What’s the point? Why bother? How is Christianity relevant today? You seem like a smart person, why spend your life working in a dying or irrelevant institution? These are just a few versions of the questions I routinely get from friends, strangers, and those seated next to me on airplanes. I usually respond by saying that this is what God has called me to do and be, and I find meaning, identity, and purpose in it. And then the inquirer changes the subject. In the few weeks since Christmas, I’ve been asking myself versions of these questions, too. I’ve been thinking about them, not because I agree with the presuppositions of the questioners, but because I care about the answer.
I’ve recently come to realize that I am part of a dying breed. I am a single career, seminary educated pastor. While I have traveled an unusual path in ministry and in life, the fact remains that I’ve been employed by church or by an institution in a religious role since I was nineteen years old. I have accumulated a lot of skills and more education than might be useful, but the fact remains that I have no other options without returning to school. Recognizing the shifting and changing (hopefully transformations) going on in Mainline denominations, I might not be working fulltime as a pastor until I retire. Many churches are small enough that they cannot sustain fulltime pastors and the larger congregations are still a bit reluctant to call women to their pulpits, let alone women who are not straight. Even so, I am committed to ministry, to church. And here’s why…
Human beings are better, more complete, when we reach beyond our own little lives and experiences. Left to my own devices, I am more inclined to go hide in the woods and ignore the rest of the world than I am to try to engage with it and heal the broken places. Yes, I am an introvert, but without God insisting that human beings are good and worthy of love, I would believe otherwise. God calls us to a greater awareness of ourselves, our neighbors, and Creation. We are good. Our neighbors are good. Creation is good. Now, trusting in this goodness, treat yourself, your neighbors, and the world with the love, forgiveness, kindness, mercy, grace that highlight that innate “goodness.” Maybe you are better person than I am, but I cannot do this on my own. I need God’s reminder that I am good and that the world is good in order to keep seeking beauty, to keep trying to bring more kindness than hurt into the world.
I think of John the Baptist who risked everything to point the way to Christ, Divine Love Incarnate. He lived on the fringes of society, where civilization and wilderness met. He ate weird food and wore inadequate clothing. He was wild and passionate. Out there on the wild side of the Jordan, he called for repentance. He baptized people to remind them that sin could be washed away and that a new way was possible. His passion was seemingly contagious since many came to be baptized. And then when Jesus showed up, the skies opened up and beloved became possible where it hadn’t been much imagined before.
John somehow understood that focusing on human beings and human actions and human sin was inadequate; there was more to life. God wanted to shift our focus and John the Baptist caught a piece of that. He didn’t care what people thought of him. He risked everything to point toward One greater than himself, One who would change everything. Of course, John was a little extreme and I’m not suggesting we all live as he did. However, I am suggesting that John had the right end of things. He believed passionately that there was a better way just ahead and he spent his life pointing toward that way. What do we all spend our lives passionately pointing toward?
I don’t particularly want to spend my time in the places where wilderness and civilization meet. On the other hand, I try to live where wild imagination and unexamined tradition might intersect. The worst thing to ever happen to the church was Bible literalism and the failure to recognize a God who loves first and foremost. From this perception of a legalistic, punishing God arose the need for personal salvation. The Christian focus on saving souls has left the church in tatters. Jesus’ call to love has been largely overlooked. At no point did Jesus say to make sure that a neighbor’s soul was saved from hell before ensuring that said neighbor had food, clothing, shelter, and community. Imagine a world in which we are all as free with our resources as Jesus was with his.
So what’s the point? Why church? For me it is a question of reaching beyond my own little life, beyond my own perceived limits and shortcomings to benefit of the greater good without negating myself. If I share my passion for saving lives and bringing healing into the world, maybe something new and good and transformative will happen, and others will join with me. Then we will have community in which we share the joys and struggles of seeking to bring Divine Love into the world. We will share in God’s love and the knowledge that we are not alone. Essentially, Micah had it right. If we want to be church, if we want to be the body of Christ in the world today, we must focus on justice, kindness, and moving humbly through the world trusting God’s presence.
The point is to leave the world a better place. I need religion to help me do that. For me, it’s Christianity. For you, it might be something else. However, if your religion is not helping you to find healing, hope, love, and joy for yourself and those around you, you might need a different path. For the time being, I’m going to try to follow John the Baptist’s example. I’m going to live on the edge of where society wants me to be, call for repentance, and proclaim that God is still wanting to that new thing so that we may live in peace on a thriving planet.
RCL – Year A – Second Sunday after Epiphany – January 19, 2020
1 Corinthians 1:1-9