It's easy to be suspicious of good taste in matters of religion, to fear that a refined aesthetic sense, so concerned with making the atmosphere harmonious and pleasing to the senses in an unobtrusive way, might work against the religious call to think on spiritual things, to strive for personal change, and to sacrifice worldly comfort for the sake of some otherworldly good. This is perhaps especially understandable when it comes to Christianity -- there is nothing tasteful about the crucified Christ. And if a person labored under such a suspicion, it would be easy to forgive their immediate reaction to St. Andrew's on Sunday. Good taste abounded: white glass filtering in swaths of gentle light, walnut slats on the ceiling contrasting with the pale gray walls, Arts & Crafts--style stained glass adorning the central window, and bright, classical piano ringing through the church before the service began. The list went on, all the way to the single pottery urn of elegant pink flowers in the Sanctuary. Christ was on the cross, suspended from the ceiling, but He was clothed, and there were no nails in His hands and feet.
But then a person might notice the careful yet unstudied motions of a young acolyte as she fetched the Lectionary from the lectern, pausing to turn and reverence the altar before retreating down the aisle. Or the uniform bowing of clerical heads at the name of Jesus during the Gloria. Careful liturgy might be more good taste, but it might also be attention to worship. And then a person would hear the Lessons.
Jeremiah: "Let the prophet who has a dream tell the dream, but let the one who has my word speak my word faithfully. 'What has straw in common with wheat?' says the Lord. 'Is not my word like fire...like a hammer that breaks the rock in pieces?'" The Psalm: "How long will you judge unjustly and show favor to the wicked?" Paul: "In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood.... 'The Lord disciplines those whom he loves.'" Jesus, in the Gospel of Luke: "Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on, five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three."
Father Hills's tone was affable during the sermon, but he didn't back off the point. "The words of Jesus...sounded to me like something out of a boot camp for disciples.... They're not pleasant. They're hard. They're demanding. Nobody really wants or likes to hear them. And yet, like boot camp, they're also necessary...if we are actually living our faith and not merely paying lip service to the surprisingly radical gospel of Jesus Christ."
Hills told a story from his own life, after the "conversion experience" that led him to give up law in San Diego and move with his family to a seminary in Berkeley. "I recall my 15-year-old first-born son.... He shouted at me one night that he hated it here.... He accused me of not being the same dad anymore. And he was right. I wasn't the same, and I never would be. I still loved my family, but my priorities had changed; God now occupied center stage, and the entire family was affected." He reconciled with his son, but his daughter ended up moving back in with her mother (Hills's ex-wife).
Despite the division, however, "there is always good news...the peace of God that passes all understanding.... The goal of the individual Christian, and of Christianity, is for the world to experience God's peace.... But before that kind of peace can ever be achieved, we...will first have to endure the very conflict and division that Jesus warns of.... If you haven't experienced those conflicts...then you need to take a stronger, harder look at the practicing of Christianity. Because God's peace," rather than "the world's" simple "absence of conflict...is confident assurance in any circumstance.... We have no need to fear the present or the future.... We should take heart and feel blessed to be partners with Jesus in this great adventure."
What happens when we die?
"The only honest answer is...we don't know," said Hills. "What I believe is that, after we die, there is a life awaiting us in the kingdom. Whether that's a physical place or whether it's a place beyond our description, I don't know.... I have my own images of what I would like it to be like.... I think there are going to be a lot of surprises when we open our eyes and see who is in the kingdom.... But the honest answer is that I don't know. I won't know until I die, and I'm not anxious to find out anytime soon, to tell you the truth."
890 Balour Drive, Encinitas
Denomination: Episcopal Church USA
Founded locally: 1885
Senior pastor: Wesley Hills
Congregation size: 1000
Staff size: about 20, including part-time and full-time
Sunday school enrollment: 125
Annual budget: $650,000
Weekly giving: average pledge per giving unit of $1700
Singles program: yes, young adults program
Diversity: mostly Caucasian
Sunday worship: 8 a.m., 10 a.m.
Length of reviewed service: 1 hour, 10 minutes