This past weekend's mass shooting in Orlando was a tragedy on more levels than we could ever count. We lost 53 human lives- people who loved and cared and cried and hoped and dreamed and had a future, just like the rest of us. Except now their future, at least in this world, is gone. And the people who loved those individuals who died will spend the rest of their lives mourning their loss and walking around each day with a hole in their hearts that can never be filled.
And we lost something as a human society as well: We lost our dignity. We lost our dignity, because we still live in a society where the lives of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people matter less to some than the lives of others. We lost our dignity, because the first thing that happened after this tragedy took place was that people started blaming every Muslim to ever walk the face of the earth for what happened, as if they were all psychopathic killers. We lost our dignity, because moronic politicians immediately began to use the situation for their own political gain and to further their personal agendas. And we lost our dignity, because at least one person among us praised this tragic event as the will of God. Our collective dignity and humanity have been compromised, because we have failed to acknowledge the dignity and humanity of every single person; we have failed to love and embrace everyone around us and to treat each person with equity and justice, and we have failed to see that this is the heart of the matter.
So now what? Where do we go from here? What can we say? What should we do? How must we respond?
Well, there are certainly things we must abandon if we are to go forward:
-Xenophobia in all its hideous forms.
-Apathy towards the struggles of others.
-Categorizing human beings as "us" and "them."
-Politicizing everything all the time.
-Failing to love and respect one another, acknowledging that each person has worth as an individual human being and as a child of God.
Instead, if we are to heal and move toward wholeness, we must:
-Let go of our desire for vengeance. (Leviticus 19:18)
-Love everyone around us as much as, if not more than, we love ourselves.
(Leviticus 19:18, Matthew 22:39)
-Struggle against evil in the world and never praise evil deeds. (Proverbs 28:4)
-Seek justice for everyone, everywhere. (Amos 5:23-25)
-Treat those who are different from us with the dignity and respect all people deserve.
(Leviticus 19:34, Deuteronomy 1:16)
-Offer forgiveness instead of judgment. (Luke 6:37)
-Have faith, have hope, and most of all, have love. (1 Corinthians 13:13)
I'm not saying this is going to be easy- it never has been. I'm not even saying this is what we, in our brokenness, sorrow, and anger, really want to do. But it is necessary. It is necessary, because to do otherwise would be to continue to compromise the dignity and worth of all human beings, including ourselves. That is what caused this tragedy in the first place, and that is one thing we can no longer afford.
Our way forward may not be clear, but if we live in love for one another, if we pursue justice and equality, and if we acknowledge the worth of every human life, then perhaps there is is a chance- a chance that one day the life of every person will carry the value of all others, regardless of their national origin, ethnic background, gender identity, or sexual orientation. And perhaps then such tragedy will not be able to repeat itself.
For those of us who are part of a worshiping community that follows the liturgical calendar, we always start Lent off with the words of Jesus: “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven." (Matthew 6:1) Jesus goes on to talk specifically about almsgiving (monetary offerings to help the poor), fasting, and prayer done in public for the benefit of others' attention and adoration.
Often, I think we gloss over his words and say to ourselves, "I don't do public expressions of piety. I don't give alms in front of others or fast for attention or pray loudly in the streets. So this text must not be for me." Or we say, "Personal piety is a good thing, and it's meant to be shown." Really? Not according to Jesus.
Jesus teaches us that true piety cannot be separated from humility. We give offerings to help those in need and support the ministry of the Church because God has saved and blessed us, and we are called to offer up all that we have and all that we are in return. We fast or give up certain things so we can focus on God and God's calling in our lives. And we pray in order to spend time in conversation with God, which sustains us in the midst of our crazy, hectic lives.
But many Christians would still say, "I get that. So of course Jesus isn't talking about me."
Then let me say this: Let us not limit what Jesus is teaching us to the specific examples he uses. Let's step back and consider: Are there other forms of public piety we engage in?
