The Justice-ification of the Church: Where we went wrong and how we can do better

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Years ago a Catholic priest from India told me, “Ghandi said, ‘I look at Jesus and I want to be a Christian. But then I look at the lives of Christians…and I don’t want to be a Christian.‘”  The great scandal of the church, for Ghandi and for us, is the troubling lack of love shown by those of us who call ourselves “Christian.”

Having made pilgrimage to the Holy Land this spring, I was astonished at how small it is: The events in the Gospels can mostly be seen from each other: Bethphage, the village from which Jesus had the disciples borrow a donkey and her colt, is on the Mount of Olives. From this hill you can look across the narrow valley and over the Brook Kidron at the walls of Jerusalem and the gate Jesus rode through on the day we call Palm Sunday. The temple, from whose courts all four Gospel writers record Jesus casting the money-changers, was just inside the city wall. When Jesus entered the temple and focused on the failings of the religious establishment rather than shake his fist at the Roman occupiers whose Antonia fortress stared down into the Temple grounds, Jesus set the stage for the crowd’s turning on him when he stood before Pontius Pilate five days later. You can walk the Via Dolorosa, along which Jesus carried his cross to the place of crucifixion in minutes. The spot where Jesus was crucified and where he was buried are also remarkably close – so close that both the location of the crucifixion, Calvary, and Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb are under the same roof today. It is stunning how little geography God used in the great saving acts of his Son.

Scandalous also is how small the distance between, “Hosanna. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” and “Crucify Him!”

In the Gospels this took five days. In the Episcopal Church our liturgy places both the Palm Sunday and Good Friday scripture readings on the same day. My guess is that this is, in part, an acknowledgment that many will not prioritize attendance at the commemorations of our Lord’s redeeming acts in the Paschal Triduum of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Easter Vigil. But it is also an acknowledgement of basic human nature: The distance between celebrating someone and demonizing them is also remarkably short – because, as humans, we have a remarkable capacity for…small.

With just a little dollop of disappointment we can move from kindness to vitriol in a single motion. We look for scapegoats, rush to judgments, and hold others in bondage with binary thinking. We litmus test and sort people into categories of our own devising. And we wish those short of wholehearted endorsement of the platforms we embrace cast into outer darkness. A few exhibits:[1]

  • Several months ago at lunch I overhear the animated conversation between a socially active pastor of another mainline denomination and an atheist college professor sharing our table. The pastor labeled group after group, “Evil!” until the atheist professor finally asked him, “Where’s the love, man?”[2]
  • A student asked me to breakfast the next morning and confessed (tearfully) that he was considering leaving the seminary. He was trying to grow in prayerfulness and was told that his pleas for his fellow students to act in love toward others was evidence of insufficient commitment to the social causes espoused by his peers. He was certain he would never gain their acceptance.

A progressive friend posted on Facebook several weeks ago, “I am uncomfortable that my church’s stance on every issue seems to completely mirror the culture.” I think he is right…

…but I am not nearly so nervous about aping the culture as I am about the next exit on this highway: the justice-ification of the church.

The conflation of church and culture is surely foolish, and I think, also small. But there is a great Protestant tradition of church by focus group. What I cringe at is the way Christians (progressive Christians in particular, but we are not alone in this), have managed to systematically turn social causes into “justice issues.” We do this with seemingly little self-awareness of the ramifications of these crusades. When we label an issue “justice” we stop working for sensible public solutions and begin brandishing swords. This is never so clear as on social media…

We call the press, issue positions, and forward polemics on our Facebook feeds.

But in the public sphere in a pluralistic society there will always be those who do not endorse our worldview. Can we make room for them? Can we “seek to understand before being understood”? Can we begin with the presumption that people are generally of good will and work from there toward solutions? What if, instead of “justice,” we argued our great disagreements starting with, “How do we find a ‘win’ for everyone?” And, “What will lead to human thriving?” Or better yet, remember that the church is first and foremost a place to worship Jesus Christ. How did the church become ground zero for the activism industry?

“But Matt,” you say, “justice is biblical. The Old Testament prophets spoke truth to power.” Yes, but you are not a biblical prophet, and this is not 2600 years ago. In our day “justice” is not helpful because it can never make room for another. Enraged justice usually results in the shaking of fists and mobs with torches in the night. When we drop the “justice” card then someone is guilty…and they must be punished. “Justice” is not served until the evil is purged.

When we label a disagreement “justice” it generally ends one place: “Burn the witch!”

