When I would consult with congregations, I would ask them about their public profile. This is what non-members who live in their community think about their church. This has to do with image, namely what is the image the community has of us. This public profile is not only true of a local church, it is true of denominations. Think Southern Baptist, and what comes to mind?
When I am in a public place such as an airport, and I identify myself to a stranger that I am an Episcopal Priest, I am interested in their response. I can assure you that our public profile is not what we think of ourselves. Recently, a fellow passenger nodded and said, “Episcopal? Y’all are going through some sort of fight aren’t you?” I thought to myself, wow, what a great public image. This will line un-churched folks up to get into one of our congregations. I mean, who in their right minds would want to join a church that is having a fight?
There is, however, also a public profile of Christianity out there too. In a recent book, “Unchristian,” the authors surveyed numerous young people under the age of 30 to find out what they thought of us. The answers are unsettling to say the least. For example, 91% said that Christians dislike or hate homosexual persons. No matter how you feel about the issue of same-sex blessings, you have to realize what a terribly negative attitude this is toward those of us who represent Jesus and his Church.
In Dallas recently, we have had this attitude reinforced in a very public way. The pastor of one of our most public churches decided to do a series on homosexuality. The title of his first sermon that was placed on their front sign was “Gay is not OK.” This generated a number of protesters who gathered on that Sunday morning to voice their dissent from such a position. In the interviews that followed in the public press, the protesters sounded much more loving and compassionate than the pastor who claimed he was “speaking the truth in love.”
The next week, the issue of sex was raised in a very different way by the pastor of a newly formed and large mega-church who announced a series on marriage and sex. He delivered part of these sitting on a bed while suggesting married couples engage in sex every day over the next week. He promised it would be a “bonding experience.”
After my wife and I stopped laughing, I could not help but wonder if the pastor was in another way reinforcing the image among un-churched and non-Christian people that we Christians, and especially our clergy, are pre-occupied and even obsessed with sexual behavior. Neither example, I would content, helps our public profile. It probably is reinforced and even made worse here in North Texas with the action of the Diocese of Ft. Worth to remove itself from the Episcopal Church because of our increasingly liberal national church policies, specifically related to the election of a Bishop who is a gay man living in a same-sex relationship.
Put all this public profile in perspective of Christ the King Sunday. On this day, we hear the parable of the separation of the sheep and goats. This is a parable about judgment, so we might ask ourselves what criteria Jesus uses to separate the good from the bad? Surprise, it has nothing to do with sexual behavior. Even more, it has almost nothing to do with any personal habit or behavior such as smoking, drinking or with whom we have sex. It all has to do with how we treat the poor, the hungry and those imprisoned!
Now, we as the Christian Community need to ask ourselves why the profile of our Lord and of the Church is so far off our Lord’s values. Why are we not known for our concerned with the poor, and not with sexual behavior? The answer, of course, is that we are reaping what we sow. Talk about sex and people think we are primarily concerned with it.
The challenge for us today, and this very much includes the Episcopal Church, is to start talking publicly about what is really of deepest concern to us. In doing so, we should remember that Jesus commenced the beginning of his ministry with, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.” Further, we should ask ourselves if the presence of a church in any community is primarily good news to the widow, orphan, and stranger in our midst. As our Gospel for this Sunday assures us, this will be our King’s greatest concern when he measures us according to what we have done.