A u c k l a n d A o t e a r o a N e w Z e a l a n d
a n g l i c a n c h u r c h
Crazy Enough To Believe
September 7, 2003
Ordinary Sunday 23 James 1:17-27
There is a diner in Indiana, which doubles as a service station. It has a giant billboard out the front proudly declaring, "Eat Here and Get Gas!" Sounds enticing! It reminds me of the famous church notice board message which states, "Don't let worry kill you. Let the church help."
If we were to place a giant billboard outside our church, what message would we put on it? And if we were to place a billboard around our necks as individuals what message would we want to convey? Whatever the particular words, the boards should have a message along the lines of living life to the full, of people realising the untold potential within and around them. Whatever the message we convey it must surely be about living authentically in the present, making a difference in the world. Advertising generally works at convincing people that they are lacking something in their lives, a gap which only their product will fill. How would this work with an organisation whose product is spirit, like a church?
I would hope that we could embark on a radical style of honest advertising, something along the lines of the 1990 movie Crazy People. It had obvious appeal for me. It's not a must-see movie, but it did have an interesting plot whereby a group of psychiatric patients kept themselves amused by inventing advertising slogans with a twist. The twist was that the slogans were starkly honest. For example Volvos were promoted as being "boxy but safe" and United Airlines had the by line, "Most of our passengers get there alive."
The Church's long history of emphasising sin and struggle, with a leaning towards co-dependency, points to an advertising campaign which, if it were honest, would look something like this. “If you are lacking in your life, struggling, feeling unable to cope or find hope, come to church and we'll kick you while your down. Have us confirm that you are lacking because you are sinful. We'll make sure you become dependent on struggle by telling you suffering is the nature of life, and make you dependent on our offer of forgiveness." Doesn't sound particularly life affirming, does it. Sounds more like the original, "Don't let worry kill you. Let the church help."
We can and should do better. So how might our various liturgies and advertising messages look? Imagine if our meetings were more about affirmation of the good that is within and all around us, than about what is lacking. Imagine if we spent more energy affirming the achievements, the growths, the learning than the sin and suffering.
It seems to me that there is one fundamental truth which should be emphasised in every service and on every billboard; that all people are people of spirit, made in the image of God. If this is the case, then the hope is there for all people to access great courage and achievement.
The readings this morning make the same point. The proverbs, first from the Hebrew scripture, then from the letter of James, remind us that all people are one. Some have more money, but it doesn't change the essence. The James reading warns against treating people with prejudice or favour as all people are one. The reading from the Gospel of Thomas was a new discovery for me this week.
I learnt that this Thomas, who is named by the author of John's gospel as the doubter, was anything but a doubter. His was a positive message of self-knowledge and discovery. It suggests that there is a poverty more severe than financial poverty, and that is lack of self awareness. I wondered if the exclusion of Thomas from the canon of the Bible, and the sneer from John may reveal a little threat in such a positive message.
I uncovered in the Gospel of Thomas the blueprint for a belief in the power of God which resides inside each one of us. It is the gospel of egalitarianism. It is about the potential which is in all people. It turns the message of John's gospel on its head; that Jesus is the only way to God, and rather suggests that Jesus is about oneness. So it leads to the view that all things are connected, rather than making Christianity absolute over other truths.
I strongly recommend reading the Gospel of Thomas as an inspiration for life lived well. It is no surprise that a message as open and liberating as this was too much, too threatening for the canon and for the church through the ages. However as we move past church dogma, it will prove to be too inspirational for us to let go.
So, my suggestion is that in our meetings we might affirm possibility more than limitation, potential more than sin. My suggestion is a new form of honest advertising. Instead of "don't let worry kill you, let the church help," how about "You have a full and productive life, let the church share in some of that action."
Rather than market ourselves for people in crisis (which of course it can be too) how about, "You have your life together. We want a piece of that. Come and share your secret with us."
What about, "You are a person of great spirit, a person made in the image of none less than God. You have so much to offer. Come and share with others of potential as we explore together the meaning of life, the power of now, the beauty all around us, the strength within, the connections between, the possibilities beyond."
Rather than so much "Forgive us our sin, unworthy even for the crumbs under the table, so much sinning through our own deliberate fault," how about some of "Everything you need you already have. You are complete right now, you are a whole, total person, not an apprentice person on the way to someplace else."
In this we could be authentic to the spirit within. It will be honest advertising. Most importantly it will be life affirming, as it will foster human potential which arises out of the indwelling of God.