Justice and grace in the vineyard

When I was growing up, I would often amuse myself during church with a series of illustrated children’s books that told Bible stories. I have a very distinct memory of the book that told the story of the labourers in the vineyard (Matthew 20.1-16). There were pictures of the vineyard-owner going into town in the morning to hire workers to help with the harvest. Then he went back later and hired more, and then still more, and even more. Finally, at the end of the day, he hauled out his big money trunk and started handing out coins to each worker—the same amount to each worker!

I have such a vivid memory of this book for one reason:

I hated it.

the-parable-of-the-workers-in-the-vineyard“Listen, Jesus,” I wanted to say, “you might have some good things to say elsewhere in these stories, but I think someone has given you a pretty poor steer here. If people work different amounts of time during the day, they should be paid differently. The people who showed up in the morning need to get more than those who showed up late in the day. It’s only just.”

As my seven-year-old response shows, considerations of justice are deeply rooted in our western society. There’s good reason for this. At least since the time of Plato and Aristotle, people have debating what justice means and how to make it central to the functioning of a society. It is a central concept in the Judeo-Christian tradition as well. Over time, we imbibe a clear understanding of what justice is. It is just to give to each what it is his or her due. That’s what’s fair. That’s what’s right. That’s what’s just.

But what this parable reminds us is that the love of God is almost the opposite of justice. God’s love for us is completely undeserved. We call it grace. There is nothing we can do that would make it fair or right for God to shower that love on us—but God does so nonetheless. Christians are people who called to share that same unjust love with others, through mercy, compassion, and forgiveness.

It took me a very long time to come to peace with this parable. Until one day, as these things go, I realized all of a sudden my mistake: I was identifying with the wrong people in the story. Ever since my first encounter with the parable as a child on a pew, I had always imagined the story from the perspective of the early risers, the people who had been working all day only to be paid the same amount as the people who arrived at the end. My sense of justice was offended because I was feeling short-changed.

What I realized is that, in fact, when it comes to responding to God’s love, I am one of the latecomers, the people who barely work and still get the full day’s wage. And what a joy that is, to arrive late and receive the unearned grace of God. It’s also a good definition of the church: not a bunch of perfect, hard-working early risers but the collection of latecomers who keep a look out for other latecomers to welcome them in.

There’s one final piece of this parable that I only noticed this week. I had always thought—probably because this is what that children’s book said—that the vineyard owner goes looking for more workers because he needs more help. In fact, all the story says is that he went into town and happened to find people without work. Even more unjust! He was just passing out money to people whose labour he didn’t even need!

But it is yet one more indication of the nature of the grace of God. Not only is it unearned, God’s love is a love that comes seeking after us to draw us in. God pursues us in love for no other reason than that God loves us.

As I’ve written before on this blog, God’s love is not just—and we thank God for that.

What about when we don’t “do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God”?

A particular verse from the prophet Micah—chapter 6, verse 8—has long been a favourite of many Christians. “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” It even got a shout-out from Episcopal priest Luis Leon in his benediction at President Obama’s inauguration. It seems to summarize what many people believe about the life of faith.

The trouble is, of course, that there are many parts of the world where justice, kindness, and humility—along with a lot of other wonderful virtues—are not in great abundance.

One of these places is Sri Lanka. Since the end of its civil war in 2009, a single family of brothers has managed to consolidate its grasp on the levers of state power. Recently, the chief justice was impeached and removed from office. So much for justice, when it’s clear that the courts are firmly under the thumb of the president. A friend of mine involved in the church in Sri Lanka e-mailed to say, “Our situation is quite tense just now as people live in fear and anger and the Regime grows more suspicious and unpredictable. We need the prayers of all.” The church has been actively involved in this situation, in part by opposing the impeachment.

But I was struck by the recent pastoral letter of the Bishop of Colombo. In it, he denounces the current situation and writes, “We no longer appear to be a constitutional democracy.” But the action he calls for is not what you might expect. He calls for the church to repent:

This is a time for us as a Church to take an honest look at ourselves, where we have shamelessly compromised our loyalty to God. We need to repent of ways in which we, as individuals as well as collectively, have;

  • been silent when we should have spoken
  • allowed ourselves (thoughtlessly or out of fear) to be used by those in authority to speak lies or commit wrong and unjust acts
  • consciously received benefits for ourselves through acts of injustice committed against others

I as your Bishop, call the Church to a period of lament together for the terrible state of our nation today, and repentance for our failing as a Church to “love mercy, to seek justice and to walk humbly with the Lord” (Micah 6:8).

