Sermon, June 14

The Sayers essay quoted below is published with a number of her other essays in the compilation “Letters to a Diminished Church,” W Publishing Group, 2004. The wording has been altered slightly in places to make it easier for oral presentation to an American audience. 

If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation, entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. 2 Cor 5:17-21

Here’s the same text rendered in casual American English, by Eugene Peterson in The Message, a Bible paraphrase:

“God has given us the task of telling everyone what God is doing. We are Christ’s representatives. God uses us to persuade men and women to drop their differences and enter God’s work of making things right between them. We’re speaking for Christ himself now: Become friends with God; God is already friends with you.”

This portion of Paul’s second letter to the church in Corinth reminds me of a quotation from Stanley Hauerwas, scholar, teacher, iconoclast, and sharp-tongued pacifist.  It’s from a talk he gave in 2011 and it’s one of a number of snippets of text posted around my workspace in my office, so that when my eye – and mind – wander from a task, they may fall on something that reminds me of my true work. Here’s the line from Hauerwas: “The church is a prophetic community necessary for the world to know that God refuses to abandon us. We are God’s hope for the world, and you are a servant of that hope.”

The church is a prophetic community necessary for the world to know that God refuses to abandon us. We are God’s hope for the world, and you are a servant of that hope. God has entrusted the message of reconciliation to us. We are ambassadors for Christ.

It is quite clear, in the Scriptures, liturgies, and teaching of the church, that we are called, as followers of Christ, to proclamation. To speaking out God’s good news. To telling other people about the grace and hope and life we have received, by turning to God and living a life of faith. To preaching, in word and action, our countercultural conviction that there is love for us when we feel least lovable, that there is hope for us when we feel most hopeless, that there is a better way for us, a new path, even when we feel the least in control of our lives -and also even when we feel the most in control.

There are so many ways to put words to that Good News – and not only words, but actions and symbols and songs. There are many, many ways to proclaim the Good News. But we are called – asked – ordered – to proclaim it. By Paul: Be ambassadors for Christ. By Jesus: Be my witnesses, to the ends of the earth. By our Book of Common Prayer, right there in our baptismal covenant: Will you proclaim by word and example the good news of God in Christ? By the words of the prayer we say together after the Eucharist: “Now send us forth, a people forgiven, healed, renewed, that we may proclaim your love to the world.”

Anybody squirming yet? … This call to proclamation does not always sit comfortably with us Episcopalians. We tend to be ill-at-ease with evangelism – or as many of us prefer to call it, The E-Word. We don’t care for the idea of being all up in other people’s faces about Jesus or God. Now, there are some substantive reasons for that. For one thing, we are an open-minded faith that believes in many paths to God, and we don’t assume our neighbors are doomed to Hell if they happen to be Presbyterian or Catholic or Jewish.

For another thing, we are an incarnational faith, that sees God’s presence in the world around us, as I mentioned last week. So we don’t believe that an act of service  or a deep conversation or an hour spent on your knees in the garden has to have Jesus stamped all over it in red ink to be holy.

But let’s be frank – a big part of our reluctance to proclaim the Gospel is because it’s hard to be “out” as a Christian in our workplaces and neighborhoods, among our acquaintances and even our friends and family. As my friend Rob the strategic marketing guy says, Christianity has a huge brand problem. People think a lot of awful things about Christians. Christians are superstitious, sanctimonious, anti-science, incapable of critical thought, moralizing, punitive, bossy, judgmental, hypocritical, and really just not the kind of people that you’d want to chat with over a coffee or a beer.

One of the questions I’ve been asking folks in recent weeks is, Have you ever talked about St. Dunstan’s to someone who doesn’t attend? Your answers have followed two strong themes. You talk about your church to people, who seem like they might need what it could offer: a sense of community, unconditional love, a safe space to question, heal, seek and grow. And you talk about your church to people who wonder out loud, What the heck is up with those Christians, anyway? You gather your courage and you say, We’re not all like that. And you talk about belonging to a faith community that’s inclusive and welcoming and smart and curious.

I love that. I love that people are speaking up for St. Dunstan’s, speaking up about the Episcopal Christian way, in those moments. AND… I know it’s hard. I know there are probably lots of moments when you back away from those conversations. Because you’re not sure how it will be received, or because you just don’t have the energy or the words right now. I certainly do. I have a clergy friend who ALWAYS wears his clergy collar when he’s traveling, and welcomes the opportunities to start conversations about faith with strangers on an airplane or a bus. I cannot imagine doing that. Let’s just put in our earbuds and agree not to make eye contact. It’s tough to put yourself out there – to out yourself as a Christian – when our brand image is so bad, and when the starting point has to be, But not THAT kind of Christian. 

That problem is not new, though it’s taken different forms over the decades and centuries. One of the ways that we here at St. Dunstan’s are working towards knowing our own tradition more deeply is by remembering the lives and work of some of the saints who have gone before us, and their witness to the faith, in whatever form it took. Who here knows the name Lord Peter Wimsey? Lord Peter is not a saint, as he would be the first to admit. He is a fictional detective, and the best-known creation of the British writer Dorothy Leigh Sayers, who lived from 1893 to 1957. Sayers is not on our calendar of saints for some reason, though several of her friends and contemporaries are – Evelyn Underhill, C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton. Her birthday was June 13, so I’m taking the liberty of claiming and commemorating her, this Sunday.

