Walk The Talk

Texts: James 1, Mark 7

The ‘Big Idea’ today, recognizing the anniversary on Tuesday of 70 years of the World Council of Churches, was the Lund Principle of Faith and Order in 1952:

Churches should act together in all matters
except those in which deep differences of conviction
compel them to act separately.

We talked about our experience of other churches over the past 70 years.  Are we more aware of each other, cooperating, or even converging?  

Does your Jesus have a job?
Does your global church –
Our Canadian denomination –
 This congregation –
Or you?

I have been nagging you for nearly a year now, to define our distinctive contributions and raison d’être. Why would we duplicate others’ efforts, or compete with their better programmes?  What still needs doing, that we can offer, in God’s name?  Is the world already saved, the elect chosen?

Liberal Christians, like most of us, limit Jesus’ job to his teachings.  We think he was a great teacher, progressive and inclusive, way ahead of his time. We imagine ourselves capable of judging his teaching, in a ‘search for the historical Jesus’ or a Jesus Seminar, and then deciding which of his guidelines can inform our own individual choices.  Jesus in this vision is a retired teacher on pension.

Conservative ones, like others of us, limit their Lord’s work to His commands.  We think He was, and is, God on earth, our Master, if only we would know our place, and follow with obedience and submission to His will. We are engaged in spiritual warfare or team play to ensure our own ticket to heaven, unnecessary to His victory.  He’s a retired general or coach, watching newsreel replays.

Either way, the real Jesus is mostly unemployed, denied his whole role and most of his functions by both modern ‘liberals’ and today’s ‘conservatives’. 

Our heritage calls talk of the person and work of Christ, in fancier language, like  ‘soteriology’ and ‘christology’.  Academics draw crucial distinctions among various articulations and analyses.  Episcopal bureaucracies tell us which we must choose if we wish to belong to their orthodoxy.  But we are local parochial folks, in families and communities and workplaces including various Christians.

I asked: what’s your Jesus’ job? Is it all up to us, with nothing left for Jesus to do? That’s what the liberal version of Jesus leads. Is it all in Jesus hands, and ours just to be His tools? That’s what the conservative version risks. We do better to tell stories, so I began with one from Calgary, another from Ottawa.

The new pastor in Bowness, Calgary fills up his car at the independent gas bar, and picks up a new country music cassette as he pays with $20 bills from the ATM.  He grabs his change and gets back in the car, before counting $20 too much.  These new slippery bills stick together, he thinks, and returns to the till. 

Pastor: ‘I got $20 too much change.’
Cashier: ‘I know.’
Pastor: ‘I’m the new pastor over there.’
Cashier: ‘I know….
I wanted to see if you were worth listening to’.

The new barber in Parkdale in Ottawa decides to offer free haircuts for a week, as a community service, and a bit of marketing. The first day, he cuts the florist’s hair, and said it was free.  When he got to work the second day, there were flowers waiting at his shop door.  He cuts the baker’s hair that day, and next day finds a box of pastries waiting. The third day a federal politician comes, and gets his free haircut. The next day…. there was a lineup of federal politicians waiting at the shop door when he got to work!

You’re writing a gospel, a page each day,
With all that you do, and all that you say.
People hear what you say, and see what you do –
Say, what is the gospel, according to you?

15 years ago, I enjoyed an exchange ministry in Sydney Australia.  The Uniting Church of Australia is like our twin, separated at birth, developing differently. The UCA offers aged care from home care through self care to nursing homes, child care from preschool to after school services, UCA schools from K to 12, and 45 minutes each week of UCA Christian education in state schools. They even run church-related financial institutions to do personal banking!

The UCA had more people employed on Monday than worshiping on Sunday.   We severed a lot of our small institutional service limbs decades ago, or uploaded good ones to the state to continue for all citizens. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission reminds us that our health care and education through residential schools were not good news for their patients or students!  Be doers of the word, not merely hearers – but through which means?

