Christ, Change, and Pluralism

Acts 17:17-28

A number of years ago, a best seller was titled, “Who moved my cheese?” Today, many people, including folks like us, are asking “Who moved our culture?” or “Who moved our church?”

I grew up in a town resembling the fabled “Andy Griffith Show.” Our small town in the Salinas Valley was sleepy sleepy Mayberry – it was Mom, Apple Pie, Scouting, the flag, little league baseball games, and Sundays where restaurants didn’t open till noon, and the movie theatre, the Reel Joy, waited till 4:00 p.m. for its Sunday matinee. Sports on Sunday mornings were undreamed of.

Fast forward fifty years, here in our sleepy village of Centerville, and the world is vastly different, isn’t it? Sunday shopping and soccer and hockey practices, women on the work force, a racially and religiously diverse community, and most people feeling little or no obligation to attend church on Sunday mornings or Saturday nights.

Pluralism, or cultural diversity, has even entered the church and our community: we might see a Hindu or Muslim doctor, go to school with Buddhist, Muslim, or Jewish friends, and we might practice Tai Chi, reiki and yoga, and even have programs on reiki, yoga, and meditation in the church. Then there are the growing number of people who are simply “done” with church or have no church experience at all even Easter or Christmas.

While there are days we might want to go back to Mayberry, we can’t flee the world of diversity and religious pluralism, we can’t turn back the clock on cultural and lifestyle changes, and frankly some of the changes and the growing diversity are positive and have broadened our outlooks and improved our lives.

But, what’s a church to do in a rapidly changing world, in which mainline has become sideline, and the center, the margins? Now I can’t speak for this church, but I can speak for myself and let Paul speak for us. Paul’s speech in Athens is one of my favorite scriptures and can be a guide to our mission in a pluralistic, diverse, and changing world.

Paul finds himself in the Areopagus, in the marketplace of ideas in Athens. He sees statues of all kinds and overhears a variety of philosophical conversations.   He’s a bit agitated at first and then gets his spiritual bearings. Paul’s invited to speak to the elite of Athens and begins his most famous speech: he acknowledges that he’s not in Jerusalem or a Jewish neighborhood anymore, he affirms the religious quests of the neighbors, and then shares his own vision of Jesus and his relationship to the pluralism of Paul’s time.

Paul’s words are amazingly ecumenical: he asserts God is the reality in whom we live and move and have our being, and that God is present in every quest for truth in every culture. Paul doesn’t look down on people of other faiths, nor does he judge non-believers; he tries to make a connection, grounded in his vision of God in all things and all things in God. God is as near as our next heartbeat, God is the air we breathe, and God is moving in our neighbors’ – as well as strangers’ – lives. As Christians, we are not privileged: if we have advantage, it is in knowing we are God’s hands, while others are uncertain about it.

At the McLain Bible Church, there is a point in Lon Solomon’s sermon, when he stops, and the congregation responds with “So what?” And we need ask that question now – “So what?” about the church and pluralism, “So what?” about God’s universal presence, “So what about?” our mission in a world where many, including some of our relatives, think they can do very well without the church and its message.

What’s a church to do? Well, here are some thoughts that have guided my response to diversity in our community and the planet.

Begin, as Paul did, by honoring diversity. He notes, “I see that you are very religious.” All around us are people who call themselves “spiritual but not religious.” We don’t need to look down on them, we need to get to know them, and discern where Jesus’ message speaks to their lives.

We need to accept people where they are, and not consider them deficient, if they take another religious path or doubt the whole religious enterprise altogether. Virtually all of our families have atheists, agnostics, or folk who simply think religion and spirituality are irrelevant to a good life.

We need to acknowledge our own questions, and seek to learn as much about our faith as possible, not to debate, but to witness. We need to deepen our own prayer lives and relationship with God, so our light might shine more brightly and give light to others, not as superiors to inferiors or saved to the damned, but as fellow pilgrims loved by God. We need to show the world that church can be a good thing, as we embody what it means to be both “spiritual and religious.”

We need to learn about our neighbors’ faith traditions and see them at their best not their worst. Virtually every practicing Muslim you meet is as good a citizen as our Christian friends, and that applies to Hindus, Buddhist, Jews, wiccans, and agnostics as well. We can listen and then share our faith and tell our story, and describe what Jesus means to us.

As a church, we need to be known as a truth-seeking community – a church that listens to scientists and medical researchers, that dialogues with different world views, that loves literature and learning, and looks for common ground among diverse opinions.

We need to be known as people who care – whose love is obvious – and who reach out to persons Mother Teresa describes as “Christ in his distressing disguises”: Christ in the soup kitchen, Christ sleeping in the woods, and Christ at the nursing home.

Finally, we need to be a place, where in the busyness of life, there is calm and peace, and a time to reflect. In the spirit of Thomas Friedman’s recent book, “Thank You for Being Late,” we need to be still point in the storm, not an escape, but a place where in worship, study, and hospitality, people can find their bearings, discover their spiritual ground, and set their spiritual GPS to bring beauty, justice, and community to our world….. Yes, there is much diversity – and tremendous division – and we can lose our way. But, remember, deep down, we are always Home, for God is the reality “in whom we live and move and have our being.”