But I do see examples of hope in the emerging generation of leaders: Two weeks ago a friend who is active in LGBT politics asked me if I would organize a meet and greet between an LGBT political action group and evangelical pastors. Yesterday seventeen young evangelical pastors and thought leaders met with Matthew Vines and others engaged in promoting same-sex marriage. While there was clear theological disagreement, it was a time of relationship building, healing, and mutual respect. Here is another: Next week I will be at a luncheon in the Roman Catholic bishop’s office to discuss spiritual unity between evangelicals and Catholics as brothers and sisters in Christ.

It is a short way down the hill to Jerusalem. It is a short way from the cross to the tomb. It is a short way from “Hosanna!” to “Crucify!”

But it is also a short way the other direction.

Going from “Crucify!” to “Hosanna!” is the exact same distance. It does take more work, but the Prince of Peace went up to Jerusalem and was crucified so that no one else need be.

Next week we will celebrate the forgiveness of both human and institutional sin on the cross. We could join Jesus in the way of that cross, extending our arms in love to all who are near. Perhaps if we did that, those who are far will see and notice. And the scandal of the church will be swallowed in the scandal of the cross.

As that old Indian priest said that day, “I implore you. Make Ghandi wrong. Be Easter people. May the love of our Lord Jesus Christ so shape and form you that all the world would see his mercy.

 

[1] Out of politeness I will only use examples from my own tribe. Evangelicals and Catholics will be able to think of many of their own examples.

[2] These evils included fracking, pipeline building, driving petroleum based cars, failure to recycle, and the fact that Darren Wilson had not been lynched. (The pastor was white.)

 

The Secret to a Great Life

Great Life Slide.002Snark Meter.005 There is a secret. It will change your life. And once you know it, you will never forget it.

I first realized I was “that guy” in our neighborhood at my daughter’s pirate-themed fifth birthday party. I suspect many youth ministry people grow up to become “that guy.” This really shouldn’t come as a surprise. The years we spend active with teenagers develop a set of skills, that when exercised with small children, in particular, small children with overprotective parents, make us quite popular with those children and considerably less so with their parents.

We had recently moved from a street where we had the only children on the block to a neighborhood with at least 30 kids in our children’s age group. Much to our chagrin, every one of those kids and their keepers converged on our home for my daughter’s party-the parade from both directions was quite a sight. My wife quickly disappeared out the back to the store for twenty more hotdogs while I attempted to appear nonplussed at the incursion. One neighbor looked over my backyard and remarked flatly, “Disneyland wasn’t this crowded last summer.”

In less time than it took to light the candles on my five year old’s cake, I made a rookie mistake. While on grill duty I shouted, “Who wants the first hot dog?” It was like the scene from a movie. Time briefly went to slow motion as thirty over-eager kids dropped what they were doing, turned, and began to run toward me with arms in the air shouting, “I do!” Unfortunately, time shifted back to full speed as the horde accelerated toward the grill. Elbowing for position around the blazing grill, thirty kids shouted, “Me first! Me first! Me first!”

The other parents cringed, imagining gory injuries and expensive lawsuits.

As for me, the danger was lost in my glee at discovering I had the ability to incite an elfish riot. I spent the rest of the afternoon enjoying the novelty of this newly discovered skill: “Who wants to hit the piñata first?” “Me first! Me first! Me first!”

“We are playing freeze tag. Who wants to be it first?”  “Me first! Me first! Me first!”

“Who wants the first cup cake?” “Me first! Me first! Me first!”

“Me first” is cute and funny with five-year olds…although apparently not as cute as I found it to be, since it would take the better part of a decade to convince my neighbors that I actually am a grown up. But regardless of how “me first” appears in a group of kindergarteners, looking out for numero uno is most un-adorable in adults.

“Me first” comes so easily, though. Self-protection is a powerful human motivator – perhaps the first hard-wired human inclination. “Me first” is, well, normal. The interesting thing is that when we follow what is “normal,” when we go “me first,” we don’t insure our thriving at all. We actually diminish ourselves. Rather than protect us, self-preservation, it turns out, shrinks our lives. And we end up with a life that inspires neither us, nor anyone else.

