How Jesus’s subversive call to love continues to challenge us
a Homily for Proper 25A | Text: Matthew 22:34-46
read along below while you listen
how our understanding of forgiveness is too small
a Homily for Proper 19A | Text: Matthew 18:21-35
When Peter asks about forgiveness, about the volume of forgiveness, it triggers a cascade of central teachings to our faith. Teachings that are the foundation of everything.
On the surface, it is a simple enough question. It’s practical. I get that we need to forgive, but how many times must we? And Jesus’s response seems just as simple: every time.
And honestly, we could probably stop there, end the sermon, and move on.
How many times do I forgive again?
I was afraid you would say that.
It would certainly save us time if we stopped. But it wouldn’t answer why? Why every time?
Well, to begin with, this is about much more than simply being nice. It isn’t just doing the loving thing. It isn’t even a rule on its own.
This thing about forgiveness has to do with GOD’s creation, justice, and eliminating vengeance. And all of this was triggered by a simple question: “As many as 7 times?”
From the beginning, 7 was an important number. We remember that GOD created the world in six days and it was on the 7th day that GOD rested. The 7th became GOD’s day.
It is associated with Sabbath–that time and space for devotion and rest. It was named as one of the 10 Big Rules and binds the people to that same pattern of resting on the 7th day. We do as GOD does.
But Sabbath doesn’t end with 7 days. We know that the 7th year is important, too. Any Israelite slave is to be freed at their 7th year of servitude. Farmers are supposed to give the poor and the animals free access to their land and crops for all of the 7th year, that they might eat and have their fill. The 7th year is to be a sabbatical year for landowners, workers, slaves, and livestock. Every living thing gets Sabbath. Sabbath is for all of creation.
And every 7th Sabbatical year? After 7 times 7 years, we celebrate a year of Jubilee in which all property is returned to its original owners and all debts are cancelled. It is a season of honesty and restoration and all relationships are to be made whole.
Peter’s asking about 7 times is really a reference to Sabbath: asking Jesus about the Sabbatical character of restoration, wholeness, and freedom. He is really asking does forgiveness mean the whole thing? Like blank-slate forgiveness…and everything that entails?
None of us really wants to talk about that kind of forgiveness, let’s be honest. And given what we have experienced of the world, we certainly seem justified. But in the same breath that GOD speaks to restoration through Sabbath, GOD also speaks to justice and our giving up and getting rid of our sense of vengeance.
GOD gives special priority to the poor, the widowed, the orphaned, and the sojourner: the people with no power or standing in Hebrew society. These people must be protected from abuse. Remarkably, causing suffering to any of these incurs GOD’s wrath directly, according to Exodus 22:
Oh, if you afflict, afflict them…! For (then) they will cry, cry out to me, and I will hearken, hearken to their cry, my anger will flare up and I will kill you with the sword, so that your wives become widows, and your children, orphans!
All the surrounding laws speak of the community dealing with its own issues. But this, abuse of the weak and the powerless, GOD takes personally. And takes care of personally.
This is especially true of the sojourner: the guest, the traveller, the outsider, for it is we who were once like that and we were liberated and given freedom. A poignant lesson for American Christians of non-Native American descent, for we were once immigrants, embodying GOD’s command twice in this same teaching:
Now a sojourner you are not to maltreat, you are not to oppress him, for sojourners were you in the land of Egypt.
Vengeance, most base of all desires, compels us to destroy others and destroys our relationship with GOD. GOD’s law was written to limit vengeance and retribution, prescribing not only specific remedies to bad situations, but balanced ones. An eye-for-an-eye is not only for punishing an offender in kind, but limiting the response. It is most remarkably used, not simply for punishing killers, but in freeing slaves who have been abused by their masters.
GOD’s fairness and justice is not your sense of justice or America’s sense of justice. It is about redemption, not retribution. It is about wholeness, not division.
GOD wants us to be whole and redeemed. As children of GOD.
There is something powerful in the image of remembering the Sabbath: in keeping the 7th day holy because GOD made it that way, resting because GOD rested.
There is something powerful in giving generously that day to those under us because GOD gave generously that day to us.
There is something powerful in protecting the widow and the orphan because GOD protects us and loving them because GOD loves us.