I've seen quite a few over the years. One of the most obvious is condemning the world and notifying everyone, in no uncertain terms, that they are doomed to hell unless they "repent" (and subsequently follow the religious ideals held by the one offering the condemnation). It's not our place to judge or condemn, and if you think it is, your piety is showing.
Another is arguing with everyone else about how your interpretation of Scripture is the only one that's valid, then looking down on anyone who disagrees with you as "less Christian" than you. This goes for liberals and conservatives alike, and if you assume that "only liberals" or "only conservatives" do this, you probably need to take a good long look in the mirror, because your piety is showing.
I've also witnessed, tragically, the hypocrisy of those who claim to be "pro-life," and as such seem to consider themselves as morally superior, while they ignore the needs of hungry children and homeless families, asserting that they simply need to "work harder." These same people will often seek to bar entry to, or cast out, immigrants and refugees who are fleeing for their lives and have lived many of their years under fear and oppression. And I wonder: How can we say we are for life if we do not value the life of each person, created in the image of God, and seek justice for every individual? If we think these things are mutually exclusive, our piety is showing.
Another habit that plagues the Church is our unwillingness to change, to let the Holy Spirit transform us as God wills. We fight tooth and nail against anything new or different. We make excuses for every new thing God tries to do, saying, "That's not the way we did it before." We make idols of our church buildings and our programs and our particular ways of doing things. And our piety is showing.
One last pattern of behavior I'll mention, though we are guilty of so many, is simply ignoring the world around us. In many ways, this is both the opposite and the equivalent of condeming the world. We rest comfortably on our faith and the assruance of our salvation, and we let the world and the rest of humainty suffer through injustice and sin and darkness and we do nothing. And we tell ourselves, "God will take care of it. If God wants those people to be redeemed and saved, God will see to it. It's not my problem." Except that Jesus Christ sends us out to make disciples of all nations. He sends us out to proclaim the Good News of his saving grace to the world. But we so often ignore that because actually doing so makes us uncomfortable. And our piety is showing.
We face a pivotal time in the Church right now, particularly here in the United States. And while we may think our numbers are declining because the rest of society is ignoring us, the truth is that society is watching us ever closer. People want to see what we're doing. They want to know if we are open to change and transformation. They want to know who's leading us- our own egos or the Holy Spirit. And so often, when we engage in behaviors like the ones I've just mentioned above, people see us practicing our piety for the benefit of others (and often times ourselves), and they know this behavior is not Christ-like. They know it is not what we have been called to do as his disciples. And then they wonder what's more important to us: that sense of safety and satisfaction that comes with our personal piety, or living into the future God has placed before us?
Piety is not a bad thing- not when it is graced with humility. And Jesus teaches us to engage in all those activities he names- almsgiving, fasting, and prayer- but to do it out of our love for God and God's people. It's not about showing everyone else how holy and righteous we are, because these themselves are gifts from God. And true piety is realizing that it's all about God and not about us.
My hope is that we will beware of practicing our piety before others; that we will be aware of when we are being judgmental, when we are being hypocritical, when we are failing to love our neighbors as ourselves, and when we are failing to live out the life we have been called to in Jesus Christ. And I pray we will be open to all the ways God is calling us to show love, grace, hope, humility, and justice to the world, and that we will live in that way.
Because people around us are watching. Is our piety showing?
Today I, like so many, offer my prayers and condolences to the members of the Episcopal Church. As an outsider looking in, I can only imagine how they must feel, but the words distraught and forsaken come to mind. The members of this church seem to have been, for lack of a better way of stating it, "put out" by those whom they considered to be brothers and sisters in Christ around the world. Most of them have just as deep a love for Jesus Christ and his Church just as anyone else, and to be told that "their house is not in order" must be devastating.
So in the wake of this grievous wound to the Body of Christ, I feel moved to pose two questions: Why do instances such as this occur in the life of God's people, and what does it mean to be in communion with the Church?