While reading this letter, I was reminded how Jesus’ ministry began with the call to repentance. It is very easy to long for change in the world and to demand that other people change. But that is not what Jesus begins with. Jesus begins with our own transformation. The message of the Gospel seems to be, “Change is going to come. Let it begin with me.”

I’m all for doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God. But I also know that simply stating that again and again won’t make it happen. What will make it happen, though, is turning again (the meaning of the word “repent”) in our weakness and imperfection to the overflowing love of God in Christ and allowing ourselves to be transformed in that encounter to be agents of the new reality God longs for us to live in.

The Bishop of Colombo has called for this Sunday, 3 February, to be a Day of Lament in the churches of the diocese. Perhaps we can join our sisters and brothers in Sri Lanka in prayer that day, as we pray for transformation in that country, but most of all within ourselves.

“Progressive Evangelism” and proclaiming the Gospel afresh in every generation

I was once in the customs and immigration line at Heathrow airport with the Rev. Otis Gaddis and watched as he struck up a conversation about faith with two other people in line. It was a sight to behold and I was filled with admiration for how skillfully he was able to do so. So it is no surprise that Otis—and several other of my former classmates—are among those profiled in a recent article about “progressive evangelists” in the Episcopal News Service.

“It [progressive evangelism] assumes that Christ is already present,” Gaddis said during a recent telephone interview. “The goal is not to bring people to church but to reveal the presence of church between you and the person you’re talking to.”

This line from Otis reminded me of something Max Warren, the former general secretary of the Church Missionary Society (and no “progressive” about evangelism or much of anything else) once said. He noted that the first thing a missionary should do when arriving in a new place is remove his shoes because he is standing on holy ground. That is, wherever we go, God has been there before us.

It reminds me also of Stephen Bayne, the first executive officer of the Anglican Communion, who once told a group of missionaries: “missionaries do not go out into the world to introduce the world to God or He to it. He is already there; He has been there from the beginning; He is standing waist deep in history, calling us to join Him. For the mission is His and not ours.”

I love that image of God being “waist deep in history.” God is already out there. We are going to join in. The progressive evangelists profiled in this story remind us that as much as we’d like we can’t do so on our own terms.

The ENS article provoked this comment from a Tom Swift:

Neither Jesus (“Go and make disciples of all nations”) nor Paul (“I preach Christ and him crucified”) would recognize this as evangelism. Christian evangelism is sharing the good news that sin and death have been overcome by the death and resurrection of Jesus. “Changing peoples’ minds and belief systems” is exactly the point! Such good news must be spoken with great love and respect for the other person’s values and beliefs, but it must be spoken to be evangelism.

This critique, I think, is helpful. I am reminded of Desmond Tutu’s line about the need to “share grace gracefully.” Particularly for Episcopalians—who have long made central our membership in the catholic church—a conversation about faith is not enough. A line like this

Progressive evangelism is not, however, about converting or getting people to church, he said.

can be a little worrisome, if you think about it. On some level, we believe that the grace that is in the sacraments needs to be shared broadly. Evangelism, at some point, has to be about “getting people to church.” (Or, even better, “converting” them.)

One of my favourite churchy slogans is “Proclaim the Gospel afresh in every generation.” The generation of which people like Otis and Adrian and Matthew and I and so many others are a part of bears this burden like every other generation prior to ours.

What’s interesting is the way in which the conversation started by evangelists in this article focuses so much on method: how do we proclaim? In this case, the answer seems to be by showing up in places where folks don’t expect the church to be. It’s also defined negatively, as in, not like those other, more conservative denominations.

I think what is missing from the conversation in the church these days is a focus on the third word in this slogan: Gospel. What is the Gospel we have to proclaim? What is the good news that people need to hear in this world? In what particular form does the good news of Christ’s death and resurrection need to be proclaimed? What is the kerygma—to use the word Paul uses—that we want to share?

These are the questions that still need to be addressed.

“The Dinka national characteristic is laziness.”

The title of this post is taken from an article in the Church Missionary Society’s Gleaner newspaper in 1906. Missionaries of the new CMS mission among the Dinka people of southern Sudan were reporting back on what they were learning. As you might guess from this extract it’s not all that positive.

I gave this article (which I found while doing research at school this spring) to my class of Dinka students in the Sudanese American Theological Institute that I’m teaching at in Phoenix this summer. We were talking about the early years of the European mission effort in southern Sudan. Here are some other extracts from the article:

The value of the medical mission in breaking up the fallow ground is again receiving marked demonstration in the Dinka Mission. Illness is naturally prevalent owing to the fact that the Dinka will use the same water hole for drinking, washing himself, and watering his cattle! As the benefit of proper treatment is appreciated the pioneer doctor’s hands are kept full.

