We have to be who we say we are
Updated: Sep 28
My job as your young adult missioner takes me all over Fredericksburg, into all kinds of wild spaces and into relationship with all kinds of people -- many of whom would never darken the doors of a place like this. My job is to go beyond the physical boundaries of this place -- to meet people who would never come here, to hear their stories, to hear their longings, and so what we can do to bridge the gap between this place, and the rest of the world out there.
A few months ago one of my young adults and I were off on one of our wild little sidequests and we found ourselves in the office of a higher education administrator, talking about how we could plant a ministry of The House on their campus. And we explained the values of the House, a bit about our mission and what we do, we explained that one most campuses, there are plenty of collegiate ministries, but very few LGBTQ+ affirming ministries and how that is not the only thing about us but it's where we do really well. And this administrator says to us, that's fantastic, I think this is really cool, I will do whatever I can to help.
And she takes a long pauses, and says, in an almost confessing tone, I go to [name of a well-known non-LGBTQ affirming church in the area], but I don't really get into all that, she goes on, I get the bible that I need from the pastor and besides, I don't even spend all that much time in the big church, I spend most of my time across the way teaching in the special ed Sunday School. And this confession is, like, instantly overshadowed by this caveat and the young adult and I both, like, simultaneously go: YOU DO WHAT? YOU TEACH IN WHAT?? And she's telling us all about it, they sing songs, they listen to the bible, they make art, it's all kinds of people together in that space, not just the needs sequestered off out of sight out of mind.
We wrap up the meeting and we're ranting and raving and hootin' and hollerin' all the way out of the building and we get to the parking lot and just go, SPECIAL ED SUNDAY SCHOOL-- THAT IS! SO! COOL! It's accessible! It's multi-generational! It's creative! It's fun! It's... everything we say we are, and say we want to be,,,, and the Church that we have decided it bad,,, is doing it. *Sigh* Ppffpffpfbfbbbf.
And in the, like, four or five months since that meeting, I have not forgotten that feeling, the feeling of the gap between who we say we are and who we say they are, the gap between what we do and what we are able to do, and what we actually see them doing and able to do.
Our reading from the Gospel of Matthew sees Jesus in a conversation with the people who have the authority of the temple behind them, the authority of the community behind them, and he poses this little hypothetical to them:
"What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, 'Son, go and work in the vineyard today.' He answered, 'I will not'; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, 'I go, sir'; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?"
Jesus poses this dynamic for us as people of faith, and people who are called into ministry. There can be a gap between who we say we are, and what we do, and that gap is part of the work that God is doing on us. And it's our work to be brave enough to look into that gap.
I'm not saying any of this to frame, bluntly, like, the House thinks it's good but actually we're bad, or we thought that that church was bad but it's actually good, but rather to say that Jesus challenges us to do away with categorical claims of Goodness and Badness. A claim so lacking in nuance that it would simply say, we are the good ones and they are the bad ones, is a claim that would cause us to stumble.
And It can be a particular stumbling block for a Church like the Episcopal Church that would eagerly claim the identity of The Good Ones. Don't mistake me, we have a lot to stake our claim to: we are a church that not just affirms but lifts up LGBTQ+ people into leader, with openly gay and married priests, and non-binary and trans priests. We are a church that has a robust theology against ableism, we are a church that at the churchwide and diocesan and local-levels that has named that anti-racism work is the work of discipleship. We are a church that is fifty years ahead of curve of a lot of Christian traditions on the ordination and leadership of women. And still, the question posed in this gospel today is this: are we as proficient at these things as we think we are? I'm not saying that we are not. But I'm saying that maybe, being a disciple means that we get to be brave enough to be open to the question. Are we being who we say we are?
At the end of the day, it doesn't feel very fair to compare ourselves to a church that has 55 staff and it doesn't feel very fair to speak only self-critically when we a lot of things better than the churches we compare ourselves to. Nor does it feel very fair to call ourselves The Good Ones as if identifying as the good ones ever counted very much for Jesus.
The takeaway from a passage like this might be that we do not have to be all things to all people, and we certainly do not have to decide that we are good, especially if it spreads us too thin or blinds u to our growing edges or others' redeeming points. We simply have to try hard to be who God is calling us to be and who our community needs us to be. And we get to be really, really careful that who we profess to be, matches what we actually do, and who we chastise others for being, is actually who they are, lest we end up finding out that the tax collectors or prostitutes, or, heaven forbid, the evangelicals get ahead of us at our own game.
In fact, how do we lay aside the competition itself as if God is calling us to compete for Good One vs Bad One rather than calling us simply to serve, and to be.
It's a question I ask a lot at The House -- Who do we say that we are? Who is God calling us to be? And how are we doing? / And it's a line of thinking I will lend to us here as well, St. George's. Who do we say that St. George's is? Who do we say that we are? Who is God calling this church to be? And how are we doing at it?