It amuses me how human beings are kind of spongy, how we soak up a bit of the context and the people around us. Like how you spend a little too much time around a friend or a coworker and you start to take up their mannerisms, their cadences and inflections, your humor starts to mirror theirs, or you start to find a sympathy for their preferences. Maybe you just don't get Taylor Swift but somebody in your household is a superfan and slowly, over time, and then all of a sudden, you start to get it.
This happened in the funniest way possible a few weeks ago, I was leading a workshop on evangelism and secularity for an online conference, and one of my new-priest-contemporaries, a newer internet friend, who graduated from seminary the same year as me, albeit from Yale, was in the workshop with me. And at the end of the workshop she messaged me privately and said hey great workshop, gotta run, but the way that you paused after making your point, you sounded JUST like Will Dickinson.
If you know anything about Fr. Will [the associate rector] and I, for all the ways that we are similar, we are really quite different priests. He's east coast trained, and I west coast. He spent his time specializing in liturgy and ethics and I in sociology and summer camp. He wears bowties to the office and I'll show up in socks with sandals. I knew that I had gotten to him when one day I heard him say something like "mann what if church was just people hanging out together, and having meals and doing life together" and I feel like he knew that he had gotten to me when I said something like "I feel like the church really suffers for it's allergy to the language of sin and grace." It amuses me how humans are kind of spongy, how we soak up what it around us. And that is exactly why you're going to get a sermon about sin and grace from me.
Well, ages ago, Fr Will suggested a book to me -- and I thought, what the heck, he's already gotten to me, let's see what this is about. It's called LOW ANTHROPOLOGY by David Zahl. "Anthropology" here does not refer to the academic subject, but rather it is a theological idea basically referring to our operating view of human nature, basically how do we think and talk about what it means to be a human and how do we view human capability? This theological anthropology is characterized on a scale from high anthropology to low anthropology. The high-end belief being that human beings are powerful and capable and infinite in the well of internal resources we have to draw on, humans are philanthropic and selfless and capable of consistent objective thinking and easily able to set aside the biases of our own egos. High anthropology says that human beings can be at their best most of the time if not all.
Low anthropology on the other hand claims that human beings are frail and finite, that we have low reserves of energy, and fogged up glasses that cloud our objectivity, that our altruisms and hospitalities are deeply tenuous and we are often prey to our whims. Low anthropology might say that human beings being at their best at all times just not,,, sustainable or realistic. This book, no doubt a giveaway by the title, claims that a high anthropology is tearing us apart from the inside and from the outside, it claims that a low anthropology is what helps us make sense of Christianity.
Now let's be clear, this high to low anthropology spectrum is not just the idea that humans are good or bad. High anthropology does not mean that you think people are good or deserving and low anthropology doesn't mean that you think that people are bad or sinful. It's more about where your expectations are set for yourself and others. High anthropology would say that,, you know, you actually can have your life into order, and you should,
you can keep up with the meal-prep and the gym,
you can read a book a week,
and work 9 hours a day and sleep 8 hours a night, do it all with a smile on your face,
and still have enough energy at the end of the day to be patient in traffic
and not snap at anybody after you've walked in the front door,
High anthropology would say that you can do it everyday and for the rest of your life-- and if you're not then,,, you're not trying hard enough.
Low anthropology would say that, heck, nobody has their life together! Or if they do, it doesn't last very long! It's a miracle that anybody can get out of bed on any day of the week and get anything done at all. Low anthropology would say that any patience, any courage, any generosity we can summon at all, is a triumph. I feel like I watch the expectations of high anthropology tear people apart, people who feel like they are the only ones who don't have their lives together, people who feel like -- I'm the only person who feels like angry or sad or lonely all the time, I'm the only person who feels this tired all the time or whose body hurts this much all the time, I'm the only one who isn't doing all of the reading or who orders pizza three nights a week. Feeling like you are the only person who is a mess (and thinking you could really not be a mess if you tried harder) tears people apart.
I think it's worth saying too that this bootstraps theology is something that we mainliners tend to belittle in other traditions, but if we tell the truth we preach it too, though we replace the Lord God language with the lesser god known as Self-Care. Where other traditions might say you know if you had a little more faith, if you prayed a little harder, your circumstances could be fixed. Instead, we say you know if you self-cared a little harder this would all feel sustainable, if you took better care of yourself, you could really get all of this done. You could, but you're not trying hard enough. Sound familiar?
I'm preaching this today because the expectations of high anthropology and human capability always seem to leech out into our sermons on transfiguration Sunday. Jesus ascended the mountain and was transfigured into a dazzling white angelic version of himself and -- WINK SNAP -- you can too, if you just try hard enough, or pray hard enough, or have enough faith. And if this were true, church would be such an easy sell to people. Come to Church, we will help you supercede your finiteness, come to Church we'll have you bullet journaling in 4-6 weeks and your skin will clear up too! Come to Church, that 5am spin class won't feel so early anymore. Come to Church and you will be transfigured into a glowing being of pure light, come to Church and we can make you not feel like a mess anymore. I think it's easy to sidestep the simple detail that only one person got transfigured on that mountain and it was not me and it was not you.
Now, Fr. Will and I share this deeply held belief that coming to church changes you. Not all at once, not without a little pain or a little struggle, but coming to church changes you. If you come here enough, you will be changed. But you will not be made more efficient or productive here. You will not be made a superhuman here, but you might finally let go of the expectation that a superhuman is what you should be. The culmination -- the fruit -- of the Christian life is not a perfect productivity or a depthless stamina or an untarnished positivity. The fruits of the Christian life are all things that help us to forgive our shortcomings and those in others: patience and understanding and repentance and reconciliation and generosity and humility. These things do not fix our brokenness but rather they help us to deal ably and gently with brokenness. You may not become sinless here, but you may grow in your ability to repent and to forgive. You may not be able to excise the part of you that gets snippy or annoyed with people, but you may grow more patient and more generous in your dealings. You may not become the best version of yourself at all times but you may be more humble when your worst self shows up and more understanding when someone else's does.
The Christian life does not mean that you will be made dazzling white, but it does mean you will be changed by coming into close relationship with your dingy grayness and everyone elses'. This Christian life may mean that you will be able to forgive yourself for your finiteness and your limitations, it may mean that you can absolve others for theirs. The Christian life may mean that you become able to let go of the need or the desire or the pressure to be Jesus in this story. You can be dingy and gray and you can still be good. And it is precisely there that grace can happen.
The idea that you can or should or must have your life together to qualify for any of this is just not what the Gospel says. You will give and receive patience in this life that is not merited. You will receive generosity that you did not earn and that you cannot pay back. You will forgive more than you are repented to, and you will be forgiven more than you repent. And in the midst of all of it the good and the bad and the ugly, your worth will never be on the table. Your dignity will never be on the table. And neither will anybody else's. That's what grace is. And if that's not good news then, whew, I don't know what is.
So you go on ahead and keep up with your New Years resolutions and I will with mine. Good luck on your bullet journaling and your meal prep, please wish me luck on my journey to become a person and that reads books and read 52 books this year (and also fix my sleep schedule and also becoming vegan). And when you fall short, please remember that God's esteem for us is not an ire at our shortcomings, but an awe that we are able to function at all! So when you fall short or when you crash headlong into your limits, or someone else's, know that the economy of grace over which God presides has got you covered. And it doesn't accept repayment, not that you could if you tried! Amen.