Preach It!

"Preach it, brother!" I thought as our parish priest stood in the pulpit last Sunday and skewered some of the parish's worst habits. He did it neatly and nicely and, I thought, with considerable grace and love, but he was also being forthright, which is exactly what the parish needs. A parish, like any other human institution, has a distinct personality of its own, and its own habits, some of them good, others not. Parishes, like people, need their Lenten seasons to examine the Word and their own conduct and see how the two of them line up. And sadly, my own parish hasn't been very good about doing this in the past. We have had some very bad habits, I'm afraid: gossip; the careful tending of grudges; snit-taking; hypersensitivity to perceived slights, neglect or criticism; and a highly selective approach to repentance ("*you* should repent; I'm fine just as I am.") Scapegoating has tended to be the parish sport. Certainly we have serious work to do.

My favorite theologian (hi Ma!) says that we should concentrate on our own sins and not on the sins of others, and she is quite right, and if we all did this all the time, parishes like mine would be healthy, happy places. But I have to admit that sometimes, the politics around here make my palm get all itchy to swat someone --more usually several someones. I mean, how the heck can we sit in our old oak pews week after week, and hear the Word preached and preached well, and never seem to see that it actually applies to *us*? Why can't we perceive that we are not necessarily at the center of everyone else's universe? that those words about loving your neighbor as yourself were meant to be practiced at our own kitchen tables, Monday through Saturday as well as Sunday?

What is it about some of us Christians, that we can do such a really lousy job of putting this stuff into action?

The answer, I suppose, is obvious. We draw a line between the sacred and the secular, supposedly to protect the sacred from pollution: God forbid that real life should contaminate the purity of our faith. God forbid that we should care about what we do to others in the name of faith--what cruelties or exclusions we practice, supposedly for the good of the other's soul. But that line means that the sacred doesn't invade the secular, either. Church is for Sundays, but it's not Real Life. The Gospel exists for a few minutes during the service, and then we can put it back on the shelf, like an old wax doll, too precious to be played with except for an hour on Sunday.

But the line between sacred and secular is strictly our doing. God spills over it, just as the wind spills across the border between my country and yours, just as rain doesn't give a hoot about international boundaries. God is not merely on Sundays; God is about our ways and our paths, as close to us as the air. And God knows where each of our words comes from and where it goes and what effect it will have on those who hear it. Which is pretty staggering, if you think about it.

Knowing us all that well, God lovingly invites us to invite him into our lives--to internalize the Word, so that it becomes a living thing deep inside our souls. We don't become obedient to God's will by deciding, on our own, to be really nice guys. That one never works, because we're trying to manage without God--who we left in the cold, dark church on Sunday. Inevitably, in real life, nice-guy breaks down in the crunch. It won't work. We don't have the strength to do this solo.

What we need to do, instead, is to take the Gospel right inside ourselves, arguing with it, struggling with it, even beating against it, but never being able to forget it's there. That's what God invites us to do. But that means a whole lot more than Sunday, and it means being willing to make some radical changes in the way we've always done things.

Sadly, we don't heed God's invitation. We don't issue our own invitation to God to come on in, make Godself at home, start running things... Instead, we get on the way we've always gotten on: gossiping, holding grudges, trying to rely on Nice because Good looks like such an awful lot of work. It gets discouraging sometimes.

The saddest thing is that this Sunday-only operation not only causes problems; it shuts us off from joy. The Big Three of the Seven Deadlies--Pride, Anger, and Sloth--aren't even any fun. Indulge in them often enough in small and daily ways, and church life takes on the flavour of a slightly damp church basement, with bad fake-wood panelling and an orange shag carpet in desperate need of a good airing. Bleagh. There's a dreary dankness about Christianity when the walk and the talk diverge in all the little things, and it drives away the spiritually seeking because they know intuitively that whatever it is they're looking for, this ain't it.

God, you deserve so much more than we're willing to give you. We owe you whole heaps of the richest, most golden love; but all you ask from us is the small change. You don't ask most of us to be holy heros; what you ask is only that we bring the Gospel to bear in the dailiness of things. We are supposed to be loving, instead of trying to get others to love us. We are supposed to forgive, instead of treasuring our grievances. We are supposed to receive honesty, as well as give it. When criticized, we are supposed to entertain the possibility that maybe we deserved it, instead of screaming about our hurt. The words "I'm sorry" should not make us gag. We are supposed to understand that problems are meant to be aired and *solved*. We are supposed to be open to the whole of reality, instead of cherishing only our own postage-stamp-sized piece of it.

Above all, we are supposed to listen to the Word--to "read, mark, and inwardly digest" it. We're supposed to take the Way of the Christ seriously enough to walk it on Wednesdays too.

Our priest, very sensibly, handed out printed copies of his sermon after church; that way, what would get around the parish would be what he actually said, instead of reports of what he might have said. He knows us too well, I'm afraid.

Copyright © 2001 Molly Wolf. Originally published Sat, 24 Feb 2001
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