At my ordination as your bishop, Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori presented me with a small, framed quotation from Archbishop Dom Helder Camara. It hangs on the wall of my office as a constant reminder of what it means to be a follower of Christ.
“Let no one be scandalized if I frequent those who are considered unworthy or sinful. Who is not a sinner? Let no one be alarmed if I am seen with compromised and dangerous people, on the left or the right. Let no one bind me to a group. My door, my heart, must be open to everyone, absolutely everyone.”
Striving to be a church that looks and acts like Jesus means living and bearing bold witness to the vision and values of Jesus–the vision and values of the Kingdom of God. These values and this vision call us to love even those who we or our friends might consider unworthy or sinful; those who are compromised or outcast; those we do not understand or with whom we disagree; even those who we or our friends might hold in disdain.
To state this in secular terms, the church that looks and acts like Jesus is a community with a well-formed moral character. This does not mean a community built on purity codes, judgment, or exclusion, but on the goals of goodness and mercy-seeing others deeply, learning about others beyond common preconceptions or stereotypes or our own self-interest, seeking to know and love our neighbor as Christ would.
In the September edition of “The Atlantic” magazine, David Brooks has an article titled: “How America Got Mean.” Whether or not you agree with Brooks’ basic premise that America has become “mean” (or whether or not you approve or disapprove of Brook’s politics), his suggested remedies to meanness, in my mind, are very much the same as what it means to be a church that looks and acts like Jesus—a church seeking the Kingdom of God and striving to be a beloved community.
Drawing on the works of the esteemed philosopher and author Iris Murdoch, Brooks suggests that the remedy to America’s meanness is learning and nurturing a morality of goodness— “treating people considerately” casting a “just and loving” attention on other people. “We become morally better, as we learn to see others deeply, as we learn to envelop others in the kind of patient, caring regard that makes them feel seen, heard, and understood.” Quoting Iris Murdoch, Brooks concludes: “This is the kind of attention that implicitly asks, ‘what are you going through?’ and cares about the answer.”
This is the type of community the church is called to be as it lives more fully into its vows to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving neighbor as self; and to strive for justice and peace among all people (all people), respecting the dignity of every human being.
I am convinced that as woeful conversations continue about the future of the church: the changing church; the shrinking church; or, and I believe this to be an oxymoron, the dying church, the life and spirit that will transform and renew the church remains Jesus. The future of the church is to look and act like Jesus and his way of goodness and mercy, his way of justice and peace, his way of love and healing.
Now is the time to plant “new” churches, and in some cases to plant churches in the same gardens, the same places, where a church already stands. We become new church plants when we are committed to looking and acting like Jesus. When we are devoted to goodness and mercy and the liberating and life-giving love of Jesus. When we are concerned not so much about who is in the pews on Sunday, or who is going to preach, or how we are going to get a priest to give us Holy Communion, but, instead, how we can live more fully into the image of Jesus.
As we prepare for Diocesan Convention to begin September 28, I invite the diocese to bold visions and fervent prayers for a church renewed by the love and image of Jesus. His goodness, His mercy, His Love will transform and renew the face of the earth. And His power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine even in the midst of a mean world.