I think the answer to my first question, addressing why issues like this occur, is a lot simpler than many of us would like to admit: People disagree. I'm not saying there isn't more to it than that, but I think if we peel back all the layers, at the heart of matters like this one is the fundamental reality that people- even God's people- don't always agree with one another's beliefs, opinions, and perspectives. And Lord knows that's caused a lot of pain and suffering in the Church over the years.
In fact, the very first Christians dealt with such disagreements. In the 15th chapter of the book of Acts, the believers are already meeting together to hash out their differences. And, interestingly enough, their debate was over religious legalism. Some said it was necessary for a person to keep all the laws of Moses in order to be a Christian- essentially, one must become Jewish in order to become Christian. Meanwhile, others said that adhering to the Jewish laws wasn't a prerequisite for being a disciple of Christ. When it was all said and done, the Council of Jerusalem erred on the side of grace and inclusion, writing a letter stating that following Jesus wasn't about being a Jew or a Gentile (a non-Jewish person). It was about seeking the salvation of God through God's Son, Jesus.
But let's face it: One faction won the argument and the other went home
disappointed. And it's a pretty sure bet that many of those who argued that the laws of Moses needed to be kept held onto that belief, and they probably felt that those who didn't do so weren't true Christians. And while this is not seen as a "historical divide" in the Church, I think it's safe to say that there was some division created.
And such divisions have cropped up time and again throughout the Church's history. Christians who refused to accept every letter of the Nicene Creed were branded as heretics after 381 A.D. and were banned from the orthodox (here simply meaning "right teaching") Church. More councils were held, more disagreements came to light, and more heretics were branded. By the time of the official "split" between the Eastern (Orthodox) and Western (Roman Catholic) Churches in 1054, the faithful had already splintered into a number of factions across the known world. Each time this occurred, it was because a debate was had, one group won the argument and got to proclaim themselves as "right," and everyone else was branded a sinner, living in error and in need of repentance. And you could repent, or you could leave the larger fold.
Of course, while we're talking about splitting up in the life of the Church, let's not forget the whole Reformation. People like Martin Luther and John Calvin were excommunicated from the Roman Catholic Church because their views were seen as being held "in error," and the same went for their followers. Oh, and by the way, the whole Church of England was excommunicated after it underwent its own Reformation, so suffice it to say that the Anglican Church has been down this road before.
So why do instances like the one involving the Episcopal Church take place? It may all be shrouded in doctrine and theology and the notion of orthodoxy, but at the end of the day, they happen because people disagree. And the group with the most power gets to call themselves "right," and they then have the power to cut off those whose opinion doesn't carry the day.
As for my second question, I'm afraid that asking what it means to be in communion with the Church will only lead us down that path to disagreement once again. A Roman Catholic believer would likely say it means being in communion with Rome and the Pope. An Eastern Orthodox disciple might well say it means belonging to those churches that are headed by bishops who can trace their heritage all the way back to the apostles. At one time, for Lutherans like myself, being in communion with other Christians meant accepting the profession of faith found in the Augsburg Confession (and it still does for many). For the Anglican Communion, based on yesterday's events, it seems to mean more than ever that one must be engaged in the "right teaching" and "right action" approved by the majority. And that majority seems to think the Episcopal Church is not thus engaged. However, my point is this: I could ask this very question to a thousand different Christians and get a thousand different answers. So who is right, who is wrong, and who is in the communion of the Church?
I, for one, will defer to the author of Ephesians on this one and say,
"I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all." (Ephesians 3:1-6)
The Church is the Body of Christ, made up of all those who have been called by God the Father to faith in Jesus Christ, who are baptized into his death and resurrection, and who are bound together by the power of the Holy Spirit. And it is those who, bound together in these ways, bear one another in love, peace, patience, humility, and gentleness. That is what it means to be the Church, in my view, when we peel back all the layers and see that Jesus is at the heart of it all.
So, is this what we saw yesterday in the Anglican Communion? Is this what have we seen throughout the history of the Church? Has this been your personal experience? And is this what has Jesus Christ has taught, commanded, and invited us to do? Or have we, like some in the early Church, let religious legalism get the best of us?