There is something very powerful in showing grace to the sojourner, the immigrant, the outsider, the traveller, because we were sojourners, immigrants, outsiders, and travellers. And we still are.
This is the substance of forgiveness. The substance that Jesus invites Peter into because Peter gets what he needs to do. Jesus says to him:
For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves.
Jesus seems to tell Peter about forgiving and restoring the world and then tells him a story of not forgiving. A story in which a master forgives a debt, grants freedom, then takes the freedom back.
The slave enslaves another because of debts, as a cruel twist on freedom and judgment. As Jesus tells the parable, He ultimately paints an image of servitude and cruelty at deep odds with the character of GOD we know from Jesus and in Jesus.
What if that is ultimately Jesus’s point? That cruelty reveals cruelty, but forgiveness destroys it.
This is why he used the word “compare” in the first place. Compare these two things. This picture of forgiveness against this portrait of the kingdom. It isn’t literal: he doesn’t say the Kingdom of Heaven is a place of rigidity and GOD is a spiteful master. He says to keep forgiving!
What if the forgiveness we’re talking about goes all the way to total and complete redemption? And what if that includes GOD? What if GOD needs to be forgiven? What if we chose to forgive GOD, not just 7 times, but 77 times? What if we give to GOD the thing we are asked to give one another and we choose to actually include GOD in that forgiving?
What if we forgave GOD? It wouldn’t make the pain go away, but we would begin to heal. Eventually we would recover. We would become whole. We would be restored.
And our relationship with GOD would be restored. A relationship built, not only on GOD’s one-sided love for us, but for our generous love to GOD and to our neighbors.
For it is through that relationship built on love which GOD brings true liberation. GOD doesn’t simply cancel our debt, but frees us from the bondage of slavery, redeeming us, reinvigorating and reviving us, offering us new, vibrant life!
Amazingly we have received the very restorative power of GOD and are told that we can actually use it! We can redeem each other!
This is where Peter and Jesus take us after we hear about sin and confronting sin in our community, which we covered last week. The very next verses, they go to forgiveness. They go there and they keep on driving because it isn’t just forgiving people for a screw up, it is redemption and restoration at stake. It is making the broken whole and the enslaved free. It is making community where there is loneliness and hope where there is emptiness.
This all comes through forgiveness. True, full-bodied forgiveness. Forgiveness as strong as the darkest coffee you can find, as powerful as the river, and as certain as the snow is coming.
Forgive. Forgive GOD and your friends. Forgive your church and your parents. Forgive your neighbor and your school board. Forgive your government and yourself. Life is too important to waste on being right, seething with anger, or feeling hurt. Forgiveness is not condoning or overlooking or staying together for the children, but offering our very freedom to one another.
Forgiveness is the only way to begin restoring and redeeming. It is how we will become whole.
All it takes is an invitation, coming to us as a confession, an uncomfortable admission. So I’ll start. I have made many mistakes. I am trying my best. Please forgive me.
Order, stumbling blocks, and what real Christian community looks like
a Homily for Proper 18 A | Text: Matthew 18:15-20
When Jesus speaks to the disciples in this passage, He speaks of sin against each other. This isn’t so much fault-finding, which we all do so easily, but sin-naming. This is about sin.
We have a lot of weird ideas of sin. What sin is. We make it a singular noun. As “a sin”. Like something you can list. Or something from which we abstain. No dancing or drinking or swearing.
Or we frame it from the positive that avoids those things. Like being “nice” or “kind”. As if all this stuff Jesus says can be summed up as “just be nice to each other.” Which I suppose might be fine if we could even handle that.
Here is how the church defines sin. From “An Outline of the Faith, commonly called the Catechism” which you can find in your Prayer Books:
Sin is the seeking of our own will instead of the will of God, thus distorting our relationship with God, with other people, and with all creation.
Sin is our putting of our needs before GOD’s, and the distorted relationships that result from it.
So when we talk about sin, we are not talking about trying to be perfect or eternally corrupt, but that we want to eliminate the stumbling blocks to our relationship with GOD, our neighbors, and all of creation. It is about making better our relationship to everyone and thing around us.