Contact with clothed Europeans is also having an excellent civilizing effect. Clothes are desired, and the possession of cloth leads to the need of soap. Clothing does not harmonize with the daubing of grease, red ochre, and ashes, and so the civilizing process goes on.

(This is actually not true. In separate letters home, the doctor and others complained about not having enough to do because the Dinka basically ignored them. But facts never got in the way of anyone’s fundraising appeal!)

The article makes me wince when I read it. It reeks of the late Victorian, noblesse oblige that so characterized mission efforts of that time. The way the word “civilization” is used constantly is a reminder that missionaries saw it as their job not just to spread the good news but also to bring with them their cultural suppositions.

I gave it to the students and I wanted to know what they thought. Right off the bat, one male student read it and said, “That’s accurate.” A female student agreed and said that it was the women who do all the work in Dinka culture. That prompted a male student to say, “They didn’t understand what men do in Dinka culture.” And the conversation took off from there. (For what it’s worth—and I noted this in class—I’ve read lots of ethnographies of Dinka from various points of the last 150 years and it’s amazing how often the word “lazy” crops up.)

We ended up talking at length about how—if at all—missionaries can separate their own cultural background from the gospel they are seeking to share. Ultimately, the answer is not entirely. The gospel is always enculturated. Missionaries share the way they understand the gospel and then it is received and transformed as it enters a new culture. The question for missionaries to ask, then, is what parts of what I am sharing are essential to the gospel and which are not?

This is all pretty obvious stuff for folks who’ve been engaged in cross-cultural mission. But it’s worth reading wince-inducing mission histories because it reminds us of this central dynamic in Christian mission between gospel and culture.

Mainline Protestant denominations have, in the past several years, moved away from explicit evangelism to a partnership model of mission that stresses the development of relationships. There is much to commend to this model and I’ve written a book that essentially endorses it without, of course, losing sight of the kerygma of Jesus Christ.

Even as we do so, however, I think it’s still important to step back and ask ourselves the question: what is gospel and what is culture? In working with other cultures—even in partnership—we still bring with us cultural suppositions as deeply rooted (if less obviously offensive) as those the first CMS missionaries brought with them when they went to southern Sudan.

Have Baby Boomers wrecked the Episcopal Church?

You’ve probably noticed, but there’s a lot of unrest in the world right now. No one seems particularly happy. In Europe, a number of non-mainstream, protest parties have arisen. Closer to home, though much less noticed, are the protests that have been roiling in Quebec for the last several months.

What’s becoming clear is the way in which the dissatisfaction/anger/resentment reveals generational tensions. Young people in the euro zone see little path forward. Older folks in Quebec are harrumphing at young protestors’ demands, even as they benefited from what the younger protesters are requesting.

There’s a sense in which it is now becoming clear that the Baby Boom generation, for all its talent and accomplishment, have brought about the crisis which the western world now confronts: promises that cannot be kept, an indulgent and polarized politics, and no compelling path forward. Have Baby Boomers wrecked the western economy? The verdict is still out.

Thinking in this vein makes one look anew at the trials and travails of mainline Protestantism and the church I know best, the Episcopal Church. The church seems headed for a cliff in much the same way that Europe is: declining membership, serious financial problems, bloated structures. There’s a world out there that cares less and less about what the church has to say. If current trends continue, the church faces further decline and irrelevancy, unless we get pushed off the cliff altogether.

So let’s ask the same question of the church. Are Baby Boomers at fault? Is it time for the current generation of leadership to step aside and let others try where they have failed?

Robert Hendrickson (not a Baby Boomer) indicts the state of the church in this way:

We are facing not just a collapse of large parts of the Church, we are facing a collapse of leadership, nerve, and vision.

The answer is not Hymnal revision, new governance structures, Communing the UnBaptized, a Kalendar of Saints with non-Christians, guitar Masses, digital Prayer Books, more liturgies about the Earth, or many of the other countless ways many seem to think will lead us to the dawn of a kinder, gentler Church that will usher in the Kingdom.

Robert’s comments remind me of something a (non-Episcopal) seminary colleague my age said to me a while back. “They’re all these pastors my parents’ age out there—friendly people, great pastoral care, they’ll hold your hand when you’re dying. But they never talk about Jesus or the Gospel.”

