I recently read an article entitled, “Six ways that ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’ is a religion.” For those of y““ou who don’t know, “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” is a very strange 40 year-old film about a young couple who stumble upon a spooky castle filled with odd residents after their car breaks down on a rainy night. The plot involves their gradual integration into the household of Frank N. Furter, an alien transvestite from the transsexual planet of Transylvania. The film flopped when it came out in the 1970s, but subsequently developed a rabid fan base who began hosting midnight shows where audience members dressed up as the movie’s characters and acted out the film in front of the screen as it played. Generations of college students have been introduced to the fun of bringing props, singing along with the actors, and shouting out now-traditional responses to film dialogue. “[The audience participates] in the story. They become part of the experience itself” – and they are emotionally transported.
In order for this to happen though “you have to be introduced to the [ritual] of the film… [just] like neophytes who must learn a religion’s sacred lore… [Rocky Horror]…tells a story…That story has a body of commentary that has grown over the years…There is no ‘pure’ viewing of [Rocky Horror]; it now only exists with…commentary…People act the story out… [and] the film creates community.” If you think about it, that sounds an awful lot like church. We tell familiar stories and try to comment on them in a unique way. We enact traditions around the stories we tell. And we do all of this in community.
Unfortunately, in many places church is not as popular as Rocky Horror – a fact which illustrates the continuing decrease in mainline church attendance that started at about the same time Rocky Horror did. Sure, Rocky Horror is fun – so are sports, Sunday brunches and sleeping in – but what do those things have that church doesn’t? It’s not a lack of good writing – our holy scriptures contain some of the best stories ever written. It’s not the characters – Christian history is filled with people far more interesting than Brad and Janet Weiss. And it’s not the production values – after all, it’s hard to beat the “sets” and “costumes” we have here. So maybe it’s not that Rocky Horror has something church doesn’t; maybe it’s just that church doesn’t have anything Rocky Horror doesn’t.
Data from the 2014 Survey of Episcopal Churches suggests that many people may think that’s true – that the widely reported decline in church attendance in the Episcopal Church is less about entertainment than it is about meaning – and mission. According to that report, many 21st century Episcopal churches lack a clear sense of purpose, becoming “inward-looking clubs or clans where fellowship among friends is the primary reason for being.” Many churches have “lost [a] common vision of mission, and evangelism has been ignored. Our rapid decline has…shown us that if we do not share the saving news of Jesus Christ…our churches become anemic at best and often dead.”
We have put ourselves in danger of forgetting who we are – forgetting that the repetitive and ritualistic parts of our “religion,” do not exist for their own sake but are designed to invite and enhance our spiritual being – to touch our souls. Perhaps that’s why people outside of the church don’t want to join us. According to a Lifeway Research survey of 2000 “unchurched” people – 57 percent of whom identified as Christian – two out of three reported that they weren’t interested in worship, and three out of four said they had no desire to seek God. These people see no connection between “religion” and spirituality. We know this because they told surveyors that, while they aren’t interested in church, they are interested in is doing things that feel spiritually fulfilling – experiencing in an immediate way the connection between themselves, other people, and that deep and healing presence that we call the Holy Spirit.
That’s what Naaman wanted too. According to today’s Hebrew Scripture reading, Naaman was a powerful and favored soldier of the king of the Arameans, but his greatness was limited by illness; a “skin disease [stood] between Naaman and full honor.” All of the money and power of his king could not cure him – but, according to a lowly Israelite serving girl, a prophet of her land could. So a desperate Naaman went to Israel to find the prophet Elisha, but when he got there, he wasn’t given the special treatment he thought he deserved; there were no musical flourishes, no ritualistic gestures, and no fancy wardrobe changes. Instead, Elisha sent him a simple direction to bathe in Israel’s insignificant little Jordan River. For Naaman, there was not enough “religion” in the cure he was offered. But, fortunately for Naaman, his servants demonstrated both compassion and common sense. “Try it,” they told him. “What have you got to lose? And Naaman was transformed. His wailing was turned into dancing; he was clothed with joy and his heart sang without ceasing.
That’s the kind of spiritual experience people want to have – but aren’t finding in Christian churches – are not even seeking in Christian churches. That’s because many people don’t know what it means to have faith. For these people “belief” is the same as “opinion” – and they don’t like the ideas they think Christians have. They don’t understand what belief is – that belief is not about what we think – it’s about what we feel, what we trust.
That’s what Paul was trying to tell his group of fledgling Christians in Galatia. It is what we do – how we embody our Christian identity – that matters. We will reap, he warns us, what we sow. If Christians sow anger, hatred, fear and rejection, those are the things that will grow – and those are the things we will have to deal with when they come to fruition – just as we are dealing with them now. Because the truth is that many Christians have not sown the seeds of love and peace that Jesus intended. We have instead evangelized on behalf of our non-violent and accepting Saviour by drawing lines of exclusion and encouraging belief at the point of a sword. And as a result our harvest is one of doubt rather than devotion, fear instead of faith. We have been asked to reap in a society in which some people have suggested that the world would be a far better place without belief in God.
But this is our mission field. We are God’s laborers and despite what we might think, the harvest is plentiful. We live in a divided nation – a frightened nation – a nation that is struggling to find itself. It is a nation that desperately needs the unifying, fortifying, and reinvigorating power of true Christian love. It is a society filled with people who, despite their apparent skepticism, continue to want to believe in the holy – who want to believe in each other – who want to believe in God.
These people are the fruits of the spirit that, like the seventy disciples in today’s gospel reading, we are asked to harvest. Like the disciples we may be lambs in the midst of wolves. Like them we will not be welcomed in many places. Like them we must be prepared to sacrifice our own comfort in order to spread the good news of the life-giving gospel to others. But that’s what evangelism is – and evangelism is the call of all Christians.
Like it or not, we have been called to evangelize – to share our faith. That doesn’t mean we have “to corner a stranger, thrust a Bible at [them] and ask” if they have been saved. We don’t have to ask people if they have been born again. We don’t have to threaten people with hell. We simply have to do three things: proclaim the gospel; enact our faith, and invite others to join us. Tell people who you are – introduce them to the church as you experience it. Just as the Israelite slave girl told Naaman how he might be healed, we must tell others how to find nourishment for their souls. Show people what you believe. Don’t just tell them the Christian story; enact it. Just as Paul told the Galatians, do not tire of doing what is right. Focus on what is important rather than what is convenient. Work for the welfare and freedom of all people. And invite other people to join you, to participate in the experience of the spirit, to be part of our community. And then rejoice -and give thanks –because when we do these things, rest assured – the kingdom of God will come near. AMEN.
Martini Judaism, (October 29, 2015) “Six ways that ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’ is a religion,” Religion News Service, http://religionnews.com/2015/10/29/rocky-horror-religion/.
C. Kirk Hadaway 2015), “New Facts on Episcopal Church Growth and Decline,” Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society of the Episcopal Church.
Cathy Lunn Grossman, “God? Meaning of Life? Many Americans don’t seek them in Church,” Religion News, http://religionnews.com/2016/6/28/god-meaning-of-life-many-americans-dont-seek-them-in-church/.
Stephen Reid, “Commentary on 2 Kings 5:1-14
Diana Butler Bass, (October 18, 2016), “Oprah’s new ‘Belief’ series shows how dramatically the nature of faith is shifting,” The Washington Post.