A good example of “me first” occurs in the fifth chapter of John’s Gospel in an incident known as “the healing by the pool.” The short version is this: Traveling rabbi Jesus walks into town for a religious conference with his (at least) twelve students. With a seventy-mile journey on foot behind them, they head to the city well to cool off. Jesus wanders into the pool house, a place frequented by the sick and homeless. The water in the pool was actually the run-off from the pool Jesus belonged at, the nice folk’s pool, immediately uphill from this one. At the pool, Jesus runs into a crippled guy, apparently squatting on a prime panhandling location. The guy uses his rehearsed speech on Jesus who tells the handicapped man to get up and walk. This he does. (Jesus has this inexplicable ability to speak to disease and death and the weather and they obeyed him…and the witnesses report this with little commentary other than to make sure that we know that they didn’t understand it either at the time.)

Anyway, the man who hadn’t walked for nearly four decades gathers his stuff and leaves so quickly that he doesn’t get Jesus’ name. The man heads for the temple, the normal place one would go to re-enter society. On the way in, a group of pastors hassle the guy for carrying his stuff on the Sabbath – they want to theologize rather than thank God…religious people having problems is nothing new. These pastors want to know who is responsible for the “illegal” healing, but the newly mobile man cannot give a name since he never bothered to get it. Then Jesus finds the man again in the temple…don’t get me started on how weird it is that a man can receive the use of his legs and not stop to get the name of the person who healed him. Jesus travels with an entourage, meaning he isn’t exactly inconspicuous, but Jesus is the one who is interested in continuing the relationship, not the other way around. When Jesus finds the man, he tells him to “stop sinning.” We have no clearly stated reason as to what that was about, but the man, continuing his peculiar behavior, immediately goes back to the religious leaders and rats Jesus out. Then this man uses the legs Jesus healed to walk out of history, never to be heard from again.

Think about it: A guy gets healed…then just walks away. It sounds sort of “Me first!” doesn’t it?  

The religious leaders are worried about the theology of the event. “Me first!”  

And then the healed man turns over the name of his healer to the authorities. “Me first!”

There is no evidence that our unnamed man ever followed Jesus. No evidence of any heart-change to go with his change of mobility.  No evidence that he gave as much as a simple, “Thanks, bro.” There is no indication that he did anything other than use his legs to wander away. He simply did the “normal,” expected thing. The “me first” thing. The saddest part is what could have been had our man not been so self-absorbed. Jesus was about to commission eleven scared dudes to start a revolution of love, a revolution that would conquer the greatest empire the world had ever known in under 300 years, and our man could have been in on the ground floor.

Did you notice what happened? Both our man and the religious leaders turned a potentially world-altering event into something to be insulated against. They knew what most religious people eventually realize: If you let Jesus get too close, he will mess up your life. I think everyone in this story was trying to keep Jesus at arms length, lower the bar…make Jesus manageable. They defined Jesus down so that they could be religious enough but carefully maintain their position in the driver’s seat of life – you know, “Me first!”

CS Lewis said, “We are like kids in the slums content to make mud pies while a feast on holiday by the sea is being offered.” We simply lack vision for what our lives could be – we cannot see past “Me first!”

Have you noticed there are no great stories of “me first”? No fairy tales of self-preservation. No great myths of the self-serving. No super-heroes of the self-absorbed. That is because the secret of a great life is not “me first.” The secret to a great life is spelled m.e.t.h.i.r.d.

We learn this from Jesus who advised a seeker to “love God first and love your fellows as you love yourself” (Mark 12:28-31). Jesus, who was combining several earlier wisdom statements of Moses (Deuteronomy 6:4-5 & Leviticus 19:18), apparently considered this “me third” business an important enough message that he said it more than once (Matthew 22:34-40) – something great teachers do with important lessons.

Why is it so important to love God first? First of all, Jesus is a God willing to step into where the world says he doesn’t belong…to set free captives too crippled to realize their bondage, who chases the wanderers and frees from both religiosity and secular selfishness-who brings mercy and redemption when no one was asking – O, what a Savior.

But even more, if the Jesus event is true, then to be on God’s mission, to be God first and other’s second is what you and I were made for. It is the key to finding our great “Why?”

So what of you?  

-Have you lowered the bar on your expectations of God?

-Have you forfeited divinely-given dreams of the impact your life might make for God?

What is normal…what is natural, is “me first.” But a great life, a really stellar life, one that you and others are inspired by is lived me third.

So love God first. Love others second. And for sure love “me.” Just love me third. 

Rappelling, Race and Your Role in the Redemption of the World

tumblr_m63xqaWsoc1r4kpnxo1_400A sermon from the Healing of the Paralytic (Mark 2) given at the Diocese of California’s “Equipping the Beloved Community.” Topic: “Reaching people who don’t look like us.” 

Today we heard the story of a person literally at the end of ropes in a strange place.

