Radical Gospel, Practical Church
This time next year I will not be leading a parish. For 45 years, I have been either preparing to go to seminary, in seminary, or ordained as a leader of an institution. For 33 years, I have been directly responsible as a rector for the affairs of parishes. What started out as a passion for the gospel of Jesus Christ came to include the workings of the church as well. My love for Jesus Christ took on the love of administration, finances, air-conditioning equipment, capital campaigns, staff management, and all manner of institutional operations. Seminary is part graduate school and part trade school. There students begin to get hints that parish ministry is not all about theological reflection. It’s also about dealing with people, committees, systems, buildings, money, and conflict.
Lately I’ve been reading scripture and various devotional materials with a deeper appreciation of just how radical the Gospel of Christ is. Jesus talks about including everyone. Everyone! Jesus talks about the physical and financial needs of the children of God. Jesus talks about loving those whom it is problematic to love, even our enemies. Jesus talks about making huge sacrifices for others. Jesus tells a rich man to sell his possessions and give everything to the poor and to come follow him. Wow! That’s out there.
Maybe because I’m now entertaining what it will be like not to be directly in charge of a parish, the message of Jesus is becoming more startling to me. 45 years ago that radical message drew me in. Now it is calling out to me once again with a new voice. All the years in between I think I’ve been trying to tame that message for a more palatable presentation to people in the pews. Necessarily perhaps, I’ve occasionally been more attentive to caution than the Gospel itself. The practicality of the institution of the church has come to be more important to me than the very message of Jesus which the institution is here to spread.
Couples fall in love and decide to make a radical commitment to their love for each other. They leave their families and cleave to one another. They take on the world together without much thought as to how they will get by. The only thing that matters is their love for each other. Then they begin to accumulate things. They get a car, a house, another car. Maybe a boat would be nice. They have a child, another, and maybe another. They build up some financial resources. They have careers which take a lot of time and work. And they get protective about what they have accumulated. In my early forties, one of my old friends commented to me about how conservative I had gotten. “I’ve got more to conserve,” I replied. “Somebody’s got to take care of this stuff.”
Taking care of stuff is vitally important. If we don’t maintain our houses and property, they will crumble around us. If we aren’t careful with our money, there won’t be enough of it to provide security. We can’t just hope things will be okay without working hard to be practical. Being responsible is more than admirable; it is downright necessary. But there’s more to life than being careful and responsible, right? We have to be practical but if that’s all we are, something is missing. What about the raw excitement of living and loving well? What about the very passion of human existence? Isn’t that what we’re here for?
Institutions are founded on ideas and ideals. Someone has an idea, a brainstorm, and a company gets built around it. Institutions tend to drift away from the originating idea and come to exist primarily to protect themselves. There’s the beginning product to sell; then there are the many salaries to pay and stores to maintain. Firms and practices begin with the notion of offering a service. But then there are fees to generate in order to pay for the equipment and people who perform the services. Businesses and firms often come to the point of maintaining their structures above and beyond the products and services they provide. We call that selling out.
Churches are founded on the radical inclusive love of Jesus Christ. We recruit more and more people to spread that radical message. And then we tend to start caring more about our structure and who we might offend if we actually live into what Jesus taught. In our own way, we sell out. The Gospel of Christ turns the world upside down. But churches worry more about the viability of our expression of the Gospel than the Gospel itself. We worry about who might leave instead of being true to our mission. We tend to lose our drive and just worry about steering.
There’s a little more freedom calling out to me as I think about retiring and not having to make sure this particular place is taken care of. I’m not thinking of selling everything and living on the streets. But I am, once more, getting a little more focused on the ideals of the Church even above the institution. I’ll always tithe and be loyal to the Episcopal Church that I love. But my heart is more attuned to the radical message that got me started on this church thing years ago.
What drew you into the church and the other important institutions in your life? As you carry out your practical responsibilities, remember what brought you to take those on. Receiving the love of God and giving it to the world isn’t always practical.
Robert C. Wisnewski, Jr.