rude sermons

go upright and vital and speak the rude truth in all ways (r. w. emerson)

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Loving Your ____________ as Yourselves: A Sermon for September 11, in the year 2016

         It is impossible to preach on this day, and not carry the awareness of its significance. This date marks the remembrance of a tragedy larger than the individual losses, though they were many, or the depth of those losses, which was profound and final. This date marks a tragedy that now divides our sense of our history: things that happened before 9/11, and things that happened after.

         It is also impossible, and becoming more so with each passing day, to preach in this season and not carry the awareness of its significance. It is September; we inch closer and closer to November, and the closer we get the louder the voices shouting at us through our televisions and radios and Facebook and twitter accounts become. 

         But no, I’m not going to get political. I’m gonna stop right there. I’m going to stop right there, and invite us to do the most subversive thing possible: hear the word of the Lord, hear it, and discern within it what it is we are called to do as people of God.

         Our scriptures today are a motley bunch, not, I promise, chosen at random, but nonetheless a grab bag. Of them all, Leviticus gets the worst rap, and to be quite honest, it’s pretty well deserved. This chapter in particular is nothing short of a mess, really, with the strangest of minutia mixed in with the profound. But in the middle of this mess we get a reiteration of the basics: love your neighbor as yourself; and a few verses later, love the stranger as yourself.

         Much later, Jesus will preach the sermon we call the “sermon on the mount,” and he will tell the multitudes, “you have heard it said, love your neighbor and hate your enemy; but I say to you, love your enemy, and do good to those who hate you.” At another time and place he is asked, “ah, but who is my neighbor,” a question that he will answer with a story, a story that unravels all of our assumptions about these categories. Neighbors. Enemies. Strangers.

         What I want to suggest to you today is that out of all of these familiar biblical injunctions—love your neighbor, love your enemies, love the stranger—the one we have the most trouble with, the most difficult one to do, is not the one we think. We think that Jesus is giving us a moral Mission Impossible with the “love your enemies” bit. But I want to suggest that we have a harder time loving the stranger.

         First, let’s be honest. We’re not that great with the “easy” one, either, to begin with. Loving people just isn’t all that easy most of the time. Loving your neighbor as yourself isn’t easy because your neighbor is close by, or because a neighbor is someone you know. Maybe that’s the very thing that makes it difficult. And if we get real honest, we’re not even that great at the loving ourselves part—and loving your fill-in-the-blank as yourself assumes that we’re getting that part right.

         Still and all: it’s easier in many ways to love a neighbor. Neighbors are familiar people: people whose lives we can understand, people whose needs we can see, people whose needs we often share ourselves. It is easy to love those people, the people who are like us. Love your neighbor like yourself: the very command implies a likeness, a similarity, a symmetry between this other person and the self. The needs of this other person are like my own; this other person is like me.

         This is why, I believe, the hardest command is to love the stranger. It interrupts that symmetry, that likeness, between my self and this other. This other person is not like me; this other person is strange. This is not someone whose life I understand. I don’t know this person. I don’t know anyone like this person.

         We fear what we do not know. We may dislike the neighbor; we may hate the enemy. But we fear the stranger.

         And this is the genius of Jesus’ parable, the one we call the parable of the Good Samaritan. Usually, we focus on the identity of the rescuer, and the reversal of expectation Jesus creates around the identity of the despised Samaritan, the enemy, as the righteous one, in contrast to the holy and pious Jews who pass by. And this is important; Jesus certainly told the story this way to make this point unavoidably obvious. But what I want to focus on is this: he answers the question “who is my neighbor” by telling a story about loving a stranger.

         The man on the road is travelling, walking down the road alone. He is a stranger, in a land not his own, a position that even today in a world of instant connections and communications can leave one vulnerable in unexpected ways. He is vulnerable. He is set upon, beaten and robbed and left for dead, on the side of the road in a place where no one knows him. And in what amounted to enemy territory.

         There’s no one watching. The priest and the Levite, his “neighbors,” pass by on the other side with impunity; no one sees them, maybe not even the dying man himself, there on the side of the road.

         There was no reason to stop and help, and all the reasons not to. 

          I was a college kid, backpacking around Europe, and I was walking down the road alone, in the dark. I'd taken off by myself for the day, following the advice of the never-wrong Rick Steves, looking for a tiny little place called Civita di Bagnoreggio, which meant a train and a bus and a walk to get there. It had been a lovely, quiet day, away from the 40 other students I lived with in that villa in Florence. So lovely and quiet that I forgot the time, and arrived back at the bus station, breathless, just in time to watch the bus taillights recede. And that was it; the last bus for the night. I walked into town and into the first little coffee bar I saw. I ordered a coffee and asked the barista if there was another bus. No. A taxi? No. Any way I can get to the Orvieto train station? No. there a place to stay for the night? No. (Told you it was a tiny little place.) And that's how I found myself walking down a road all alone in the dark, a stranger in a land not my own. Vulnerable. Headlights came up from behind, and a car passed me by on the other side. And then a second. And then, a car passed, slowed, stopped, and a man got out and gestured to me to get in. He was one of the customers from the bar; he'd heard my conversation with barista and seen me leave, and realized I was going to try to walk the 14 km to Orvieto, alone, in the dark. And he said, "I have a daughter studying in universita' in America. If she were alone and needed help, I would want someone there to help her." 

There was no reason to help this silly backpacking American stranger, and all sorts of reasons not to: time to go home, time for dinner, not his problem, maybe I don't want help, maybe I'd be scared to trust him. But he looked at me all alone and saw, not a stranger, but a daughter.

There was no reason to help, and all the reasons not to; but this is what the man we call the “good Samaritan” did. And when Jesus answers the question “who is my neighbor” by telling a story about an enemy loving a stranger, all of a sudden the categories implode. There is no difference. The command to love your neighbor as yourself is the command to love your enemy and the command to love the stranger.

No, I’m not going to preach a political sermon, not if I can help myself. But I will say this: what we hear in our scriptures here today cuts across the rhetoric we hear shouted from platforms from behind microphones, pushes back against the messages that we must, at all costs, protect ourselves from “those people,” whose only desire is to hurt us, kill us, terrify us because of their hatred for us and our “freedom” and our “way of life”—or those other “those people” who want to sneak in, hurt us, take advantage of us, cheat us, steal what is ours, ruin our “way of life” by their attempts to participate in it.  