We get nervous when we start thinking of these stumbling blocks as other people. People whose sin (meaning true selfishness: personal needs before GOD’s) keeps our children from the redeeming love of GOD and keeps us from being like those children: so that we might put GOD before ourselves.
But we don’t want to confront each other about that do we? And we certainly don’t want to kick anybody out of our church. And it even sounds like Jesus endorsing a behavior he condemned in the Pharisees! What are we supposed to make of these rules?
First, we have to deal with the impact of the church’s understanding of sin. When we speak of sin, we are speaking ultimately about relationship. Not “a sin” or “living in sin” as so many like to say. It is about acts of sin against each other. The selfish evils and vices that hurt other people, whether it be pictures of celebrities stolen from their iCloud accounts to demean them in public or when we use names that insult and diminish whole groups of people of a different race, gender, orientation, or ability, just because we like the words. It comes from carelessness and a sense of certainty. It is believing that our rights to hurt other people are more important to us than their rights to not be abused by us.
Sin is the slave trade, which is bigger now than at any time in human history. It is saying that criminals “deserve” to be abused–and that free citizens do to–because they are “acting up” or must have done something to deserve it.
Sin is getting short with your friends and snapping and it is making up stories rather than learning the truth of what we’ve missed. It is treating someone “not like us” as not one of us, breaking our Baptismal vow to respect the dignity of every human being.
And sin is hearing those words as if I were disrespecting you.
All of this is sin. And we know much worse examples.
Sin, real sin, is selfish. It is full of pride and certainty. It is full of things other than the Great Commandment to love GOD and our neighbors as ourselves. Things like maintaining tradition because we like it more than we like sharing. It is demanding faith be personal and private when it has always been public and political. We can’t take up our cross and follow Jesus to Jerusalem without a cross and without a Jerusalem: without a public witness.
Jesus wasn’t crucified in private for things resting comfortably inside His heart. Neither should we.
There is a lot that Jesus said. Out loud. In public. For people to hear. What He was speaking to here, before this passage begins, is stumbling blocks to faith: what prevents the children from being in a healthy, growing relationship with GOD and what prevents us from becoming like children. Stumbling blocks to one another like Peter was being a stumbling block to Jesus in last week’s story.
Stanley Hauerwas writes
The sin that another member commits is not just a sin against the person injured; rather it is a sin against the whole church. In Lev. 19:17-18 the Lord tells Moses to tell Israel, “You shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.” Failure to confront the brother or sister whom we think has sinned against us is not simply a recommendation of how we are to work out our disputes and disagreements, but rather an indication of the kind of community that Jesus has called into existence. This is a people who are to love one another so intensely that they refuse to risk the loss of the one who has gone astray–or the loss of ourselves in harboring resentments.
Hauerwas further argues that
The procedure outlined by Jesus in Matthew 18 is how and what it means for his disciples to be at peace with one another. Jesus assumes that those who follow him will wrong one another and, subsequently, they will be caught in what may seem irresolvable conflict. The question is not whether such conflict can be eliminated, but how his followers are to deal with conflict. He assumes that conflict is not to be ignored or denied, but rather conflict, which may involve sins, is to be forced into the open. Christian discipleship requires confrontation because the peace that Jesus has established is not simply the absence of violence. The peace of Christ is nonviolent precisely because it is based on truth and truth-telling. Just as love without truth cannot help but be accursed, so peace between the brothers and sisters of Jesus must be without illusion.
We are talking about healthy relationship and being the blessed community here. It isn’t rules to follow or yet another way to abuse each other and find fault. It is the very means by which we share grace.
This work we are called to here is for all of us. It has nothing to do with being a priest or a leader serving on the vestry. It is not something we can skip or have no stake in personally. It is not about our worship style or music or whether or not we are “being fed” or if we are “into it”. Our selfish impulses get plenty of air.
It is time for the good stuff. It’s time to take on the childlike faith many of us used to know or know when we aren’t tripping over all of the negativity. It is time to listen to Jesus who, just before this story, was telling the disciples
Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
We don’t get to stay the same and be Christians. Not changing means you’re not a Christian! Jesus never says “stay the same” or “do what you always do.” GOD never urges the people to remain unchanged, no matter how much we want that. Remember, sin is putting our wants before GOD’s!
