Pastoral Message – September 25, 2022
I’ve got a pagan friend. Or he might introduce himself as a heathen. He, himself, uses both terms – pagan and heathen – interchangeably. And while a serious pagan or a serious heathen might say their beliefs are grounded in pre-Christian traditions of different origins, my friend uses the terms colloquially to say he doesn’t subscribe to anything Christian. This friend of mine was raised as a Christian. His father was even a minister for a while. So his parents were deeply saddened that their son strayed from the faith of his fathers (and mothers). He is resolute in turning away from what he considers Christian.
Now I’ve known this guy for more than 30 years. He has seen a change in me. He knows what I do. He respects what I do and he respects my beliefs. He even thought it was cool I was going to write about him for this bulletin. (I asked his permission.). So an on-going question we chat about is the state of his belief or lack of belief. He tells me and anyone else that he considers himself a non-believer because he takes the lessons of Christianity and the word of Scripture seriously. Huh??? I know this sounds a little bit weird. Here is a non-believer who doesn’t discount the word of God. How can that be…?
We’ve chatted about this. We both arrived at the conclusion that he is possibly hard-hearted. He readily admits he is quite selfish. I suggested that he might be arrogant, stubborn, obstinate and mildly insolent. (He’s had a charmed, privileged life with very little grief. He also admits he shows no gratitude really to anybody). I suggested he is complacent so maybe he’s actually a hedonist. In all of these qualities and absence of virtue, he’s truly a man of the material world.
But here’s the rub! He knows God’s word! He says he respects God’s word. He recognizes and appreciates his Christian upbringing but he refuses to be a Christian. He tells me he doesn’t need to be a Christian; he’s content enough and well off, comfortable and untethered. He can do anything he pleases. It helps that he’s intelligent but doesn’t seek wisdom. He relies on his superior ivy league education. He never has to worry about money or property – he has them both. All that worldliness has bred in him a cynicism that shapes his relationships, political views and mode of living.
I like the guy. He’s a friend. He’s a pretty good musician. He reads a lot of history. We share these common interests. We email back and forth. So he emailed me last week. In catching up, he asked me how things are at work. I had just been reading the Scripture passages the Church has given us for Mass this 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time. So I told him I had just been reading about him in the Bible. I told him that he was the spitting image of Amos 6, and Luke 16:19. I got his response a few hours later. Obviously he looked up the Scripture I cited. Regarding Amos 6 he wrote -“Yeah, you’re right about that. That’s me. That’s me and just about everybody else sitting in Churches across America. I’m just more honest than they are”. Ouch!!! Maybe I struck a nerve.
Remember that I pointed out that my friend is cynical. From his response, I guess I can also add that he considers himself a morally superior pagan/heathen. As a 21st Century American, he is a living example of the cynicism that our society and culture rightfully or wrongfully appropriate from our Christian conversion/lack of conversion. Folks can certainly point out the “ouch” in our hypocrisy. And we shouldn’t deny it! But are we fighting against hypocrisy? My friend and folks like him are watching how we embrace and apply difficult teachings from Amos and all the Prophets. They are watching to see if our proclamation of following Christ is real or just lip service. They’re constantly observing and discerning if we are just churchy but not Christian – because being churchy but not Christian really makes us out to be Pharisees, hypocrites, or worse yet – selfish, hardhearted, and arrogant idolaters who aren’t honest with ourselves and the world. Thus we give Christianity a black eye and a bad name.
So let’s examine ourselves in the light of these Scripture passages and see if they are a “woe to us.” Are we arrogant and hard-hearted to others? Are we living selfishly? Are we unfeeling and uncharitable to both the poor and the rich? Are we living like hedonists, pagans, heathen, or idolaters? Would Amos or any of the prophets gladly condemn us for our way of living?
As to my friend and his slap at folks in Church, I responded that at least the folks sitting in Churches across America were courageous enough to show up, listen to the word of God, and consider the challenge. Then they’ll maybe even embrace the challenge and seek conversion. Ongoing conversion is the intent of all Christian formation. So y’all, examine your hearts, your minds, and your practices. Be courageous. Embrace even the difficult and counter-cultural teaching of Christ and the Prophets. Because in doing so, we’ll not be self-identified but hypocritical Christians/pagans/heathens. Instead, we’ll be influencers in walking humbly with our God.
(And Pete, this one is all yours my friend!!! Email when you get the chance.)