Last weekend, I started reading a memoir, written by a African American gay man who was raised as a Roman Catholic in Houston, Texas. Early in the book, the author says the following, after an unexpected and surprising visit to a gay-friendly Baptist church in Harlem.
Yes, I was moved by what I had seen and heard, but I had already moved beyond needing a church and a member of the clergy to guide me to God or define my sense of what’s right and wrong. [During my] years of separation [from church], I created my own idea of who God is and what God means to me. The same goes for my moral compass. I’ve become a solo act when it comes to how I process things and what spirituality now looks like—and I’m wary of walking back to the old band whose validation I have long moved past requiring, as I simply do not need it.[i]
I must admit: these words really raised my hackles. And not just because the author adamantly does not need the services of the quote unquote “professionally religious.” I, too, have had my fair share of frustration with “organized religion” over the years, so I can easily and sympathetically understand the desire to throw up one’s hands and resort to DIY spirituality.
Yet still, these words continued to bother and sadden me. Most especially, because they seem to so fundamentally misunderstand the deeper purpose of the church. You see, the very truest thing I know is that we really can’t do any of this alone. Even when I was trying to do the “faith thing” all by myself, I knew deep down that something very important was missing. That community is the secret sauce of the spiritual life, even when it’s incredibly flawed.
Of course, the idea that church is a nice add-on to one’s personal, individual relationship with the Divine is quite endemic to American Christianity. And perhaps, it’s because the church hasn’t often been very good at explaining exactly what it is we’re doing here. But I think…I think if we’re really honest, the primary difficulty is that being church is really, really hard. So hard that G.K. Chesterton famously declared:
The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting.
It has been found difficult; and left untried.[ii] (repeat)
We so often do not live up to our own ideals. But we do try. We do care. There is something here that really matters. But what…what exactly is it? What really is the point of being church together?
My quick elevator pitch for church, whenever members of my generation ask me how I can be an ambassador for such a flawed institution, typically goes something like this:
…we are called into practice faith in community
because it’s nearly impossible to love,
to really love in the crazy big ways that Jesus asks us to love,
without the support and challenge
of a faithfully counter-cultural community of practice.
A faithfully counter-cultural community of practice.
If you look at American Christianity as a whole, though, there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of counter-cultural activity going on. Not all that much support or challenge, either. We’ve tried to make it as palatable as possible. Primarily a weekly “me and God” time, rather than a bootcamp for building audaciously loving relationships with others.
So imagine with me, then, what it must have been like to hear Jesus’ words, spoken in the synagogue, upon his return to his hometown. Jesus says:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
Now, as inspiring as these words may sound to us, the text suggests that their original audience wasn’t too impressed.
In fact, Jesus’ hometown audience in Nazareth had a pretty strongly negative reaction to his proclamation.
Just few verses later, we are told that:
When they heard [Jesus’ words], all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.
But why, why did they get so upset?
Well, more than likely, Jesus’ friends and family were hoping for some special favors, were hoping for some VIP access, were hoping for some face-time with their hometown son turned Divine emissary.
But Jesus…well Jesus knew in his bones that he was called beyond Nazareth. Far beyond Nazareth…and even beyond Israel. To people and places where God’s love may never before have been proclaimed. In the verses of this passage that the lectionary skipped, Jesus: “…upends [his audience’s] desire for business as usual, aligning himself with [the prophets] Elijah and Elisha, […both of whom] took God’s message to outsiders: to the left out and the looked over, to those who were not counted in the small circle of the chosen ones.”[iii]
Here’s how Jesus put it:
Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.
And this, of course, was all a bit hard to take. Jesus’ friends and family wanted to be at the center of Jesus’ burgeoning rise to fame. They wanted their fair share of attention and favor from God’s newest star messenger.
But Jesus insisted that he was about something bigger. Because, as Jesus had come to know, God’s primary concern is almost always over there, and sometimes even wayyyy, wayyyy over there: nearly always at the margins, among the castaways. Never quite where we think it should be, or where we want it to be. Never primarily about us.
Latin American liberation theology explains this as God’s preferential option for the poor.
One contemporary theologian suggests that God has a much, much larger “economy of concern” than we do, that God includes and focuses on those people and places that we tend to ignore or reject.[iv]
All of which can feel quite disconcerting. For our wholes lives, most of us have been told that God loves everyone. Equally. That every person has equal share of inherent, God-given dignity.
So how…how could God have a preferential option for anyone?
Well…perhaps, because God knows that we humans have a deep proclivity toward inequality. That we have a really difficult time living together as equals. Even the disciples were jockeying for a seat at Jesus’ right hand. On this side of the Kingdom, then, we are gathered as community, as church, to practice living as equals. …to practice living as equals. Church offers a context, an arena, in which we can choose to learn, with one another, how to live as if the dignifying, equalizing love of God were true.
Not surprisingly, the Apostle Paul has some ideas about how to be church in this radical way. In today’s reading from First Corinthians, Paul tells us:
…the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; whereas our more respectable members do not need this.
Now one of the major challenges of Paul’s prescription, I think, is that we are loathe to admit that we live in a world of hierarchies. Loathe to admit that even in the church, we don’t always practice our God-given equality.
Now, you may want to challenge me on this. “We really are all equal here,” you may want to insist. And yes, to God, we most certainly are equals. But to one another, we so very often are not.
In order to begin to imagine how to “honor those we consider less honorable,” then, we must first recognize inequality among us. Indeed, admitting that we think and act as if some people are less honorable than others is the very first step toward beginning to live as if the dignifying, equalizing love of God is true.
But it’s so uncomfortable. And it’s so much easier not to. And so we don’t.
We don’t allow church fully become the faithfully counter-cultural community that it is called to be. And it’s not just us.
Paul had so much to say about how to be church together because the earliest Christians struggled with it, too.
But the possibility is always before us, always available. We could live together so differently; we could be a community where:
If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.
The kind of community that might very well offer healing to a cynical and hurting world. Indeed:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon us, because the Lord has anointed us to bring good news to the poor. The Lord has sent us to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind; to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
May it be so.
[i] Michael Arceneaux. I Can’t Date Jesus: Love, Sex, Family, Race, and Other Reasons I’ve Put My Faith in Beyonce. Atria, 2018. Page 8.
[ii] G.K. Chesterton. What’s Wrong With The World. 1910. Pagination unknown.
[iv] Benjamin Dueholm. Sacred Signposts: Words, Water, and Other Acts of Resistance. Eerdmans, 2018. Page 18-19.