We aren’t supposed to stay the same. We are supposed to change. Precisely because we aren’t perfect or eternally corrupt. We don’t have it all figured out and we aren’t always right. We all need to keep learning how to be GOD’s children.
So Jesus tells us to change and become like children.
Like the children who come to communion excited and happy and looking for an opportunity to come back up! Like children who give and play and learn: always looking for new ways to move and do. Always watching others to see what they do, to learn and try it out.
Like the children who are eager and hopeful and full of thanks for cookies and hugs and the chance to play. Jesus tells us that’s the entrance to the kingdom of heaven.
So then Jesus shows us what Christian community is supposed to look like: the kingdom, which is like children playing and learning and loving! That’s how we come to understand how we behave. Learning and playing and loving. Not like adults. Like kids. Our kids, here.
Our kids are our true leaders. Our children are our example, our Christ.
And when we build that community, full of faith and hope and creativity, we protect it by talking to each other, listening to each other, and making our house safe for all the children of every age and ability.
rethinking Jesus’s vision of church, Peter, and the love of GOD
We mistake the naming of Peter as reflective of his character, rather than His.
a Homily for Proper 16 A | Text: Matthew 16:13-20
Again the Pharisees. Those ancient ideological evangelicals–obsessed with rule-following–return. This time they’ve brought back-up: the Sadducees. Not normally friends, the Pharisees and the Sadducees represent the religious establishment. They are like rival gangs teaming up to take on the young pup trying to make a name for himself by honing in on their turf.
Give us signs of your power! they say. Prove yourself!
Like Satan’s tempting, inviting Jesus to prove himself, the elites ask of Jesus what He isn’t to give. Because it isn’t about Jesus: what Jesus can do. It is about GOD. What GOD wants for the Children of Israel. There is no proof. No proving. Jesus tells His followers that signs aren’t there to prove, but to mark. To show how GOD already loves. Not that GOD loves, but what love looks like and how we know it.
The naming of Jesus as Messiah and the naming of Simon as Peter is such a sign. It is the revealing of love as it exists, not because it is requested.
A parenting tip we read some time ago reminded Rose and I that parents ought not make their children kiss them. Our place as parents isn’t to receive affection from our children as a payment or from demanding that behavior. We aren’t to impose rules that require affection or give our children The Top 5 Reasons to Kiss Your Parents guilt trip.
Our job is to show our children what love is like so they can know what love actually is. That they can feel love before they can know to express it.
So we learned not to force our children to kiss our cheeks, but kiss theirs. It is affection and praise when she wins and when she loses; when he falls and when he celebrates. That love isn’t a reward or an accomplishment; it isn’t something to withhold or legalize. Love is given like a gift and revealed so that it might be known.
Our insecurities or fears or rules or expectations don’t reveal love. Probably they reveal our neuroses.
Jesus warns the disciples about the yeast of the Pharisees right after getting ambushed by them and right before this morning’s part of the story. He warns them because their teaching didn’t reveal love or encourage it. Teachings that are so like our own: about obedience to authority, condemning the outsider, ignoring the plight of the weak, making love transactional.
In all of the ways we as Children of the Living GOD fail to reflect GOD’s love, we fail to teach love itself. We teach obedience and condemnation and selfishness. We reveal nothing like love itself. We reveal the evil of expectation–like Satan and the Pharisees–of certainty and affection, not for people, but for the status quo: for a world ruled by empire; a world more comfortable with the violence of authority than the genuine care for the afflicted. Such as listening to what 50 years of police brutality feels like. Certainly this is nothing like love that we offer. Nothing like GOD’s love.
All of this colors the way Jesus turns to His disciples to ask them who they think He is. I don’t think this is a test, but a check in. Where are they right now?
Peter’s response, as we know, is like the kid who gets the right answer without doing the right work. He doesn’t reason it or know it or prove that he’s smarter or more faithful than the rest. He gets there, as Jesus points out, because GOD reveals it to him. And this is the point here: it isn’t Peter. It isn’t him. It isn’t his being smart or praying right. it isn’t his dedication or because he has listened to Jesus better. This is something that can only come from GOD.
So when Jesus names him Peter, like Petra (rock), calling him the foundation, Jesus is saying this without regard for Peter’s personal talent or skills. We mistake the naming of Peter as reflective of his character, rather than GOD’s.
