October 20, 2019
Surprising Ourselves – J. Barry Vaughn – Oct. 20, 2019
The Pew Forum has released a new study on religion in America, and the news is not good. The number of people identifying themselves as Christian as fallen by 12% in the last decade. That’s an even faster decline than the number fell in the previous decade. Furthermore, the number of those identifying as “nothing in particular” (the so-called “nones”) has risen from 17% to 26%.
The good news is that Christ Church is just about holding its own. In spite of the overall decline in American Christianity (and even though I’ve done more then fifty funerals since I became your rector), the average attendance at our 10:30 am service has stayed about the same over the last six or seven years. I’m grateful to our own Dr. Jim Geffert for his study of the attendance numbers. And in spite of the troubling statistics about American Christianity, Christ Church has grown substantially because of our Spanish-language services.
However, keep in mind that even though Christianity is declining rapidly in North America and even more rapidly in Europe, it is growing by leaps and bounds in Africa and Asia. One historian even says that China may already be a majority Christian country.
I bring up these statistics because of a remarkable article that I read this morning in the New York Times. I had planned to preach a different sermon, but an article by the New York Times’ columnist Timothy Egan changed my mind at the last minute.
Like so many of us, Egan went through a period of doubt. He described himself as “a skeptic by profession, an Irish Catholic by baptism, culture and upbringing — lapsed but listening, like half of all Americans of my family’s faith. But I was no longer comfortable in the squishy middle; it was too easy. I’d come to believe that an agnostic, as the Catholic comedian Stephen Colbert put it, ‘is just an atheist sin huevos.’” And because I’m in the pulpit I won’t translate those last two words!
To confront his doubts Egan embarked on a pilgrimage from Canterbury, England, to Rome, following a thousand year-old pilgrimage route, the Via Francigena.
I bring all this up because of today’s first reading, the familiar story of Jacob wrestling with an angel. Religion in general and Christianity are not just intended to comfort us; they are also intended to challenge us. They are not meant to keep us from struggling; they are meant to sustain us in the midst of the struggle. One of the pilgrims that Egan met on his pilgrim, a priest he identified as Father John of Flavigny, said, “Doubts are allowed by God… It’s a bit like training for sports. If you only ride a bicycle with the wind at your back, that’s not going to help you. You need to ride your bike against the wind.”
For some time now Christ Church has been going through a challenging time. Christ Church looks very different now than it did in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s when it was full of children, and the number of people at the two English-language services was twice as big as it is now, and the budget was much, much larger.
A lot of us long for those times to come again, but I want to tell you to rejoice that things have changed. Rejoice! Because change means that you are alive, and God is at work. The Anglican theologian John Henry Newman who converted to the Roman Catholic Church and was canonized last week, famously said, “To live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.”
The world around us needs Christ Church. It needs places where we can contemplate eternity and wonder at the mysteries of the world. Egan quoted Pope Francis who said, “Do we “allow ourselves to be amazed? … Do we let ourselves be surprised?” At its best, a church is a place where can allow ourselves to be amazed and surprised, even though being amazed and surprised may not always be pleasant.
In your mind’s eye imagine the setting of the story we heard from Genesis. Jacob was alone, and it was dark. Suddenly, he was attacked by a being of enormous strength, and he wrestled with his attacker from sundown to sun-up. Jacob must have thought that if he gave in to his opponent he would surely die. And so he fought on. At some point in the struggle, Jacob was wounded, a wound that made him limp for the rest of his life. But as dawn began to break, his mysterious opponent begged Jacob to release him.
There is a reason that encounters with God so often happen in the darkness. Abraham received his call to go to the promised land when it was dark, and God told him to go out and count the stars. Mary Magdalene came to the tomb of the Risen Christ while it was still dark. Haven’t you found that it is in those dark nights of the soul that God comes to you? When all around us is sunshine and flowers, we are not as aware of our need of God, but when a loved one dies, when we are threatened with a dangerous illness, when we lose our job, then we turn to God. But all too often we give up the struggle before dawn breaks, before our mysterious opponent begs us to let him go, and before we receive the blessing.
I admit that it often feels as though Christ Church is struggling in the darkness with mysterious foes, and I am often tempted to give up the fight, but I believe that we must continue to struggle, weak and wounded as we are, until the day breaks and the blessing comes to us.
Egan said that he began his pilgrimage reading the brilliant atheist writer Christopher Hitchens who said, “We no longer have any need of a God to explain what is no longer mysterious.” “Yet each mystery explained, as the science-loving Pope Francis would say, builds the case for God. It’s a case I came to understand, to feel it and see it, only after I’d allowed myself to be amazed.”
We are in the midst of our stewardship season, and we are asking you to support Christ Church for another year. The world desperately needs places like Christ Church. We are an increasingly isolated island of hope and faith in a wilderness of doubt and disbelief. This is a place where we can support those who are struggling with the foes of addiction and despair. But we cannot do it without your financial support. Please help us continue to be a place where people can be surprised and amazed.
Do not be afraid of the struggle. Indeed, I would tell you to welcome the struggle, because it means that you are alive. And if you hold on until the day breaks, you may even see the face of God. Amen.