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Thursday, October 11, 2012

Micah 6:8 and the Missional Church

I was raised as a Roman Catholic. I'd like to think I took all the best of what I was taught with me in my journey as an Anglo Catholic, leaving the rest behind.

I think that's mostly true, although I do have my moments and Anglo Catholicism is not without its own faults and flaws.

When I left the Roman Church, it was the liturgy and music of The Episcopal Church which initially "hooked" me. The centrality of the Eucharist in the life of the worshiping community was important to me. The first community of faith in which I became a member not only offered the comfort and solace of familiarity with the liturgy, there was also a theological consistency about the application of liturgy in my daily life and work.

I carefully read the Catechism ("An Outline of the Faith" - or, as some of my friends call it, the "FAQ" = Frequently Asked Questions" about our church) on p 845 in the Book of Common Prayer. Much of it sounded like a very strong echo of the Baltimore Catechism I had learned as a child.

I was especially taken by this description of the church (BCP 854):
Q. Why is the Church described as catholic?
A. The Church is catholic, because it proclaims the whole Faith to all the people, to the end of time.

Q. What is the mission of the Church?
A. The mission of the Church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.

Q. How does the Church pursue its mission?
A. The Church pursues its mission as it prays and worships, proclaims the Gospel, and promotes justice, peace and love. 
I was immediately relieved by two things. First, the church considered itself "catholic" not because it was "absolutely and always correct all of the time about all things to all people" but that it "proclaims the whole Faith to all the people, to the end of time."

"The Whole Faith". Not "The Truth, the whole Truth and nothing but the Truth". The Whole Faith - the good, the bad and the ugly truth - about the Faith of the Church.

Has a nice ring to it, still, after all these many years.

The second thing that both relieved and inspired me was that the mission of the church was about restoration and reconciliation of relationships through prayer, worship, the proclamation of the Gospel, and the promotion of justice, peace and love.

This cinched the deal:
Q. Through whom does the Church carry out its mission?
A. The Church carries out its mission through the ministry of all its members.
It's "The Priesthood of All Believers" writ large.

Well, that's the goal, anyway, if not always consistently in 'catholic' practice.

When I was a RC kid in Catechism Class, we were taught about The Two Feet of Christian Service. Justice and Mercy must walk together, we were told, in order to follow in the footsteps of Jesus.

Acts of Mercy (Charity) included helping people through immediate life crisis, like disaster relief after a flood or tornado, visiting those in hospital or prison, providing food and clothing and shelter for the poor, and looking for immediate solutions with temporary results.

Acts of Justice, however, included working with people for long-term solutions so the poor could help themselves back on the path to dignity and liberation: job training, educational opportunities, and low interest loans. This also included working with organizations and governments to advocate for fair wages, participating in legislative networks that focus on the rights of the poor, organizing neighborhood community groups and being concerned with the underlying causes of injustice.

I often heard the old aphorism - which the nuns of my youth credited to an Ancient Chinese Proverb - "Give me a fish and I'll eat for a day. Teach me to fish and I'll eat for a lifetime."

For many years, I was very good about the first part, not so good about the second. I was all about mercy which I thought was justice. It is, but it is incomplete. Mercy without justice is like the old story of the people in The Village by the Beautiful River. I'm sure you've heard it before.

There was once a village of people who lived by a beautiful river. They drew from the river fish to eat and water to drink and everyone was healthy and happy.

One day, the village woke to find all matter of trash and garbage in their beautiful river. Everyone got together and cleaned it all up and life went back to normal. One month later, they awoke to find the same thing: their beautiful river clogged and jammed with trash and garbage. Again, everyone from the village got together and cleaned it out and restored the river to its natural beauty.

This went on for some months. Once a month the river would be polluted. Once a month, the villagers cleaned up the mess. Finally, one day, someone announced, "I'm going to go up the river to see what is causing this." They found another village of people who, once a month, were dumping their trash and garbage into the river. They did not mean any harm. They were just thoughtless. They just simply had never considered that there might be anyone else downstream.  They thought the river magically carried everything away.

The people from both villages sat down together and worked out a plan to deal with the trash and garbage and the beautiful river became beautiful once again, and everyone had enough water and fish to be happy and healthy again.

