“Keep, O Lord, your household the Church in your steadfast faith and love,
that through your grace we may proclaim your truth with boldness,
and minister your justice with compassion.”
A few people have asked me how it feels to have our Centennial Celebration over with. I thought it was a terrific year, with all kinds of great ways of giving thanks and treasuring memories. It’s important for parishes to make time now and again to step back and celebrate ourselves. At the same time though, any church community only has a finite amount of attention and energy, and the vast majority of ours this past year has gone into the Centennial and its events. So I’m also really looking forward to this next year, when we can simply be a church, simply put energy and attention into the central things our life is about, like discipleship and worship and servanthood. Those are the things that, in the long run, move the ball down the field.
And as part of easing back into moving the ball down the field, I want to look at the collect this morning, and in particular the interesting request it makes of God, and how it sheds light on our style of being church here at Emmanuel. “Keep, O Lord, your household the Church in your steadfast faith and love, that through your grace we may proclaim your truth with boldness, and minister your justice with compassion.” What’s this about?
We ask God here to keep us his household the church, to make sure that as a community we stay, in his steadfast faith and love. God has to be the one who does that, because we of ourselves will lose focus and slip into other priorities. Human beings are not really that steadfast on our own, usually. But God is steadfast, and he will give us access to the space created by his steadfast faith and steadfast love if we want it and ask for it. We can stand inside that space of his, looking out from there. So if God does what we ask, and keeps us in that space, what does this prayer claim will be the result?
If you took our course on collects awhile back, you know that most collects have a result clause, which usually starts “that we may” or something similar. In other words, most collects tell us: if God answers this prayer, here’s what we expect to happen. In this one, it says that what we expect to happen if God keeps us, his household, inside that space of his steadfast faith and love, is that we will receive enough grace to “proclaim God’s truth with boldness, and minister God’s justice with compassion.” Now that is a beautiful and characteristically Anglican state for a church to be in, it’s a challenging balance to keep, and I think it’s a special gift that our time really needs. So it’s what I mostly want to take a look at this morning.
First, we might want to notice that the prayer presumes that there is such a thing as God’s truth and God’s justice. That it’s out there, in an objective way, and that what we hope will happen is that God makes us good carriers of it, good communicators of it. What’s a good communicator look like? Well, according to the Collect, we need two qualities that some people might think are opposite: boldness, and compassion. You might imagine a bold person as by definition non-empathetic, and a compassionate one as so empathetic that they never speak out, but here we’re hoping that God will make us both at the same time. As with so many things in Christianity, down to the very nature of Jesus, it’s a picture of two opposites uniting. Boldness and compassion. Not one or the other, not a muddy mix of the two so you don’t really have either, but both at the same time. Boldness, and compassion.
And we need both. If we fail to be bold about holding up God’s truth and God’s justice, we are denying people access to something infinitely precious. We don’t have a right to do that, to keep it for ourselves out of shyness or hesitancy. But if we hold up God’s truth and God’s justice clearly, we urgently need compassion, to be able to listen to other people, to be able to make room for other ways of seeing things, to care about what real people are really going through rather than caring only about our ideas. So this prayer asks that as we live our life as God’s household of faith, we do not one or the other, not 50/50, but 100% of both at the same time. Boldness and compassion.
Many of you have heard me talk before about a model that I think expresses this well, from the anthropologist Paul Hiebert, who borrowed a mathematical category to analyze churches as either bounded sets or centered sets. A bounded set is a group of people defined by a boundary along the edges that separates those who are inside from those who are out. Most human groups are bounded sets. Think of a horse corral. The horses are all inside the same fence; if they’re inside they get fed and cared for, and any outside horses have to be tamed first and accept the norms of life inside. Churches that function like this use some aspect of Christianity as their fence. It might be a doctrine they promote, it might be a behavior they expect, it might be a political position they let govern how they read Scripture. That’s a bounded set.
The other model Hiebert describes is a centered set. In a centered set, there is no fence defining “us” over against “them.” The set doesn’t get its identity not from a boundary you have to get past first to belong and be “in”; it gets its identity from what is at the center. There is something so compelling at the center of this kind of collection of people that that center, not an in or out boundary at the edge, is what defines and connects them. So involvement is not based on needing to check some particular box so you can cross the boundary at the edge. The key question is not whether I am in or out, but how am I relating to the center? People can just begin participating no questions asked, and they are always free to be who they are, standing at different places, moving towards the center at their own pace. Those who are drawn most powerfully by the center will probably be fairly involved with each other too, but those relationships are a byproduct. All different kinds of people will be in the gathering because all kinds of people find the center so magnetic, but that diversity is a byproduct.
And that’s essentially how the Episcopal Church at our best tries to do business, and certainly the way that at our best we try to do business at Emmanuel. At our best, we don’t act like a bounded set where you have to agree with certain ideas or behave certain ways first; no, we just host this radiant center of life in Jesus Christ that functions like a magnet. That’s where the boldness comes in: We don’t apologize for the historic Creeds, or rewrite the story of the universe that Christians have been telling for centuries in our Eucharistic Prayers. We don’t shy away from setting forth the classic practices of the church like loving your neighbor whoever they are, tithing 10% of your income to charity, or treating being at weekly Mass as a non-negotiable part of your life. We don’t shy away from taking Scripture seriously -- which means, incidentally, that we don’t view the Bible as an interesting historical document full of ideas modern people have grown out of, nor do we treat it as a container full of isolated verses picked out like fortune cookies to prove what we already think (whether the verse someone cherry-picks is from Leviticus or from Romans). We treat Scripture as a sacred library that when read as a coherent whole, in context, in faith, and in obedience, speaks to us as the Word of God, and we don't apologize for honoring it in that way.
Those are just some of the things that are at the center for us – the Creeds, the classic practices of Christian faith, the Bible, the sacraments – but there’s more. In short, there’s a pretty solid proclamation here at Emmanuel and we don’t apologize for that. But none of it functions as a boundary to keep people outside. These thing are not a fence, they’re a beating heart. And that’s where the compassion comes in. We don’t say “if you aren’t giving away 10% of your income yet, you’re not a real Christian.” We don’t say “if you’re not sure you believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus, you can’t worship with us.” We don’t say “if you aren’t ready to obey the Bible taken as a whole, you’re not welcome.” That’s not how the deep truths and the classic practices of life in Christ function for us at Emmanuel. They function as the radiant center of the life of the church, the magnet that draws our hearts, but not everybody situates her or himself at the same place with regard to them. We feel the tug of that center in different ways, and thus we’re in different places.
And of course if we can be compassionate when people are not the same distance from the center on vitally important issues like what it means to say that the Bible is the Word of God, then we can also be compassionate on lesser issues like political differences, varying opinions on hot button issues in the church, and so on. We try to build a community where you can sit in the pew with someone with whom you deeply, deeply disagree on something that the world, or some other church that functions as a bounded set, might treat as a fence and say if you disagree on this point, you can’t be part of the same household. A community where you can sit across from someone whose opinions you think are wrong, but still be united with them by your both being drawn to that same radiant center of Jesus Christ manifest at the altar.
I’ve heard many stories of how that has worked here at Emmanuel over the years, and I hope that we always remain committed to be that kind of community despite all the polarizing forces that are pushing us not to, both in society and in the church. The world needs to see that this kind of unity is possible – and it is possible, through the power of our Lord answering today’s prayer: “Keep, O Lord, your household the Church in your steadfast faith and love, that through your grace we may proclaim your truth with boldness, and minister your justice with compassion, for the sake of our Savior Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.”