In all accounts; before this moment and after; reveal that Peter isn’t sturdy or solid. He is the definition of a flimsy and malleable disciple. He may in fact be like the sand Jesus warns us not to build on. But it isn’t that Peter is like a rock as we know it, but a rock as GOD reveals it in Peter! Peter teaches us what a rock can be to GOD!
We get confused and conflicted and troubled and it is OK! The church can handle it! Because this isn’t about human skill or reason, but the subversive love of GOD.
This passage is one of the most written about in all of the Greek Scriptures. Often it is used to justify the papacy. Peter, the Roman church leader, regarded as first pope. The cornerstone and rock of the church. So like the disciples, who in verse 16:7 hear about the yeast of the Pharisees and think Jesus is talking about bread. Too literal; not revealed.
This rock doubts. He rejects Jesus three times. He struggles to stand up to Roman authorities after Jesus is gone. He isn’t monolithic or hierarchical. Neither is the church as GOD knows it. Neither are we.
We doubt and struggle. We long to make our children love us or impose rules on them rather than freely offer our love. Our faith is chaotic and troubling. But it is supposed to be. From Jacob to Jonah to Jesus, we see wrestling with and running away from and doubting the very existence of GOD’s love. We see struggles and pain and it is from that place that we race to simple solutions and weak authorities to tell us how to make the pain go away. And every time we could stop and listen to the voice who says Don’t be afraid! Over and over. Don’t be afraid! The Messiah who calms the storm and encourages us to feed the multitudes in the midst of scarcity, who says that signs are all around if we would just look at them.
Signs that show us how to love and respect and give and hope that in our darkest time we can live again. Signs that reveal how to reveal love to others so that we both might learn. Signs from the most unlikely of places.
May you know the love that GOD has for you, see the love GOD has for every human being, and may we learn to share that love, respecting every person as a blessed, loved, and cherished child of GOD.
The old argument goes
children need to understand the sacrament before they receive it.
I am still surprised to hear this. As a priest, I hear it from people of all sorts. When they do suggest such a thing to me, I simply ask them
Even after they were baptized as infants?
The look I receive tells me that they don’t get it. They don’t get that the children they’re talking about have already received a sacrament without “understanding” it. Then I like to tell them a story. It usually goes like this.
Back when I was first ordained, I had the pleasure of serving with a man who worked with our youth. He was the primary caregiver at the time for his 3 year-old granddaughter, while his son was just learning how to be an adult at 18 and the granddaughter’s mother wasn’t really able to. Every Sunday, I would hear her race through the door and down the hall saying “I’m here to see Jesus!”
Now, I think she pretty much summed it all up right there. Is there something you are struggling with understanding?
I can’t fault people for not understanding the sacrament. We developed a system of teaching long ago which refused the experiential part of formation to our children, but discouraged anyone over the age of 12 from continuing to wrestle with the intellectual part of formation.
What many of those 12 year-olds were taught came from what the Book of Common Prayer calls “An Outline of the Faith: commonly called the Catechism”. In the section outlining the Sacraments, it answers the question “What are the sacraments?” this way:
The sacraments are outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace, given by Christ as sure and certain means by which we receive that grace.
A lot of us remember that first half pretty easily and rattle it off:
Sacraments? Yes. They’re…uh..oh yeah…the outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.
See, we get pretty close, most of the time. It’s the Prayer Book, you know. Helps the rote memorization.
But what does it mean?
We hear in this something external, but also something moving. It is outward, it is pointing or moving from inside to outside. You can see this thing. It is tangible and recognizable. It isn’t imaginary or inconceivable.
Signs are markers and illuminators, telling you what is inside the building or which direction to drive down the street. Signs reflect what is there and stand as symbols to elicit understanding.
As signs mark what is within, they remind us that there is something inside. There is a spiritual, non-physical grace that is within. The sign, which reflects what is within, pulls it in an outward direction so that it may be seen and known, but now draws the viewer inward, so that we can see past the sign and toward the grace itself.
All of that sign and symbol and reflecting GOD mumbo jumbo aside, the devout Christian needs an answer to the physical. We eat a wafer. It’s all just symbolic, right?
