I think I`ve lost count of the number of times I`ve heard people say that the Church has an image problem. And over the years I think we`ve all seen sometimes bizarre and even desperate attempts to somehow change this. It reached a point some years ago where someone wrote a book which compared us rather unfavourably to McDonalds; noting that we appear to have bought into the methods and strategies of our culture where, basically we`re just peddling another brand or product.
Religion as `fast food` of course, is a pretty daft concept and I wouldn`t mind guessing many of us here would either laugh or just sigh with a certain resignation. But it`s a pretty all-embracing phenomenon. In an understandable desire to make the way of faith something people would wish to engage with we think it needs to be attractive and the most common tactic is to say “THIS will meet your needs or desires”. So consequently the church comes to see itself as the channel for delivering this ad as I`ve often observed- it`s all about consumerism. And so we`ve got God as entertainment; God as therapy, God as experience; God as social action; God as spirituality- whatever your interest and whatever `floats your boat` the sales pitch is `We`ve got it- come and get it`.
The problem of course is that with the exception of some remarkable and equally questionable examples (I`m thinking now of the Mega churches in the United States) our sales pitch isn`t very good and in the event we just don’t seem to deliver. Some people will give it a go but somehow they believe, `it just doesn`t do what it says on the tin`. This God (this church) doesn`t seem to deliver on the entertainment, the therapy, the experience, the social action, the spirituality and so on and so they move to the next thing. That`s why it doesn`t surprise me that I`m forever coming across people who `used` to come to our parish church. Now the reasons why they`re no longer here will be many but again I sense that `disappointment` will be among them.
We have to be honest that their disappointment may be a justified reaction to the way we have failed to be what we should have been as a Church; which means we need to examine ourselves but fundamentally the disappointment is because we`ve set up this consumerist “this will meet your needs” agenda they perhaps fairly conclude that again, neither we nor this God can actually deliver. But for a long time now I`ve not been able to escape the sense that we`re barking up the wrong tree and that our `needs-based` sales-pitch runs the risk of failing the Trades Descriptions Act.
I mean, if the way of faith is all about the meeting of needs and desires let`s face it we`ve got competition a-plenty and frankly, if this is your agenda then it`s not so difficult to find far more `entertaining` things to do on a Sunday morning; and let`s face it that`s the choice a huge number of people are making. You see, in the end, this appears to be the Achilles heel of trying to sell Jesus like soap power. Not to mention that fact that speaking of faith in these terms just diminishes it to the level of a hobby or an interest and surely it has to be much more substantial than this? So what I`m really driving at is that viewed as a product I`m not entirely sure that the Gospel is really that attractive. It`s good news but before it has anything to do with the meeting of needs (and what some refer to as `personal` salvation`) it`s the Good News of what God has done to restore his creation.
No, it`s about a world under new management. It`s what Jesus called: the Kingdom of God… and our connection, our part in all this is that we`re heralds. We`re caught up in it all (Jesus said: “You didn`t choose me, I chose you”) and we`re called to announce this new state of affairs and to and to show people what living under this new management actually looks like.
But what got me thinking about all of this is noticing how our needs-based marketing strategy cunningly leaves out those bits which Jesus seems so insistent upon, like `you need to take up your cross if you`re going to be my disciple`. I mean, at least we`re being logical…. I mean who wants to hear that? Nobody with any sense, in the world`s terms are going to buy into the `deny yourself, death of the ego` thing that reminds us that the world doesn’t actually revolve around us? Because it doesn`t really `sell` does it?
That`s why it`s so much easier to go for a fast food faith that offers immediate satisfaction. That`s why we aim for what feels good (so 1960`s that!); the kind of faith that knows nothing of the long obedience in the same direction. No it shrinks from the cross and the inevitable tensions which come from being deliberate about faith. That`s why when it comes to Gospel readings like the one we heard this morning (Matthew 10.24-39) we have a bit of thinking to do. You see, the Christian faith- as portrayed here has, to say the least a bit of an edge to it. We get a picture of faith that seems designed to put you in places of tension.
