O give thanks unto the Lord; for he is good: because his mercy endureth for ever.
Do not be too quick to condemn the man who no longer believes in God: for it is perhaps your own coldness and avarice and mediocrity and materialism and selfishness that have chilled his faith.
I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.
Lord Have Mercy
The prayer of 4th century St. Chrysostom concludes the service of Morning Prayer. It’s a beautiful statement of the power of prayer, written by someone revered by our church. But just about every time I say it, I’m reminded of the fact that the author of this prayer also wrote homilies attacking the Jewish community, sermons brimming with his day’s version of anti-semitism.
Episcopalians owe a great debt to Martin Luther, who inspired Thomas Cranmer as Cranmer assembled the Book of Common Prayer. Luther launched a much-needed reformation in the church and left a legacy of focus on God’s unconditional love, salvation not by our efforts but by the prevenient grace of God. But he also wrote hateful rants against his Jewish neighbors, vile material that often come to mind when I hear “A mighty fortress is our God.”
I was raised in a church with people steeped in scripture, people with deep prayer life. Yet as I reflect on my long life, among my vivid memories are numerous explicitly racist comments and attitudes from those same folks.
One of my earliest memories of Junior High Sunday School is a newsletter from some Christian publishing group that included an article by J. Edgar Hoover excoriating Martin Luther King, claiming he was a communist. I was young but I knew something was out of whack.
All of this came to mind as I shared the tears of a news commentator as the grand jury released results of its investigation into the Catholic Church in Pennsylvania. It described the abuse of more than a thousand children. I wonder how you reacted to the news. Was it news?
I learned recently that a pastor I admire resigned after accusations of sexual misconduct, inappropriate behavior in the sacred workplace. The Me-Too movement came to a church that taught me a lot.
All of it could be enough to make this priest a none (i.e., one of those folks in our culture who claim no religious affiliation). On any given day, we could find reason to make that move. All of it makes me realize that if we’re not outraged, we’re not paying attention. All of it calls into question the power of our faith. Is it as transformative as we say?
Of course, we can fall back on Luther’s line that we are saints and sinners at the same time. And I don’t mean to cast stones. We Episcopalians have built our own glass houses. I feel pretty certain that my foibles are probably neither newsworthy nor remarkable, but let me assure you they are there in full force. I know the dark places in my own heart where one could find racism, jealousy, judgmentalism, hypocrisy, indifference, resentment, schadenfreude, hankering for revenge. We need not go into detail. I generally keep them pretty well hidden. Let’s just say I’ve got a lot of spiritual work to do.
That is part of what draws me to St. Paul, and the letter he wrote to the Romans, where he said that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. He meant all, including and perhaps especially the most religious people of his day. Maybe he was preaching to himself. I also sense that he realized that there’s not that much difference between the best and the worst of us. What St. Paul knew, as he called himself the chief of sinners, is that the mercy of God is bigger than any of our shortcomings. The mercy of God binds the human community. Again, it includes all. It makes me realize why Jesus might have felt that the notorious sinners had more open ears to his message than did the really religious people of his day.
So what keeps me from becoming a none? I still believe that the church at its best can be an instrument to speak of mercy in a world that needs to hear that word. In the meantime, it’s a call to any of us who consider ourselves spiritual or religious to surrender any sense that we’re better than anybody else. And to cling with confidence to the one who modeled sinlessness. And to hold on to the hope that he will carry us to that day when we shall be where we would be, when we shall be what we should be, things that are not now nor could be then shall be our own.