Pastor Joe Britton
St. Michael’s Church
“You must love one another as I have loved you.” (John 15)
St. Michael’s is not a particularly religious place, and I am more grateful for that fact than I can express. … But perhaps I need to explain what I mean.
Abraham Heschel distinguished between what he called symbolic religion on the one hand, and the experience of the living God on the other. Symbolic religion is preoccupied with what we as Christians might call the things of the church: rituals, and titles, and vestments, and rules. Such religion, however, substitutes symbols of the holy, for an authentic encounter with the living God. Religion thereby has a way of keeping God at arm’s length, all the while giving us human beings a perfect alibi for our underlying indifference toward God.
But where, asked Heschel, is the awareness in religion of what is required of us by the God of the prophets: the God whose justice rolls down like a mighty river? Where is the gospel of hope and life and compassion and mercy? Where is the wonder and awe at mysteries that are beyond our knowing? How easy it is to be long on the things of religion, and short on the things of faith! No wonder Jesus railed so consistently against the Pharisees, the true religionists of his time, who though they fulfilled every religious requirement, were nevertheless ultimately left untouched by God.
As Heschel himself put it, “The prophet knew that religion could distort what the Lord demands of [humankind], … calling for ceremonies instead of bursting forth with wrath and indignation at the cruelty, deceit, idolatry, and violence of this world.”
The French aviator and philosopher Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (and author of The Little Prince) once wrote that, “In anything at all, perfection is finally attained not when there is no longer anything to add, but when there is no longer anything to take away.” Perfection in other words is in simplicity, in finally reaching the essence of something—not in its painful exaggeration.
So if it is true that perfection is simplicity, how might we apply that principle to the things of faith? Or, to put it another way, what is the bare minimum which one would have to have, in order to have not the Christian religion, but the Christian faith?
The answer that came to me yesterday, as our diocese was gathered amidst great pomp and circumstance to elect a new bishop, is that all one really needs is one Bible, and two Christians: the Bible to give us God’s story, one Christian to baptize the other, and both of them to share communion with one another.
I don’t know, maybe I’m gradually reverting to my Baptist roots, but I just find that the more I read scripture, the clearer it becomes that beneath all the forms and structures of the church, the gospel is really quite simple: Love God, and love your neighbor as yourself, because God has first loved you.
I’ve been struck, for example, in this Easter season that every single Sunday, we’ve had at least one reading (usually from the gospel or one of the epistles of John), that basically says the same thing: God is love. Abide in that love. Love God. Love one another. Because God is love, so you should love one another. … And by the way, did I mention that God is love? And that you should love one another? Sure enough, it happened again today: for the umpteenth time, Jesus said in our gospel that we must love one another, as he has loved us. It seems that to be a Christian, you just can’t get away from that gospel bedrock.
I’ve noticed, over the years, that as the people I have most admired in the church get older, they have all fallen into a similar frame of mind about the priority of these first principles. Fr. Ed Ostertag, for instance (my beloved mentor), told me one time that after years of struggling with political issues both civic and ecclesiastical, all he really wanted to do was to celebrate the Eucharist each Sunday, gathered around the altar with a few people who were disciples of Jesus and friends of one another. I’ve heard other mentors say pretty much the same thing. Our own Pepper Marts, shortly before he died, said to me that “The longer I live, the more I think it is all about what you do, and less about what you believe.” Or another friend recently put it even more strongly: “The measure of our worth,” he said, “is how we support each other, and everything else is speculation.” It is as if, the greatest among us, eventually come to the point of wanting to lose their life for Jesus’ sake (somehow that rings a bell …), letting go of the things of religion and coming home to dwell in God’s love.
Which brings me back to St. Michael’s. I say that this congregation is not particularly religious, because it seems to me that temperamentally we are not prone to be preoccupied with the bric-à-brac of church life. We want to do things beautifully, and we want to do them well. But we also tend to want to see through and beyond the things of religion, to the deeper imperative to love God, and to love our neighbor. Both as individuals and as a community, we may look for that kind of simplicity in silence, or in service, or in prayer … but we’re skeptical about it’s being found in ecclesiastical conventions and elaborate ceremony.
Friday night, I was at a concert at which our own David McGuire debuted a new piece of his own composition, entitled “Night Watch.” The piece was inspired by his experience of providing protective accompaniment for an immigrant in sanctuary, who had been jailed and tortured in his home country. The piece is quite minimalist (only voice, bass, and percussion), yet it is highly evocative of the terror one human being experienced through such violent treatment: the cry of nightmarish dreams, the clanging of a cell door, the still small voice of hope. David’s piece, I thought, was a composition of such power that nothing could be taken away without loss. It was honest, it was real, it was true.
Ironically, one of you happened to comment to me at that concert (as we were waiting for the music to begin), how important to your spirituality the adobe wall is here in the church: it is so simple (you said), so common, so earthy, so grounding. Indeed, I am told that the wall was created with bricks made from the earth of this very site: it is truly local, and so it aesthetically draws us into how God is in this place, at this this moment.
Those two things—a musical piece that grew out of an immigrant’s experience, and an appreciation for a wall made out of mud—are to me signs of the determination this congregation has to be rooted in what is truly real and holy, more so than in what is established and “religious.” And it is for that, that I am truly grateful.
At the opening of Leonard Bernstein’s theatrical Mass, there is a song that speaks deeply of this focused spiritual orientation toward God and to the world. As the celebrant begins to vest, wearing only jeans and an open shirt, he reflectively sings these words:
Sing God a simple song, Lauda, laude.
Make it up as you go along, Lauda, laude.
Sing like you like to sing.
God loves all simple things,
For God is the simplest of all.
Blessed is the one who loves the Lord,
And walks in God’s ways.
Lauda, lauda, laude.