"Your image of God creates you." Every morning I start my day with the deeply predictable routine of pouring some coffee, feeding the dogs and checking my email inbox ... which always includes the daily meditation from Richard Rohr's Center for Action & Contemplation. And these words which began one of those meditations have stuck to me like glue since I read them on Saturday morning, September 11: "Your image of God creates you."
The meditation went on to say: "This is why it is important that we see God as loving and benevolent. This is why good theology still matters."
And so when I was invited to share a word with you this morning, I could think of no better place to start. For whoever we are or wherever we find ourselves on the continuum of theological studies -- first year students, seminary veterans, faculty or aging alums -- our image of God continues to create us ... and good theology still matters.
Matters perhaps more than ever in this time global pandemic, political polarization and climate crisis in a world living up to William Sloan Coffin's description as "too dangerous for anything but truth and too small for anything but love.”
Truth and love.
Here in the Diocese of Los Angeles we've been talking a lot about truth and love since that's the theme of our upcoming Diocesan Convention.
In the wider church, we've been digging deeper into telling the truth in love about how we've come to be the church we are through the Sacred Ground series on racial healing, reconciliation, and justice grounded in our call to faith, hope and love.
And for almost a year now -- since Advent One 2020 -- in my parish of All Saints Church in Pasadena -- we have been using Dr. Wil Gafney's Women's Lectionary for the Whole Church -- Year W ... a lectionary created in response to these truth seeking questions asked in love:
• What does it look like to tell the good news through the stories of women who are often on the margins of scripture?
• How would a lectionary centering women’s stories, chosen with womanist and feminist commitments in mind, frame the presentation of the scriptures for proclamation and teaching?
Recognizing that just as our image of God creates us, so our translations of Scripture shape our faith seeking understanding ... AKA our theology ... this past almost-year has been a rich one in terms of hearing again for the first time familiar passages in new ways. The readings appointed for tomorrow -- Proper 21 -- were for me, no exception.
In her notes on the lessons appointed for today, Dr. Gafney writes:
"Although it is arguably not fashionable to speak, let alone preach about sin, the lessons appointed for today call us to reflect on transgression, consequence and repentance. In the first lesson David’s most infamous acts -- the rape of Bathsheba and murder of Uriah -- take center stage. In the Psalm, the petitioner speaks as one who could have been the perpetrator of those or of similar crimes. The epistle speaks to a world where there seems to be no consequences for transgression or rhetorically to the survivors or victims of someone else’s transgressions. And in the Gospel, Jesus offers a pathway to reconciliation for those who’ve been wronged and for those who have wronged."
If the world is indeed dangerous for anything but truth and too small for anything but love ... and it's hard to watch the nightly news and come up with an argument against that assertion ... then the world is also in desperate need of ways to tell the truth and live in love. And since that is ostensibly the vocation of the church as the Body of Christ in the world it begs the question: what kind of church will we be?
Which brings me to a story.
A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away when I was a young mother my parish had a Wednesday night soup and study series during Lent – and I signed up to go … partly because it was Lent and I wanted to do something to deepen my spiritual life and partly because there was child care and I could talk to adults for a couple of hours once a week.
One Wednesday night we had a visiting priest from South India and his subject was “building the kingdom of God.” And he used this example that I’ve never forgotten.
He asked us to picture a big, tall, beautiful building under construction. And then he asked to picture the scaffolding that surrounded the building while it was under construction … supporting it and framing it as it rose into the sky until it was ready to stand on its own.
He told us to think of the building as the Kingdom of God we’ve been called to build here on earth as it is in heaven … the kingdom we pray about every time we pray the Lord’s Prayer. And then he told us to think of the scaffolding surrounding the building as the church.
And this is the part where he rocked my world. “The point of the church is not the church in the same way the point of the scaffolding is not the scaffolding,” he said. “The point of the church is to build the kingdom. And when the church gets it wrong is when it spends so much time polishing, preserving and fussing with the scaffolding that it forgets to build the building – forgets to build the kingdom.”
It was in that moment in that parish hall on that Wednesday in Lent I realized for the first time WHY it is we need the church – and not just as a place to go once a week to talk to adults! I realized that the church is not an end in itself – but that it is essential to our work of building the kingdom of God as we follow the Radical Rabbi from Nazareth who called us to tell the truth and to walk in love.
And what kind of church shall we become in this time of transition and challenge; of threat and opportunity ... in a world too dangerous for anything but truth and too small for anything but love? Can we be a church capable of preaching about sin and reflecting on transgression, consequence and repentance while we walk in love with the One who loved us enough to become one of us in order to show us how to love one another?
Barbara Brown Taylor offers some perspective on what our options are in her book "Speaking of Sin" in the chapter she calls "Recovering Repentance." She writes:
"It is easy for me to think of churches that operate like clinics, where sin-sick patients receive sympathetic care for the disease they all share. Such churches subscribe to a kind of no-fault theology in which no one is responsible because everyone is.
It is also easy for me to think of churches that operate like courts, where both sins and sinner are named out loud, along with punishments appropriate to their crimes.
True repentance will not serve either of these purposes.
It will not work in the church-as-clinic because repentance will not make peace with sin. Instead, it calls individuals to take responsibility for what is wrong with the world – beginning with what is wrong with them – and to join with other people who are dedicated to turning things around.
True repentance will not work in the church-as-courtroom either, because it is not interested in singling out scapegoats and punishing them. Instead, it calls the whole community to engage in the work of repair and reconciliation without ever forgetting their own culpability for the way things are.
Bent as we are with either excusing sin or pounding it into the ground, it is no wonder that a third kind of church is so hard to find and so desperately needed – not church-as-clinic or church-as-courtroom but church-as-community-of-transformation, where members are expected and supported to be about the business of new life in Christ bringing that kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven."
Our image of God continues to create us ... not only as individuals but as the church ... and good theology still matters.
And so I want to close this morning with some from our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry in his address this week to the House of Bishops: a reflection on how our image of God in Christ Jesus is continuing to create us as that "third kind of church" ... a church of community-of-transformation:
"May we dream of that new and re-formed church, not formed in the way of the world but formed in the way of Jesus and his love. Genuinely, truly, authentically a branch of the Jesus Movement today — a community of individuals and small gatherings and congregations of all stripes and types, a human tapestry, God’s wondrous variety, the kingdom, the reign of God, the beloved community. No longer centered on empire or establishment, no longer fixated on the preservation of institutions, no longer propping up white supremacy or in collusion with anything that hurts or harms any child of God or God’s creation. By God’s grace, a church that looks and acts and lives like Jesus."
Proper 21: Year W (Closest to September 28):
2 Samuel 11:2-15; Psalm 32:1-7; 2 Peter 3:1-4, 8-9; Matthew 5:21-26