"Send out Your light and Your truth, that they may lead me, and bring me to Your holy hill and to Your dwelling." Psalm 43:3

Friday, March 15, 2013

Echoes of Jeremiah

"For wicked men are found among my people ... They are fat, they are sleek, they also overlook deeds of wickedness; they do not plead the cause, the cause of the orphan that they may prosper; and they do not defend the rights of the poor.  Shall I not punish these people?" declares the LORD, "On a nation such as this shall I not avenge myself?"
"An appalling and horrible thing has happened in the land: the prophets prophesy falsely, and the priests rule on their own authority; and My people love it so!  But what will you do at the end of it?"
~Jeremiah 5:26a, 28-31

Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, "Amend your ways and your deeds, and I will let you dwell in this place.  Do not trust in deceptive words, saying, 'This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD.'  For if you truly amend your ways and your deeds, if you truly practice justice between a man and his neighbor, if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, or the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place, nor walk after other gods to your own ruin, then I will let you dwell in this place, in the land that I gave to your fathers forever and ever.  
"Behold, you are trusting in deceptive words to no avail.  Will you steal, murder, and commit adultery, and swear falsely, and offer sacrifices to Baal, and walk after other gods that you have not known, then come and stand before Me in this house, which is called by My name, and say, 'We are delivered!' -- that you may do all these abominations?  Has this house, which is called by My name, become a den of robbers in your sight?  Behold, I, even I, have seen it," declares the LORD.
~Jeremiah 7:3-11

This Lent, the Daily Office lectionary has been taking us through the book of Jeremiah.  The above passages are but two examples of a theme that runs all through the book.  Judah is being condemned for two great sins:  committing injustice toward the poor and oppressed, and turning away from the LORD after other gods. It seems to me that both are a problem in the Church today, though in different places, as it were.  (I am aware that in what follows, I am speaking in generalities; there are always exceptions to the rule.)

Mainline Protestant churches, such as my own Episcopal Church, have for some time had a distinct emphasis on seeking to promote and uphold social justice.  This is as it should be.  But in some cases, that emphasis has become so central that it has pushed orthodox doctrine to the side, as a thing secondary, or even unimportant (and in some instances, incredibly, basic tenets of Christian doctrine are viewed as problematic, something to be gotten rid of).

Some more 'conservative' churches, such as the many evangelical and non-denominational fellowships, have done well in seeking to remain faithful to God in the midst of a secular society that is increasingly unabashed in expressing scorn for the scandalous and exclusive claims of Christ and His Church.  But these same churches can be guilty of inadequately addressing the needs of the suffering, poor, and outcasts, since we seek another country, and anyway the poor you will always have with you.

I think in order to be the Church, we must duly attend to both concerns.  According to the Catechism of the Episcopal Church, "The Church is the community of the New Covenant.  The Church is described (in the Bible) as the Body of which Jesus Christ is the Head and of which all baptized persons are members" (BCP, pg. 854).  This then, is our identity.  It is found, fundamentally, in the person of Jesus Christ.  To move away from this identity, to relegate or downgrade as non-essential the basic doctrine of the catholic, apostolic faith, is to cease to be the Church and to become simply another charitable organization.  Such an organization may draw its inspiration from the example of a really good guy who showed us how we should live, but it is also an organization that, frankly, is not nearly so efficient as some other entities that also exist to address issues of social justice and the common good.  Social justice is not the definitive mark of the Church, but is rather an essential outgrowth of our identity as a community that has been brought, and is ever growing more, into unity with God in Christ.  In the words of the Catechism, "The mission of the Church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ."  Certainly, working for social justice is integral to bringing people into unity with each other, but I think this distinction between the identity of the Church and the mission of the Church is important; we must not put the cart before the horse.  However, where the mission is not being pursued, I think we may justly question the authenticity of the identity.  We should keep James's biting criticism of faith without works ever before us: If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, and one of you should say, 'Go in peace, be warmed and be filled,' and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that?  And our Lord himself reserved His harshest condemnations for those 'Pharisaical' hypocrites, of whom Isaiah prophesied, This people honors Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me.

Admittedly, this is difficult.  The call to live faithfully as the Church Militant always will be difficult, but we have the consolation that God is in our midst, and through Christ we can do all things.  May He give us grace both to hold fast to Him, our first love, and to ever "strive for justice and peace among all people", faithful in  the ministry of reconciliation that has been entrusted to us.

Gracious Father, we pray for thy holy Catholic Church.  Fill it with all truth, in all truth with all peace.  Where it is corrupt, purify it; where it is in error, direct it; where in anything it is amiss, reform it.  Where it is right, strengthen it; where it is in want, provide for it; where it is divided, reunite it; for the sake of Jesus Christ thy Son our Savior.  Amen. 


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