5 Lent C, 2019: Learning to Disagree with Judas

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A hot stone massage

I spent my first fifteen to twenty years
of priesthood, making Judas’ case –
not so much against Jesus
as against those who came to church
to get a gentle massage for the mind and soul.

I have changed sides, sort of.
Actually, I haven’t just changed sides,
I now understand the argument much differently.

While Christian community
is not supposed to be a comfort station,
or any kind of association that doles out
complacency toward injustice,
or any kind of bigotry
and exclusion,
its core purpose and mission
is not social justice,
social work,
or social policy.

We have erred in The Episcopal Church.
Precisely because we are compassionate
and understand that the way of love
and the wisdom of Jesus
would have its consummation
in an equitable economic order,
we have long made Judas’ case
that our energy and mission
ought to be dedicated
to fixing housing problems,
feeding people who are hungry,
and taking on any
and every societal outrage.

That is not our primary mission or purpose.

That said, it would indeed be the outcome
if our communities of faith were successful
at fulfilling our purpose.
But still, it is not our mission.

Our mission
is formation and transformation
through community.
That’s it, although there are endless
incarnations of that mission.

The reason our mission and purpose
is formation and transformation
is because that is indeed how we
become agents of God’s love.

First and foremost,
we need to be thoughtful about
what and how
we make community
with one another.
In that community,
if we are doing it well,
we will discover healing
and growth,
and transformation.

Such a community will not be a mere comfort station
where we can get a gentle massage.
Oh no, it will work our muscles
with deep tissue pressure
and exertion on the heart and mind.
It will be a muscular, rugged,
sometimes even
fierce love
that rubs together people
who hold serious differences,
and says, “Find your reconciliation.”

It will call us out
of our introverted cocoons
and insist we get real
and get personal with one another.

It will push our extroverted flamboyance
inward, demanding
more and better reflection
and the ability to sit in stillness.
Our mission,
should we accept it,
is formation and transformation in community,
and if we are not making that happen
then we are not what we need to be
even if we are feeding
and clothing hundreds
or thousands.

Judas makes a good case
and one that all of us would prosecute
on one level or another.

But while we may be advocates
for a more just society
and a better, more equitable distribution of resources,
that is not the primary mission and purpose
of a spiritual community.

I just came back from Portland, Oregon and Seattle.

Each of those cities have thousands
and thousands
of homeless people.
The climate is more friendly
year round than here in upstate New York.
I heard estimates of tens of thousands of homeless
and you see them everywhere –
camped in tents on the sidewalk,
under bridges,
sleeping in front of stores and in every park.
Rich neighborhoods and the mission district,
they are scattered everywhere.
I was reminded of three weeks I once spent
in Guatemala,
in which my daily walk from place to place
brought me face to face
with men, women, and children
begging within an inch of their lives.
And on a couple of occasions,
having to navigate around motionless bodies.
No matter where I went
or what I did,
numerous, desperately impoverished people
would beg me for coins, food, drink –
anything I had to give.

Two things became clear to me.

The first was that I did not have enough
money or influence to change even a single
person begging me for help.
But if I was a little bit thoughtful
and organized
I could do something.
I got a bag
and filled it with coins.
I made sure I always had at least one coin to give
whenever I was asked.
It was no big deal,
but it was something I could do,
and I felt less powerless if nothing else.
But the second thing I could do,
changed me and perhaps had an impact
beyond the small coin I could offer.

I could look the person in the eyes,
and speak to him or her.
If they seemed open to it,
I could even try my pathetically poor Spanish
and whatever else I could think of
to meet and embrace
his or her humanity
while exposing my own.

It changed my behavior toward street people
in Buffalo when I returned to my home.
I often forgot to keep change
or a dollar bill in my pocket
but I was able to greet their humanity
and expose my humanity to them.

I did not, and never have
practiced it to perfection, but I still practice.
All of that is to say,
that as a spiritual community
we cannot let the tail wag the dog –
whether the tail is social ministry
or a massive stone building
or fundraising.

Our mission and purpose
is formation and transformation –
to become different people
as a result of being in relationship to one another
in community.

Forgive me for repeating it:
Our mission and purpose
is formation and transformation –
to become different people
as a result of being in relationship to one another
in community

We are to experience the opening of our wounds
and their healing;
we are to experience the vulnerability of love
and its sharing;
we are to struggle with and confront
the disjunction
between the values we spend our money on
and the values espoused by the Gospel of Jesus.

It is clearly not a relaxing massage of the soul,
but rather, the deep tissue kind
that stretches and hurts
and adjusts our feeble
and stiff old joints
so that we are formed and transformed
as agents of God’s love.

As a result of all that,
we will likely be more socially active
because we will be driven by our compassion.
But we may find that our charism –
our special gift,
has more to do with healing and growth
than feeding and clothing and advocating.
But whatever our gift
it will undoubtedly move us beyond ourselves
in a way that exposes our humanity to others
even as we embrace theirs.

It is through our work with formation
and transformation
in community
that God does a new thing with us –
whether we are ninety-three, seventy-nine,
fifty-one, or twenty.

If we do not believe – no,
if we have not experienced
that God can do a new thing
even with us – then we need a bigger, badder,
massage therapist.