This is the manuscript for the sermon I delivered at our diocesan clergy day in June. The gospel reading was Matthew 5:13-16.
I’m sure there are plenty of ways that we as individuals fail to let our light shine forth, but instead hide under a bushel basket, but I feel like there is a larger, more overarching way that we are all together failing to let our light shine before others.
Does anyone here frequent any kind of online forum where former Christians discuss Christianity? If you haven’t, I can sum up what most of the conversations look like. People complain that Christians are bigoted. That they hate gay people; that they are so patriarchal they do not allow women to be ministers or to even use birth control. They balk over the fact that Christian ministers manipulate the poor and naïve into giving them millions of dollars, under the pretense that God will reward those people with even more money than they gave in return. They show disgust over stories of Christian parents whose children die after the parents’ attempt to pray away a deadly illness. They are astounded by Christians’ narrow-minded views about the world, thinking that the world was created just a few thousand years ago.
And most of us here probably completely understand these frustrations and have similar critiques towards fundamentalist Christian churches, and we’re proud of the fact that we Episcopalians (at least in general) do not engage in those kinds of practices and beliefs. But the problem is, these people who have become so disillusioned with the Church do not see Christians as a diverse group of people with a spectrum of practices and beliefs. They do not distinguish between different denominations because they see the Christian Church in only one way. So we Episcopalians get lumped into the same group as bigoted, misogynistic, and ignorant.
And who could blame them? If you look at the stories in the news that get the most widespread airtime, they are stories that would only enforce this view of Christianity: Churches picketing the funerals of gay people—Christians denying their children life-saving treatment in favor of faith-healing—Christian school-board members requiring schools to use text books which support their inaccurate views on science and the creation of the world. Because of this, one of the biggest issues that I think we need to focus on is not how we’re hiding our light under a bushel basket individually, but how we are doing it collectively. Because the vast majority of people in the US know next to nothing about the Episcopal Church, or falsely know it as the church that Henry the VIII started so that he could divorce as many wives as he wanted, or the church that doesn’t even use the bible. Disillusioned Christians do not know there is an alternative to their perceived options of being part of a fundamentalist church or becoming an atheist.
We as a church talk a lot about getting new members, and we talk a lot about the issues that people who once belonged to this church are leaving over, but we don’t really discuss the idea that there are people out there who would love to be a part of this church if they had any idea that it existed. In fact, we know that a large percentage of Episcopalians did not grow up in the Episcopal Church. To give us an unofficial idea of what this percentage is, everyone here that did not grow up as an Episcopalian, please raise your hand. Those of us who came to this church probably did so because someone we knew personally invited us, or we just so happened to stumble upon it. Maybe a select few of us just so happened to know the Episcopal Church by reputation and decided to join. But by and large the Episcopal Church is just not known outside of Episcopal circles, so most people who consider joining a Christian church or switching to a different church do not even realize that the Episcopal Church is an option.
I certainly didn’t. It wasn’t until I became dead-set on finding a church and took to the internet that I even heard of the Episcopal Church, let alone heard anything about its worship or stances on social issues. I spent years wishing to be a part of a church that I didn’t realize even existed. My dad, upon my telling him about the Episcopal Church, said it was a wonderful, yet weirdly well-kept secret. And I know my own story is only anecdotal, but it seems to be backed up by the stories I hear in person and online. In these forums where disillusioned former-Christians speak of their experiences, every once in a while an Episcopalian will chime in and talk about our church, and a few others agree that the Episcopal Church is different, but they are generally drowned out by all the stories of the negative experiences people have had in fundamentalist churches. We need to figure out how to reach a wider group of people with our message.
But because we have failed to do so, we’re seeing the antithesis of what Christ said would happen if we let our light shine before others. Because we are NOT allowing our light to shine forth before others, they do not see our good works, and therefore do not give glory to our Father in heaven. This isn’t even about trying to bolster our numbers. This is about teaching people in the world who are desperate for the message of the Gospel that they are not hearing from other Christian churches, whether those people are large in number or few. It’s about showing people that they do not have to choose between fundamentalist Christianity and atheism, or solitary worship of a God whom they believe no one else sees because their beliefs about God are so vastly different than what the Christians they know demonstrate.
I myself do not know what would need to be done to accomplish this goal—whether it might involve utilizing traditional media, online media, viral marketing campaigns, or simply finding new ways to empower our current members to share their faith stories with others. I do not have these answers, but I find it hard to believe that the Episcopal church at-large, with all of the talent and resources it has cannot accomplish this, with God’s help.