St. Mary Orthodox Church

Cambridge, MA

Fishing in the 21st Century

Sermon preached by Fr. Antony Hughes on Sunday, June 18, 2017

The Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. Matthew. (4:18-23)

Ken Wilbur in THE RELIGION OF TOMORROW points out two interesting facts. One, that 75% of young adults between the ages of 18 and 29 belong to the growing segment of society that calls itself "spiritual and not religious" along with 20% of adult Americans. I also read that the largest religious group in America is now “former Catholics.” In Europe, only 11% of people have anything to do with organized religion.

The second fact, more an observation, is that the cultural ground has shifted under our feet and we do not even know it. We religious types tend to live in a time warp where we believe that the majority of people still follow the same rules we do – that, even though the evidence is all around us that this is not the case. We must understand that this shift is not going to be reversed no matter how hard we may try to force it. We have to accept the world and work with is as it is not as we want it to be. This, I believe, is one of the major reasons for the decline in numbers.

The good news is that there is a genuine yearning for a deep, effective, and meaningful spirituality. 75% of young people consider themselves “spiritual.” That is good! The problem is that they do not feel that any major religious tradition addresses their spiritual needs. This has resulted in a “silent exodus” with young people and adults as well, not removing themselves from parish roles, but simply disappearing. For example, I recently learned that the good number of my seminary professors at ORU no longer go to any church at all. 

One thing people are looking for is a spirituality that is practical, that makes sense in this postmodern world, which takes into consideration the expansion of scientific and psychological knowledge, and the cultural shift. While most people have grown up in this age of expanding knowledge and changing mores and have embraced them, the church has lagged way behind. The disparity has not gone unnoticed.

Another important point is that due to the communication explosion and the internet the wisdom of all the Great Religious is now available with the push of a button and people are looking at and learning from them. The world is becoming more fully integrated than ever before. It is not the differences that are so striking, but rather the similarities. The effect on religious life is significant. Thus, the corner store has been replaced by the corner Yoga center. What people are looking for, writes Jean Claude Barreau, is actually the heart of Christianity and is what the church seems to have forgotten.

The search is on for deeper forms of connection both internal and external, for wisdom, for transcendence and for ways to embody the sacred in daily life; not painting a veneer of piety over a dysregulated life, but for true inner healing, for peace of mind, for an authentic and unshakable connection with God and others. Piety too often is play acting. The desire is for real transformation.

If we want to be “fishers of men” and of women in this day and age, then it is essential that we re-think what we are doing and why. Today’s fish are drawn to different flavors of bait than they were 1,000 ago. What I mean is that we must re-examine our message and take into consideration what we are saying and what others are hearing when we say it. People hear differently today than they did in the past. They see things differently now than they did in the past. How do we communicate the Gospel in an age that thinks it already knows what Jesus said and has either lumped it in with all other such wisdom or rejected it? Maybe, just maybe, we ourselves don’t know the true meaning of the Gospel. Can we not just admit for once that we may be the ones who must change?

How do we speak to people who have embraced the cultural shift, whose view of the world is based more on science and psychology than on classical religious thought, who read neuroscience, Stephen Hawking and the Upanishads rather than the Bible, who find fulfilment in yoga, therapy and social work, and not in worship? We must meet them where they are and to do that we must become conversant with rather than aversive to the people who actually live in our post-modern world.

It is not about developing new and slick tools for evangelism. I was an evangelical. I know what that looks like and how shallow such things are. What I am talking about is learning how to listen to people and being willing to dialogue with them. Having open hearts to hear and to accept people just as they are. We have to stop acting like we know it all and learn, seek to understand, and expand. I love what Maggie Smith as the Dowager Countess said to Isobel Crawley once on Downtown Abbey, “If you wish to understand things, you must come out from behind your prejudice and listen.” I’ll never forget what a Tibetan llama said to me once (yes, I know a Tibeta llama). “The Orthodox have some of the most wonderful theologians, but they are so standoffish.” It seems we are afraid of true dialogue. Are we afraid we might learn something?

I think we have to quit trying to convert everybody. It might be nice if everyone became Orthodox, but you know as well as I do that it’s not going to happen. Instead we must learn how to love them. And we have to put down our sticks and stones and our triumphalism and be humble and vulnerable, the way God is. As Richard Rohr tells us, and it is true, “God’s mystery rests in mutuality. We like control; God, it seems, loves vulnerability.” We must be patient and compassionate and utterly accepting. There is no place for judging when you are supposed to be loving. We must hold the other in unconditional positive regard. The goal is not to make everybody Orthodox. Whether or not someone becomes Orthodox is not our decision, it belongs to them. The goal is to love without expectation and agenda. To love no matter what. That’s all there is to it. That is authentic evangelism.