The Archbishop of Canterbury let the cat out of the bag a few days ago; he told a congregation gathered in Trinity Church on Wall Street in New York that a lot of sermons (and, by inference, much of the Church) are full of ‘moral claptrap!’
Twenty years of doing the listen to the Sunday sermon thing, and finally I hear one of the leaders of the wider Church tell it as it so often is … to be fair, I’ve spoken a few of those sermons myself, and I’m not entirely convinced I’ve ever really reached the oratorical heights of ‘claptrap.’
At this point, I should insert a disclaimer … I’m not saying every (or even most to be fair) sermon I’ve heard was basically a variation on “Wouldn’t the world be a nicer place if we were all a bit nicer?” to quote the venerable Archbishop; that’s not the case at all, but too few times have I ever really felt challenged, or dare I say it, changed by the experience of your average Sunday service. As an occasional preacher (now committed to full-on panic given I’ve got one coming up in a couple of weeks) I know it’s hard to produce a talk that engages, that inspires, that challenges, that informs, that changes peoples’ minds, that brings people blinking into new light … I know all that.
But Justin Welby’s right … too much of what we say, think and do is exactly “the type of moral claptrap that Jesus does not permit us to accept.”
So, where does that leave us on a Sunday morning then? If we accept that the Archbishop is right (and he is!) then surely there has to be some kind of response, some kind of conscious move away from platitudes to substance.
I’m reading a book at the moment, “Secondhand Jesus” by Glenn Packiam, and whilst talking about ‘wrestling with God’ he says “You can’t wrestle from afar. It’s a full-contact sport …” And that, I think, is where and how we move from merely spouting variations on a “tea and sympathy” form of Christianity and into a real and living faith that operates outside the boundaries of Sundays, a faith that works outside the simple (and clichéd) views of church and society, a faith that operates in and through our lives.
Let me see if I can explain via way of a true story.
Back when I was young and fit and healthy, I used to train and teach martial arts; one time I was in a ‘semi-contact’ competition – the idea being that we would work on technique and timing and that sort of thing in a ‘live’ environment. In my first bout I faced up against a guy who seemed about twice my (then rather skinny) size; “No problem,” I thought, “This is a semi-contact competition!”
The referee started the bout and this guy roundhouse kicked me in the ribs with everything he had – two things: one, the roundhouse kick wasn’t really within the system we were practising, two – SEMI CONTACT!
Feeling like I’d been kicked about six yards through the air, I looked at the ref who just nodded and signalled for the bout to continue … I thought the nod meant that the ref would step in and warn my opponent.
The guy did it again, and just kept on slugging away like he was Mike Tyson at his best and I was this week’s latest mug!
In the end, after a series of appeals that fell on deaf ears – and I am genuinely not proud to admit this – I took the law (or lack of it) into my own hands and used quite a nasty technique which ended with me parrying a wild swing then elbowing my opponent flush on the jaw resulting in my disqualification and his short nap time in the middle of the mat. I got disqualified for ‘excessive force’ and he got to pay a visit to first aid!
Some things I discovered later. One, the ref was my opponent’s trainer! (Talk about biased!) Two – rules only work when everyone sticks to them. And three, and in this context most illuminating – the techniques I knew only really worked when it was full contact, full commitment and full force … then they could take down someone comfortably larger than skinny old me!
Now I’m too old and battered to even think about martial arts (and so worried I’m going to spell it ‘marital’ for some odd reason!) that I cringe thinking about the abuses I put my body through; but for me, there’s lessons here for my faith.
I can sit on my own self-devised and self-imposed sidelines of church in the same way I can sit watching International football matches and yell advice at the television – like the German team need me to tell them how to play the game! I can be an Armchair Preacher if you will, ready to dissect and critique the sermon, the delivery, the theology, the intention and the effect. I can sit with my ‘semi-contact’ head on safely removed from the idea of actually doing something constructive with my faith.
But being a cynical critic doesn’t help anyone; least of all me.
For those professing the Christian faith, part of it is to take the lumps every now and then; we should get involved where the feet and hair are flying; we should be wrestling with our faith, our call to be ‘salt and light’ in this world; we should be involved in ‘Full-Contact Christianity.’
Sure, we can go to church on a Sunday and do the ‘moral claptrap’thing but that’s nothing to do with what Jesus was on about then, and what He’s just as insistent about now. Mark’s gospel records Jesus saying, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” Then and now Jesus is saying that this faith we’re called to explore together, this way of being that calls us forwards, this life that compels us to be more than we could be by ourselves, this faith is about engaging with those who are a little (or a lot) un-righteous, those who are less than glamorous, less than perfect, less than successful.
People a lot like us.
That’s who Jesus came to save and to serve … Heads up! That’s the job description folks.
So, my prayer for myself and for you is that we’d get in the fight, and if we’re going to get knocked down, let’s go down swinging!