Pastor Joe Britton
St. Michael’s Church
Today is Ingathering Sunday, when we offer our pledges of financial support for God’s mission in this parish in the coming year. It is also the Sunday before Thanksgiving, which encourages us to express our gratitude for the blessings large and small that give us the life we have to live.
It is, therefore, also a time to reflect on the rather basic question of why church? And are there blessings that we uniquely receive through it?
A number of years ago, a political scientist named Glenn Tinder wrote a book entitled, Can We Be Good without God? He didn’t just mean, can we do good things like feed the hungry or vote on election day without God—obviously we can. But rather, he was asking the question of whether human beings can fulfill their destiny to be wholly oriented toward the Other, if we lack any sense of dependence and accountability toward an origin larger than ourselves—call it God, or a higher power, or simply the mystery of the universe. His answer, in short, was no. We cannot be good without God, because otherwise we inevitably fall into self-centered and self-justifying behavior.
When his book appeared in essay form in The Atlantic, it raised quite a ruckus. There were angry letters to the editors objecting to their having let some theist into the pages of a secular magazine. Some letters went so far as to cancel their authors’ subscription, all of which had a way of legitimating Tinder’s contention that without God, we become inwardly focused, unwilling to hear anything that might challenge our own self-righteousness.
In a rather different vein, Rowan Williams (then Archbishop of Canterbury) was asked to speak in 2012 at a gathering of the bishops of the Roman Catholic Church on the subject of “The New Evangelization,” that is, how the gospel is to be presented in an secularized era when even thoughtful people (such as those angry readers of The Atlantic) are predisposed not even to entertain the idea of God.
You know me well enough not to be surprised by my turning to Williams for inspiration. He’s the kind of person who, without pretension, nevertheless always seems to be the smartest person in the room. His speech to the gathered bishops was no exception.
What I most appreciate in what Williams has to say, is that he has a way of taking a topic that we thought we understood pretty well, and taking it in a direction we had never thought of before. So in addressing the topic of evangelization, instead of talking about how to convince people to believe in God, he talked instead about how to convince people to believe in humanity.
That is, in an era when we are so quick to divide the human community into opposing camps, so ready to reassert the borders that divide us, so ready to scapegoat someone else for the problems of our own making—how do we reassert a fundamental belief in the inherent dignity and value of the human person, every human person? How do we believe in humanity as a whole, and not just our tribal affiliation?
Well, this is where Williams turns back to God, arguing that faith leads us to what he calls a “true humanism,” or the “confidence that we [as Christians] have a distinctive human destiny to show and share with the world” which is nothing less than an “endless growth towards love.” As is typical for him, he grounds this idea in the relationship between God and Jesus: Jesus is the one who “translates” the relationship of loving and adoring self-giving that is God’s relationship to him, a pouring out of life towards the Other. As God loves Jesus, so Jesus loves the world, giving himself fully and completely for our sake so that we might glimpse through him our destiny to be recreated in the image of his humanity. Not the distorted humanity of self-preoccupation and division, but the fully alive humanity of self-giving and unity.
The goal, he says, is to learn to see other people not as they are related to ourselves, but as they are related to God. When we look at other people, we instinctively start to size them up, in reference to ourselves. Are they friend or foe? Democrat or Republican? Educated or uninformed? Citizen or immigrant? On and on it goes.
But when God looks at those same other people, God sees only an object of divine adoration and love. “And it is here,” Williams says, “that true justice as well as true love has its roots.” For if I can really, truly accept that even persons completely unlike myself have the same dignity as God’s beloved as do I, then how I treat them, and the destiny I imagine for them, is completely changed. It is, says Williams, “a deeply revolutionary matter.”
We have before us today some pretty odd readings from scripture. They are visionary passages, anticipating the end of time. And since we really know nothing about the end of time, they are pretty opaque. But even so, I do hear running through them this theme of destiny—and in Jesus’ warning that there will be many who will lead us astray, I hear a warning against any voice that tries to distort or to subjugate the fundamental dignity of all humanity that is given in God’s love for it, for all of us, for each of us.
In the forum today on “The New Monasticism,” we have been looking at some recently formed Christian communities that try to embody God’s vision for the destiny of humanity in the way they live out their common life together: Communities such as Sant’Egidio in Rome, whose motto is “Prayer. Poor. Peace.” Or the Community of Jerusalem in Paris, which aspires to be “Deep in the heart of the city, deep in the heart of God.” Or The Simple Way in Philadelphia, committed to rebuilding the Kensington neighborhood (where our asylum family now lives) through community involvement and celebration. As Williams says of these communities, “They make space for a profounder vision because in their various ways all of them offer a discipline of personal and common life that is about letting the reality of Jesus come alive in us.”
Similarly, we at St. Michael’s are also a community committed in our own way to the evangelization of the world by sharing God’s vision for humanity, “letting the reality of Jesus come alive in us.” In a few moments, we will take some time on this Ingathering Sunday to read and reflect on a summary of the responses you have made over the last few weeks to a few simple questions about our life together—responses which now hang as the fruits on the vine that stretches around the church. As you read those responses, hold in your mind the vision that in God’s eyes, our destiny as human beings is an endless growth toward love, becoming more and more in ourselves a living image of Christ’s humanity. Being part of this parish is nothing more—and nothing less—than that. Amen.