A sacrament, as an outward sign of an inward grace then is virtually the only way we can confidently and honestly allow ourselves and one another to receive grace. It is the way we know that grace is given and received.
So the question (for the good Anglican/Episcopalian) is not whether or not the wafer is the literal body of Christ or a symbolic act using only a wafer, but that what we receive is the very grace of GOD. It is the outward, knowable, acceptable, tangible thing that we can receive and know bears the grace and love of GOD.
The sacrament, then, is not about the bread and the wine and what happens to them, but what happens to you when you receive it. It is about the giving and the receiving of grace. It is not about a magic trick or the theology surrounding the act, or the memorizing of a formula that you can rattle off when a person asks you what a sacrament is, it is the experience! It’s getting your grace on!
In other words, sacraments are almost entirely about the experience and have virtually nothing to do with understanding. They are the vehicle by which we receive and know the grace of GOD. They are our means of knowledge. The grace cannot be understood without the experience of receiving.
That means a child can never understand the sacrament until she receives it.
And I’d further postulate that one achieves a deeper understanding of the sacrament through the giving or presiding at the sacramental moments. When one participates in the distribution of communion, baptizes another person or stands as support for one seeking confirmation, joins a collective laying on of hands, or hears a confession, one is able to better know that grace. So a parent or instructor that denies a child communion and herself does not actively seek her own experiences as the giver of, or participant in, a sacramental moment with another, is doubly depriving and wholly misunderstanding the nature of the sacraments. As the late Bishop Gordon might have said: She’s got it backwards: her daughter needs to be in church and she needs to go to Sunday School!
That girl, running into church, looking to see Jesus understands. She gets it. You know how I know? Because she’s running. She isn’t walking. She’s running. Running to see Jesus.
Like Peter and the Beloved Disciple to the tomb, she runs. To see. To be with. To know and to love Jesus.
She does that, not by showing up to church and sitting like a lump in the back pew.
And I see my son, who is doing the same thing; who can’t wait. He runs to the altar rail. He slips between people who haven’t intended to leave room for anybody, and he shakes with anticipation. He grins at me and he reaches up to receive. And when the cup comes by, he dips and eats and jumps along back to his seat.
And if Mom hasn’t gone up yet, he takes the opportunity for seconds.
I’ve come to believe this is true: only people who understand the Sacraments try to get seconds.
I’ve written before about the Sacraments. I’d love it if you checked yesterday’s post and the links at the bottom of the page.
I’m tired of the blame.
The health and vitality of the The Episcopal Church and the Mainline generally is an oversimplified story of the 20th Century, too easily shouldered on the leadership of the 21st. It’s always the politics or the practice or the beliefs or the Bible or the liturgy or anything else ad nauseam, but never is it the fighting. Never is it the bickering or the certainty of well-intentioned finger-pointers. Never is it the schismatics who stomp out of the church or the timid who sneak away. Nor is it the rowdy recruiters trying to squeeze blood from a stone, mistaking their own wounds for the miracle.
It is ironic, then, that in this postmodern age in which we are so much more aware of complexity, that we fall so hard for the simple.
Decline of the mainline, and The Episcopal Church is well-documented. It is also a favorite canard of the angry, seeking every opportunity to abuse the faithful. But it is also the favorite of the zealot, eager to drive us closer to where we ought to be. I know I so often fall in that latter camp.
But I am not writing about church decline. This is not a post full of statistics or one that hopes to make the reader desperately see that we are on the Titanic and the iceberg is in sight. You’ve read plenty of those.
You’ve also read plenty of posts about how great everything is and how we just need to love our tradition more. Don’t change a thing! they say. All we need to do is recruit new people. I’m as weary of that ridiculousness as you are.
This is a post that invites us to simply look past the data and the innuendo and name what I have experienced of church. Churches in rural and urban environments; in the north and in the south; in happy times, and more often, depressed and fearful times. And what I’ve observed has been consistent:
These two attributes are deeply connected and not easily named (though I’m trying my best to do that very thing). No mission statement or workshop of the congregation can magically get any lifelong Christian to suddenly understand the faith they’ve inherited. For many, 70 years of unexamined faith is terrifying to discover about themselves, and worse, their parents and elders who taught them.
