June 20, 2015

Mutual Ministry: The Community of Renewal


Text: 2 Corinthians 5:17: “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!”

This past Monday I sat in Johnson Chapel at Amherst College to listen to the president deliver her annual address on the state of the institution. This is an event that takes place as soon as is practicably possible after the commencement parties have ended and the reuniting alumni have folded their tents, and we get the place back to ourselves again.

It’s an occasion that happens at this same moment each year, I gather, right after the end of the academic year and just before the end of fiscal year. And the principal audience is the staff of the college, from the director of the library and the art museum to the dining hall workers and dishwashers. It’s one of the things I’ve come to admire about Amherst, the recognition that any college or university is made up of faculty, yes, and students, but also the staff folks who get the less glamorous work of the place done, the alumni who pay for it, and the neighbors who put up with it.

Amherst College is a place at the top of its game, or at least at the top of the game it’s in. It is routinely counted among the top three in its category, the residential liberal arts college, a category unique to America. And that’s why what the president had to say was really surprising to me.

She gave us the usual updates on the college’s strategic plan, and the general state of the college, and all of that. But then she talked about how all of higher education in our country is in a state of disruption, and how everyone is asking questions about why it costs so much and whether or not it’s worth the money, and how we can address the problems of inequality in our society when it costs so much to go to school.

Here’s what she said that stuck with me: “We still believe that what we do here is essential. We still believe that learning for learning’s sake is essential. We still believe that the liberal arts”—the idea that you have to know something about the humanities, and the sciences, and the social sciences, and the arts, to be equipped to be a citizen—“is important. We are committed to preserving it. And to preserve it, we know we have to change.”

I realized as I sat there listening that I was hearing someone else say, in a context very different from this one, what we have learned is true about ourselves in the church. What we do isn’t just quaint, or sweet, or dainty; it’s essential. And these days it’s urgently essential.

What we do is witness to the possibility of the spiritual in human life, and we do it in a way that lives in willing tension with the revelations of science.

What we do is confess, proclaim, and witness to a Christian faith that says the timeless central theme is more important than the culturally specific details, and that timeless central theme is that God’s intent and plan for us is made clear in the transformative power of Christ’s love for us. The law of love is what makes forgiveness and reconciliation possible—and if you pay any attention to the headlines, you will know that forgiveness and reconciliation are the only possible path out of the trap of vengeance and violence we fall into

And by the way, we also stand for the idea that any other understanding of the Christian message—and there are a lot of them—may be appealing, may be compelling, may fill auditoriums, but misses the point. Dietrich Bonhoeffer had the best phrase for that kind of Christianity; he called it “cheap grace,” cheap in the sense that doesn’t demand much of us, cheap in the sense that it amounts to theological gift wrapping for our cultural preferences.

We still believe that what we do here is essential. We still believe that it is important. We are committed to preserving it.

And we have learned that, to preserve it, we know we have to change.

We have a theologically weighty word for this. That word is “renewal.” God means for us to be renewed by our faith. Believing, being people of faith, is not meant to comfort us; it is meant to change us.

And that doesn’t mean, as the church has often believed to its cost, that all change is good. Change is good only when it takes us in the direction God wants us to go—toward being people more capable, more willing, more ready to live by the law of love, no matter what it costs us, and no matter which of our sacred cows it lays low.

Our experience as a community of faith has been that renewal is not so much something that you do as it is something God does to you and that you allow to happen if you’re brave, and don’t allow to happen if you’re not. We here have not merely allowed it, we have actively sought it out; and as the person who sees this place from this perch, I testify that we have been renewed we are being renewed, in our life as a Christian community.

Our whole idea about how the church works, about who does what and how we work together, has been changed. What has really been changed involves a kind of dangerous word; we have changed our idea about how authority works in our church.

It used to be that we gave the rector all, or at least most, of the authority in the place. And what that meant was that we also gave the rector authority over things that the rector probably didn’t need, and shouldn’t have, authority over. We have renewed our idea about how we share the work of the church together; and as a result, our church is getting a great deal more work, and witness, and welcoming done.

This summer the Episcopal Church will meet in its every-three-years General Convention, and a great amount of time and energy will be devoted to trying to change the church to fit the challenges of the future. Many of the proposals on the table would consolidate authority at higher levels of our denomination, or center greater authority in smaller numbers of people.

But we have learned that this is pretty much the opposite of the renewal into which we have been called, and through which we have flourished. And what we believe is that the most important, the most critical, the most urgent issues we face have nothing to do with the future of the polity called the Episcopal Church.

They have everything to do with our core belief that what we do here is essential. We still believe that it is important. We are committed to preserving it.

And we have learned that, to preserve it, we know we have to change.

We are increasingly surrounded in our day by expressions of religion that reject any engagement with the life of the mind, or the possibility that God is greater than our varieties of religious belief. And we have learned by the trials of our own painful and bloody history that humans are simply not equal to the task of defining God or proclaiming God’s whole truth. That is why we believe tolerance is not just necessary, it is the principle virtue of true religion; and that message is urgently necessary.

On the other side we are increasingly surrounded in our day by voices of the despisers of religion who find in our faith a target for ridicule and a subject of derision. They are the voices claiming the victory of science as the unique path of truth, who dismiss the possibility of the spiritual in our human life as so much old-fashioned mysticism.

And our own history teaches us that in that kind of zealotry we find the absence of any acknowledgement of the real limits, the real frailty, the real weakness of the crooked timber of which humanity is built. And we answer that whatever else it means to be alive to the spirit within us, it means to hold as a discipline an awareness of those limits.

Those are the urgent issues to which the General Convention of the Episcopal Church might profitably address its labors. But it will not; it is far too enthralled by the lofty dreams of denominational Protestantism, an answer to a question fewer and fewer people are asking. We may be small, but we are giving ourselves to the most urgent and critical questions; and we are being renewed, and reawakened, by living out the answers we are finding as we pray, and celebrate, and work, together.

We believe what we do is essential; we know that to preserve it and do it well we must change. By God’s grace we have been changed. And as a result we have been made more able, more joyful, and more willing to do it.  Amen.