This is a sermon for the eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost, given in the “church next door.” The Scripture it references is Psalm 79:1-9.
The psalmist said, “We have become a taunt to our neighbours, mocked and derided by those around us.”
I don’t know if that’s been your experience much, but I know that for me, this echoes something that’s been a real part of my experience. I grew up during the beginnings of the clergy sexual abuse crisis. For my generation, perceptions of the church have been fundamentally coloured by those events, and by the appalling behaviour of various church leaders in covering up and perpetuating patterns of abuse.
I’ve lost friends over it. People who couldn’t understand or cope with my commitment to an institution they saw as intrinsically damaging. And for many others, the label of “priest” goes so tightly hand-in-hand with “abuse apologist” that I cannot speak on any topic – no matter how unrelated – without that perception of clergy as controlling, authoritarian and more interested in protecting the institution than caring for people, shaping how people react to me.
Why do I raise this now? When you look around and notice that my generation is conspicuously absent from church, I think it would be a mistake to think that this is not a factor. It’s not the only factor, of course; cultural change, different patterns of social life, suspicion of institutions and authority more generally, have all played their part; but make no mistake, many people simply can’t get past the damage that was done to so many, and the apparent indifference of the rest of us to that damage.
How can we still put our money in the plate when our bishops are corrupt? They ask. How can we still be here when there hasn’t been enough real change?
Derided by those around us is right. And the sting is even worse because they’re not deriding us for something they’ve invented; the abuse crisis, and the church’s utter failure to respond well to it, is real. To some extent, the church deserves the bad name in the street that it’s currently wearing, and we, as participants in it, need to each work out for ourselves what we do with that.
But while we have some work to do on integrity and authenticity as a church community, there’s probably another task that we have to do, as well. For a very long time – certainly well into the living memory of this community – the church was assumed to be a social force for good. It had an assured place in the life of society, and it didn’t have to argue for its existence or its voice in the marketplace of ideas. It didn’t have to do a lot of soul-searching about its own identity or value, but was able to take those for granted.
That’s not true any more. The challenges we face – internal and external – mean we have to think about what this church gig is really all about, and why we bother. In the face of the derision of those who see us as irrelevant at best and damaging at worst, we need an answer that makes sense to us, and that might even be substantial enough to make others stop and think when they hear it.
A crisis is, as they say, a terrible thing to waste. We have an opportunity here to think about these things in a way which might strengthen us for the decades to come.
So when push comes to shove, when we’re no longer such a powerful social institution, but have become marginalised, dismissed as irrelevant, viewed with suspicion, and so forth, why are we still here?
Why do you come to church? Why do I come? What’s the point of gathering around word and table together rather than having a lazy sleep in and perhaps some social time? Could you put it into words?
The author of today’s psalm, who suffered such mocking, ended up looking to the glory of God’s name as the only answer worth holding on to, the only answer which might be bigger than the difficult circumstances that the Israelite community found themselves suffering.
We might make a similar connection; we might say that the glory of God is abandoned when the church gets it wrong, but that we keep coming back hoping that here, we can get in touch which something which is much bigger than our wrongs.
But let’s be clear. The glory of God isn’t found in – or served by – the grandeur of our buildings, the size of our bank accounts, the beauty of our artistic treasures or the number of people under our influence. Those things might be means to an end, but they are not ends in themselves, and it’s when we forget that, that we abandon the glory of God and instead worship a paltry substitute.
So where, then, can we look for the glory of God? St. Irenaeus famously said that “The glory of God is a human person fully alive,” and that’s a comment I’ve come back to, time and time again. Jesus said that he came that we might have life, and have it abundantly. I suspect he meant much the same thing as Irenaeus meant about being “fully alive.” Alive to the fullness of our potential, our ability to love, to experience hope and joy and all the rest of it. Alive as we were meant to be; as we were created to be.
So why, then, gather around word and table together? Because we find something here that helps us to be fully alive. If we’re not offering that, then there truly is no point. We might as well have that sleep in. But if the words we read, the teaching we hear, and our encounters with God in the sacraments help us each to be just that little bit more fully alive, then they’re achieving their purpose. Then we have a point to our existence as a church. And then we can say – to the people whom the church has broken, the people who care for them, and the people appalled by all that has happened – that we are also broken, but we come back here because we seek something which might speak to that brokenness in a life-giving way.
It’s not an easy way through the hurt and damage of the last decades. But it is, at least, an honest way.
I think it sets before us two things to ask ourselves, as we evaluate all that we do. How does each thing we do, have the potential to be life-giving? Are we using it in life-giving ways, or do we need to refresh our approach? And what are the things we do or say – or even think – which are life-draining rather than life-giving, and how do we change those things so that we can more fully reflect the true glory of God?