Competing Cultural Values

Sermon Preached at The Episcopal Church of the Epiphany
Ventnor City, New Jersey
2nd Sunday in Lent (Year C)
Philippians 3:17-4:1; Psalm 27

As part of my Lenten discipline this year, I have been rereading Philip Kenneson’s book, Life on the Vine. The book offers a challenge to Christians to evaluate the cultural virtues or fruits by which we live out our relationship to Christ with one another and in the world. Using as its starting point, the fruits of the Spirit listed in Paul’s letter to the Galatians – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control - Kenneson explores how the nurturing and developing of these fruitful habits has been hindered by the competing values of modern Western culture. Because of this, the “church . . . in the United States looks suspiciously like the dominant culture” with a tragic result: Christian families are doing no better than non-Christians in dealing with problems like selfishness, divorce, and teen-aged sexual activity.[1]

I wish I could disagree. I wish that I could stand here and say, “Kenneson, that’s simply not true.” I wish I could point to all the ways in which the Christians with whom I worship and serve regularly - the ones at St. Barnabas in Villas and St. Mary’s in Stone Harbor, the clergy in the Diocese of New Jersey and the ones I met while serving in the Diocese of Chicago, perhaps even you, here at Epiphany, Ventnor - I wish I could stand here and point to all of you and to me and say, “Kenneson, the fruits of the Spirit are alive and well.” But the fact of the matter is, I cannot; he is right. The church in the United States is ill.

Despite more than 75% of Americans saying they are Christian, regular church attendance is reported at approximately 40% of the American population.[2] Of course, in our post-modern world, many people talk about being “spiritual” but not religious or refer to themselves as Christians who don’t believe in organized religion. I have some real doubts about the veracity of either of these claims given that a key aspect of the Christian faith, according to our baptismal vows, involves continuing in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers – that is, going to church.[3] But that conversation is best reserved for another occasion. For the sake of argument, let’s just say that church attendance is not a key marker to being a good Christian, what then is? What effect does affirming Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior have on our everyday lives? What are the fruits of a Christian life? And how does that fruit differ from the fruit being grown around us?

The Church at Philippi faced some of the same questions. “For many,” Paul writes, “live as enemies of Christ . . . Their end is destruction; their god is the belly; and their glory is in their shame; their minds are set on earthly things. But,” he continues, “our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. He will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory.”[4] “Brothers and sisters, join in imitating me, and observe those who live according to the example you have in us.”[5] It is not entirely clear who the “enemies of Christ” are in Paul’s letter or if they are even a specific group of people. It is possible that they were early converts to Christianity who still held to the priority of the Jewish laws and practices. Others suggest that these enemies are Christians who have misunderstood Paul’s comments about Christians not being “under the law” as a permission slip for over-indulgent and extravagant ways. Regardless of the group or groups Paul had in mind, it is clear that their manner of living is contrary to the model set forth by Jesus – a life of service to others, of self-emptying even to death on a cross.[6] What’s more, Paul reminds the church at Philippi that there is another way – the way of imitating Paul who is, himself, imitating Christ.

Paul’s letter is as critical to us today as it was to the early Christians in Philippi because we also live among enemies of the cross. Today’s enemies include those who promote self-interest, manufactured desire, violence, mass production, self-sufficiency, self-help, impermanence through planned obsolescence and disposability, self-promotion, aggression, and addiction.[7] And you and I are in the grips of many of them. For Christians, the dominant culture, our dominant culture – with its value has taken such a hold on us that we often don’t even notice that many of these values are in direct contrast to the values that our faith tradition holds dear.[8]We have lost sight of the one we are to imitate – Christ himself.

So where then is our hope? The Psalmist offers us the beginning of a response:

“Show me your way, O LORD;
lead me on a level path, because of my enemies.
Deliver me not into the hand of my adversaries”[9]

Our hope begins with our admission of our own inability to turn away from these enemies of the cross and our hope finds its end – its fulfillment – in our radical reliance on God. Only our full submission to God will enable us to discern the difference between following the enemies and following Christ. Our Lenten journey is a journey of self-denial. Self-denial, not as some kind of punishment for our sinfulness, but rather as an opportunity to take in the life-giving grace of God that can only be fully received when we let go of control, when we let go of our desire for power, when we let go of so very many fruits of the culture and take up instead the fruits of the Spirit which are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. These fruits are the new life we have in Christ. They are the way in which Christ is transforming our bodies so that we “may be conformed to the body of his glory.”[10]

[1]Galatians 5:22-23; Kenneson, Philip D., Life on the Vine: Cultivating the Fruit of the Spirit in Christian Community¸(Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1999), p. 12.
[2] The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, available online (accessed on February 27, 2010) and Frank Newport, “Church Attendance Lowest in New England, Highest in South” Gallup News Service, April 27, 2006 available online (accessed on February 27, 2010).
[3] BCP, p. 304.
[4] Philippians 3:18-21.
[5] Philippians 3:17.
[6] Morna D. Hooker, “The Letter to the Philippians: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. XI, pp. 534-5.
[7] Each of these “enemies of the cross” is expanded on in the chapters of Kenneson’s work.
[8] Kenneson, p. 25.
[9] Psalm 27:15-16a.
[10] Philippians 3:21.