The reflections I shared with you last week on the vast, complex social structures and enterprises that undergird our ability to actually live a life largely free from fear of crime, invasion, and starvation had a concluding reflection that I didn’t mention. Hot on the heels of my considering the relationship of our fleet of nuclear submarines and bombers to my ability to walk the streets in safety came the question — how does what I am doing now – and how does the institution that I now serve – the Church – fit into that picture. At times in my life I have been a cog in that machinery, 32 years engaged in either law enforcement or in support of law making. But it is hard to see that anything I do now is as concretely useful as the work of the guys who daily carry away the trash we put out for pickup.
Note I didn’t say it wasn’t there, but that it is hard to see. It is hard to see because it is invisible. The essential – the quintessential – the unique calling of the church is in the realm of thought – of ideas. Look around you. Unless you are in the midst of an untouched part of the Amazon jungle everything around you, without exception, existed as an idea before it existed as a thing or a process. What makes a thing or a process good or evil begins with the ideas from which it is formed. The role of the church is the role of the old testament prophets, which is to prophesy – not meaning to predict the future except to the extent that predicting the future simple means pointing out the inevitable outcomes from courses of action – to pronounce judgment on ideas as good or evil. Jesus is in that tradition, but he radically transformed it from one that saw God as judgmental and wrathful to God as generous, loving and forgiving, caring even for the birds of the air. He upended the rules of human behavior from a stress on strict adherence to thousands of rules regulating every detail of daily living to a stress on treating others as you would want to be treated and forgiving others of their faults as much as you would want to be forgiven.
That is, I think, the meaning of the words in the creed “he will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.” The church is that second coming, born on Pentecost, and judges now, not at some future apocalyptic time when Jesus comes back with a sword to slay people – what a grotesque thought – but as the prophetic voice in the world now, every day, and in every generation.
Admittedly what makes it even harder to see, is the contradictory nature of the statements that are made by so many who claim to be expressing God’s will. I don’t mean just the many self-appointed preachers who so often proclaim a wrathful, punishing God, but also the division within long established religious traditions, whose pronouncements about things as good or evil couldn’t be more diametrically opposite.
Yes, the Church engages in tangible acts, like distributing food, clothing and other essential items to the poor, but if it never gave out another slice of bread, it has that higher calling, to be the constant voice of ideas countering the endless stream of satanic ideas that seem to never stop springing forth in glittering and enticing form, like “greed is good.” It is recognition and acceptance of that high calling to make a just and peaceful world that makes a person “High Church,” a term wrongly associated with but actually having nothing to do with an affinity for formal liturgy. The liturgy is only a means to an end, to continually recreate, inspire and strengthen us – by hearing the scripture lessons and praying the prayers – to “carry on Christ’s work of reconciliation in the world” (BCP pg 855).
I closed the loop on that reflection on my way home from Richmond three weeks ago by still finding meaning in my current supporting role as the verger and property manager at one small corner of the whole church – a role aptly characterized by Larry Keller, one of the former Assistant Vergers at the Washington Cathedral, as “the butler in the house of God.” I’ve come to understand what Larry meant from the character Mr. Carson on the TV series “Downton Abbey.”
“O God of unchangeable power and eternal light; look favorably on your whole church, that wonderful and sacred mystery…”
Ron Hicks, Parish Verger, St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, Washington DC, 7-July-2015.