Perhaps the genesis of conflict comes from the embedded “core message” of the gospel.
The church of my childhood is infatuated with The Great Commandment, given in Mark as an extension of the Sh’ma (Hear O Israel), but heard by us as “Love God and love your neighbor as yourself.” This is the closest we get to a core value from Jesus, and is easy justification to see the purpose of church as worship and practicing radical hospitality. It jibes with the way Jesus treats people in each account.
Many evangelicals and church planters see a different message as central, preferring the conclusion to Matthew, which we call The Great Commission. It includes the great phrase: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations,” which can be understood as a direct mission to gettin’ those pesky “unchurched” into the Jesus camp.
The church unwittingly sets these two up against each other, perhaps slipping them conveniently into the established frame of Catholic vs. Protestant. But these aren’t conflicting calls. Nor does the former serve the latter: The Great Commandment isn’t justification for The Great Commission, or even its internal marching orders.
They are both about loving and sharing. Sharing something important to us; something we believe would be important to them. But not because we love the thing. Our love is merely the proof of its value. We don’t seek to convert others because GOD is keeping score and that’s the only way we get our reward. We share in something that delights us in hopes that it will delight another, too.
Like when we discover some really good bread, and we tear off a small chunk for ourselves, giving the rest to the person sitting at our table, saying to them
You have to try this!
Because we know they haven’t truly lived until they’ve tasted it.
These two teachings are both radical calls to something we are really, really, really terrible at: putting someone else’s needs first. Not our desire for them, or our control over what they experience; it is our hope that they discover their own experience.
My own children are fiercely independent. And more importantly, they have incredible imaginations. My son can follow an ant as it crosses the kitchen floor, squatting like a catcher and pointing it out to us. Otherwise, his eyes are transfixed.
His formation comes from these experiences and opportunities that he discovers for himself or we cultivate. So often, these opportunities for all of our children are squashed or eliminated. Replaced with a Funnel and Facts, intellectually force-feeding the justifications for GOD, but never encouraging the experience of GOD. We drive our children out of church and wonder why they never return.
We do this for good reasons, of course. But we don’t do it out of a great sense of GOD’s purpose. It’s all practical. Intellectual, actually. Justifications again.
It isn’t really about compassion, either. It isn’t about the children. And it isn’t about the stranger. It’s all about us.
The demographic data, which shows a stunning lack of diversity in The Episcopal Church, often cited as proof of the evil of inclusion (which takes a little twisting in the brain to make sense), cannot prove the error of our theology, because the theology gives room for lots of belief. But it does prove, perhaps our graver sin: that we welcome people to join us intellectually. But we struggle to both welcome diversity in practice, or encourage diversity in our communities. Our focus is not on showing compassion to those outside the tribe, but comfort to those within it. We unwittingly turn a ‘We’ into an ‘Us and Them’.
Two recent posts at Episcopal Cafe, which highlight what we all know to be true: we are caught in a death-spiral of protecting the failing while not allowing ourselves to invest in the new. This was inspired in part by the question asked on the same site: “Why doesn’t the Episcopal Church Plant more churches?” This question digs deeply into our embedded sense of identity and purpose, which is why our current challenges are so frustrating and confusing. They conflict with, what is for many, the very nature of our church.
This is the macro-level, big picture example of a universal phenomenon. Out of fear for our own present experience, we reject what is the fundamental call to compassion. We aren’t called to obsess about our own experience, but to help encourage the experience of others. To share good bread with them, not hoard it for ourselves. Not worrying about whether there will be bread for us tomorrow.
We’re those Children of Israel out in the wilderness, saving up the Manna, then watching it spoil. Then we go back out on the Sabbath to double-check that GOD actually meant what GOD said.
I don’t believe it is as simple as closing some churches to free up cash; though there is much more theological and Scriptural backing for pruning the bush so that the whole plant might flourish: that our whole health is dependent on cutting the unhealthy branches which sap resources from the healthy. It may, in the end, be the only means of long-term growth and stability.
What I see as the more important solution is not found in the gimmicks or the games. It isn’t found in techniques or rules changes. It isn’t found in giving our seminarians more classes to take or in consolidating struggling dioceses. It isn’t found in listening only to bishops in wealthy, urban dioceses, or pitting them up against bishops from the poor, rural ones.
