Reverend Steve Clarke
Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost—27 October 2013
Several years ago, when Fiona and I were living in Atlanta, I read about a woman who had enrolled in a psychology program at Emory University. One class assignment required her to identify the sort of person that she most feared, and then to find and meet just such a person. This conservative Christian woman admitted that she most feared gay people and so she followed the assignment and tried to befriend some gays.
However, the fears of her classmates were even more revealing. A full 40 per cent of the students in her class said that the people they most feared were Christians.
Did these students rightly fear Christians? Are Christians scary people? The purpose of the class exercise was to show students how easily we stereotype people without even knowing them, and how we can dispel unjustified fears by meeting people whom we find different.
In 2008, the year Fiona and I left Portland, Oregon, a local filmmaker, Dan Merchant, made a documentary called Lord, Save Us From Your Followers. The film wonders why a gospel of love so bitterly divides people. Merchant wears a jump suit plastered with all sorts of religious clichés, and interviews people on the street about his nagging question. I didn't think this was a great movie, but it sure asks a great question. In the final part of the film, Merchant sets up a "confession booth" at a Portland gay pride festival, only this time he was the one confessing the sins of believers to the people who stopped by his booth.
I also keep mulling over the observations of the New Testament scholar Marcus Borg of Oregon State University. In a footnote to his book The Heart of Christianity, he says that when he asks his unchurched university students to write a short essay about their impressions of Christianity, "they consistently use five adjectives: they think Christians are literalistic, anti-intellectual, self-righteous, judgmental, and bigoted."
It seems that Christians have a 'branding' problem. Observe how companies go to great lengths to brand themselves in ways that communicate not just a catchy slogan or a superficial tagline but their core identity, what they most want the public to think of when they hear their name. Good branding is powerful: just think of all the corporate jingles that you can't get out of your head even if you try.
So, here's a thought experiment: "What do you think the average person on the street, in the grocery store, at the pub, would come up with if we went around and asked them to sum up in just a few words what the Christian church was all about? In many cases our branding tag line would be something like: "We're right … you're wrong. Let us correct your behavior. Give us your money for something irrelevant to your life. Withdraw from normalcy and join our weird little subculture. Welcome to worship … and let us tell you how to vote." Whether we like it or not, we have been branded in these ways by a culture that for the most part sees the church primarily outside of the mainstream of current life." The Bible is a mini-library of sixty-six books, written mainly in Hebrew and Greek by about forty authors across more than a thousand years. It's long (my Bible is 1,635 pages), has many plot twists, and is rooted in ancient cultural settings that are foreign to us today. But can we 'brand' the Bible's story? What would be its singular tagline? Can we reduce its myriad complexities to an essential substance that clarifies and enlightens rather than reduces and oversimplifies?
Yes, we can. The very last sentence of the Bible gives us the clue, "The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all" (NASB, Revelation 22:21).
That's the Bible's branding, and it ought to be ours, too. Not a narrow political ideology, whether left or right, not a specious theory rooted in bad science, nor judgmentalism of others that is eager to exclude people unlike ourselves. We could even reduce our branding from one sentence to one word: grace.
God's lavish love, without conditions or limits, for all people: that's our branding.
The apostle Paul also pushes the parameters of divine grace, not only beyond "the saints", but even beyond humanity. He says that God was in Christ reconciling the whole creation and the entire cosmos to himself (2 Corinthians 5:19).
The God whom Jesus revealed isn't mean or scary and, if we reflect his image, people need not fear his followers. Rather, said Jesus, he's the sort of God who throws a party for a kid who wasted the family fortune, who refuses to condemn a woman caught in the act of adultery, who breaks taboos of ethnicity and gender to encourage a woman who had been married five times, who welcomes a criminal into his kingdom as the man gasps his last breaths while being executed, and who embraces his closest disciples even though they abandoned him and denied even knowing him.
In the wonderful (and eminently readable) Lives of the Desert Fathers, written toward the end of the fourth century, the anonymous author begins his preface with how most of people viewed the monks. He characterizes those desert dwellers as defenders and guardians of all humanity: "The people [in Egypt] depend on the prayers of these monks as if on God himself … it is clear to all who dwell there that through them the world is kept in being, and that through them too human life is preserved and honored by God."
And so the last page of the Bible welcomes everyone with these words: "Let him who hears say, 'Come!' Whoever is thirsty let him come; and whoever wishes, let him take the free gift of the water of life" (Revelation 22:17).