         Love your neighbor as yourself is love your enemy and love the stranger. It is all one, as we are all one. May we be Samaritans who disregard these distinctions, as we go on our way, about our business. May we be tended by such when we are the strangers. May the indifference we have to our neighbors, the hostility we feel for our enemies, the fear we feel for the unknown stranger, dissipate in the presence of the Spirit which enables us to love without fear.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

What to expect when you're expecting: a sermon for the first week of Advent

....If you’re someone who has experienced pregnancy and birth, then you’ve experienced something uniquely your own—something that no one, not even another woman who has given birth, can really know. It’s an odd, in-between experience: your baby is here already—and yet, not yet. The little flickers you feel (which later turn into full-on thumps on your ribcage that make you regret ever seeing Alien because you’re pretty sure that any more force and that kid will bust right on through, completely bypassing the birth canal) are the assurances that the forthcoming reality of babe-in-arms is already begun, already gathering life and strength, and all you have to do is wait for it. Expecting.

Did I say all you have to do is wait for it? Have I suddenly lost my mind, blanked out the fact that “all you have to do” is actually a huge amount of preparation and work and worry???  Don’t eat fish. Avoid soft cheeses, unless you’ve got solid proof they’ve been pasteurized. Don’t forget the prenatal vitamins. Eat lots of leafy greens, they’re a great source of folic acid. Take up prenatal yoga and start practicing that weird breathing. Don’t let anyone know you have the occasional sip of wine, and for sure, don’t get caught in the liquor store buying wine for communion because someone will give you the stink-eye. Brave the chaos that is Babies-r-Us and register: strollers, rattles, bibs, bathtub, swing—and do your best to avoid the rampant gendering of blue and pink themed objects. Research diapers—breastfeeding—birth. Read Girlfriend’s Guide, What to Expect, Smart Woman’s Guide to Better Birth. Write up a birth plan. Fend off all the unsolicited advice and uninvited belly pats. Try not gain any more or less than the recommended 25-35 pounds, then try not to worry about the fact you gained over 45 and weigh more than your own dad instead.

And worry. Is that kid all right in there? Fingers, toes, brain. Diaphragm.

And then, those last days counting up to—and then beyond—the “due date.” You thought the 40 weeks leading up to that date were long but now, time telescopes into a neverending stretch of expectation that eventually leaves you convinced that nope, you’re gonna be pregnant forever. This baby is not coming out. Other women have babies, but not you. The day you’re waiting for, the baby you’re expecting, is never, ever going to appear.

I’m serious about this. At post-date 15 days, after countless hours of yoga squats, massage, evening primrose oil, castor oil, and other things best left unmentioned in a sermon—nothing, and nothing, and nothing. As silly as it sounds, the same signs that once gave you hope that your expectation would become reality, start to convince that nothing will ever change. You are doomed to be pregnant forever. And all your work, all your preparation, all your hoping, all your expectation, is in vain.

This is what to expect, when you’re expecting.

This is Advent.

We are living in that time of post-date expectation, that time in which all the signs, all the flickers of life, that used to give us hope of fulfillment now just make us sigh because we’re having trouble believing that anything will ever change. All the signs, all the flickers of hope, are less comforting than they are frustrating—because we want to hold the full reality of squirming baby in our arms.

This is what to expect, while we’re expecting.

This is Advent. The re-telling, the re-living, of the post-date expectation of the world for the birth of its Messiah. And as we re-tell and re-live this agonizing wait, we are at the same time describing our own present struggle for hopefulness and expectation—we are, indeed, waiting for this Savior to come back. We are a people of perpetual expectation.

And we may, some of us, be stuck in that moment before the onset of labor, where the stubbornness of our material reality in its resistance to that transformational moment of birth has us convinced that there’s really nothing at all that we’re waiting for. That our expectation is in vain. That all our work is in vain. That nothing we do, not even—most regrettably—the castor oil, is going to make our expectations come to life.

If this is you, if you, like me, have been stuck in that moment of lost expectations, pause. And look around you.

Look at Clare, at Annalise, at Emmett Adu: expectations, come to life. As indeed, we believe the world witnessed two thousand years ago, in the expectation-come-to-life in the birth of another child, a child whose coming was expected from the very beginning of time itself.

And take hope. Expectation will be fulfilled, in glory. We do not wait in vain. Soon, very soon, the baby we’re all waiting for, the Messiah we are expecting, will arrive. Maranatha; come quickly, Lord Jesus.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Who are we?: A theological musing on the Restoration of Christian Unity, Identity, and Love

I’m not going to pretend that this is really a sermon. This is straight-up theology, so go refill your coffee mugs.

Alexander Campbell’s Restoration plea: “Christians only…” Those of you who are CofC will recognize that that’s not the whole statement, but we’re going to stop there for the moment. Those of you who didn’t grow CofC may well be wondering, what does C-of-C stand for, who the heck is Alexander Campbell, and why should we care. And this very thing highlights the issue of CCfB collective identity, doesn’t it? It splits us into two distinct groups: the insiders who get the CofC lingo, and the “outsiders” who don’t. And the question is, “who are we?”

Like the church in Acts, which convened the council in Jerusalem to discern the answer to this question, we too face it (and let’s face it, we’ll never settle definitively, but simply continue to negotiate it). In Jerusalem the question of insiders and outsiders took the form of whether or not the outsiders, Gentiles, were required to become insiders, Jews (by way of circumcision and keeping the Law of Moses) in order to be Christian. As Joe reminded us in a sermon just a few weeks ago, the council at Jerusalem decided: no.

Likewise, this church decided “no” to this question as well—long before CCfB was the community it is today. We are Christ’s Church for Brooklyn, and not the Brooklyn Church of Christ, for a reason: we don’t require nor expect everyone in this community to be, or become, CofC, in order to be part of this Christian community.

One might interpret our generic choice of name (well, it is specifically Christian, but denominationally generic) as a return to Campbell’s original plea for unity. Here, in this community, we are “Christians only.”

And yet, Campbell’s vision of restoration and Christian unity is problematic. Campbell believed that unity would inevitably result if only people could get away from denomination creeds and start reading their bibles. If everyone would just read and follow the Bible, we would all be “Christians only.” So Campbell founded a movement based on this premise—a new, “non-denominational” movement, in which denominational identities would be renounced in order to achieve a new and solely Christian identity.

The problem with this strategy is—well, it didn’t work. There’s the obvious (to us) problem of biblical interpretation and hermeneutics, the fact that everyone just doesn’t sit down and come up with the same reading of the Bible as everyone else. But beyond that, which is itself a seriously fatal flaw, there’s an issue with the idea of identity. Check your denominational identity at the door, and then join our church and be Christian. Or in other words, you can only start being “Christian only” by dumping your former Christian identity. If you want to be generically Christian, you can’t be specifically Christian. And if you want to be inclusively Christian, unified with other Christians, you must be generically Christian. Unity is the result of a new, generic category of identity.

