Monday, August 04, 2014

Making disciples: relationships

Hebrews 11:32-12:2

“Progress should mean that we are always changing the world to fit the vision; instead we are always changing the vision.”  G.K. Chesterton

"Living in community requires commitment, responsibility, and accountability to and for all its members."  UMC Bishop Sandra Steiner Ball, WV

In other words, living in community requires "relationships"; real attachments to one another.  So I believe we can agree relationships are the foundation of any community; and while the marital relationship should top the list (it grounds the family, stabilizes our society, and teaches children about the importance of relationship, earnest commitment, and appropriate examples of love), there are other relationships we must necessarily take note of.

In the coming weeks we will examine relationships and how these relationships inform us, teach us, nurture us, comfort us, and whenever necessary, correct us - all for the sake of "making disciples".  So if we are involved in any type of relationship that does not strengthen our sense of community as The Body of Christ, it is probably a relationship best left unattended. 

As it has so often been said, there is no such thing as a life without sacred value - value not only to The Lord and His Church but to society as a whole - including those incarcerated.  Everyone has purpose, and every life has meaning.  In fact it has been inferred by theologians and sociologists that the value of our own lives is intimately and intrinsically connected to the value we assign to the lives of others.  So as we seek to enrich the lives of others by affirming their sacred worth, our own sacred worth is affirmed as well.

Before we can examine the relationships we enjoy today and the relationships worth pursuing, however, I believe there is a much broader relationship we are part of as The Church, a relationship we often take for granted.  It is the relationship which exists primarily in the Scriptures, connections to our common past in the "great cloud of witnesses" (Heb 12:1).  And as we often take these biblical "giants" for granted, we certainly do not take note of spiritual heroes (often referred to as "saints") who helped to shape, teach, and clarify the fullest meaning of The Gospel through the life of The Church.

Pope Francis is getting a lot of attention because he does not fit the typical "pope profile".  He is more easily accessible than many of his predecessors, and he seems willing to answer questions without preparation.  And while he is often misunderstood (who isn't?) because his remarks are often taken out of context (whose aren't??), or something gets lost in the language translations, when read carefully he is forthright and intentional about faith, community, The Lord, The Church, and the sacred value of every living creature - including Protestants! - and human institutions ... another example of the many relationships we often take for granted.

Pope Francis was especially taken to task (and ultimately misunderstood) by so many conservative "talking heads" when the pope released his encyclical, "The Joy of the Gospel" (English translation), which addressed economic issues as well as others - all relative to how we deal with one another.  The pope was chastised as a "socialist" because, while he lifted up business as "a noble vocation", he nevertheless challenged people of business to look beyond profit margins and embrace their responsibility to the Kingdom of Heaven, emphasizing the "social function" of property beyond that which is primarily considered "private" and available only to the highest bidder.

This understanding of human relationships which appreciates the value of good business is the same accountability that chastises us when we seek to exploit any human person in any manner for the sake of profit margin.  So even in business, that seemingly most heartless of human institutions that focuses primarily on numbers and money, it is still about "relationships".  The pope rightly questioned, "How is it not news when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is [big] news when the stock market drops two points?"

When Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected as the Bishop of Rome, he took for himself the name "Francis" in honor of 12th-century St. Francis of Assisi who was canonized (declared a saint) in the 13th century.  What is so note-worthy of St. Francis for the pope and the contemporary Church is not only his deliberate "conversion" from a life of wealth and privilege to a life of poverty and service, but also a vision he encountered at a country chapel just outside of Assisi (Italy) in which Messiah told him to "go and repair My house which, as you can see, has fallen into ruins."

It is said that St. Francis first took this vision to mean that particular church where he was praying and its physical well-being.  Using his father's resources, then, he restored that chapel (against his father's wishes); but this is when the final straw came by which St. Francis fully and completely renounced his family's wealth, and even the clothing on his very back which had come from that wealth.

Without going into a lot of historical detail, it is enough to know that from this moment in St. Francis' life, he devoted his entire being to The Lord and to The Church, understanding that to "repair" The Lord's house did not strictly mean its physical structures.  "The House" to which the Lord referred was "the Church"; that is, the Body of Christ, the community of faith. 

In this "repair", the relationships often marginalized in society were (and still are) in desperate need of rebuilding and restoring.  St. Francis chose to restore from the "bottom" of the social barrel.  This vision is shared by Pope Francis who believes it is the necessary vision and task of The Holy Church.

These deliberate and faithful choices made by a man who "had it all" at one time are sufficient for St. Francis and many others to be included in the "great cloud of witnesses"; up there with Noah, Abraham, Moses, and King David, to name only a few.  These and so many more had the strength and courage borne of faith that reminded them - as we are to be reminded - that our lives, however grand or seemingly inconsequential, belong to the Kingdom of Heaven - meaning we belong to one another. 

Including Jesus in this company of the "great cloud", however, takes a turn we are not entirely comfortable with, if at all.  St. Francis did not have a vision of Moses or King David.  St. Francis' vision was entirely about Messiah and all Messiah would ask of him in "running with perseverance the race which is set" before us all; the same race set before The Church, Christ in the world today.

This "race" is entirely about "community" and relationships which anchor the community in all that matters, all that really makes a difference in our lives - or more importantly, all that will make a difference in the lives of those whom we consider to be ... beneath us.  St. Francis was once at the top of the social order, but he soon found himself dangerously entangled with the trappings of "empire" rather than the blessings of "kingdom".  St. Francis chose The Kingdom by choosing the "least among us".

Pope Francis seems to be following in that very Franciscan ideal of "repairing" The Lord's House (even though this is the first Jesuit pope), but not strictly the buildings.  This pope has challenged the very institution which was once in its great and rightful heritage socially scandalous and radical in obedience to The Lord and in faithfulness to the Gospel; "scandalous" in rejecting the social norms of a secular society, and "radical" in welcoming all, especially those who did not seem to belong anywhere else. 

It is not necessary to try and reinvent the wheel.  It is the relationship shared by the biblical giants as well as the saints of the past we must reconnect with, embrace, and build upon.  It is The Relationship which has endured much persecution and has withstood many attempts to undermine or even destroy it.  It must also be noted that no one who kept to themselves in their personal spirituality was ever at personal risk for the sake of the Gospel.  The risk always comes from within active, dynamic relationships; the risk to love completely rather than socially, conditionally. 

Relationships matter; but new relationships must be built upon from the "great cloud of witnesses" that has faithfully blazed the trail, each connected to the other in The Lord; for it is our past that connects us to our future.  Amen.  

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