A Sermon Delivered by
The Reverend E. F. Michael Morgan, Ph.D.
Trinity Episcopal Church
Morgantown, West Virginia
Second Sunday of Pentecost
June 23, 2019
There’s a wonderful series of books that you may have read to your kids, or your nieces and nephews, or grandchildren. The publication is actually a series of picture books called “Where’s Waldo?” In the book there are countless tiny portraits of people and situations, and the task of the observant reader is to figure out where Waldo is – hence the title “Where’s Waldo?”
There’s also a mysterious game that is played with children called – “What’s wrong with this picture?” and the object is to find some silly mistake in the drawing where something is upside down, or inside out, or the opposite of what it ought to be, and to detect the incongruity. Occasionally it’s harder to find what’s wrong with the picture than one first imagines, and for some unfathomable reason, kids seem to do better on these things than adults.
Today I thought we might combine and play similar versions of these same games, as it were, and see if there can be a theological insight into what’s happening in the wider world and culture “in which we live and move and have our being” (to quote a familiar and favorite passage from the Prayerbook).
Listen carefully to the following paragraph that was written by a leading church historian, Dr. Martin Marty, and see if you can detect something unusual about this text. It’s a combined exercise in “Where’s Waldo?” and “What’s wrong with this picture?” Here’s the scenario:
On the way to the airport for my TWA flight to St. Louis, I gassed up at the TEXACO station. When I got to the airport, my plane was delayed so I had time to drop in on Border Books in the shopping pavilion, and then stopped at the Rexall concession to get some aspirin. Having an hour to kill in the club before takeoff, I put on my earphones and listened to the tape I had purchased the day before at Sam Goody records. I then ran into my old friend George, a ‘biggie’ at International Harvester who keeps me up to date on trends in business. We parted quickly, however, because I had to grab a hamburger at Burger Chef before I boarded the plane.
Now if you were listening carefully you may have picked up that none of the brands just mentioned still exists. That includes extinct companies like TWA, Texaco, Border Books, Rexall, Sam Goody, International Harvester, as well as the demise of now defunct Burger Chef (which I’m not sure anybody really misses).
Well what’s the point of this childlike exercise, and does it have any relevance at all for religious organizations? I happen to think it does; and in certain ways there may even be some good news for the standard brands of several battered American religious institutions hidden in the midst of this little vignette.
We are told we live in a time when religion is losing its grip on people. Sunday attendance is down, pledging to churches is withheld, and deference to clergy leaders such as bishops, priests, and deacons, is no longer automatically acknowledged. There are countless seminars and conferences designed to pump up religious enthusiasm. There are workshops that explore spiritual gifts and more effective prayer life. And there are quiet days and retreats established to help modern individuals cope with the stress of high-pressure jobs and free floating anxiety regarding family life. All these approaches and methods are recommended in order to find ways to reinvigorate the spiritual life of people who seem to have lost their way, and who, for whatever reason, don’t view the church as the place where they can receive help or assistance. That has created both a spiritual dilemma and a moral crisis.
The Word of God has never been needed as much as it is required today; yet fewer and fewer people are moved by the power of the message, or the relevance of the content, or even the integrity of the ordained leaders who presumably know what they’re talking about. Regrettably, religious suspicions are high, theological doubt is in full throttle, and some published pundits, the so called experts, are wondering in this post-Christian age whether the true spirit of Christ will survive at all, or whether perhaps in some tamer version Christianity will emerge in a new hybrid form. It’s a sobering concern, and one we cannot hide from.
In the face of all this dire news, the concern is inevitably raised regarding how well the traditional churches are doing in conveying the basic Scriptural message. Are churches continuing to proclaim the good news of Christ’s redemptive love? And are they doing it with authenticity?
Well, you might be surprised. To the question: “What’s wrong with this picture–the picture of the church today?” The answer is: “Plenty.” There’s clearly a lot that’s wrong, but consider the following.
One sociologist of religion decided to get some perspective on the implications of what is happening over time in our different and varied religious domains. For his study he chose the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science from just over 70 years ago in 1948. And from the section entitled “Organized Religion in the United States,” here are the brand-name churches that have survived since that time…the Top Ten ecclesiastical institutions surviving since 1948.
7th Day Adventist; Presbyterians; the Episcopal Church; Baptists (Southern and American); Church of the Brethren; Roman Catholics; Disciples of Christ; Mormons; Lutherans; and United Methodists.
Now that’s not bad. It’s actually an impressive list, and it tells us something important. It’s not what’s wrong with the religious picture; it’s what’s RIGHT with it. Churches that are genuinely rooted in God’s purposes will survive. Despite lethargy, changing demographics, and the internal political assaults besetting them, many religious institutions have outlasted the trendy and flashy expressions of faith that are longing for permanence and respectability. These newer groups and mega-churches are the ones that are struggling to maintain and keep a connection with their followers, and they keep reinventing themselves with new charismatic leaders, religious gimmicks that are often frankly deceptive, and hyped-up rallies that take place in football stadiums and sports arenas. In the long run, however, it appears, they do not seem to be effective in the same way that mainline, or what is perhaps more accurately called “old line” churches, are. The religious market place continues to thrive, and there are many brands on the shelves, but the most enduring and familiar products, such as the established and recognized ecclesiastical bodies, seem to be the best religious bargains in the long run.
I am pleased to see the Episcopal Church continues to be one of those ongoing communities of faith. It is alive and well - maybe not quite so well - but still alive and struggling to be connected with its communicants by ministering to them around the real issues and dilemmas of life that individuals face. And Trinity Church here in Morgantown, is one of those local Episcopal parishes where expressions of Christian identity have the potential to both thrive and prosper. As long as we remain honest about our identity, committed to the well-being and care of others, and fervent in our attempts to live into the baptismal covenant, we will gain God’s favor; and when we do, we will see with clarity what’s right with the Christian picture in the book of life. That’s where Waldo is. That’s where Trinity is. That’s where the Episcopal Church is – and that’s where God would have us go…
It has been said that there is a wonder and a spirit in Christ that we are part of something larger and greater than ourselves. Imagine the possibilities for good in the world, if we held on to the intensity of that Christian hope. It can happen, and our faith can help us make a difference.
And all this we ask …
In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
CREDITS, NOTES, & REFERENCES: available on request