What’s the problem with this? Simply that our identities aren’t categorical in this way. This is a common sense point. Think about how you might describe yourself to another person—how many categories appear in your laundry list? I’m willing to bet you can amass a dozen or more in about 10 seconds. My facebook page lists mine: “mother, feminist, homemaker, writer, spouse, eternal student, theologian, JTB, believer, doubter, CofC'er, sister, daughter, cyborg, goddess. In no particular order.” Do I inhabit any one of these categories of identity at expense of the others? Am I no longer a mother while I’m the eternal student? No longer a feminist when I’m a homemaker? Am I no longer a believer while I’m a doubter?

No. I am all of these things, simultaneously, just as you inhabit multiple categories of identity simultaneously. Categorical identities are not mutually exclusive.

At the same time, I—and you—are not reducible to any one of those categories on the list. The categories are simultaneous and they are also partial. I am always a mother—but I am also not a mother only.

Campbell’s mistake was to assume that Christian identities were indeed whole and mutually exclusive, and that it would therefore take a whole new generic category in order to create Christian unity. Christians only.

But (as we CofC’ers know): the end of the slogan is, “…but not the only Christians.” So even while Campbell founded his plea for Christian unity on the foundation of a generic Christianity built upon a universal doctrinal agreement from a particular biblical hermeneutic (so problematic!), he sowed the seeds for his own deconstruction in that very slogan. “Not the only Christians.” Later in his life indeed his theological emphasis would shift to this second clause, making ecumenical unity a focal point (a legacy continued strongly in the branch of the Restoration movement known as the Disciples of Christ). Built into this second half of the slogan is the recognition that particular Christian identities are indeed Christian, and there is no necessity to surrender them in the name of Christian unity.

This church began as part of this Restoration Movement, a church plant sponsored by Manhattan Church of Christ. And yet, we have not chosen to require that those joining this community become Church of Christ (that would indeed be laying a burden on you that we ourselves cannot carry—to paraphrase Peter’s words to the council at Jerusalem). Nor, I want to say, do we require that you check your identities at the door in order to become “generically Christian.” Not all of us in this room grew up “CofC”: some Catholic, some Baptist, some Presbyterian, some Pentecostal...and I continue to claim and negotiate my own (sometimes problematic) CofC identity. We bring these identities together, and it is the very differences that make the collective identity of this community the beautiful example of Christian unity that it is. I don’t have to deny my past or my identity to enter this Christian community. Neither do you.

So who are we? Can we answer that question? Is there such a thing as “CCfB identity” or must we just shrug and say, “well, we’re all different so good luck on figuring it out. We’re really nice though, and everyone is welcome.” Honestly, I think we can do a little better than that. The fact that we can’t make a universal checklist of Christian beliefs that describes everyone in this room, and call that our CCfB identity, is a blessing, not a problem. We CofCer’s ought to know that better than anyone—we’ve been there and done that, and watched it fall apart, again and again. Alexander Campbell saw it fall apart even in his lifetime. Christian unity is not the product of doctrinal agreement; Christian identity is not the product of a checklist of beliefs.

So who are we?

Hear the words of the prophet Micah: what does God require of us? The right sacrifices, done in the all the right ways? A checklist of right beliefs, identity and membership in the right group? No. We’re not required to get all that right. Just, do justice. Love kindness. Walk humbly with God. Who are we, Christ’s Church for Brooklyn? We are those who seek to do what God requires: to do justice, to love kindness, to walk humbly with God.

It’s not that it doesn’t matter what we believe. It matters, because beliefs inform actions. But God knows—God knows!—we’re not going to get it all right. If we’re honest, we know it too. On our own, we will never get it right. On my own, I will persist in my theological mistakes, my hang-ups, my idiosyncratic interpretations, my individual blindnesses. On my own, I will never get it right. And this is part of the reason we need each other; part of the reason we are a “we,” why we come together, why we hang out on Sundays and talk about these things, pray about these things, read and study and learn about these things. On our own, we will never get it right. We can bang our heads in frustration and despair over it, like that old Sesame Street piano player guy, or we can accept it, as part of what it means to be Christian. Not getting it right. Not necessarily needing to, because in the meantime, we know, that what God truly requires of us is simple: to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly. Who are we, CCfB? Christians, not getting it all right, but seeking to do God’s work anyhow. Christians—of all sorts, walking humbly with God, together.


When God comes to us—and God comes to us, not we to God—when God comes to us, God does not require that we negate who we are. Again: God does not require that we negate who we are. Sure, there’s language of transformation all over the NT. Images of rebirth, language of the old man and the new man, language of “new creation,” even images of baptismal death and burial and rising to new life. Very dramatic. Nonetheless, I say to you: God does not require that you negate who you are.

Listen: God loves you. How many of us, during our engagement to be married or during the course of a relationship, have been tiresomely reminded of the truism, “don’t marry someone and then expect to change him.” Yes? I was told that. God doesn’t marry us, and then seek to remake us into the different person God secretly wants us to be. God marries us, because God loves us. God does not seek to make you someone else—some other person you theoretically should be. God loves you, and seeks to let you be who you are. And the language of transformation, of rebirth and new creation and the old and the new, is not the negation of your identity, but its fulfillment. This ritual, this sacred meal, invites us again and again into the powerful mystery of God’s love for us, a love that simultaneously celebrates, and transforms us into, who we truly are.

So we don’t check our identities at the door here. We seek to express God’s love to each other, and that means being who we are, with each other. Let yourself be known today, and loved.


Sunday, May 18, 2008

The Call of God and Professional Ministry, or “Vocation within the Priesthood of All Believers”
presented at the 2008 Women in Ministry Conference, at Manhattan Church of Christ
May 13, 2008

In 1998, after graduating from Harding with a degree in English literature, I went to China to teach conversational English and do mission work. I did not use the language of calling at that time. I did not know the language of vocation. When people asked me why I was going, the best answer I could come up with was, “I couldn’t think of anything else better to do.” I meant that. There wasn’t anything else better to do. Still reeling from a bitter breakup in which my hopes to become a missionary’s wife were dashed upon the rocks, I thought that I had found an alternative way to go about the most important thing of which I was capable, despite the inherent handicaps of being young, single, and female. But I did not consider myself to be called. I just didn’t want to waste my time doing things I thought were less important.

The first year in China was instructive. I experienced firsthand the theological dilemma of the Church of Christ doctrine of vocation. Yes, we are all “ministers”; even I, as young and inexperienced and confused as I was then. I had raised money from churches and family and friends who believed enough in this to put their money where their faith was. I got on a plane funded by the strength of their faith in me and in a doctrine that everyone, even the most unlikely, are called to ministry in God’s church.

