Monday, April 28, 2008

Reclaiming Christ


Here's yesterday's homily. I told our clergy that I was nervous that it might be too political, but after the first service, our deacon told me, "It's not political enough!" And one of our priests asked me for a copy and then e-mailed me today to find out where he could order his own Christian Left bumper sticker (that would be from Cafe Press, which also has a slew of Episcopal products covering every conceivable political and religious position).

The funniest moment came in the eighth paragraph, in the line, "If we look upon others with condemnation, instead of compassion, the world will rightly assume that Christ came not to save the world, but to condemn it." Just as I reached the word "condemnation," the windows started rattling, because we were having another earthquake (a small one, fortunately!). Everyone laughed. Gotta love that divine sense of humor.

The Gospel is John 14:15-21.

*

For the past few months, we’ve heard a series of homilies devoted to the Eucharist, working our way piece by piece through our Sunday service. This will be the last one. My part begins with the invitation to the feast and ends with the deacon’s dismissal.

Nine years ago, in my pre-baptismal classes, I learned that the Eucharist is the center of worship. We come here to receive the bread and wine, to be fed with the body and blood of Christ. Everything else that happens on Sunday morning, as important as it may be, is secondary.

But what is the purpose of the Eucharist? What is communion for? To remind us that we are part of Christ, who is also part of us? Yes, certainly. To comfort us in times of sorrow and need? Yes to that, too. I don’t know about you, but I rarely feel as safe and loved as when I’m waiting at the altar rail, holding out my hands to receive the bread. I always feel like a baby bird, secure in the nest, waiting with gaping beak for the mother bird to come and feed me.

There’s an even more important reason for communion, though, and it’s emphasized in the post-communion prayer. After we have thanked God for feeding us, we say, “And now, Father, send us out to do the work you have given us to do, to love and serve you as faithful witnesses to Christ our Lord.” The dismissal, a few minutes later, repeats the point. “Let us go in peace,” the deacon says, “to love and serve the Lord.”

Communion is food for the journey, the meal that strengthens us to go into the world and do the work Christ has given us: to love God, our neighbors, and ourselves, and to serve the lost, the needy, and the broken. Seen this way, the Eucharist isn’t why we come to church after all. The point of coming to church is to leave it again: refreshed, resolved, and ready for ministry. The baby bird has to learn to fly. That’s why her mother fed her all those tasty morsels: to make sure that her wings will be healthy and strong, so that she’ll soar instead of falling.

People at St. Stephen’s have many ways of loving and serving the world. We’re active in prison ministry, bring services to nursing homes, distribute bread to the needy, help feed and shelter homeless families, set up Eco-Palian booths at Earth Day festivities, visit sick friends and strangers, pray for the needs of people both near and far, and contribute time and money to many worthy causes. We do a lot, but because we’re Episcopalians, we tend to do it quietly. Many of us favor the maxim of St. Francis: “Preach the Gospel without ceasing. If necessary, use words.”

If I weren’t very comfortable with that approach, I wouldn’t be here. But there are as many other approaches as there are other kinds of Christians, and I’ve recently been reminded, to my dismay, that some of those styles give all the others, including ours, a bad name. In today’s Gospel, Jesus tells his followers, “In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me.” We see Jesus, but the rest of the world sees us. We are Christ’s disciples, his visible legacy. As St. Teresa of Avila reminds us: “Christ has no body now on earth but yours, no hands but yours, no feet but yours. Yours are the eyes through which Christ’s compassion looks out on the world. Yours are the feet with which he is to go about doing good, and yours are the hands with which he is to bless us now.”

Whatever the world sees us do in Christ’s name, it will attribute to Him. If we sow fear and hatred, the world will rightly assume that our Lord is a God of fear and hatred, rather than love. If we curse and shun others, rather than blessing them, the world will rightly assume that Christ offers threats, not welcome. And if we live in compassion, love and blessing, but don’t specifically name Christ as our Lord and teacher, the world will have no way of knowing that there are Christians who don’t believe that exclusion, fear and hatred are the Keys to the Kingdom.