Sayers’ mystery novels are what most people know about her, if they know anything, and they’re certainly how I came to know and love her. But she was much more than a novelist. She wrote broadly on politics, feminism, and faith. She translated Dante, and wrote a fantastic, funny, engaging play about the life of Jesus; one of these years we’ll stage it here! Her work on human creativity and the doctrine of the Trinity is well-regarded and delightful.

We tend to carry a vague idea that it was easier to be Christian back in the first half of the 20th century, because everyone was Christian then, right? But that isn’t necessarily true – and it certainly wasn’t true in the intellectual, academic, and activist circles of Sayers’ social world, which may have had a lot in common with the intellectual, academic, and activist circles of our lives in contemporary Madison, Wisconsin. She found, as we often do, that the Christianity most people think they’re avoiding isn’t the Christianity that we claim and strive to follow.

In an essay called “The Dogma Is the Drama,” Sayers addresses exactly this issue, and tries to lay out the true heart of Christianity, the real good news, as she understands it, in the face of public views of Christianity as dull, conventional and rather repressive.

As our commemoration of the life, work, and witness of Dorothy Leigh Sayers today, and as encouragement for the socially-risky business of proclaiming our faith, let me read to you a portion of Sayers’ essay, “The Dogma Is the Drama.”

“It would not perhaps be altogether surprising if, in this nominally Christian country where the Creeds are daily recited, there were a number of people who knew all about Christian doctrine and disliked it. It is more startling to discover how many people there are who heartily dislike and despise Christianity without having the faintest notion what it is. If you tell them, they cannot believe you. I do not mean that they cannot believe the doctrine; that would be understandable enough, since it takes some believing. I mean that they simply cannot believe that anything so interesting, so exciting, and so dramatic can be the orthodox creed of the Church….”

Sayers then proceeds to offer up a short “examination paper,” in question-and-answer format, laying out what the general public apparently believes about Christianity:

“Q: What does the Church think of God the Father? A: He is omnipotent and holy. He created the world and imposed up on humanity conditions impossible to fulfill; he is very angry if these are not carried out. He sometimes interferes by means of arbitrary judgments and miracles, distributed with a good deal of favoritism. He likes to be flattered and is always ready to pounce on anybody who trips up over a bit of difficulty in the Law, or is just having a bit of fun. He is rather like a dictator, only larger and more arbitrary.

“Q: What does the Church think of God the Son? A: He is in some way to be identified with Jesus of Nazareth. It was not his fault the world was made like this, and unlike God the Father, he is friendly to humanity and did his best to reconcile humans to God. He has a good deal of influence with God, and if you want anything done, it is best to apply to him.

“Q: What does the Church think of God the Holy Spirit? A: I don’t know exactly. He was never seen or heard of until Pentecost. There is a sin against him that damns you forever, but nobody knows what it is.

“Q: What was Jesus Christ like in real life? A: He was meek and mild and preached a simple religion of love and pacifism. He had no sense of humor. Anything in the Bible that suggests another side to his character must be an addition. If we try to live like him, God the Father will let us off being damned hereafter and only have us tortured in this life instead.

“Q: What is meant by the Atonement? A: God wanted to damn everybody, but his vindictive sadism was satisfied by the crucifixion of his own Son, who was quite innocent, and therefore, a particularly attractive victim. He now only damns people who don’t follow Christ or never heard of him.

“Q: What does the Church think of sex?  A: God made it necessary to the machinery of the world, and tolerates it, provided that the people involved a) are married, and b) don’t enjoy it.

“Q: What is Faith? A: Resolutely shutting your eyes to scientific fact.

“Q: What is the human intellect? A: A barrier to faith.

“Q: What are the seven Christian virtues? A: Respectability, childishness, mental timidity, dullness, sentimentality, judgmentalism, and depression of spirits.

“Q: Wilt thou be baptized into this faith? A: No thank you!”

Sayers concludes,

“I cannot help feeling that as a statement of Christian orthodoxy, these replies are inadequate… But I also cannot help feeling that they do fairly accurately represent what many people take Christian orthodoxy to be…. Somehow or other, and with the best intentions, we have shown the world the typical Christian in the likeness of a crashing and rather ill-natured bore – and this in the name of One who assuredly never bored a soul, in those thirty-three years during which he passed through the world like a flame….  Let us, in heaven’s name, drag out the divine drama [of Jesus’ true life and teaching] from under the dreadful accumulation of slipshod thinking and trashy sentiment heaped upon it… We do Christ singularly little honor by watering down his personality till it could not offend a fly…

“It is the dogma, [the Gospel itself,] that is the drama – not beautiful phrases nor comforting sentiments nor vague aspirations to loving-kindness and uplift, nor the promise of something nice after death – but the terrifying assertion that the same God who made the world, lived in the world, and passed through the grave and gate of death. Show that to the non-believers, and they may not believe it; but at least they may realize that here is something that a person might be glad to believe.”

Let us pray.

Almighty God, you spoke the universe into being and made us to hear and tell the story of your love. Give us the courage, insight, humor, and passion that we might, like your servant Dorothy, proclaim that story still, in faithful witness to our hope in you; who with the Son and the Holy Spirit is glorified in the telling. Amen.

Thanks to the good folks at Key Hall for posting this wonderful prayer, which fits our celebration of the life and witness of Dorothy Sayers so well!