Susan Snook has noted how Baby Boomers bring with them a tendency to engage in conflicts over absolutes:

In the conflict over gays and lesbians, for instance, the “conservatives” see themselves as guardians of Truth, while the “liberals” see themselves as crusaders for Justice.  Well, in a conflict between Truth and Justice, no one is ever going to back down.  Compromise is hopeless.

For me, the jury is out on this question. The church is not in great shape (though it’s been this bad before and it may not be as bad as it seems) and I do think we—Christians—bear some of the burden for the shape we’re in. We can’t blame it all on larger forces like secularism. We’ve become too comfortable with the way things are and not seen the way things could be. We’ve become fixated on maintaining what we have.

And it’s also clear that Baby Boomers—who dominate the leadership of the Episcopal Church—have contributed to some of this: spending down endowments, flitting from one Big Idea to the next, taking stands on any number of political issues when few seem to care, turning the governance of the church into a game not much different than the governance of the country, taking on debt, turning the church into a social service agency, and multiplying worship resources without realizing, apparently, that the number of people there to use them is continuing its inexorable decline.

And in doing so, it can perhaps be said, the church has lost the focus on the truly big idea: the kerygma that is at the heart of the good news of Jesus Christ, the news that when people heard it radically and immediately transformed their lives and made them builders of the kingdom of God and evangelists of that same good news.

I’m not sure how far I want to press this line of thought. I’m inherently suspicious of arguments that made sweeping statements about undifferentiated groups. It’s not clear, anyway, that the argument is a convincing one. Baby Boomers, no less than any other generation in the church, have tried to respond faithfully to the situation they confront.

But perhaps it is time to start asking if in the Episcopal Church, as in our politics, it is time for a generational change in church leadership.

Search for a Gospel that is both Good and New

Let’s say I’m a twenty-something with a college degree, living in Brooklyn. I kind of have a job but no benefits. I get by with money but I have lots of debt. I don’t see what the big deal is about gay marriage and it’s obvious that the earth is getting warmer. My parents dragged me to church a few times when I was growing up so I know something about all that religion stuff, but now my knowledge of religion is mostly based on people like Rick Santorum. I just don’t see the point of faith and I certainly don’t see the need for it in my life. I’m part of the “Rise of the Nones.”

Now let’s say that one day I’m surfing around the Internet and I come across the interview Katharine Jefferts Schori recently gave to the Huffington Post. The words “female” and “bishop” are so rarely connected in my mind that I click on the link to see what she has to say.

Stepping out of the Brooklyn millennial conceit, here’s the question I want to pose: as our fictional twenty-something peruses the interview, does he find anything that is genuinely Good News? That is to say, does he find any of the life-altering, world-changing, drop-everything-and-follow gospel of Christ Jesus?

(Let’s note, of course, all the provisos. Of course, she was responding to questions, of course the interviewers wanted to ask her about hot-button subjects—sex, creation, Scripture—and of course an interview is not a sermon.)

I think the answer to this question about the Good News is no. Our fictional Brooklyn resident wouldn’t find much to disagree with. Bishop Katharine is in sync on same-gender marriage. Good. The church wants to respond to the poverty of the world. Good. She calls it “God’s mission,” but whatever. We agree.

The thing is, while our fictional millennial may think what Bishop Katharine has to say is Good, none of it is New. He already believes all this stuff already. The church is arriving late to the party. Glad to have you here but you’re old news. You do your thing, Bishop Katharine, and I’ll do mine. None of what Bishop Katharine has to say would, I think, make our millennial think, “Wow, I’ve got to learn more about Jesus and get myself into church!” In fact, by my count, the presiding bishop is quoted mentioning General Convention (once), more than she mentions Jesus (none).

Again, all my earlier provisos apply and nothing in this post is a comment on the presiding bishop herself. This interview, I’m sure you will agree, well represents the dominant working theology in the Episcopal Church in the early twenty-first century.

If you read the Gospels or Acts, it is clear that when people heard the proclamation of the Good News, their lives were transformed. Not just adjusted or modified but completely reoriented towards Christ. The fact that the gospel had such an impact is, to my mind, one of the best confirmations of its truth.

What is the Gospel message in the twenty-first century that is both authentically Good and authentically New, the proclamation that seizes the attention of the hearer and brings about dramatic life change?

How do we preach the unique witness of Jesus Christ in a way that makes people who’ve never heard about Jesus want to devote their whole lives to following in the Way he first showed to us?

That, it seems, are questions we still need to answer.