Monday, June 7, 2010


Yesterday I found myself in a parish that I once was a member of when I was a teenager. My sister and mother are members there now. It is ensconced in the wealthy northern suburbs of Atlanta. While I wore my collar, I sat in the pew listening to the sermon and stood in line to receive communion. The sermon was preached by a professional acquaintance of mine from several years ago! The readings appointed for the day were rich. 1 Kings 17:17-24 told of Elijah stretching himself upon the body of a dead boy crying to God to bring life back into the boy and the boy came back to life and was returned to his mother who would have been destitute without his care. From the Gospel of Luke the widow of Nain mourns the loss of her only son only to have Jesus say, "Arise!" and he too is returned to his mother who would have been destitute without her son. (Luke 7:11-17) And let us not forget Paul's Letter to Galatians where he proclaims that the Gospel is of God and hence supernatural rather than an invention of men. How else could he be a Christian proclaiming salvation to the Gentiles! (Gal. 1:11-24) Alas, the sermon really did not address the fact God can raise people from the dead. Or that the Gospel is supernatural in nature. In the sermon there were a couple of nice stories. They were more about how humanity can do the right thing. Really nothing about what God can do that is supernatural. If you feel good, perhaps you will see God.

So I come home, flop on the couch and turn the TV on. On TCM was an old Gregory Peck movie, The Keys of the Kingdom. The movie was about a Scottish RC priest who is somewhat of a misfit in his hometown. He is sent off as a missionary to pre-revolution China. There he sees an old dilapidated church building and 2 hosts who tell the new rector that everyone left when the previous pastor left as they had no one to receive payment from to stay and worship. But this couple will help repair the buildings and grow the church for their customary stipend. Fr. Chisolm, Peck's character, replies he has no money and has no intention of raising up "rice Christians". At this the couple leave in a huff and mock the priest's efforts in establishing a medical mission and a parish.

As a parish priest for over 20 years, I have encountered similar sentiments from my North American mission field albeit more subtle than the Chinese who looked forward to American and European missionaries doling out the wealth. Fr. Chisolm knew what a true convert was. But do we who pastor in comfortable America? There is an overriding, "What's in it for me?" attitude among church goers. When we make people happy, we are creating Rice Christians. Our goal is to preach Christ crucified. Are we bold to say that miracles abound today and that God still heals? Are we honest when we cannot say we have witnessed a miracle that defies explanation but are humble enough to appeal to The Almighty to show us one? After all, God is supernatural! Any effort to make church for selfish reasons is an effort to sow Rice Christians. When we define God on our terms rather than the Scriptures, we are making Rice Christians. It is no wonder that people church shop.

Later in the movie Methodist missionaries arrive in the Chinese village where Fr. Chisolm has labored many years. Knowing that it has not been his job to build a church but rather seek the lost for Christ's sake, he welcomes the Methodists as co-laborers! The Church for Fr. Chisolm was what Jesus wanted, not necessarily his traditions!

The problem with the American Church is that we want to build an institution, not the Body of Christ. We want to talk about ourselves and not about what God is doing or can do. We do not want to confess that maybe we are blind and deaf to His presence. A confession that requires repentance!

The truth is that Jesus is doing all the work to draw people to Himself. Those of us who are true believers can be missionaries in our own denominations and accept others who are members of Christ's fold in spite of our traditions!