Sunday, September 12, 2010

Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

1 Timothy 1
12 I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because he judged me faithful and appointed me to his service, 13even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, 14and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. 15The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost. 16But for that very reason I received mercy, so that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience, making me an example to those who would come to believe in him for eternal life. 17To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honour and glory for ever and ever.* Amen.

To quote a famous American philosopher, “It's not easy being green.”

And while I'm hardly green, I am an ordained pastor, in a week dominated by the foolishness of another ordained pastor, the Rev. Terry Jones. Terry Jones, if you're just back from two weeks in the deep woods, is the Florida pastor infamous for threatening to burn several copies of the Koran on the ninth anniversary of the 9-11 attacks. The story has a see-saw quality to it, with claims and counter-claims about the threat, lots of international coverage, and even a well-timed intervention by the White House.

Setting all that aside, there is the underlying assumption in the minds of many that the problem is less Terry Jones and more religion in general. To the vast unchurched population, every Christian is a zealot, and a potential Koran-burner, just as every Roman Catholic priest is burdened with the misdeeds of a very sick few.

In this sense, then, I can expand Kermit's lament to each and every one of us, believers in a world that increasingly can't see the difference between Catholic and Protestant, mainline and conservative, tolerant or otherwise. And even those that do understand the difference are not above condemning the whole based on a part.

Our response, within the United Church, seems to happen in one of two directions. The first is to educate, to highlight the differences between a well-structured mainline Canadian church and an independent “ministry” based on the leadership of an individual. I have pointed to these differences each time the headlines appear: disgraced televangelists, Waco, Texas, and the latest news from Gainsville, FL.

The second response within our tradition seems to downplay the entire religious enterprise in favour of the more understandable and defensible parts of our life together. We speak of outreach ministry, social justice, and community-based activities, morphing in the United Way or a alternate version of the NDP. At one time we bragged about being non-doctrinal, and now we seem to brag about being something other than a church.

This trend away from a classic religious stance makes Timothy a less than popular fellow. He was a favourite of St. Paul, a convert to the faith, a leader in the nascent church, and self-declared “redeemed sinner.” He brags about the grace that flowed in his direction, the new life he received in Jesus. He is an archetype within the early church: sinner and skeptic, a persecutor of the church, who finds forgiveness and acceptance within the church he tormented.

Tertullian, great father of the early church, said “Christians are made, not born.” In other words, Christianity is a convert's religion, a tradition marked by the journey of Paul, Timothy, and the countless millions that set aside a former way of living and chose to follow in the way of Jesus Christ.

So what happens to the tradition when Tertullian's wisdom is no longer the case? Using less than scientific methodology, I have discovered that the “converts” in our midst account for little more than one percent of the United Church. If the question is “did you walk in, or were you carried?” the answer is almost always carried.

Does it make a difference? Are there differences between the people who grew up in the faith and those that came to Christianity as adults? The first answer is no. There is no hierarchy of believers, no elite group of super-Christians. Martin Luther helped us figure that one out long ago. The second answer, the answer I expect Timothy might make is yes, it does make a difference.

If God has been present in you life since the beginning of your consciousness, you may regard this as the greatest gift of all: a life with the ongoing presence of a merciful and loving God. If God came into your life at some later moment in your story, following a time of meaninglessness for example, or if God came into your life after a life of foolishness or great sin, the relationship takes on a unique quality. Redemption has unequaled power, or as Timothy would say, “I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me.”

Again, I am not arguing that the experience of the convert is somehow more valid, or forms some super-expression of the Christian religion, only that it is becoming increasingly rare in our tradition and this ultimately has consequences for how we meet the world.

Recently Matthew Mendelsohn, a professor at the U of T, spoke about the concept of “agency.” Agency, in simple terms, means the belief that I can influence the world around me, rather than simply being a passive recipient of what the world sends my way. I can effect the lives of others, or as Mendelsohn described it, I can effect the unfolding of institutions that I interact with in a day-to-day basis.

Part of agency, then, is the belief that I will be heard, that institutions will somehow mirror my concerns or do what I expect them to do. And this happens on a mass scale too. We expect that the government will protect us, that hospitals will mend us, and that schools will educate us.

Mendelsohn then looks at the shadow side of agency: leaders in institutions that have difficulty meeting the needs of the public, and seem to have a natural tendency to focus on their own concerns first. A disconnect forms, and reform then becomes needed. An example would be the Toronto Humane Society, with the community belief that ending suffering was the highest priority until we learned it was not. The leadership had an alternate agenda, or an alternate understanding of the primary objective, and conflict (and charges) were the result.

If I close the circle here, an bring agency to the church, I think I could fairly suggest that public assumes the church will “be religious.” If the point of religion is mercy, then burning the Koran is hardly appropriate. The community rightly expects that when we sing “Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me” that we mean it. The public expects more Dr. King and less Ian Paisley. More Gandhi and less Khomeini.

In the end, however, it becomes too easy to poke Terry Jones with a stick. We need to look at the Douglas Fur in our own eye before we go reaching for the sliver in his. If the public expects the church to “be religious,” then we have a long way to go to recapture our credibility as a denomination.

Some of the problem is in the realm of language. We have an extensive vocabulary for outreach, with tangible activities and things that are easy to describe. We can master the language of social justice simply by reading the right newspaper, or tuning to the right station, and a vocabulary is there to claim. Follow this up with “it’s the right thing for the church to do” and you have a narrative.

The language of Timothy, the language of sin and redemption, of God’s mercy and forgiveness lives less comfortable on our tongues. And the people who do seem comfortable using this language remind us of Florida pastors and all the issues that come with them. It is hard to “be religious” in this sense, and reclaim a language, when the language is being misused and misappropriated at every turn.

The answer, I think, is with Timothy. Notice that Timothy only speaks of his experience, he makes no generalizations, save that God is merciful. He doesn’t instruct others so much as set an example: he speaks about being a convert, the new life he knows, and hopes he can be an example to others. He acknowledges the past and gives God the glory for such a dramatic change.

The challenge, then, and the gift, is to describe to others this Timothy faith, our own experience of mercy and redemption. To mine our past for those moments when God was most present and offered opportunities for new life, when mercies, no matter how small, were set before us.


At the end of It's not easy being green, Kermit begins to accept his greenness. "It's beautiful! And it's what I want to be,” he says, because green is a fine colour and lots of wonderful things are green. What some mistakenly label a song of lament is really a song about rediscovering who he really is, a small, very green frog.

There are moments when it seems appropriate to feel shame in the company certain Christians. This week I was reminded of the bumper sticker that reads, “Dear Jesus, save me from your followers.” And I was reminded that all I can do, aside from singing “It’s not easy being green” is tell our story, the story of Jesus’ compassion, his mercy, and with each of us, his patience. Amen.


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