The dilemma I experienced in China was no different than what I had grown up with my whole life in the States; but like so many other things, this aspect of my heritage of Christian belief and practice was invisible to me until placed in that new context where all sorts of things came to light. What I experienced was simply the inevitable result of an ambiguity in our tradition regarding the nature of ministry and ministers, an ambiguity I had lived with without noticing it…until the question of my own vocation made it obvious.

Vocation: broad and narrow senses

Pause to define our terms here. “Vocation” itself, the word, is used in two distinct ways. We can call them “broad” and “narrow.” Broadly, of course, vocation is used to mean the calling to God’s work for any and all Christians, in whatever situation and in whatever line of work is their own. Used in this way, the doctrine of vocation is an affirmation that all people experience a call, have a task and a purpose and a function within God’s people and in the world. This kind of call has a corporate dimension—we are called as the church, as the body of Christ in the world; it may also have an individual dimension to it—we are called according to our specific gifts, to specific ways of being Christ in this world. Narrowly, vocation means a call to what we might label “professional ministry” and what other traditions would call “ordained ministry,” a call to work within the church, to take up specific tasks in the service of the church and God’s people within the church.

We see both meanings at work throughout all the theological dimensions of a doctrine of vocation: God calls Israel (broad); God calls prophets (narrow). Christ calls people to become his disciples; Christ calls the Twelve apostles. The gift of the Holy Spirit in baptism; Pentecost and the laying on of hands. The call of the church; the calling of elders, deacons, apostles, prophets…and so on.

Later on this evening, our focus will shift from the narrow meaning of vocation as “professional ministry” into the broader sense, as we seek to understand not just what vocation means for us as ministers but for everyone—ourselves, our brothers and sisters in Christ, and how we can identify and help each other identify our Christian vocation in this world. This is a pressing question, in many ways a very practical and pastoral question…and therefore, something which I must leave in Regan and Charme’s capable hands, as I am completely impractical and non-pastoral myself, being a theologian. For now, the sense of vocation I am concerned with is the narrow one—vocation as being called into the service of the church in a way that demands your full time, your full energy, your whole heart.

Priesthood of all Believers: Campbell on vocation and ordination

Back to my dilemma. Where did it come from? We might instinctively want to equate our doctrine of the “priesthood of all believers” with the broad sense of vocation, but these things are not quite the same. The broad sense of vocation carries us outside the walls of the church building into the world; the doctrine of priesthood of all believers refers to our practices within the church, our concepts of ministry and ministers and ministerial authority. And so our concern at the moment is with the narrow sense of vocation, and how this has been articulated in our tradition through the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers.

We inherit this, of course, from Martin Luther, though we probably don’t admit that often enough to make our Lutheran brothers and sisters happy.
But our doctrine is distinctively our own, a radical interpretation we have inherited from Alexander Campbell.

The Protestant understanding of “priesthood of all believers” was radicalized in the thought of Campbell, due especially to the influence of democratic politics in nineteenth century America.[1] The radicality of Campbell’s doctrine can be seen in his allowance of laypeople to perform rites typically reserved for clergy in other denominations. While he generally thought that the leaders should lead for the sake of good order, Campbell wrote,
“we concede that in certain cases it is the privilege of all the citizens of
Christ’s kingdom to preach, baptize, and teach. Every citizen of Christ’s
kingdom has, in virtue of his citizenship, equal rights, privileges, and
immunities. So has every citizen of the United States…. [A Christian] may of
right preach, baptize, and dispense the supper, as well as pray for all men,
when circumstances demand it (emphasis original).”[2]
According to Campbell, ordination was not required to preach or baptize or preside over the Lord’s Supper. Ordination was helpful merely to create order in a community that had been organized. But every Christian had the right to do these things.

The radical theological claim being made by Campbell’s permission of laypeople to preside over the Lord’s Supper may be lost on us, for whom it has become the weekly norm. In most churches, however, the Lord’s Supper is presided over and administered only by ordained ministers or priests; the significance of this lies in the belief that these are the representatives of Christ to the people in this moment of the sacrament, and that the elements of bread and wine—being Christ’s body and blood—are holy, and require handling by these holy representatives. My husband was instructed, by the priest who taught his liturgy class, that in speaking the words of institution, which are Christ’s words (“this is my body…this is my blood”), he indeed becomes Christ to the church at that moment. Campbell’s claim, then, is that all Christians are representative of Christ in this way, without the necessity of ordination to set them apart.

This explains, then, why we in the Churches of Christ have no practice of formal ordination in the sense that most churches do. Campbell’s understanding of leadership grew out of his radical view of the priesthood of all believers and was governed by the following principles: congregationalism, plurality of leaders, a tripartite ministry structure, and an aversion to “ministerial hirelings.” Many of these principles we are familiar with from long association: congregational autonomy, a plurality of elders, a basic three-fold division of church leadership into elders and deacons and what Campbell called “evangelists,” a role we would most likely identify today as “pulpit minister.” But the identification of Campbell’s “evangelist” with “pulpit minister” shows a drift into exactly the kind of practice Campbell was opposed to, the “ministerial hireling.”

What Campbell was reacting against was what he called the “hireling” system in which a certain Christian felt a “call,” went to seminary in order to train for a profession, then went to compete for a ministry job. Campbell in typical satirical tone says,
A hireling is one who prepares himself for the office of a ‘preacher’ or
‘minister,’ as a mechanic learns a trade, and who obtains a license from a
congregation, convention, presbytery, pope, or diocesan bishop, as a preacher or
minister, and agrees by the day or sermon, month or year for a stipulated
reward…. He learns the art and mystery of making a sermon, or a prayer, as a man
learns the art of making a boot or a shoe. He intends to make his living in
whole, or in part, by making sermons and prayers, and he sets himself up to the
highest bidder. He agrees for so much a sermon, or for fifty-two in the
wholesale way, and for a certain sum he undertakes to furnish so many; but if a
better offer is made him when his first contract is out, (and sometimes before
it expires,) he will agree to accept a better price. Such a preacher or
minister, by all the rules of grammar, logic, and arithmetic, is a hireling in
the full sense of the word.[3]

Ministry for Campbell was not a profession in which its practitioners competed for jobs. Rather, a congregation chose its leaders based on qualifications they already possessed.

Now, of course, our current practices have diverged significantly from Campbell’s doctrine; the historical ins and outs are too much to go into but we are all aware not only that we hire full-time paid ministers in our churches, but that most of these have received training and education at either our universities or preaching schools and increasing numbers even hold the same professional degree, the Master of Divinity, required for formal ordination in those churches that do have formal ordination processes. And I would venture to say that I am not alone, or atypical, in having grown up perceiving the minister of my church as a person holding a special kind of authority and status (that is, of course, until my dad became a minister when I was 14; that dispelled the glamour a bit…a prophet has no honor in his home after all).

