WLSU: Audacity and Humility
In my first parish job, my rector told me it takes audacity and humility to be a priest. He said it take audacity to actually believe that the God who made all things has called you to preach and administer sacraments, to speak in God’s name. Who do we think we are? And it takes humility, he continued, because once you’re called you have to get out of the way of the Holy Spirit.
13 years into this work and I think he was right. I also think that this combination of audacity and humility is not something that is confined to priesthood. It seems to me that it takes audacity and humility simply to be Christian. It takes audacity to believe that there is a God who made every single thing in all of the history of the vast creation and that this God knows and loves you. It also takes humility to be a Christian, because you are admitting that you cannot do this life all on your own, that you need help, that there is something out there that is bigger and stronger and smarter than you, that you may be beloved, but so is everyone else. The audacity and humility of a Christian life.
What I did not know, and could not know early on in my ministry, is that this tension between audacity and humility would be messy and uncertain, and that it would reveal itself in all aspects of the work. I thought, for instance, that I would spend my entire ministry above the fray of politics.
For most of my priesthood I have not considered myself a political preacher. We all know preachers with that label. In the Episcopal Church we usually code them as social justice preachers, but we know what we mean: We mean people who bring a political perspective to the pulpit. I actively sought to avoid politics in my preaching and teaching until just a few years ago.
Jesus changed my mind.
Because Jesus is political. I do not mean that Jesus of Nazareth campaigned in elections, led demonstrations, or endorsed specific people for leadership. He did not do those things. He was not, as some have cleverly called him, a community organizer – at least not in our contemporary understanding of that term. Yet, throughout the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ public life and ministry, it is made clear that his teachings have political implications.
Jesus taught consistently about the value and belonging of every single person, and he criticized the people and the powers that sought to undermine that value and belonging. Do you believe that the way our culture is currently structured fully promotes that value and belonging? If you don’t, then your belief in Jesus puts you at odds with the political status quo.
I really hated admitting this for many years, but any serious reading of the text makes it undeniable. Jesus’ teachings, miracles, ministry – his very presence - were all inherently political and had political implications. We know this. His life and work were an affront to the established status quo and they got him killed. Let me say that again: Jesus’ message, his miracles, the implications of his teachings were not compatible with the status quo of the world around him, and he was killed specifically because he was seen as a threat to that status quo.
The Christian insistence that Jesus is Lord is political. It was coined in a time and place when, as a rule, Caesar was Lord. Paul, a Roman citizen, insisting that our primary citizenship is in heaven is a political statement. We are Christians before we are Americans. That is a political reality for anyone who has been baptized. The fact that the communities Paul and other Christians created were so heavily persecuted was because they were seen as a political threat.
It is safe, by the way, for us to say Jesus and his followers were a threat to the status quo way back then once upon a time. Then we don’t have to acknowledge that they are a threat to our status quo here and now. That’s why the question “What would Jesus do?” is so safe: It suggests that Jesus was a mere historical figure whose story is confined to the past and we can wonder and meditate on what Jesus might do today if he were here.
But Jesus is Lord right now. And we are followers of Jesus. We are not just history buffs or Jesus fans appreciating who he once was. We worship the living God and seek to be modern day disciples of the living Son, Jesus Christ. By means of our baptism, we don’t ask what Jesus would do if he were here: We ask what Jesus is doing, and then seek to follow Jesus into that work, to walk the way of love, to participate with God in the healing of the world.
And if we think politics won’t be a part of that work, then we don’t believe Jesus is Lord of our whole lives: We just keep Jesus as Lord of the little areas of our life we classify as spiritual. If we don’t think that following Jesus has political dimensions, we are kidding ourselves.
How then could I not allow politics into my priestly vocation? As Archbishop Tutu has pointed out, staying silent on social issues is itself a political statement – it is a quiet complicity with and ascent to the status quo. It is also a theological statement: My silence as a Christian leader tells people that God is silent on the things that affect their lives so deeply. Do you believe God is silent about homelessness? Do you believe God is silent about racism? Do you believe God is silent about the structures of the communities we create, the inequalities we accept?
Right. Neither do I.
So we speak up. And this is audacious.
The Gospel teaches us that every single person on this earth is beloved, is belonging, is made in the image of God and imbued with inherent dignity. Every single person is made from love and is made for love. To proclaim this Gospel in its fullness and difficulty is audacious.
To acknowledge the political implications of Christ’s life and ministry is audacious. It’s also dangerous. And you might think I mean it’s dangerous because of the potential for persecution or losing friends – and yes that’s real. But part of why it’s dangerous is simply that we can get it wrong so often.
I have found myself getting it wrong. A lot. When I venture into the political implications of the Gospel, sometimes I say things that are true that you may need to hear even if they challenge, frustrate, or anger you. And sometimes I say things that are just wrong, short-sighted, narrow-minded, even unkind. At times I think I am being a truth teller when I’m actually just being an ideologue. Sometimes God’s politics look an awful lot like my own, and it is hard to fess up to that. Who wants to admit they have made God in their own image?
This is where humility shows up, if we’re willing to let it. To stand up and speak the truth as best we can and get it wrong sometimes, and then stay in community with each other and hold and be held in mutual accountability; to practice love and repentance and forgiveness and joy. That takes audacity and humility. Really, it takes courage: The courage to be imperfectly ourselves and to live in community with authenticity and love.
I do not personally believe that a political proclamation of the Gospel should be rooted in progressivism or conservatism, to party affiliation or ideological identity. If our proclamation seeks to be obedient to and patterned after Jesus it should be rooted and grounded in love. The unconditional love of God as embodied and proclaimed in Jesus Christ is the central truth of our lives. If it is not the central truth of our Christian witness, we are wasting everyone’s time.
Tags: Rector's Blog