What is it like to be at the end of a rope hanging over the unknown?

I had that experience once. I took students rock climbing and rappelling on the boulders outside of Tombstone, Arizona, site of the gunfight at the OK Corral. A retired Army Special Forces guy named Mike organized the trips to teach spiritual principles through great adventures.

In case the terms are new, “Rock climbing” is going up a rock face, “rappelling” is sliding back down on a rope – you see it on military recruiting commercials. It was spectacularly fun. Afterwards, we went to dinner in town. We assumed we were done for the night, when the guide turned his station wagon back toward the desert and informed us we were going to night rappel.

In the interest of full disclosure, I am a little bit afraid of the dark.

Don’t laugh – You are too.

We were led up the back of the 90′ cliff by flashlight. The guides tossed the rope over the edge, looked at me and said, “You first.” Ever the reasonable man, I pointed out that it would make more sense to have a trained person on the ground first. Mike says, “We need them up here. You first.”

There was a sliver of moon, which, in the dry air, lit the top half of the cliff face. An outcropping shielded the bottom from the moonlight, The bottom half was a dark mystery.

When rappelling you are attached to the rope by a metal figure 8. This slows your descent by friction. Placing your hand in the middle of your back with the rope in it acts as a brake and you stop. Moving your hand away from the middle of your back allows the rope to slip through the figure 8 and your hand, and down you go.

I started the descent – nine stories in the dark.

Wanting off the rope as soon as possible I go down fast. Perpendicular to the rock face, I jump out as far out as possible to slide down the rope as fast as possible…

I get below the outcropping blocking the moon. Now in blackness, I slow to a crawl. I am shivering in the warm evening.

“How is it going?” The guide yells down at me.

“Great.” I yell up unconvincingly.

“Good.”

“Sure is dark down here.” I say somewhat pathetically.

“Tell us when you are on the ground.”

I feel the end of the rope in my hand.

“Uhhh, we have a problem. I’m out of rope.”

“Good. Send it back up.”

“You aren’t reading me: No rope, AND no ground either.”

If you have had grief training you know the stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression… In the slowest two minutes of my life I journey through them. Mike, leaning over the edge, starts with denial. “That’s impossible. You are on a 90’ cliff with a 100’ rope.”

As you might imagine, I respond with anger. “That’s a nice theory but I am definitely not on the ground.”

“How far away is it?” The guide calls.

“Since you had me rappel into utter darkness, you tell me.” I move to bargaining: “How about you pull me back up?”

“Sorry, we have no way to get you back.”

Now depression sets in…and a little panic. Beads of sweat form on my forehead. “I hope you have some ideas, I’m stuck here.” I say nervously.

“Uhmm, try poking around with your foot some more?”

So there I am, in a dark place, all alone…at the end of my rope.

We have all been in dark places. Felt alone. As Christians, though, we know we are not actually alone, no matter how dark the night. We are, however, surrounded by people for whom “God with us” is not their reality. They are lost and hurting. In dark places. Alone. At the end of their ropes. Some are aware of this. Others not so much.

Look at what Jesus does with someone in that place…

Picture yourself at our Gospel event that long ago evening: A crowd shoehorned into a living room. The yard also jammed with people. In the crowd, you listen to Jesus teach when dust begins to fall from the ceiling of the sod-roofed home. Dirt chunks, grass and sticks fall to the floor in front of you. Heads pop through the hole. The vandals pull out beams, expanding their damage. And then down comes this guy, lowered in front of Jesus.

Jesus, master of the unexpected, sees “their faith” and “looking at the man says, ‘Son, your sins are forgiven.'”

When most of us hear the “s” word we cringe. Even in church “sin” makes us fidget in our seats. If you are “conservative” you probably have a mental list of personal behaviors that are “sins,” “progressive” and you probably see systemic evil as “sins.” I propose a more ancient way of defining sin…simply as looking for life apart from God. When considered in that way, it explains both our wandering into individual self-destructive behaviors and participation in systemic evil. We were made to worship the one true and living God. We all wander from our purpose and look for life apart from our maker. Jesus looks at the paralytic and says in effect, “You have a bigger problem than legs that don’t work. You have a heart that is looking for life apart from me. I forgive you.” And, “so that you may know that the Son of Man has the power to forgive sins, Get up, take your mat and go home.”

And he does.

Imagine the friend’s giddiness. Can you picture them staring through the hole yelling, “I told you so!” to their wobbly-legged friend?

These friends were pretty amazing. They:

-Went as a team, rather than alone.