So there’s a tension, as I see it, between our doctrine, inherited from Campbell, and our practice. We are all ministers; but the minister is a particular person, identified and chosen and hired and supported by the congregation. This person is called the minister because they are set apart to do these certain things, like preach on Sundays and teach Bible classes and counsel people and visit the sick in the hospital. The minister holds an authority in teaching that is distinct from the authority of other church leaders, for other church leaders, even elders, are lay leaders, chosen from among the congregation on the basis of qualifications they already possess. Early on, some followers of Campbell—like James A. Harding—resisted wholeheartedly the practice of “located ministers” seeing that this was exactly what Campbell meant by “hirelings.”

We could, at this point, follow this thread into a discussion of professionalization and debate the merits and need for education and training. But it is enough to sketch out the dilemma; by resisting the professionalization of ministry, Campbell also undermined a specific doctrine of vocation into the ministry.

As women, when we step out in faith to answer the call to ministry within our churches, not only do we run into the obvious issues stemming from the uncertain and ambiguous status of women in our churches, but we also wake up the old antagonism toward professional ministry. Campbell’s radically democratic priesthood of all believers does, in a very real sense, open the door for anyone to answer the call to ministry within the church. But it does so by saying no to the professionalization of ministry. And so, as women, we may have also seen this radically democratic doctrine work against the recognition of our calls to ministry. Everyone is a minister; you are already a minister; if you want a ministry, go pick something and do it; there’s nothing professional about it. There’s nothing special about it. And if you want recognition of your vocation, your call into the ministry of a church…well. Counterintuitively, the doctrine that opens the door for anyone who feels called to ministry often slams the door on women. This is, in essence, what I experienced that first eye-opening year in China.

This leaves us here at this conference for women-in-ministry squarely in the middle of this inherited ambiguity, with the task not only of remaining faithful to the call of God that we experience and of doing the ministry we are called to do, but of articulating our sense of vocation in a way which makes sense within our tradition and to the people we seek to serve as ministers in our churches. And that is no small theological task.

Constructing a doctrine of vocation within the priesthood of all believers.

To that end, I’d like to spend the rest of our time beginning the constructive work of articulating a theology of vocation for this priesthood of all believers.

To begin with, as I’m sure you may have reflected on, language of call and vocation is a bit of an ill fit within our Church of Christ heritage. It’s a little too touchy-feely for the hardheaded Scottish common sense realism woven into our tradition from its forefathers. If, for instance, you attempt to look up the word “vocation” in the Encyclopedia of the Stone-Campbell Movement, you won’t find it in there. And if you look for “ordination,” you’ll be sent to the article on “ministry.”

So perhaps the first question we pause to ask is really, is there a reason to start to using this language of vocation, seeing as how it is so utterly foreign to our theological heritage that it’s literally not even in our dictionary? What does language of vocation do for us that language of ministry doesn’t? I’d like to suggest that the language of vocation is an important recovery, particularly for women, but also generally within the context of our theology of ministry, for it gives us a way of connecting the pragmatic realities of defining, locating and practicing ministry to the very life of God. Ministry is indeed a human endeavor, but it is also service undertaken as response to God’s work in us; the language of vocation, the language of a calling, reminds us of that divine dimension even as it is worked out in the mundane processes of job hunting and resumes and answering ads and interviewing and disappointments. Particularly within Churches of Christ, with our historic lack of formal ordination at any level—institutional and congregational—the need to reconnect the largely mundane realities of finding work as a minister is an urgent one. This is exactly what a theology of vocation does.

But because of the nature of theology, when we borrow the language of calling and vocation from other Christians, we are in a sense taking on a great deal more than just language of calling. We are also taking on a foreign pneumatology, a doctrine of providence, a theology of prayer, even some different ecclesiology, at the same time; and without stopping to think about what it means to claim our calling, we cannot really expect this language to do more than alarm and alienate people within our churches who are aware that at some level, their settled and cherished beliefs about the Spirit, the church, even the nature and working of God is being challenged.

So what I’d like to do is address some of this, to help us sort out together just what some of these systematic implications of a doctrine of vocation are. What does a doctrine of vocation say about God? About Christ? About the Spirit? About the church?

Theology: seeing God in the process

In our theme text from Isaiah, we read that God calls both Israel as a nation and specific individuals. Again and again the OT we read fantastic stories of God’s call of the prophets and leaders of Israel: visions, and conversations, and fleeces dry and wet. There seems to be no particular pattern to be discerned. It’s hard to determine what “a call” is when God never seems to do it the same way twice. There’s no formula given we can use to measure it by. Did this happen? Check. Did that happen? Check. Okay, then, call verified. God just doesn’t really work that way.

Sometimes God chooses the obvious people, like Miriam, a member of a great family of leaders; and sometimes God chooses the unlikely: prostitutes, like Rahab, or unwed mothers, like Mary. Sometimes God chooses the prepared, like Samuel, dedicated to the priesthood prior to conception by his mother Hannah. Sometimes God chooses the unwilling, like Moses, who protested, “I don’t talk real well, you probably want someone else.”

What the Bible leaves no doubt about whatsoever is that God does call. A theology of vocation is unavoidable in the biblical testimony of God’s work in the world. God is at work, and God works through people.

This hopefully comes as no surprise to us, but think for a moment about the profundity of this assertion. God is at work in the world. Our God is alive. Our God is active. Our God is involved. Our God initiates. Our God is invested, tangled up in human lives and history, concerned with the task of making it come out right in the end, of reconciliation. Our God is not independent and autocratic and detached but is constantly bringing you and me and as many people as will come into this task—a mutual task, a collaboration of the human and the divine. This is a God who calls. This is what vocation means for our theology, our notions of who God is, and what God is like. Our God is a God who constantly invites us into the mutual task of reconciliation.

(as an afterthought: I think too that there is some work to be done in reworking our notions of theological authority and therefore ministerial authority. Campbell utterly rejected the formal hierarchies evident in other churches’ organization, and in the priesthood of all believers, he sought to articulate a doctrine of ministry that ended the distinction between clergy and laity. Yet there remains in our practice a belief in a kind of authority that remains stubbornly hierarchical. It is this that I believe is at the heart of disputes about the authority to teach, and who does and does not have it. When we consider that our God, who holds all authority in heaven and on earth, chose to share that full authority in Jesus Christ, who in turn chose other human beings to share his authority, who in turn chose other human beings…the concept of authority as hierarchical begins to become absurd. Authority that is shared is not hierarchical.)

