A Sober Word to a Drunken World

A sermon preached by Christopher L. Webber at St. Luke’s Church, San Francisco, on June 8, the Day of Pentecost, 2014spirit fire

When we go out the door this morning,  when we go out onto Van Ness, will people think we’re drunk? My guess is that they won’t stop to notice  and that’s the difference 2000 years make.

But you know it isn’t easy.  Two weeks ago we heard about St Paul on Mars Hill in Athens. Paul was visiting Athens for the first time,  Athens the cultural capital of the ancient world, and Paul had prepared for it carefully. He had walked around the city  and studied their monuments and temples  to see what they cared about  and he quoted their leading philosophers and poets in an effort to get their attention  and connect his message with their own familiar teachings and we read the story of what happened two weeks ago.  They laughed at him. They said “See you later.” He made only two or three converts that day.

I think it’s fair to say that Paul was the greatest evangelist  in Christian history but he got laughed at in Athens. The apostles got called drunks in Jerusalem.  So don’t let anyone tell you it’s easy. It’s not easy.  We’re asking people to change their lives. God is asking us to change our lives. And you know that isn’t easy.  I mean, have you ever tried simple things like losing weight,  or to stop smoking, to stop drinking, get up earlier, pray daily, read the Bible regularly,  give in proportion to your income,  take part in an outreach ministry,  to so live that God is central, truly central in your life? Have you tried any of that? It’s not easy. Don’t let anyone tell you it’s easy.

There are people who build box churches,  “mega churches,”  and hand out donuts as you come in and put rock groups on the stage  and provide cushioned chairs and throw the words of the hymns on a giant screen  and build big congregations but does it make any difference?  Do lives get changed? Well, to be fair, I’m sure some do, somehow,  but we live in a country that likes to think of itself still  as a Christian country  but is no longer recognizable as such to many of us.

Is this a Christian country?  It’s one that kills more people with guns  than any other country on earth,  just ten days ago in Santa Barbara, three days ago in Seattle. This is a country that still uses the death penalty,  at least in the poorest parts of the country and with its poorest citizens; we’re the only western democracy that does that. This is a country that still can’t provide decent health care  for its poorest citizens. Is this really a Christian country?  Where’s the evidence  that faith is making a difference?

So how do we preach the gospel  to a country like this? What would Paul have done?  What would he have done  if he looked to see where our values are,  what unknown gods we worship? He might ask us how much tax payer money goes into not temples to worship carved idols but the building of football and baseball stadiums to follow idols who are all too human?  Would Paul have commented on that?  What would he have made of the way we dig ourselves deep into debt to get the best education available  for our children and yet find half or more of the population rejecting what our colleges teach? How do you address a population that claims to be Christian  but rejects what our best minds tell us  about the world God made?

If you think we Christians have trouble communicating the gospel think about the trouble scientists have communicating their knowledge about the evolution of species, for example. The latest poll I found showed that just 19% of the population, only one in five,  believe the Darwinian theory of evolution.  That’s up, however from 9% 15 years ago. 99% of all scientists believe that climate change is real and happening before our eyes  and that it threatens the world,  threatens our civilization,  threatens not just our children and grandchildren but threatens us.  How much longer will there be water available to keep California fertile?

I went to a fruit tasting ten days ago  put on by an organic farm not far east of here. They brought their best fruit into the city  and spread it out on a table for us to sample and they had apricots and peaches that were wonderful  but they said they don’t have cherries this year because the climate is changing and they didn’t get enough cold weather last winter  for the cherry trees to get recharged  for this year’s crop.  Do you remember how good cherries used to be? Do you remember?  You may need to have a good memory because they may not be available next year either. spaceearth

99% of all relevant scientists believe the climate is changing and have issued papers  to get the word out while there is still time but it’s thirteenth on the list of American concerns in the latest Gallup poll and less than half the population is much concerned about it.  Listen: if scientists can’t get people to pay attention  what chance do the theologians have? I take great comfort in these polls.  Science and religion are on the same side  on one thing anyway:  battling scepticism, battling doubt, battling ignorance,  trying to persuade people to change their way of life before it’s too late.  Isn’t that a great thought: scientists and theologians united in crying out  repent and change your way of life while there is time? We have one thing going for us though as Christians  and that is that God is merciful. I’m not sure the climate is that forgiving.

I admit I’m baffled by this culture.  I want to say, “Look at the marvels of creation that science is showing us.” I read about new discoveries  in medicine and astronomy and I want to sing another chorus of “How great thou art.” But I read in the news about people who claim to be Christian – I actually haven’t met any of these people myself – but I read in the news  or see stories on television about people who believe in a God so much smaller,  so much less believable, that I don’t know how to talk to them.

And maybe I don’t have to because  maybe most of them don’t live around here anyway. But they certainly make our job harder  with the people who do live around here and who know almost nothing about the Christian church except what they read in the papers or see on television.  It’s people here who weren’t brought up as Christians who read or watch stories that identify Christians  as people who deny evolution and question climate change and vote down spending for health care and take their guns with them when they go out.

It’s the people out there –  I do know some of them and so do you –  who read this stuff in the papers and ask,  Why would I want to be part of that? The people today who think we’re drunk  are the ones who read about churches at war with the modern world  and wonder what we’ve been drinking and why they should be a part of it.