I believe that most Christians believe in, and try to walk in, love. But we all know that there are some who don’t, and we also know that some of the people who favor that other style have gotten a great deal of publicity. For one thing, fear and hatred make better news headlines than love does. Remember the famous -– or infamous -– Christian who announced that feminists and the ACLU were responsible for 9/11? Yes, now you know the truth: it was all my fault.

I’ve met a lot of people who fear and hate Christians, because they think we’re all like that. And when I tell these people that I’m Christian, but that neither I nor my Christian friends are anything like that, they don’t believe me. They haven’t seen evidence of Christian love, only of Christian condemnation. Whatever I say to the contrary, I’m only one person. Those of us who want to reclaim Christ from the hate-mongers need to become a lot more visible.

This is hard work. People see what they expect to see, and they often simply dismiss anything that conflicts with their worldview. For years, my car boasted two bumper stickers, one that read, “Christian, Not Closed-Minded,” and another that said, “Feminism is the radical notion that women are people.” Last week, I discovered that the first bumper sticker had been defaced to read, “Christian, Closed-Minded.” Someone, apparently oblivious to the second sticker, had used a magic marker to cross out the “Not.” I ordered more bumper stickers. I now have one that reads, “Christian Left,” next to an Episcopal Church shield. Certainly not everyone agrees with that pairing, but at least it establishes that not all Christians have the same political views.

Bumper stickers probably aren’t the best way of letting people know where we stand. Personal testimony, as much as we might cringe at the phrase, works much better. The world needs to hear firsthand that there’s more than one way of being Christian.

A few years ago, a group of Christians set up camp in front of the UNR library. They waved signs claiming that anyone who didn’t follow Jesus would go to hell. They yelled hateful things about Jews, Muslims and sexual minorities into bullhorns. They ignored anyone who tried to talk to them. They were very loud and very unpleasant. Everyone on campus was on edge. In both of my classes that day, I told my students, “I need to tell you that I’m Christian too, and I don’t agree with those guys. Lots of us believe that Jesus is about love, not about hatred.”

I think my words reassured my students, but my own approach bothered me. Wasn’t I just setting up another us/them dichotomy, becoming the very thing I hated? Thinking about the believers with their bullhorns outside the library, I remembered reading a book called Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller. When Miller was in college, he and some other Christian students set up a confession booth during a large campus event. Most people who stopped by the booth said something like, “So I’m supposed to tell you what I’ve done wrong and ask God’s forgiveness, right?” But Miller and his friends explained that the booth was for something else entirely. The Christian students wanted their neighbors’ forgiveness. They wanted to confess, and apologize for, all the pain and damage Christians had caused in the name of God.

The booth got a lot of business. Maybe St. Stephen’s and other churches should set up booths like that. In the meantime, as each of us takes communion, I ask us to think about how we will do Christ’s work this week. As we become Christ’s hand and feet and heart in the world, how will we use love to proclaim our faith? How will we reclaim Christ from, and offer Christ to, those we believe have misunderstood him? How will we feed others as we have been fed?

Amen.

2 comments:

  1. Anonymous5:17 AM

    I love hearing about the Christian left. More, more! I sort of abandoned the (Episcopal) church when we moved a few months ago to this new city, where the church is very conservative and I feel like I don't fit in. (plus I got tired of teaching Sunday School and didn't even want to be asked anymore) Maybe I can find a way to fit in...it's difficult when you suspect you're the only one in the congregation who dislikes our president! (what can there possibly be to talk about with these people!?)

    Such a great combo of religion, volunteerism, science fiction and more! (I used to be a cat person but because of my husband's allergies we finally got a dog...now I'm sort of a dog person!)

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  2. Hi, Anon! I'm sorry it took me a while to publish your comment; thanks for the nice words about the blog! And yes, the Christian Left really is out here!

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