Now, I don`t buy into all this stuff about Christians being persecuted in this country- not yet anyway. It`s sometimes uncomfortable and awkward but I think it`s far too easy to fall into a defensive, victim mentality. But there`s no getting away from the fact that right from the outset Jesus is darkly honest with us. Firstly, he says our loyalty to him will mean we`re not going to fit in. Rather bluntly, he says if they`ve called me a `son of the devil` then don`t be surprised if you get it as well and more besides. And this is more than mere name calling. I think the practical outcome for ourselves is just to reflect on how much we mind if others have a bad opinion of us. In other words, if you worry what others think of you; if you`re concerned about your reputation and your good name- be aware that this is where your faith will be challenged. As this passage makes clear, it will boil down to a question of loyalty. Faith may be personal but it can never be private. How easy it is –out of a sense of fear- to deny Christ by our silence as much as by our words and choices.
Secondly, I think we`re invited to remember that the world really doesn`t play fair in these matters. I mean Jesus` remarks about the hairs on your head being numbered are not his `handy hints about hairdressing`! Jesus is inviting us to take courage and he says this because he knows we`ll need it. So, for example, from the earliest days, because our Holy Communion was referred to as a `love feast` we were accused of holding orgies. Then someone got wind of all this talk of blood at the Eucharist and so began the rumours that we were cannibals. I know it sounds ridiculous but I`ve had people genuinely ask if I sleep in my clerical collar!
Well, in the same way, nowadays the rumour mill is rife with even more unsavoury accusations; so for instance these days everyone who expresses a religious affiliation must by default be homophobic, bigoted or what`s being commonly called an `extremist`. So people feel free to jump to erroneous conclusions about our motives. And this of course is part of the problem with a sales-pitch strategy for evangelism because subconsciously people assume, as we do with just about any other tradesmen that behind it there must be a catch or some hidden motive. Let`s face it, people quite rightly fear being controlled, coerced and manipulated. But consequently, it becomes even harder to get a hearing.
Which is why, as Jesus points out, integrity is so important. He says “Nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops”. And when St Paul faced the same accusation (that he was acting out of base motives) he told the Corinthians: “We have renounced the shameful things that one hides; we refuse to practise cunning or to falsify God’s word; but by the open statement of the truth we commend ourselves to the conscience of everyone in the sight of God.” (1 Cor. 4.2)
Then thirdly, notice that Jesus points to the home as a place of tension. Now if ever there was something designed to play into everyone`s prejudices this is it isn`t it? His remarks just reinforce that stereotypical view that `Religion splits families` doesn`t it? Well, let`s just say from the outset that this isn`t what Jesus is advocating, far from it.
The first thing we need to say is (and I`m only half joking about this because I`ve seen it so often) that it needs to be stressed that if you get known in your family as the `religious nut` then you deserve everything you get. By that I mean, all that irritating stuff where God is brought into every conversation and you make it patently clear that you`re out to `get` your nearest and dearest. Clearly, if that`s the way you operate you`re heading for trouble.
Secondly, we have to accept that any genuine and serious engagement with Christ and the way of faith is going to affect and change us at every level. So therefore those who are closest to us and who know us best will inevitably pick this up. Now, whilst we don`t go around courting tension I think it`s only fair to expect that tensions will arise if we find ourselves dealing with our fundamental values. That`s where you need to be both honest and brave.
But what matters, is that when these tensions arise we have learnt to recognise them for what they are. These are moments of potential growth; for taking up the cross; for forgiveness; for endurance- they are part of being a disciple. It just goes with the territory. But what I like about Jesus referring to our nearest and dearest in this way is how he highlights how easy it is for the `faith as excitement` thing to take hold. What I mean is that those who appear to `get God` so often push the family into the background while they get engrossed in all manner of `churchy` and other exciting things.
And to some extent, this is the easy way out. You see, by highlighting the prevalence of tension on the domestic scene Jesus is inviting us – not to run away- but to reflect on how home might be the place for our discipleship and how faith might actually transform the person we are at home. In short, our task is not to make our nearest and dearest into Christians but to love them AS Christ- he will do the rest. This, it seems to me is quite a challenging piece in Matthew`s Gospel. Not least because I think it highlights how naïve we appear. It reminds me I think, of how far we have imbibed this secular assumption that humankind is over time and under its own steam, getting better and better.
And with these background assumptions we fall into the trap of offering a version of the faith that`s rather like the cherry on top. Something that will meet our needs or fill in the gaps; a bit of spirituality to spruce up our ego-centred self-help project. But actually our faith is far more radical than that. It takes seriously the reality of our egotism and our attempts to live as if God is not God; in short, our SIN. For the Gospel does not exist to shore up and even foster our rebellion by meeting what we regard as our needs. It`s not `fast food` it`s surrender to a new world order.