Growing up in the fifties was exciting. Christmas may have been a frenzied time of shopping for gifts and putting on family dinners for my Mom, Dad and Grandparents but as kids, my brother and I had only one job to do. Be good so Santa would come and give us our gifts. We achieved this one task with varying degrees of success.
The Fifties were an exciting time. The country was fresh from a successful war, poverty was on the decline, industry and technology were rapidly changing the way we saw and did things. New products were hitting the marketplace, creating both the means to ease our labors and, at the same time, producing more jobs, better pay, and new problems requiring new solutions.
Having assumed the task of the world’s savior, the United States was moving ahead in all areas of life. We were taking our role seriously, setting up military bases worldwide, strengthening our military arsenal, always on alert in the event of another conflict. But we were also helping to create new markets around the world, producing products that everyone wanted and that we were busily making. Patriotism was at an all time high. Even with the shadow of Communism and the Cold War hovering close, it was still a good time to be an American.
During these glory days, the American culture formed a sort of informal and somewhat, understated alliance with the Jewish-Christian tradition. The culture supported many of the practices and values of the church, and the church, in turn, reciprocated. For most of our families being a church member was a significant part of being an American citizen. Attending church weekly, as a family, was as American as Mom and apple pie, flag waving and the Fourth of July, or John Philip Sousa and baseball. In a variety of ways, our government supported churches in this production of good citizens, by giving them tax-exempt status, codifying laws that eliminated or reduced the purchase and consumption of certain products, namely beer, wine and liquor, and holding firm on Sunday as the day of rest, in which no business was to be conducted. Good Christians were good citizens and good citizens created a strong, vital and productive country.
But this alliance between the church and the culture caused unseen and often unrecognized problems for the church. The church identified so closely with the values of American society, it was not able to effectively point out the disparity between those secular values that were counter to its own basic, genuine Christian beliefs and values. So, as a result the church often fell short of its role in redefining the culture from a Christian position. Therefore it undersold itself, weakening its own message of hope and good news. What was to be a voice crying out in this wilderness of secular attitudes and thought became instead a voice, which mingled far too cozily with the voices of the society around it. Because it often accommodated its message and life to the culture, the church lost its distinctive identity. It failed to be a strong prophetic witness to the world and Christians were guilty of perpetuating injustice rather than condemning it. The possibility of peace became instead an avenue leading to distress and unrest.
It’s clear now that the church in America, those mainline denominations, such as ours, have lost favored status. We no longer have the protection of the government in the same way as we once had. The so-called blue laws that kept some products off the shelves and kept most stores closed on Sundays have largely been lifted. Even our tax-exempt status is being threatened and may, in some future year, be eliminated. Church membership is down. Church attendance in so many churches runs at about 1/3 or less of the total numbers of people reported as members. Numerous new churches that have literally sprung up from nowhere threaten us both by their increasing number of members and their theology and worship style.
We live in a very diverse culture, with many ethnic groups and religious backgrounds. It’s now a fact, that in the United States, there are as many Muslims as there are Episcopalians, perhaps more. Those of us in established churches, churches that can trace their life and history back hundreds of years, as we who are United Methodist can, may feel like we are exiles in our own country, estranged from this new cultural setting. We are finding it difficult to accept our less favored status. So we try to recapture what once was. We complain to the schools that schedule football, hockey, baseball or basketball games on Sundays telling them their Sunday games are disrupting family life, preventing families from attending church together and pulling the fiber of our very national identity into shreds. We complained to our politicians or just grumbled under our breath when stores were allowed to open on Sundays. And we long for the days when the church was allowed to have an impact in the schools, when the pledge to allegiance and prayer began each day. Those were the days, we think, when peace reigned and right was not determined by the culture but by the Universal Church.
So, today, we read this scripture passage from Isaiah and we are soothed by the words, “Comfort, Comfort my People says the Lord” because we pray it will be so. We cling to a remembered past or to the one we wish we had lived, a past we remember now, whether it is true or not as one of reassurance where peace reigned in our hearts and in our daily lives. In the midst of our stressful times, we embrace these hope-filled words. We are a people who once again feel exiled from this longed for idyllic image of life as it should be. The world has changed and the frenzy we experience daily is multiplied a thousand-fold as we push through the crowd in the mall or race along the over trafficked roads lost in a haze of shopping needs but having truly lost the meaning behind it all.
But, as in Isaiah’s time, there is hope we will remember what we as followers of Christ should remember. We can start by praying for ourselves
and others and for our church to remember what this glorious season of Advent is preparing us for…the holy day of Christmas when the real meaning behind the birth of Christ in our lives is revealed and honored. Though the world around us may have lost the meaning behind the season, we can reclaim what rightfully belongs to us, by showing others how to live this season in such a way that peace and joy, comfort and hope, love and good will are realities to us. They are not just words we sing or say, but realities that we are eager to share. In this wilderness, this world that is hurting and sits in its own darkness, a voice, our many voices will be heard when we dare to ring out as a herald of good tidings, the Word that offers light and life, “Here is your God!” Of whom or what should we fear? As you find a place for your ribbon this week, make sure it is prominent and visible. Let the ribbons of Hope, Peace, Joy, Love, and Christ be constant reminders of beauty and holiness of this season. Then, having claimed the truth, dare to share it and may peace fill your hearts and your homes. Amen.