Pneumatology: talking about the Spirit without scaring their pants off

How does this invitation take place? Connecting vocation and Spirit is perhaps the easiest systematic connection to make. Pentecost (celebrated just this last Sunday) makes the Spirit’s role in inaugurating the apostle’s ministry evident in tongues of flame and rushing wind and miracles. No less clear is the connection between the experiential aspect of vocation and the role of the Spirit. And it is exactly this, I suspect, that makes us the most uncomfortable about talk of callings. This language directly implies the kind of Spirit action in the world that we have traditionally sought to contain and reduce to the reading of the words of the biblical text; there and nowhere else did the Spirit move.[4] In our context it is also relevant to note that the Spirit has always been a leveling force with regard to limitations set for ministry; from the 4th century Montanists, a sect whose heresy included public leadership of women inspired by the Spirit, to the Pentecostal and Holiness movements in our own country, churches who have taught an active doctrine of the Holy Spirit have also historically seen the connection between the Spirit’s authority and the breakdown of barriers to ministry. For the Spirit blows where it (She) wills. Introducing language of vocation, constructing a theology of vocation, challenges a traditional Church of Christ pneumatology. There’s just no way around that.

This is, of course, a good thing. But it is also an uncomfortable thing.

There are two things to be said here. First, women ministers in our churches are inevitably faced with a burden of justifying their presence. Theologically, we need a doctrine of vocation as the answer to the question—implicit or explicit—of just what it is we think we’re doing, and why we should be doing it. But we cannot use language of calling as some kind of theological trump card. Spirit beats hermeneutics. That kind of theological stalemate is unconvincing, and ultimately damaging. It’s unconvincing because what it says is, experience trumps text; and “experience” is not generally recognized as a valid source for theological reflection by most members of our churches. For most of us, experience is subject to biblical correction, not the other way around.

Yet the second thing that must be said is that vocation is undeniably experiential in some way. These biblical stories, both OT and NT, tell us about experiences. Visions. Encounters. While this is not likely to make a compelling or persuasive case to others, I do not think there is anything to be gained by denying that we can experience, and have indeed experienced, the call of the Spirit in our lives. As my advisor at PTS puts it, rather academically, “one’s own experience is always rationally compelling.” We cannot expect these experiences to conform to a pattern any more than God’s calling of the prophets or Jesus’ calling of the disciples did. Neither can we deny that these experiences happen, without courting the dangers of self-deception and a denial of God’s initiative, God’s action, God’s presence, in this world.

Ecclesiology: the Call of the Church…or not.

The NT practice of the laying on of hands to impart the Spirit in preparation for the designation of individuals for specific tasks makes the connections between vocation, pneumatology and ecclesiology abundantly clear. We see in the NT that the Spirit is imparted both by the orderly mechanism of laying on of hands, and appears in places and people clearly outside-the-box—whereupon the response of the church was to accept this de facto vocation and lay hands on these Spirit filled persons in retrospect.

The role of the church in the vocation to professional ministry is clear in many denominations; for my husband, the formal process of ordination includes many committees composed of laypersons as well as clergy, the purpose of which is to, on behalf of the church, confirm or deny the presence of God’s call to service in the church. The church is seen, theologically, as Christ’s body and the dwelling place of the Spirit; so that it becomes the location where the work of the Spirit confirms itself. Vocation in these processes is therefore neither solely the individual’s experience nor the church’s prerogative; it is a combination of the two, both being seen as locations of the Spirit at work in the world.

Lacking such a process, we in the Churches of Christ have a much harder task in discerning the role of the church in vocation. The church is active in discerning vocation only occasionally, in the congregation’s process of hiring a minister, and each process is presumably somewhat unique to each congregation (though no doubt sharing significant similarity). The question under consideration in these processes is somewhat different; it is not, is this individual called to be a minister, but is this individual called to this ministry here. A local question, rather than a global one.

This process also takes place after the individual in question has had to wrestle with the question of vocation on their own, in deciding whether to pursue education and training and in deciding when and where to seek out employment as a minister. By the time our churches are involved in the discernment of vocation, the question has been settled by the individual for some time already. This means that, practically speaking, our churches play little to no role in the discernment of vocation to ministry. It is the burden of the individual to seek out confirmation of their call. It is my hope that you have found, as my husband and I did, people willing to serve this necessary function of the church for you; elders, professors, parents or friends willing to listen, advise, pray, and discern with you.

But our churches do play a role in affirming, or not, an individual’s discernment of their vocation by the simple and practical expedient of hiring or not hiring them. As women, we are perhaps more keenly aware than our male counterparts about this role of the church in affirming vocation to ministry because we cannot take that affirmation for granted. The number of churches in our fellowship willing to recognize the vocation of women to ministry is growing, but not faster than the number of women willing to answer the call to ministry. This brings us face-to-face with a theological dilemma: what do you do with a vocation to serve the church refuses to affirm?

I put this question bluntly because I think we need to be straightforward about it. It’s a problem. It’s a thorny problem without a clear answer. Does the lack of affirmation mean that we should doubt the veracity of our calling? No, not necessarily. Consider Jeremiah: called by God so undoubtedly that he experienced his call as a burning fire in his bones, but utterly unrecognized as called by the people he served; mocked, scorned, plotted against, thrown in prison…non-affirmed is a nice understatement. Yet neither we nor Jeremiah can doubt that he was truly called by God, and that he answered that call by serving the people who refused to recognize his ministry.

There are further questions to be asked, and practical, personal dimensions to this dilemma. How do you insist on your own calling by God without sounding arrogant, and self-serving? How do you balance the need to make a living and feed your kids and pay your school loans with the imperative to answer the call of God in your life, when you can’t find paid work in the ministry you feel called to?

I can’t answer these questions. But I want to return to the example of the NT church’s response to the presence of the Spirit in unexpected persons and places. The response of the church, once it was clear that the Spirit was present, was to accept and confirm the vocation of those people through baptism and the laying on of hands. Interestingly, though perhaps not too surprisingly, Campbell recognized the laying on of hands as a necessary ritual and even provided a short service format for it. As women, at this time, we are the unexpected. Part of our task, I believe strongly, is to make the fact of our vocation obvious, as obvious as was the calling of Nicodemus in the NT, as obvious as the vocation of Paul on the road to Damascus. The task of the church, I believe strongly, is to take notice; accept the presence of the Spirit in these unexpected persons and to confirm the work of God in us, through the laying on of hands and the affirmation of our calling. And the provision of work for hands that cannot remain idle.

