I saw a news item headline the other day: “When a university operates as a business, education suffers.” If you saw the same item and read it, you are already one step ahead of me – because I never read the article. That phrase prompted another which filled my thoughts:
“When church operates as a business, God suffers.”
That thought spins around another that is ”buzzing in my bonnet”. The thought of faith and how we each live our faith. Do we live a faith of sight, or a faith of the impossible?
Do we assess what is possible, what is likely, what is within the capabilities (or not) of our congregation? Do we “know” the strengths and weaknesses of this resource called a “congregation”? Do we “know” the strengths and weaknesses of the ministers, their time availability, their own “ministry preferences”, the political climate of the hierarchy – who will say yes (and no) to what? Do we “know” what will succeed and fail based on our many years of seeing things fail around the church we are trying to keep alive? Do we “manage” the building and funds and expenses, the numbers of bums on seats, the sensitivities of those who contribute through the offering plate? Do we “know” what will work and what will not? And do we enforce that “faith” so hard-earned over the years?
Is our faith based on “seeing”, or is it based on God Soft Hands Jesus in each one He invites to follow Him? Do we prefer the control of knowing – or embrace the absence of control? Do we embrace His will and His love and His guidance – and do we ever “embrace” our absence of comprehension? And do we prefer to “follow” comfortably – or without pre-conditions?
I am seeing a lot of the former and little of the latter.
“For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. ‘You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not murder”; and “whoever murders shall be liable to judgement.” But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, “You fool”, you will be liable to the hell of fire. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.” Matthew 5:20-26
Week after week we look down our noses at the “baddies” we call the scribes and Pharisees. Year after year I have been brought up “knowing” the scribes and Pharisees are the baddies. They always have been and the always will be. Not like us! It is one of the “Christian traditions” we nurture. And yet I wonder …
They are just like us. They had their “traditions” they nurtured and protected. They “knew” so much about what was and what was not possible. The “knew” the law, the scriptures, the buildings, the hierarchy, the politics, the preferences and the weaknesses. They lived to keep things going as they must and should. They resisted those – like Jesus – who was “spirit led” – who advocated a different way – who challenged. And we mock them for having a faith based on “religion” rather than “God”. We deem them the baddies because they prefer to do things as they always did rather than as “they should have done”.
And yet we do all that – whilst running the church as a pseudo-business. Worrying about the roof, who will pay for it, how we can raise more money to fix it. Worrying about falling congregations … the “young folk” being so switched-off to God … the age of our elderly and the absence of vigour and energy and physical ability to “get out there and bring more in” … about a decreasing rump of committed diehards keeping things going against all the odds.
Is it just me or does no one else see the back-biting, the dismissal of others, the “if your face fits”, the earning of seniority that goes with all of that? Am I the only one who feels excluded, isolated, viewed as dangerous? Are there not others who see God is missing at a real and intimate level … the bit where ego is absent? The bit where we do not send uncomfortable issues “into the long grass” with the time-honoured “we should all commit this to prayer and see how God speaks” (so often to be forgotten – or to be picked-up by someone else more expendable than “me”). Or is that the exclusive domain of politicians?
Because – just as with politicians – soft voices and kind smiles are the default response. We prefer that to love. And yes – the back-biting happens with “love” for God and kingdom work (so long as only those we trust hear our words!). Which also means that the “road-blocks to change” are tolerated and left unchallenged. Which also means that the mini-empires are so often the status quo. And is that NOT so much like business, so much like politics, so much like the stuff we switch-off to in our “everyday lives” – our lives which do not include an everyday God?
And that – for me – is Faith By Sight. The faith of the possible. The faith of membership. The faith of comfort.
So I no longer see the scribes and Pharisees as the cultural and religious baddies. I see too much of them in myself, in others. I see that embedded culturally – being so much of the “Christian tradition” we pass on to new members. That we test for false teaching (or different teaching?). And for which we work so hard to keep the same – whilst telling ourselves we cannot change things because no one (but “me”) wants change. And that is (perhaps) why we always end up managing God out of real people who are “church” – just as the scribes and Pharisees managed God out of the temple and Jesus to the cross.
And the only loving alternative I can find is the one that Jesus showed us in these same verses.
He made this personal. He made this relationship. He made this one-one. He cut through the crap. And whether he was speaking to a rich man or a bunch of scribes and Pharisees – the challenge was the same – the invitation was the same: do you want to manage God – or just surrender to the love of God?
Because something “God in another” made simple for me is this: a calling is a solitary and intimate conversation between me and my God. BUT the “doing” – the living and loving of that “called vocation” – is ALWAYS with others. Always With Others in love. Love Without Fear. Unconditional Love. The Love of God Soft Hands Jesus. The bit where miracles happen. Faith without sight.
So my question is simple: why do we default to “scribes and Pharisees” … and why do we never allow that conversation to come “too close” – “too real” – “too personal”? Because that puzzles me as well …
Just how different is THAT to the “scribes and Pharisees” we read about here?