The New Yorker magazine had a cartoon recently. A couple was descending the steps of a church after Sunday services. The husband was pondering the sermon and finally turned to his wife and said; “how can I love my neighbour, when I don’t even like him?” this sounds like a familiar dilemma to me.
These human dilemmas I’m sure led to our Lenten Sunday Sermon series. They are about transformation; today the topic is transforming the church. This is a tall order, to transform the whole church when you think merely of the husband who simply had trouble liking his neighbour, much less loving him. Today’s Gospel is ready made for this topic of transformation. It’s about repentance, change, reversing directions, being changed into the body Christ wants us to be. Repentance comes up in today’s Gospel when some people come to Jesus to ask him to agree with an old cultural prejudice, that when bad things happen to people, it must be all their fault. Jesus rejected their assumptions, because inherent in their question was intolerance, bigotry, hypocrisy, and a sort of “they got what was coming to them” theology.
Jesus responds to the crowd with a stern “no” to their assumptions. And then he lowered the boom on them when he said, “unless you repent, something bad will certainly happen to you.”
So we can start right off the bat with Jesus proclaiming in no uncertain terms that repentance is the transforming task for the whole church. God is always calling the whole church to be in reformation, to be open to the leading of the spirit, and yes to be transformed into the living body of Christ, not simply to remain stagnant and stale. There are several points:
First, we have to come to terms with who we are as a church, with our identity. We are a worldwide church with some 70,000,000 members. But I suspect there are church of England members who think their church is confined to the British isles . Some USA Episcopalians may easily tour around Westminster abbey asking the vergers what kind of church is this? Part of being transformed is coming to terms with our global identity and a worldwide mission. We need to be transformed and learn who we are. As canon Rosenthal has heard me say, we as a church can learn from McDonald’s. They have name, place and symbol recognition whether it be Moscow, Mumbai, or Massachusetts.
So first, let us know who we are. When you know who you are you are on the road to transformation.
Second, being a worldwide church automatically involves huge and radical cultural differences. And we are experiencing them in part because we do have a stronger Anglican identity. A central African’s understanding of scripture is different from a westerner’s. A USA secular Episcopalian’s understanding of sexuality will be different than someone raised in the sub Sahara of Africa. Evangelical members of our church will see things differently than Anglo Catholics or middle of the readers. In an inclusive church baptism is our entry ticket, not our view points. We all lose when we demand that everyone else see things as we do. We live with these vast cultural divides while we are learning to be transformed to the deep unity god is giving us.
We all need to remember that a little village parish in Uganda with its dirt floor bldg. And plastic communion vessels, with huge numbers of parishioners with aids, is a different kind of congregation than many of us are used to. And yet the richness of our differences are gifts to be welcomed and embraced.
The man said after church, “how can I love my neighbour when I don’t even like him?” and when you talk of transformation of the whole church, you are called to ask, “how can I get along with Anglicans who see homosexuals as lepers and who see western secular Anglicans as not true believers?” or get along with those who appear to be biblical fundamentalists and wish to play down traditional sacramental worship? Jesus calls all of us to transformation, all of us. We are called to see ourselves united in baptism, not in opinions or even by every jot and title of every doctrine. We are called to see ourselves with a mission to love others, even others who drive us crazy in this world of radical cultural, historical, and educational differences.
Third, there is a cost in change and transformation. There is a cost is knowing that you are not always right. There is cost in having to reach across a cultural divide and pass the peace to someone with whom we disagree.
Dorothy day, the great foundress of the catholic worker movement, said “Christ’s love is a “harsh and dangerous love which requires real transformation.” It is not the sort sentimental love imagined in today’s world. I say we can either conform to the world’s divisive approach to all issues, and take sides, or we adopt Christ’s approach of loving and living with difference.
A week ago Saturday I visited the National Portrait Gallery and one painting had on it a phrase written in Greek which read: “repentance leads us to wisdom.”
When you know you need to change, to see things differently and be transformed, you do become wise.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus is speaks of repentance in no uncertain terms. And yet at the end of the reading, in a little parable, he does give us time. He speaks about a fig tree in a garden, a fig tree which had not born fruit for years, and the owner orders it to be immediately cut down. But the gardener resists and asks the owner to change his mind. He does, and so the fig tree will be allowed to grow another year. In that year, the gardener will fertilize the tree, dig around it and tend it carefully. The hope is for fruit.
It seems we have time in this church of ours for the fruit of unity and love to grow, for us to reach across barriers which divide, to pass the peace to those with whom we differ, and to pray and work for a transformed church to serve as the body of Christ in his world.
© John C Powers