I've been doing a lot of pulpit supply since I returned to Massachusetts, mostly at the church where I'm a sort-of member. I've actually preached there five Sundays out of the last seven, which is good, because I never could have preached the sermon I preached on Sunday if I weren't known to and had established trust with the congregation. In order to preach the sermon I was led to preach, I had to get personal, and I don't do that with congregations I don't know.
The gospel lesson I was preaching on was from Matthew, when Jesus asks his disciples, "Who do people say that the Son of Man is?" and then, "But who do you say that I am?" (The full passage was Matthew 16:13-20, if you're interested.) When preparing to write the sermon, I found a note written next to this passage in my bible, probably from a text study I attended years ago: Outsiders' opinion of Jesus. Why does the Church today need to hear what non-church people say about the Church? What do we do with that information? And with that old notation, the direction for my sermon was set. I needed to explore what Christians do that give non-Christians the impression that we're angry, unhappy, judgmental hypocrites, or else simplistic and too stupid to really understand what's going on around us (because let's face it: when you see Christians depicted in movies and on television, that's usually how we're portrayed). Sure, there are the obvious culprits like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, but we can't lay all the blame at their feet. There are a lot of ordinary, non-famous and non-controversial Christians out there who do a lot of harm to others, and give both Christianity and God a bad name while doing so.
And that's where my sermon had to get personal. I am one of the Church-harmed, and my own story demonstrates the point I was trying to make better than an over-the-top Falwell or Robertson foot-in-mouth moment that most people can simply dismiss as idiocy.
I was first harmed by the Church (my capitalization here is intentional) when I was thirteen years old. I'd been attending CCD at the same Catholic Church since kindergarten, at the same church I'd been baptized in, and where my parents had been married. At the beginning of 8th grade they signed me up for CCD automatically, but no one bothered to tell me where and when to report. So I missed the first class. The next day in Social Studies several schoolmates, who were also in that CCD class, told me that the teacher (CCD wasn't taught by the priest) had told everyone there that I was the spawn of the devil because I obviously didn't care about learning about God, and that their eternal souls would be at risk if they associated with me. Fortunately for me, they weren't too worried about their eternal souls, so I didn't lose any friends over this. That church did lose a member (me only--my parents had already stopped going because the Church didn't recognize their divorce), and once I got confirmed later that year (at another Catholic Church in the center of town--my mother made me), I left the Catholic Church and never looked back.
The second time was four years later, when I was attending an evangelical church with a friend. We were going on a ski trip to Vermont, but the bus that had been chartered to take us there never showed up. The youth pastor organized us into cars driven by adult volunteers, without informing our parents of the change. The volunteer driving the car I was in drove recklessly and caused a serious accident. No one was killed, but I missed nearly two months of school recovering from my injuries, and then spent several more months unable to walk without the assistance of crutches or a cane. My mother sued the church, and I was then informed by some of the leadership that I was an unrepentant sinner beyond all hope of salvation.
Fast forward through my years of atheism, militant church-hating, and then eventual return and even (shock, horror, and awe) ordination, to a first call with a workaholic senior pastor who was unable to share leadership and allow me the autonomy to minister according to my own gifts, to a second call at a level three conflict congregation (a fact that was known to the synod, but was hidden from me). Because I wasn't aware of the dynamics going in, I didn't provide the correct leadership for that level of conflict, and it quickly became level four. That last experience caused serious spiritual harm to me and to my family, and has me questioning whether or not I ever want to have anything to do with congregational ministry again.
And the reason I put all of this into my sermon is because all this harm was caused by other Christians, and we as Christians need to know that our words and our actions matter. I called myself one of the Church-harmed earlier, because I've discovered that there's a disturbingly large number of people who have been harmed by the Church in similar ways. We are pastors who have been spiritually and emotionally destroyed by abusive congregations. We are church members who have been exploited and condemned by abusive pastors. We are seekers who have been judged and convicted by well-meaning believers who are convinced that their understanding alone is sufficient to determine who is worthy of God's love, and who is not. We are still on the fringes, trying to find our place in the Church. We are seeking acceptance and belonging in secular circles, wanting nothing to do with the Church. We're okay with God, but don't want anything to do with the people of God. We're not okay with God, because who wants to be okay with a God who lets his* people treat others like that? Or it doesn't matter if we're okay with God or not, because our experiences with Christians have convinced us that there is no God.
I now identify with this group. And who knows--maybe my calling as a pastor is to reach out to others like me, and to make sure a part of the Church is safe for those who have been harmed by it before.
Assuming the Church doesn't totally beat me down first.
*I disagree with the current efforts to use only gender-neutral language for God, but I'll save that for another post at a later time.