I enjoyed another season of exchange to the UK, in a United Reformed Church congregation with a toy lending library, seniors services – but the service that sticks with me is their supervised access centre.  On Saturdays, custodial parents brought children in the front door to a café welcoming room, and the children passed through to the Sunday School area when the access parent arrived, where more volunteers helped them play together.  Why not here?

In turn, I visited Chicago and New York city for a week at a time to visit sister denominations to see how they served, and found the ‘thousand points of light’ of the Bush years, with social services delivered through the churches, and private Christian schools sharing facilities with congregations.  Why not here?

The tax treatment was more complicated than Australia, where the state subsidized church schools and care, or the UK, where congregational life was treated like a non-profit club, and donations to service ministries were given credit to individual donors, not through the charities. Why not here/

When I visited Sofia, Bulgaria, for another week, many churches open all day, with young office workers dropping in to light candles and pray before icons.  Former Soviet monuments were repainted as superheroes – the big mosque was replaced with the Nevsky cathedral as the Ottoman empire fell.  Nobody expected religion to deliver social services, clearly within the public sphere of responsibility, but to offer sanctuary and to represent strands of the collective identities at the Balkan meeting of Islam, Orthodoxy, Roman and modern.  

This weekend, as the Pope visits Ireland, a week after a grand jury report on Pennsylvania abuse by priests, who wants the church to resume a dominant role in care for widows and orphans?  James’ exhortation to be ‘doers of the word, and not hearers only,’ can have tragic outcomes. Why not here, again?  Better that we look at ourselves in his mirror and ask again:

Does your Jesus have a job?
Does your global church –
Our Canadian denomination –
 This congregation – or you?

Be doers, not just hearers, or planners, or wonderers. Neither be those who pay others to do good works unsupervised, on our behalf or in our name.  Be doers.

Mark’s gospel seems to be all about doing- worlds collide as Jesus appears in Galilee, with exorcisms, healings, and feeding miracles.  We hear that Jesus taught, but little of what.  Jesus’ words in any gospel are not transcripts, based on good quality audio and video-tapes. Imagine people a generation after Jesus, remembering his person and work, and why it mattered, and what difference it had made. The quotations attributed to him are more along the lines of ‘Jesus must have said something like this’, in the context we remember.

Today’s text tells us how Mark’s community remembered the Jesus hung around with people who were not deeply inside the cult, doing all the right things.  People remembered, and could not deny, and instead affirmed, that Jesus hung around with people who did not keep kosher. Ritual cleanliness, from washing hands to more complex ritual ablutions, were apparently not demanded by Jesus of his companions. Why should we behave differently?

Mark claims here, nearly halfway through Jesus’ busy and successful ministry in Galilee of doing the works, religious auditors in from Jerusalem’s temple arrived.  Jesus gets mad at people confusing the traditions of people with the word of God, which orders creation, and sustains and redeems us within it. Traditions may be the channels to convey the gospel, or even incarnate the gospel, but can’t replace the gospel.  Does your Jesus have a job?  Do you?  Why not here?

We are practising Christians, not accomplished ones.  Our weekly worship and preaching are not academic exercises to split hairs, nor bureaucratic ones to draw lines between us and other Christians.  We will make friends, and find help, among other churches and other faith groups, based on a Lund Principle.

John Dominic Crossan, another good Irish Catholic, asks:

  • What is the character of your God?
  • What is the content of your faith?
  • What is the function of your church?
  • What is the purpose of your worship?

Does your Jesus have a job? Is your God impartial, above it all?  Is your Jesus a retired teacher, a veteran or coach replaying old newsreels? Does your God take sides, with divine justice, as inextricable from divine love?  Do you dare ask for God to take your side or intervene for people?  Do you venture to do the same in the name of God, or try to remain ‘neutral’? Why not help with Jesus’ job?   Be doers of the word, and not hearers only.  Why not here?