The moral of the story, the nuns carefully taught us, is that we can continue to do corporal acts of mercy, but if we do not engage in the process of justice, there will always be corruption and poverty and misery in our world.

We need both: mercy and justice. We learn both from walking humbly (some translations say 'attentively') with God (Micah 6:8).

I think many churches are limping. We "do mercy" in a big way, and although we "love justice", well, we don't do it so much. I think Louie Crew may have discovered the reason for this. As he notes at the top of his "Unofficial Anglican Pages":
Geoff Curtiss and Marge Christie, both colleagues on the Newark deputation, have pointed out to me a dangerous mistake on page 847 of the Book of Common Prayer.
Q. What response did God require from the chosen people?
A. God required the chosen people to be faithful; to love justice, to do mercy and to walk humbly with their God." 
That is not what Scripture says: "God has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God?" (Micah 6:8)

God is calling us to do justice and love mercy. It is easier to love justice than to do it; it is easier to be merciful than to love mercy. Lutibelle/Louie.  
Many people in many dioceses are having conversations about what it means to be a "missional church".  Lest we fall into another "trend du jour" and travel off into yet another journey down a rabbit hole of good intentions, it's important, I think, to first, get our bearings.

Let's start by looking at our own two feet. Let's first determine how to walk 'attentively' with God and spend some time listening - really listening - to what the Spirit is saying to the Church about who we are and how we are to be the Church, the Community of the New Covenant, the New Jerusalem, the Body of Christ.

How is it that we "proclaim the whole Faith to all people to the end of time"?  How, exactly, do we "restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ"? What does that look like?

Do we, as a church, "pray and worship, proclaim the Gospel, and promote justice, peace and love"? If not, why not? If so, then how?

Finally, how is it, exactly, that we equip and empower the Priesthood of All Believers to "carry out" the mission of the church?

I suspect, in attempting to answer these questions, we may discover that we need to begin where Jesus began with his disciples: By washing each other's feet. 

We may need that foot washing not only to remind us that we are baptized to be humble, attentive Servant Ministers and Servant Leaders of Christ Jesus, but also to see more clearly that we are to walk humbly and attentively with God on the two feet of Christian Service: Mercy and Justice.

As we move forward into becoming a "missional church" - whatever that means and however you choose to define it for you and your church in your diocese - let's take the best of what once was and leave all the rest behind.

I suspect, as we walk along - learning and discovering as we go about what it means to 'love mercy and do justice', finding our balance on the Two Feet of Christian Service - we may just find ourselves waking up one fine day to realize that we've been doing God's mission without even realizing it.


Matthew said...

I think one reason why we do not "do" justice is that many churches are hestitant to get too involved in politics -- testifying before legislative committees, endorsing certain candidates, running for office, taking positions on various bills in legislatures, etc. The RC church has, of course, been willing to do that sometimes on issues of marriage equality, abortion, in the old days, the death penalty. We have too sometimes but I think we are often loathe to get involved in that messy process or take lots of positions on lots of issues that really could lead to more justice. I wish it were otherwise.

Dom said...

Great post, Elizabeth! I too was raised Roman Catholic, and later became Episcopalian. One of the things I liked about the Roman Catholic church when I was growing up was its concern with social justice. (This was in the late 60s.) Sadly, that concern has largely died due to right-wing politics. The "Nuns on the Bus" are the obvious, refreshing exception.

I think that one of the problems Christians face today is that while mercy is socially acceptable, justice is not. If you tell someone that you work with the homeless, they will remark that your service is commendable. But if you ask what changes we need to make in our country so that we have fewer homeless people, they will call you a godless socialist.

Somehow, we've got to promote the idea that God asks not only that we practice acts of mercy, but that we work for justice as well. Scripture supports this, of course. But there seems to be huge political hurdles to getting people to understand it.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Matthew - I long for the "good old days" when the RC Church focused its attention on the plight of the poor. It has lost much credibility by getting in bed, as it were, with the Evangelicals.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Dom - Maybe it was "in" during the 60s to apply your faith in matters of social justice. That seems to have gone "out of fashion". We need to get back to the Gospel of Liberation which Jesus proclaimed in his first sermon - not the Gospel of No.