Morning worship: Christian identity not defined by surrounding culture

“I have been aiding in the exploration of this week’s theme with sermons on Europe that have some connection with your experience,” the Rev. James Walters said. “Today, there will be no resonance; I am going to talk about the culture wars over gay marriage.”

The congregation laughed.

“Oh, is that an issue?” he said.

Walters delivered his sermon, “Strangers and Foreigners,” at the 9:15 a.m. Wednesday morning worship service. His text was Hebrews 11: 8-16.

State recognition of gay marriage has brought about vigorous reactions from Christian groups.

“Some border on the hysterical,” Walters said.

Some groups see a new era of Christian persecution, and one man attributed the severe flooding in Britain in 2014 to the abandonment of the Gospel.

“I don’t want to preach about gay marriage, but I do want to talk about what it represents in terms of Christian citizenship and why it is offensive and destabilizing [to some],” he said. “[In Europe and America], we are not entering a new era of persecution. Christians are in the majority, and [Christian values] are enshrined in law. There are still bishops in the House of Lords, and the only other government that holds places for the clergy in its parliament is Iran.

“To talk about Christian persecution in Europe or America is to “deeply trivialize the experience of Christians in Syria, Iraq, Nigeria and Pakistan.”

But Walters acknowledged that there is anxiety and bereavement by Christians in Europe and America.

“The administration of marriage was enshrined in the state with a Christian pattern, and when it is altered, it feels like a betrayal,” he said. “It is emblematic of post-Christian Europe. We are not long in control of the language we have bequeathed to the nation-state.”

Walters was not ready to give up Christian culture for Christian sectarianism, he said.

“We are not living in a Christian society,” he said. “We are surrounded by people of different faiths or no faith, and I often do funerals for families who do not know the Lord’s Prayer or the Biblical stories.

“We can’t rely on stable social institutions to define Christian identity. Lifelong heterosexual marriage, gender roles, sexuality and community are more complex; certainties are no longer certainties. This is ‘root shock,’ a stress reaction to the destruction of an emotional ecosystem.”

He continued: “This is difficult good news — this is no bad thing. When we think we are Christian because the surrounding society tells us it is Christian, what suffering is masked? When this mythical era was ‘properly Christian,’ was gay suffering really the Gospel?”

The ways of God are not concrete, Walters said. In order to find our way, we need critical wisdom. Even in Christendom, the “kingdom come” around us was always calling us to a better city. He cited St. Francis of Assisi, who rejected the wealth of his society; Elizabeth Fry, who worked to reform British prisons; and Bishop Richard Trevor of Durham, who fought for Jewish emancipation in Britain.

“Whatever we think, we have to resist the nostalgia for a Christian era; it was not so Christian,” he said. “Open your eyes now. What, today, will make the earthly city more like the city God promised? Europe has not become un-Christian, but it is post-Christendom. Let us live by faith to know what to preserve but, as strangers and foreigners with critical wisdom, to work toward the city which is to come.”

The Rev. James Hubbard presided. Alison Marthinsen of Toronto, a member of the Chautauqua Choir and a volunteer with the Promise Campaign, read the Scripture. Jared Jacobsen, organist and worship coordinator, directed the Motet choir. The choir sang “I Been in de Storm so Long,” a traditional spiritual arranged by Larry Shackley. Pati Piper was the soprano soloist. The Alison and Craig Marthinsen Endowment for the Department of Religion support this week’s services.