October 25, 2016

Freedom of Faithful Speech


Text:  2 Timothy 2:9b: “But the word of God is not chained.”

We are surrounded by words these days. We live, and move, and have our being, in an ocean of words. It’s so much a part of the life we lead that we don’t really grasp how unusual it is in the long arc of human history. But we are inundated by words.

Generations and generations ago—really, for the first, oh, fifteen hundred years of our two-thousand-year history—most of the people who made up the church, and most of the people who made up society, couldn’t read. They were illiterate. And so we invented visual ways to convey meaning. We created architecture that expressed aspiration and mystery. We created windows that told stories from the bible, that depicted key events in the history of the faith, that tried to explain in art the mystery that is at the very center of our idea of God.

Even this archaic way we have of dressing for church on Sunday comes from a moment in our history that was much more visual and much less literal. You didn’t have to read to be able to know who was the bishop, and who was the priest, and who was the deacon, and who were the acolytes and the choir and all of that.

Things are different now. And we are responsible for that in no small way. We are Anglicans. We are part of a church that began in a particular way: with a book, and specifically with a prayer book. Our church came into being at a moment of tremendous technological and social change, and we leveraged that technological change to help our church grow.

We bet on words. We bet that more and more people would be able to read, and that words would begin to shape belief, and belief would shape behavior.

We are in a similar moment today. We’re in a moment of vast technological change, and it is driving tremendous social change. One critical aspect of that change is that the people who used to control the flow of words have lost that control. The church, the publishers, the universities—all used to have a kind of gatekeeping role in curating what words we would see.

But that’s all being swept away. Anybody can say anything, and what’s more, anybody can read anything. We are drowning in words, and in our circumstances what matters, or what seems to matter, is not the quality of what is said or written but the volume with which it is shouted, or the number of hits on the webpage where it appears.

This is a very different world than the one in which we first devised ways to communicate our understanding of the Christian message. We keep doing what we used to do, but it seems to have less and less impact on the world around us. We offer sermons; the world wants TED talks. We offer liturgy; the signifiers of a serious spiritual experience to a rising generation are not altars and pulpits and lecterns, but microphones and guitars and projectors, and a man—almost always a man—in jeans and a black turtleneck with a goatee. Those are the images that communicate spiritual depth today.

Now, I am perfectly content with being anachronistic. I confess it doesn’t trouble me—and that really is a confession, because it probably should trouble me.

It should trouble me because there is an urgency to the message that has been entrusted to us. It should trouble me because the word of God, as it says is Hebrews, is living and alive, and if we are not saying it in ways it can be heard, then we are not answering the ministry God has called us to.

Think about it this way. We live in a moment of infatuation with celebrity. I can think of no other way to explain how it is we have arrived at the sorry place we’re in in our politics. And unhappily, sometimes we in the church have sought to fit into this moment in our cultural life by creating celebrities of our own—the televangelists, the TED talkers, whatever.

Now, maybe I say this because I know I never will be one of those. But I also know this: the message we proclaim is exactly contrary to a culture of celebrity, because the message of the gospel is the claim that we are all absolutely equal in the eyes of God—and so, we should be equal in each others’ eyes, too.

Or think about it this way. That idea about equality has a tough time making headway these days. Whatever else may be happening in our economy, and in the economies of many places, we know that there is an increasing concentration of wealth in the hands of fewer people, and an erosion of the middle that once made up so much of our nation—and of our church.

But the message of the gospel is a message that doesn’t give pride of place to the winners in our economy. It gives its preference to the poor, to the sick, to the people on the margins. The gospel story today tells it succinctly; the person whose faith turns out to be most genuine, because it is the one that responds to God in gratitude, is not even a person of everyone else thinks is the right faith.

It’s a person on the margin of the margins—and yet is the person who turns out to find favor with God, not because of right belief but because of right action—coming to God with thanks and praise.

We have words to convey these ideas. But they get drowned in the ocean of words in which we live. We have the freedom—at least we still do—to say anything we wish to say; but we cannot imagine that anything we wish to say will necessarily be the message we are called to proclaim.

The message of the Gospel is not chained. It is not chained to our ways of doing things, to our ways of proclaiming, to our ways of worshiping and witnessing. It will find its way into the future, with or without us.

The question for us is whether we will allow ourselves the freedom to proclaim that message faithfully—in a way that will be heard, that will somehow cut through, the words that wash over us every day.

We have no guarantees that if we get it right it will go easy for us. Exactly the opposite may happen. If we get it right we may find ourselves misunderstood, or pushed to the margins ourselves. It’s not so much that what we say will make that happen; but if we act in line with our faith, if we are like that one person who gets, deeply gets, what God has done for us, and make the time to say thank you by, well, coming to church, or forgiving rather than judging, or not going along with the passions of any crowd—well, we might find ourselves regarded a little strangely.

But that is the message entrusted to us in the Gospel. It is a message that makes for a hard judgment of a culture in which some few people are valued more than the rest, and some few people command so much of the world’s resources than the rest.

Proclaiming that message is where we find our true freedom, because it is God’s truth; and whether we proclaim it profoundly or poorly, they are the words of truth by which God will accomplish the purpose of reconciliation and redemption. Whether we proclaim those purposes by words or by deeds, that is the living word of God, and it is the truth by which our own discipleship will be measured in the end. Amen.