-Knew that healing is found in a person, rather than a place.

-Cared enough to bring him to Jesus.

-Wouldn’t take “no” for an answer, neither from their friend, the crowd, or even the homeowner. Imagine the conversation to convince the friend. I would guess the paralytic said something like, “I have no intention of being the butt of every joke in town when your scheme doesn’t work.”

-Went to ridiculous lengths to put their friend in front of Jesus: They risked time, energy, potentially their self-respect, and, surely, a good bit of money at Home Depot afterward. They literally got their hands dirty to bring their friend to the Savior.

What about you? Who are you a spiritual friend to? We have friends all around us who need the healing and forgiveness of the Lord Jesus Christ: at your work, school, in your family, surrounding your church.

Are you willing to do whatever it takes to help them see Jesus…willing to get your hands dirty? Jesus saw “their faith.” Do you faith to bring Christ’s healing and salvation to your community?

I don’t know your context. But I have looked at the demographic data for your schools. They are remarkably integrated. Why isn’t your church?

Shouldn’t a church reflect its community? Why is your church mono-ethnic in an integrated neighborhood? Perhaps, as it was for the paralytic, the way into church is blocked? It isn’t always the crowds that keep people away from the Savior.

Mark DeYmaz, in Building a Healthy Multi-ethnic Church, says the average American church is 10x more segregated than its neighborhood.

Prior to coming to the Diocese I worked in a historically upper middle-class youth ministry in a neighborhood becoming less White by the year. We took our leaders to the high school quad and, while looking at real students, asked “Who on campus isn’t in our ministry and why?” Then leaders picked groups and went and got to know them.

When those kids began to follow Christ we took them to church. A painful thing then began to happen: After worship the young people would say what Luis Acosta said, “Matt, I love that you stalked me for Jesus. I love that you made me come to Bible study and taught me to obey Jesus.’ I love that you are training me to be a Christian leader….but do you have to keep dragging me to these godawful churches.” I was confused: We had gone to Anglo churches, Latino churches, Black churches.  At each the people were nice, the music excellent, the sermon interesting. Luis pointed out the monochrome reality, “Everyone here was (fill in the racial blank). Then he asked, “Why is God the only racist in my life?

I was stunned by the question. It has been more than 50 years since Dr. King said that 10 am on Sunday is the most segregated hour in America, and still 92% of American Protestants attend mono-ethnic church services. Your own Julia McCray Goldsmith’s son said to her, “I don’t want to go to church-it’s the only place I go that’s all-White.”

We hang signs that say, “We welcome you.” But what do we do to welcome people who don’t look like us?

I came to the Episcopal Church in part because, in addition to promising Protestant theology with catholic worship, access to the wisdom of the earliest Christians and the hopeful idea that we could agree to pray the same words rather than agree on every theological jot and tittle, we believe in the dignity of those who aren’t like us. Unfortunately, “Welcome” is easier to paint on a sign than to do.

Statistically Evangelical churches are much more integrated than Mainline churches. How is that possible? Perhaps while we were talking about justice, they were talking about Jesus.

How will our children believe us that Christ loves the world and went to the cross for the salvation of humanity if the church looks completely unlike their world? We can do better for our children.

What if everyone here said, “I don’t care what anyone says or thinks of me, the Christian message is true, so the most important thing in the world is the forgiveness and healing found in Christ.” What if out of that conviction each of us engaged in friendships with people who are unlike us? What if we talked to the under-represented about what would need to change in order for them to feel culturally welcomed while spiritually challenged.

Imagine what your world might look like a decade from now if we lived that kind of Biblical welcome…

-Entire neighborhoods walking in the healing and forgiving love of Jesus.

-Not just full churches, but joyful neighborhoods, laughter in the streets and hope in human hearts.

O that we would say what Isaiah said to God so many years ago, “Here am I. Send me.”

…Back to my climbing story: It turned out I was only inches above the ground. Coming down the cliff face I had angled left toward the moonlight. The cliff bottomed into a downward sloping hill. I had moved just far enough toward the moonlight to leave the ground 2” below my outstretched toes. In the end, I had been afraid of a harmless unknown. Isn’t the unknown what we are really afraid of when it comes to opening wide our churches so that others could experience the love, healing, and salvation of Jesus?

Are you willing to take a risk for the Kingdom? As one who is safe on the rope of God’s mercy, are you willing to go, make unchurched friends, and jump with them into God’s unknown?

When we take a risk we never know what God might do.

And, the paralytic that gets healed might just be us.