Do you know that the number of people who identified their religion as “none”  has tripled in the last twenty years? The number has gone from 14 million to 46 million  in twenty years and that number is large than all those  who belong to the principal Protestant churches. I don’t call myself a Protestant  but I think that includes us. It would include Roman Catholics,  if not for immigration. But these people are not rejecting God,  they don’t call themselves atheists,  they just haven’t heard a version of Christianity that made sense to them. And we haven’t found a way to tell them.

There seems to be a theory out there still that science and religion are separate realms:  that there’s a realm of science based on facts and a realm of religion based on feelings.  Who was it that said, “You’re free to have your own opinion  but not your own facts”?  How absurd is it when leading candidates for the Presidency answer questions about climate change  by saying, “Well, I’m not a scientist, so I don’t have an opinion.”?  Would they feel free to say,  “I didn’t go to West Point so I have no opinion  on military matters;  I’m not an economist, so I have no opinion on government spending; I’m not a doctor, so I have no opinion on health care?”  but vote for me anyway. If you intend to run for office,  it’s surely your duty to inform yourself about matters that matter, that are critical to our national survival  and surely climate change is one of them.

Now, someone might say, “You’re a preacher  so you shouldn’t talk about  anything except religion.”  The word religion, however,  comes from a Latin word  that means “tying things together.” This is the place, this pulpit, that needs to bring things together bring together every aspect of God’s creation  and point out our need  to be good stewards of the whole. God created a world, not a church,  sun and moon and stars and the deep oceans and soaring mountains and fragile coral reefs and Monarch butterflies and cherry trees, the redwoods and glaciers.

“This is my Father’s world, . . . .”  Do you know that hymn?   There’s a radically shortened version of it in our hymnal.

“This is my Father’s world, and to my listening ears
All nature sings, and round me rings the music of the spheres.
This is my Father’s world: I rest me in the thought
Of rocks and trees, of skies and seas;
His hand the wonders wrought.

“This is my Father’s world, the birds their carols raise,
The morning light, the lily white, declare their Maker’s praise.sunrise
This is my Father’s world: He shines in all that’s fair;
In the rustling grass I hear Him pass; He speaks to me everywhere.

“This is my Father’s world, should my heart be ever sad?
The Lord is King—let the heavens ring. God reigns—let the earth be glad.
This is my Father’s world. Now closer to Heaven bound,
For dear to God is the earth Christ trod. No place but is holy ground.”

“No place but is holy ground,” and we are charged to be  good stewards of this world, to bring together the best information we can get  about this changing world and act before its too late.

We read a prayer ten days ago with a phrase  from the Epistle to the Ephesians that says of Christ that he “ascended far above all heavens that he might fill all things.”  We celebrate today the gift of the Spirit  and the Spirit also fills all things. It is perhaps the Spirit  that binds together the so-called Abrahamic faiths  that confess the unity of God but Buddhists also have a deep sense of unity  and Shinto sees the divinity in all things. And surely the work of science  that begins with a firm belief  in the unity of creation,  in laws and principles we can understand, revealing wonders unimagined, is the work of the Spirit: wonders unimagined, the amazing work of creation,  showing us a God  far larger than we had ever imagined. That’s the work of the Spirit  guiding us on to new and fuller understanding of the world God made  and the mission we are given to care for it.

How do we get word out that Christianity as we understand it  respects and encourages science  and cares about those in need?  How do we get word out that Christianity is not narrow-minded and self-centered but open to the best in our culture,  open to the best in others, responsive to human need? How do we find words people will listen to  and respond to and act on?

The problem is that an intelligent faith  doesn’t grab headlines  the way ignorance does, the way denial does.  Sometimes I want to change the name of my faith so as to make it clear that if that’s Christianity  I don’t believe that either.  What I want to be able to do in San Francisco  is exactly what Paul did in Athens:  to wander around the city and be able to say as he did, “I see you are very religious: I see your governor taking new initiatives to save the environment, to be good stewards of creation. I see you working to enhance your God-given bodies  in a Bay to Breakers race.  I see your Department of Public Works  urging you to be good stewards of your water and your scientists working on renewable energy  to conserve our air  and keep the climate livable. I see your botanical gardens  and art museums and concert halls  and amazing schools of every kind and I give thanks for the way you respond to the amazing diversity  of this  God-given world and God-created life  and I would want you to know how  to give thanks  for all these gifts by coming to know its Source and its Savior.

Now maybe that’s a step too far  for many  whose upbringing or natural inclination  left them too far away to come so far very easily  but let’s try as St Paul did to find the contact points that are there,  the concerns we share and the things we can learn from each other  and reach out and try  to come together as a society  in which we respect each other and find whatever common language we can to praise God. You and I were created to be God’s word to God’s world. You and I speak that word daily  by being who we are – shaped by our worship here and the life poured out on us here.

How do we it?  Let me count the ways.

We speak God’s word to the world  when we support River in his ministry.

We speak God’s word to the world when we host Sister Helen Prejean with her message of life.

We speak God’s word to the world  when  we send clergy and lay members to the Philippines in ministry.

We speak God’s word to the world when the conversation  turns to climate change and you and I say what needs to be said.  and practice good stewardship of creation in our lives.

We do it when we give in proportion to our means and worship regularly  and pray frequently and maybe they will say we are drunk,  high on the Spirit but maybe also, as on that first Pentecost,  some will listen to a word that transcends the barriers of language:  God’s word to God’s world, the Spirit in you  speaking the sober truth to God’s world and making known the Word that can save us.

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