It’s interesting the kinds of conversations that come up regarding the Church in casual situations like having coffee, lunch, a chance encounter in the grocery store, at a party; I’m talking about the capital “C” Church—the world-wide Church. There are a lot of criticisms about Church, and in my opinion, they have now become negative stereotypes.
You’ve likely heard some of these criticisms—now negative stereotypes. I’ve been asked in one way or another, or people have said to me: “How many people have been killed in the name of the Church—crusades, witch hunts, burnings?” “The Church is judgmental and condemnatory of those who are different, including different cultures, gender expressions and sexualities.” “Think about all of the sex abuse scandals and how the Church covered them up; how can you be a Minister?” “The Church is patriarchal, sexist and hierarchical, isn’t it?” “The Church promotes violence against the vulnerable.” “The Church promotes a prosperity gospel and tells those who are rich that they are especially blessed and those who are poor are judged by God.” “The Church tolerates the poor but does nothing to advocate against poverty.” Those are just a few of the stereotypes I’ve heard.
And if people are open to a conversation, then we’ll talk about some of the stereotypes and I can give my perspective with a sense of safety. If they’re not open and just want to lambaste the Church, well, I usually just walk away.
Certainly, the collective Church has much for which it needs to atone. There has been some effort at redressing some of the wrongs with apologies, services of repentance, financial compensation, the recently published names of pedophile priests in Vancouver, and other forms of accountability. And lest you think I’m going to point fingers, no denomination is free from culpability, including our own United Church of Canada.
But, as with any religion, when people want to criticize and stereotype, only part of the picture gets stated. The Church and other religious traditions have given us libraries, hospitals, communities of faith, protest movements, solidarity with the poor, a sense of being part of creation, educational centres and universities, wonderful architecture, an emphasis on being whole people, an emphasis on being in community, an economic program based on equality and sustainability, silence and meditation, prayer and healing, and the list goes on. And part and parcel running through all of this is humility; granted, sometimes the Church in its hubris does not practice humility, and that’s usually when we get into trouble.
There is an irony on a day like today in the Church—the end of the Church Year—a day described alternately as the Reign of Christ Sunday, the end of the Church year Sunday, The Kingdom of God Sunday. Images of kings and shepherds are prevalent. The Hebrew Scriptures reading ascribed for today, which we didn’t read, is Jeremiah’s prophecy that the leaders of Judea, i.e. kings of Judea, were not the shepherds of God’s people that were promised. Jesus is portrayed as The Shepherd, not an image that resonates with many of us other than how it connects with the Shepherd Psalm, Psalm 23: God is my shepherd… The irony of today is that it seems as if the Church is promoting a hierarchical sense of power on this last Sunday of the Church year when I don’t believe it is.
In fact, the reason why we’re emphasizing the prayer shawls today here—and blessed them earlier—is because this is an expression of who we are: humble service in prayerfully and intentionally knitting shawls so that those who receive them also receive a blessing and the intent of our community of faith for healing and connection to something deeper in the mystery of living: humble service and love.
There’s a hymn that we don’t sing very often because it is hard to sing and many don’t like it; it is Voices United, 210, and is called Christus Paradox by its author, Sylvia Dunstan and captures some of what I’m trying to say. In my youth, I sang it acapella and the harmonies are lovely; I quite like this hymn. The words and music were written together, and it is about paradox—the seeming contradiction—of how we describe Jesus’ identity. The opening verse reads:
You, Lord, are both lamb and shepherd.
You, Lord, are both prince and slave.
You peace-maker and sword bringer,
Of the way you took and gave.
You the everlasting instant;
You whom we both scorn and crave.
It is the idea that power is presented to us as it was to Jesus, and how we use that power says a lot about us and who we choose to be. We can exercise power-over as many in the world today are choosing—an authoritarian power, or we can exercise a power-with, a different kind of power born of humility and a sense of community. The paradox that is presented to us in our Christian context is that power is given us, but we are called not to hold it over people’s heads, but to accompany one another, welcome the power of being a human being in each other and live as holistically and gently together as we are able. And we model this way as we live in the world. Paul calls us to be ambassadors of humility and compassion.
The word that Jesus used on the cross with the one criminal who defended him—paradise—has received a lot of examination. In Greek, the word is paradeisos. Interestingly, the word came from Persia and meant “enclosure” or “park.” In Greek, paradise took on an idyllic meaning as, for example, the Garden of Eden. Hebrew and Aramaic, both of which Jesus spoke, did not take on this new meaning. And so, in Greek and in the early Church, which used a Greek Bible, this Greek sense of paradise became important, and it had 3 senses about it: the Garden of Eden is presented as God’s intention for the world—idyllic and peace-filled; 2nd, the age to come will be an age of paradise and bliss; and 3rd, paradise is with us in the present life we live and our challenge is to uncover it and live fully within this paradise here and now. So, paradise has the meaning of being something that is past, present and future. Jesus came to open us again to the paradise within and the inherent goodness of creation and all that has life. Hence, Jesus said to the criminal, “Today you will be with me in paradise.”
Today, the Church can live out of paradise and help people see paradise in the world in which we live, a paradise that is an expression of hope, compassion, peace, justice and ultimately divine love! That is our humble task: living out of the paradise of our lives and helping others see it around us… in this world, here and now.
And that is a joyous thing: paradise and seeking to live in the delight of it now. That is a way that is not about power-over nor about self-promotion. It is the way of servanthood and suffering with another. It is the way of earthly love and cosmic wonder. It is the way that builds community and deepens relationships of hope and trust. This is the Church that I’m part of, and the kind of paradise that I want to open up, and why we are using the word Kin-Dom these days instead of Kingdom to describe God’s intention for the world: the family of love. Blessings and Amen.