Christology: imago Dei, imago Christi means women too

Finally: Christ, of course, is our example of what it means to answer the call into this mutual divine-human collaboration in the task of reconciling the world to God. This call is an inclusive one; this vocation is for everyone. This is what it means to be Christ-like, to put on Christ, and this is every Christian’s new identity through the rebirth of baptism. And what I want us to understand is that the vocation to be Christ-like is not the “broad” vocation out of which some special new vocation to professional ministry comes, as a different kind of vocation altogether, but that the calling to professional ministry is one particular form of being Christ-like. It is one way to enact the reconciling love of God to one another, within the context of the church, which is God’s people, the body of Christ, the community of the Spirit. Once we understand this, it is clear that those who receive this particular call must be free to follow it, for to not do so means not being the Christ-like Christian that we are all called to be.

I believe that this is the theological connection that we need to be making most strongly when we talk about vocation in our churches. If we can indeed show persuasively, not simply in our words but in our conduct and our determination, that our vocation is the vocation to faithfully follow Christ’s example, wherever it leads us—whether overseas into mission fields, into women's shelters, into classrooms, into our churches, our altars and our pulpits—then we can humbly persist in the audacious claim that we too are called, and we have no choice but to respond. And someday, I trust, our churches will respond with a recognition of our de facto vocation through the laying on of hands, and a blessing of our work.

[1] Nathan O. Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989), 71-73. Nathan O. Hatch, church historian at the University of Notre Dame, in his watershed book The Democratization of American Christianity uses Campbell’s movement as a prime example of democracy’s influence on American religion. He says that Campbell’s movement emphasized three aspects in this regard: 1) an exalted conscience of the individual over church organization, 2) a rejection of traditions of learned theology, and 3) a populist hermeneutic emphasizing individualistic interpretation of the New Testament.

[2] Alexander Campbell, The Christian System, in Reference to the Union of Christians, and a Restoration of Primitive Christianity, as Plead in the Current Reformation, 4th ed. (Cincinnati: H. S. Bosworth, 1866), 81-82.

[3] Alexander Campbell, “A Restoration of the Ancient Order of Things. No. XII. The Bishop’s Office.—No. 1.” The Christian Baptist 3, no. 9 (April 3, 1826): 232-33.

[4] Encyclopedia of the Stone-Campbell Movement, 403ff.

Monday, March 10, 2008

This past Sunday I again shared the privilege of preaching at Christ's Church for Brooklyn. Since CCfB podcasts sermons, I will not post the text here unless a) something went wrong with our technology or b) I decide I hated the delivery and would rather just have you read the text...

And check out Joe's sermons while you're at it!

Monday, February 25, 2008

just a quick sermon-related news flash: a revised version of the Canaanite woman sermon, first preached at West Islip Church of Christ in August 2005, is now published in Leaven with the title "Perfect Righteousness."

I can't help but add that I feel quite honored, not simply to have these words published, but to be included alongside women I have long admired, Katie Hays among them. It is a humbling privilege to be in such company.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The Cup of Water
preached Sunday, November 11, 2007 at Christ's Church for Brooklyn

“It’s Getting Better All the Time.” The first sermon series Joe preached asked the question, Melvin Udall’s question, “Is this as good as it gets?” And of course this second sermon series is a sort of answer…No! It’s not as good as it gets…it’s getting better, getting better all the time.

Which is why it’s weird, today, to preach a sermon on justice. Sermons on justice tend to be prophetic. They tend to be a little angry. They tend to be expressions of the kind of “holy discontent” Joe talked about in his first sermon here, expressions of the “I know this cannot be as good as it gets because this sucks!” variety. In fact, my confession for today is that—on this matter—I don’t see how “it’s getting better all the time,” at least, not if “better” means “getting more just.”

So why “justice,” now? It took me awhile to get my mind around this and what I finally realized was that I wasn’t supposed to preach a sermon on justice.

I was supposed to preach a sermon on being just.

What’s the difference, you might say. Just this: that talking about justice, as a concept, however powerfully and prophetically done, is talking about a final state of affairs that is so beyond us, so vastly different from what we know and expect of ourselves and each other, that we automatically talk about it passively. We wait for it. The day of the Lord, when everything will be made right. We wait for it, because the job is too big and too complicated and too difficult for us to understand or accomplish. The eschaton, the end of the ages, the Judgment Day, when Jesus comes back to judge the righteous and the wicked, and the righteous will be rewarded and all tears will be wiped away, and justice will reign. We wait for it, because it’s God’s job to come down and establish the justice and righteousness of God’s kingdom on earth.

But is it?

[Read text: Matt 25.31-36; unison, 37-39; 40-43; unison, 44; 45-6.]

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory…” Here we are, then, at the Judgment Day: and Jesus, who’s the Son of Man and who’s also a shepherd and also a king, Matthew got a little mixed with his metaphors here but it’s all good, is putting some people or maybe sheep over here on his right, some people or maybe goats over here on his left. And we all know what that means: the good people get what they deserve, and the bad people get what they deserve…now that’s “justice.” Praise God for the Judgment Day when finally everyone gets what they really deserve! When God finally gets around to sorting it all out properly! It was a long wait, but this was worth waiting for!

Is this God’s justice? Is this what this story’s all about?

I gotta tell you, I don’t think so. And it’s not just that I’m theologically uncomfortable with traditional doctrines of hell and eternal punishment (although, I confess, I am). No, there’s a lot about justice in this story, but it’s not located at the end. God’s justice is present, but it’s not about the end result. It’s not about who goes to eternal this or that. God’s justice is present, or absent, in the words and actions and lives of all those people gathered there in front of the throne of glory. It’s about who’s been just and who hasn’t…and no one in the story understands that.

No one gets it. Not even the good people on the right, and certainly not the bad people on the left. Not anyone. And not us either—who read this story and hear a parable of judgment and hellfire and brimstone and consider that God’s justice done. God’s justice is not the separating of the sheep from the goats, is not the reward of eternal life or eternal punishment. God’s justice is not about the judgment day, the end result, the tallying up.

God’s justice in this story is the cup of water.

And God’s justice is being done by people who don’t even know that that’s what they’re doing. Because they’re not concerned with “justice.” They’re not concerned with the final tally, the end result, with making sure that everyone gets exactly what they deserve in the end. They’re too busy being just, right now, in the moment.

They’re too busy meeting the needs they see all around them—those concrete, nonnegotiable, universal human needs that so heartbreakingly often go unmet. Food. Clean water. Shelter. Health care. Human sympathy and contact. “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or naked or sick or in prison?” Never. They never did. And every single time they encountered another human being in need. That’s Jesus’ answer, of course. “Just as you did it for the least of these, you did it for me.”