It is found in embracing compassion. New churches thrive in already thriving, hopeful communities. Churches decline where legacy and stability is more important than growth and vitality. The rational, political calculation is to breed a more compassionate church. It is the only way that the legacy congregations can thrive in the 21st Century alongside those new church plants in growing communities.
Unsurprisingly, it is also the theological, scriptural response to the struggles of our diverse communities. It is the only way we can respond to the pain in those areas experiencing continued economic depression and job loss; hunger and persistent racial segregation. The only way we can put ourselves in those places in which our compassion is needed, but rarely seen; in those places of great economic or ethnic growth, but no community to engage.
Most importantly, it is the only way the church can engage in those spheres and with those people we claim to care about. The only way we can fulfill the missio dei and be sacramentally present so that Christ can be revealed in us.
My vision for our future is to fully reject our consumer impulses and embrace a compassionate love that consistently reveals GOD’s love and mercy. A love that informs not only our good work in soup kitchens and homeless shelters, but in our every practice: in our buildings and bank accounts: in our worship and in our evangelism. It is found in a desire to share bread, not to sustain ourselves or our family. Not to be hospitable or kind. But because that bread is so good and there is enough. Plenty to share.
In truth, the problem is us. It always has been. We’ve failed to see compassion as our most important trait, or any trait of real value. We prefer certainty and strength; efficiency and consistency.
And it is about our critics, far too eager to criticize; not critique or help, but destroy and punish.
It is about our friends who are struggling themselves and confused about their own way forward.
It is about the more recently mighty, which now find themselves struggling to prove their approaches have been any better, really at making disciples. New buildings, yes. “Winning” Christians from other denominations in some sick, Darwinian version of the anti-gospel.
It is about the millions of disaffected, abused, punished, seeking people who want to love, who need compassion, but have so frequently only received punishment. Who only hear the voices of Christian hate. Or more recently, are told that hateful speech is a religious right, but compassionate speech is “political”.
It is about weak leadership who has, for the last 70 years, struggled to preach honestly about Scripture: in many cases refusing to challenge the congregation to receive what we receive in seminary.
It is about bishops and judicatory bodies who have lacked the foresight or the political will to go against the confused and misled congregations and give true priority to health and vitality over the false gospel of independence and outsourced ministry.
It is about us. All of us. If you have ever darkened the door of a church. If your parents have ever darkened the door of the church. If you have ever called yourself a Christian. It is about us.
We want a faith that is easy, but this one isn’t. We want our solutions to be simple, but none of the good ones are. We want to worship without thinking and think without believing and believe without doing and do without praying and pray without worshiping. We want it all and we want it without the baggage that comes with listening and trusting and believing.
Most of all, I think, we want faith to look like the faith of our idealized grandmother, who wrote names in the family Bible, and went to church each week, dragging her children in tow. Who was so kind and generous, bringing her best recipe to the potluck and wearing the best hats. She would harmonize her part of the four and would actually giggle when we would sing her favorite hymn, which was never “Amazing Grace” or “The Church is One Foundation” but “In the bleak mid winter”. Who we would watch give groceries right out of the bag on the way out of the supermarket simply because someone asked her for help. That amazing woman, whose faith is unfathomable to us, inspires us. She defines faith for us.
And it is that faith we refuse. For us, we make it too difficult to replicate: a faith like a 3D printer. Too perfect. Too analyzed. Too much about the recipe. Like the pious young man who thinks he has the formula and Jesus shows him that a formula isn’t enough.
It is not the formula or the faith, it is that spirit of compassion. That loving that comes so deep from within that it cannot possibly originate with us. A compassion too natural that we don’t know how it comes, but it does. A compassion so rebellious it is marveled at. A compassion so dangerous we worry that the recipient can even understand it. A compassion so like the compassion of GOD.
That is how we “fix” the church. A church that reflects the missio dei, that reveals Christ to the world. That actually looks like we believe Christ when He tells Peter “Feed my sheep.”
A faith that can’t be taught through our brains, but experienced through our compassion. Our compassion given and received. Compassion given to us easily like a piece of bread, but taken for the most precious treasure.