Benediction Online

Sunday, August 17, 2008

The Mission of the Church

There are two images I want to share with you from my time in England.

The first comes from a busy bus in the city of Leeds. I was sitting behind a petite Pakistani woman dressed in flowing robes. At the first stop an angry looking man got on and I immediately braced for trouble. He tried to sit next to the lady in front of me but she shooed him away, so instead he sat across the aisle muttering under his breath about being treated like dirt. As he muttered and glared at her the lady moved her shopping bag protectively into the space between them and I wondered if he was going to attack her and whether I would have the courage to intervene. I prayed, the man muttered and the bus went on. Suddenly he turned his attention to me. Without changing his tone of voice he asked if I was having a good day and then told me he was homeless and everyone treated him like dirt. They thought if they gave him money he would spend it on drugs and alcohol but all he wanted was a home. As I muttered back my concern that life was so difficult for him, he asked for money.

What was I to do? I hate situations like that. I didn’t have any money easily to hand but I certainly had some in the bottom of my bag, still I wasn’t able to give him enough to get a home or even a room for the night and I had no idea if his story was true. So I said, ‘How do I know that you’re homeless?’ He told me what bad shape his feet were in and offered to show me. I declined.

At that moment the person next to me got off the bus and I scooted over to the window seat away from the muttering gentleman and discontinued the conversation while I wondered what to do. Before I had reached a decision the bus stopped and he got off. I saw him hobbling away from the bus stop. I don’t know if he was homeless but I do know he had bad feet and poorly fitting shoes. I have been praying for him but I continue to feel that I let him down. That passage from Matthew haunts me, ‘Lord when did I see you a stranger and not help you?’ (Matt 26:44)

My other image is quite different and much briefer. It was an evening during the Lambeth Conference. I was holding a sign advertising a play that was about to start. I was wearing my collar and it was probably obvious that I was a woman priest and supportive of the full inclusion of gay people in the church. A man of privilege, a powerful priest in the Church of England, not a bishop, walked past with a friend and made a dirty joke at my expense.

They went off together laughing. I was so surprised that at first I thought I must have misunderstood. I have been verbally abused before but I never expected it from a priest.

Two very different images. Two images which speak to me about our calling and our difficulties as the Church of God.

Today’s readings provide a wonderful opportunity to reflect on what it means to be the Church, an opportunity which is appropriate on the heels of the Lambeth Conference, the once a decade gathering of bishops in Canterbury.

The reading we heard from Paul’s letter to the Romans comes in the middle of a longer argument which is important for our understanding of who we are as members of the Church of Christ. He is saying that the people of Israel were God’s chosen people - the ones through whom God’s plan of redemption for the whole world was to be carried out. But they were unable to fill that role and so the Church was born in order to fulfill the promise. As Paul sees it the Church is not merely a way that we organize religion but is the way that God intends to save the world. God’s plan is to redeem the planet through us. That is huge and I’m going to come back to it, but first let’s look again at those first verses from our second reading.
I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means! I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin. God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew. (Romans 11:1-2a)
Part of the anti-semitism that has plagued European history comes from theological causes. First, blaming Jesus’ crucifixion on ‘the Jews’ as John’s gospel tends to do and secondly, thinking that Christianity has superseded Judaism. There is no excuse for this. Paul is very clear that although the Church has taken on the role originally intended for Israel, that does not suggest that God has rejected God’s original people. In deed God now intends to bring Israel to a full knowledge of Godself through the Gentiles instead of the other way around.

Paul saw himself at the cusp of this change. He was fully Jewish but dedicated to the new path of the Church of Christ. Jesus himself was at the leading edge. And this is one explanation for his rather odd behavior in today’s gospel reading. (Matt 15:21-28)

It’s an unusual story in several respects. Firstly it’s set in the region of Tyre and Sidon which were in the Phoenicia on the coast. Today Tyre is in Lebanon, about 50 miles south of Beirut. So it was in a different country. Jesus is talking directly with a Canaanite woman who most of his contemporaries would have treated with disdain and we see Jesus change his mind. When the woman asks for his help at first he responds that he only came for Israel but them he changes his mind – her recognition of him as Lord and Son of David makes him realize that she too can have faith, that Gentiles may also be believers.

Israel may have had a special role but God’s love is much greater than human boundaries. This is reflected in the First Reading from Isaiah(Is 56:1,6-8). ‘All… who hold fast my covenant…I will bring to my holy mountain’. ‘Thus says the Lord GOD, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, I will gather others to them besides those already gathered.’

I mentioned some theological reasons for ant-Semitism. There are some very practical ones as well. One way to unify people is to create a common enemy. One way to maintain power is to create a climate of fear. Both of these things happened in Nazi Germany and throughout Central Europe as Jews were isolated, denigrated and then killed. But it was not only Jews who died in the holocaust, it was also the disabled, Gypsies and gay people. All people who were different, all outcasts.

This passage from Isaiah is very clear that there are no outcasts in the Reign of God. God does not separate people into groups and categories, God gathers people together into the house of prayer, the holy mountain, the place of joy and feasting.

It was Israel’s calling to ‘Maintain justice, and do what is right’, to create a nation where there were no outcasts, a society of equality, where there was social justice for all. If we as the Church of Christ are now called to be the carriers of God’s plan for redemption then what was true for the Israelites is also true for us. We are called to work for social justice, to create a society where there is equality for all people, where there are no outcasts.

This means more than giving money or even a new pair of shoes to a man on a bus. It means using the political process of this country to demand change, not just by voting, but by campaigning for justice so that instead of a few people living in huge mansions there is affordable housing for everyone. It means finding ways to live more simply, to use less resources, to lower our carbon footprint so that others may have even the basics of life. Climate change is the biggest social justice issue of our time because it is the poorest of the poor who will be worst effected. Within ten years communities of thousands of people who scrape a living off the land and sea will have to be relocated. Green living is no longer an option for the Church of Christ, it is a gospel imperative.

There are many smaller battles in working for a just society; civil equality for gays and lesbians is threatened this November, work for universal health care continues to need attention as does making sure that in a time of budget shortfall the most fragile are not the most effected. All this is our calling. It is part of our mission as the ones through whom God is redeeming the world.

It is easy for the Church to get off course and like the English priest to become exclusive and judgmental even with other Christians. Our job is to build not a Church, and not only a Church but a society where all are respected, all are honored. We start to do that by changing our own ways of living, our own attitudes.

I am praying for both men. It’s easier for me to pray with compassion for the man with painful feet than the man who seems to hate women. Jesus has compassion on both, God’s love embraces both of them and me and you equally. The mission of God starts in our hearts as we allow our prejudices and fears towards each other to be transformed. The mission of God leads us to work for social justice.


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