I’ve often heard this answer used to teach the lesson that we should strive to see Jesus in every person we meet. Now, I’m not saying we shouldn’t. It would probably mean a great deal of improvement in our social relations with a great many people if we could really do that. But I don’t think that’s what’s really going on in this exchange between the righteous and Jesus here. Jesus doesn’t say, “gotcha! that was just me in disguise, there.” No; instead, Jesus calls them “the least” in the world. Not the powerful Son of God, the king, in disguise. They really are the “least.” But these righteous cared for them anyway. Not because they saw Jesus, but because they saw need.

And what I hear in Jesus’ answer is that it doesn’t matter that they never saw Jesus in those hungry, thirsty, naked sick imprisoned people. It doesn’t matter that they didn’t see what they were doing as a service to God. It doesn’t matter that they didn’t think of themselves as God’s agents of divine justice and righteousness on earth. In fact, it seems to be to their credit that they didn’t, that they weren’t caught up in these questions. It seems to be to their credit that they were too busy being just to bother with questions about God’s justice, and who deserves help and who doesn’t, (and what in the end, will I deserve?) It seems to be to their credit that they were too busy being just to worry about when God’s justice will finally arrive, when everything will be finally made right, when they will finally get their reward, how long they will have to wait.

Me, I worry about these questions. Why? Because I’m a theologian. It’s my job to ask these questions and try to answer them. I ask these questions about justice and injustice, sitting in my office chair, in my home—my comfy, comfy Manhattan apartment. I think about all the injustice I have witnessed, heard about, read about. I think about the year I lived in Changsha, China, an American foreign teacher with a cushy job, a good salary, a travel allowance and a brand-new apartment provided with heat and A/C and a washing machine and no utility bill to pay…and how, from my kitchen window, I could see the construction workers from the countryside camping out under a tarp to sleep and washing themselves under a water spigot outside in the mornings, outside that nice new apartment they’d built for me. I remember how overwhelming that sight was, and how helpless it made me feel. What could I do for them? How could I even figure out what they really needed? How could I talk to people about how unjust it was that people would consider such a job good luck—coming into the city for months at a time, camping out in the heat and the cold away from their families, enduring cold and loneliness and, who knows what, for their lives were a mystery to me. How could I talk to people about the reasons behind such a situation? And what were those reasons? I wonder, why? Why are things this way? How did they get so messed up? How did we human beings make such a mess? And I wonder, how do we fix it? And what am I supposed to do?

Everything I see leads me to this sense of how immense the task is. Of how many people, in so many places, in Brooklyn and beyond, are squeezed and gripped and crushed by these systems and forces that I don’t understand, that seem to require the sacrifice of others on the altar of success and productivity and getting ahead in the world. And I freeze. Where do I start. What do I do. How do I do it. It’s too big for me. I don’t even understand how it all works really, so how can I act? Some people can’t see the forest for the trees; me, I can’t see the trees for the forest. I get lost in the hugeness of the problems I see. And I want to cry out, God, where are you? Why don’t you get down here and do your job already? There are hungry people here, thirsty people, lonely and sick and dying people, we need justice! How long do we have to wait?

I used to think that, somewhere out there, there were amazing and heroic people who understood these difficult things; these people knew what was going on, understood the big picture, understood the history and the politics and the economics and the red tape and knew the answers, and how to cut through the red tape to get stuff done. I used to think that my best shot would be to find those people, and learn from them, learn what they knew that I didn’t. And what happened is that I did find some of them. I found them here. Some of them are here today and some of them would be here, except that they’re off elsewhere, being just…

But what they know, that I’m still learning, is that in some sense being just is simple. It’s as simple as handing a cup of water to a thirsty person. And even though they’re completely aware of the enormous systems of injustice we human beings have somehow woven together, that seem so impervious to our tiny actions, these amazing heroic people, these righteous people, are out there handing out cups of water anyway.

Talk to these people. Learn what they do. If you don’t know what to do, ask them. They can tell you, not because they understand things so much better, but because they have learned that no matter how small you feel, or how little you think you know, you can do something. Because being just is sometimes as simple as a cup of water.

Casey’s blog used to have a quote from Ghandi up at the top. She’s changed it now, to something disappointingly philosophical by Kant, but it used to read, “Whatever you do will be insignificant, but it is very important that you do it.” A cup of water. It’s not the cure for all the injustice of this world. In that sense, it’s insignificant. But it is very important that you give it.

This kind of action takes faith. It takes faith because we don’t see how these cups of water make a dent in the injustice that grips our world. There’s no end to the needs that cry out to be met. The list is long. Just listen to the text: hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, lonely, imprisoned people. That’s a lot of need. It takes faith because we don’t get to see that big picture, we don’t see how that Day, when all needs will be met and all injustices righted, can possibly come. We don’t see how it’s getting better all the time.

Maybe you’ve felt, as I have this week, that this effort for the H2O project is small, insignificant in the face of all the need, all the injustices facing us. Maybe you’ve felt, as I have occasionally this week, that giving up coffee, or whatever it is you’ve given up, is just purely symbolic. Maybe you’ve felt, as I have, frustrated and a bit angry by all of this sacrifice, suspicious that in the end, it just isn’t enough. But Jesus says to us: I was thirsty, and you gave me water. We won’t see the thirsty people who receive the water our dollars help provide. We won’t be there in person to hand them that cup of water. We have to act in faith. That’s what being just requires.

It takes faith to believe that no matter how insignificant our acts of justice may seem to be, they are important. That no matter how small they are, they do have an effect. That what we do for the least of these, counts. That when we go about the daily, godly business of being just, those cups of water mean something. And they do. For the people who receive them, they mean life triumphs over death. For the people who receive them, they mean good triumphs over evil. For the people who receive them, they mean justice. They mean God’s righteousness.

We forget that. I forget that, when I sit in my apartment and think about injustice, asking my theological questions, feeling overwhelmed by the realities outside my window. I forget that no matter how enormous the problem of systemic human injustice is, each cup of water is a victory over it. Not total. Not once and for all. But real. For those who receive that cup of water, it is the triumph of God’s justice and righteousness—a taste, a foretaste, of what that ultimate day of triumph will be.

That’s what we learn from Jesus here. Justice doesn’t wait for the Judgment Day. Justice isn’t the business of the king. Justice is not meted out on brass scales at the end of the age. Justice is not something we receive. It’s something we do: not justice, but being just. In ways big, sometimes, but mostly, small. Being just is meted out in cups of water, in canned goods, in donated coats and hand-knitted caps for newborn babies, in long hours at hospitals and ESL classrooms and support groups. And in skipped sodas and caffe lattes and gallons of milk and beers, and coins collected in a blue plastic cup: all to give that insignificant, all-important cup of water to the least of these, who need it so badly.

And maybe, just maybe, that cup of water will enable someone to say, yes, Lord: things are getting better. Getting better, one person at a time.