be excited about the opportunity. There was a day when you couldn’t do much  about evangelism because your neighbors all belonged to a church already.  Not any more. Now there are chances for evangelism and church growth everywhere if we are open to change,  to adopting new ways to get the message out. St Paul would have loved it.  He started out with a message for Jews: the Messiah has come and it’s a new world.  But it was mostly Gentiles  who were wanting to join up  and Paul told them they didn’t need to become Jews  to become Christians. You don’t have to keep kosher any more.  Can you imagine what that was like for Paul? All his life he had avoided shell fish and pork and now he didn’t have to.  God was doing a new thing and Paul learned new ways to serve.

Do you remember the fuss about the 1928 Prayer Book?  About the ordination of women? People said “We’ve never done it that way;  you’re just being trendy. Just because everyone else does it doesn’t mean we have to.”  Paul would have understood.  When they asked Paul about women wearing hats, he said, ‘What does everyone else do? We’re not here to change customs  or startle the horses.  We’re here to preach the love of Christ  and whatever works will be fine.’ When he got to Athens it was different again.  the people who came to hear him knew nothing about Judaism and Paul had to find a new message.  He started quoting the Greek philosophers instead of the Hebrew prophets.

The point is that you find ways to communicate  and you need to be clear first of all what the message is you want to get across.  It’s not about rules or customs  or how we’ve always done it. It’s about love.  It’s about forgiveness.  It’s about Jesus. It’s about God’s love for us  here, right here, in human life. And however you can get that across,  we need to do it. Volunteer to help with the soup kitchen  and food pantry. Give out free Bibles.  Organize a concert. Break down the walls.  Get people in.

They’re beginning to say that church buildings are a drag, they cost too much and take too much of our energy. Maybe so.  Some places it’s certainly true.  Do we need three Episcopal churches in Litchfield? That’s a really frightening question but I hope the answer is Yes. I hope the answer is that we can reach more people  if we have these historic buildings. But we need to ask.  And we need to demonstrate the value of this building by filling it. There are people out there who ought to be in here  and our challenge is to find them and bring them in.  And they will come if they see in us  a community that makes a difference in facing the future.

Are we doing that?  What are the issues?  It’s not about which light bulb to use, not who to ordain, not what Prayer Book we like best,  but what to do about climate change and violence in our society  and the growing disparity between wealth and poverty in this country.  If we still have the highest proportion of Christians of any industrlalized society why is our health care system toward the bottom,  why do we have more infant mortality and lower life expectancy?  Why are people in Canada six times less likely to die of gun violence than we are? Why are we forty times more likely to die of gun violence than the English? Why do we have more people in prison  than any other industrialized society?  As Christians, why aren’t we making a difference?  Why are we fighting about taxes and debt limits instead of how to use our resources to make life better for everyone?

It’s not my job to provide answers  but it surely is my job to ask questions: why isn’t church membership making a difference? What do we need to do differently?  Surely we need to be asking those questions and working in a peaceful way to find answers.  Paul knew there needed to be new answers  to new questions. He wrote to the Church in Corinth: “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! Everything old has passed away.”  Everything?  I wonder if St.  Paul really meant it. Didn’t he still read his Hebrew scriptures?  Of course, he did – but he found new meaning in them. But he wasn’t afraid of letting go  of whatever no longer served  only of failing to find ways to tell people that God loves them  and that God calls them. And that’s our message too.  If we call our church after St Paul we need to follow his example and seek new ways to share that message with the world.

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