A generous handful of parishioners overflowed the table at coffee hour, leaning towards one another to make sure they had heard correctly.
I had offered the prompt, “What does the Episcopal Church say about …?”, and my people had taken the challenge to heart. As well as discussing how the church decides to comment on which issues, they identified a few topics that they thought we might have an institutional opinion on.
Abortion. The death penalty. Gun violence. Whether to get married during Lent.
The previous day, some of us had sat around another table at our Diocesan Convention (which, incidentally, is one part of that process by which the church comes to produce a denominational statement). Our bishop had, in his episcopal address, suggested that our parishes should talk more about politics.
Well, kind of. He did not want us to engage in partisanship or politicking as such, but he was concerned that in our day, people were becoming afraid to talk to one another about things that matter to our common life together. This fear and division and suspicion would, he worried, only grow in the year to come. If the church cannot offer a model for how to live together, loving one another across difference of opinion and experience, without crucifying one another (not a direct quotation), then to whom else would our neighbours turn for help?
He invited us to brainstorm at our tables specific and practical ways in which we as churches could support meaningful, purposeful, and personal conversations about things that matter, that affect our common lives, as a witness and a gift to our neighbours.
I did not do well with the exercise. It raised my defences. I wondered what I was being asked to compromise, even sacrifice, at the altar of unity. I was concerned about weighting civility over substance. I wondered, while we were performing kind conversations with one another, who of our neighbours would find themselves out in the cold, neglected, rejected, too divisive or dangerous to be inserted into the debate.
Of course, these were exactly the problems that the bishop recognized and wanted us to solve.
The next morning, I was still suffering a slight defensive hangover as I approached the self-imposed sentence of leading a public conversation about abortion, the death penalty, gun violence, and getting married (or not) during Lent.
But now almost nothing was theoretical. We all knew people who had found themselves called to make decisions, even choices, around the beginnings and endings of life. The stories that informed our experiences and opinions, formed or felt, were personal. We leaned in to one another to make sure that we had heard correctly, instinctively knowing that beneath the surface, what was laid out between us was the truth of a person’s life and heart.
It could have gone very differently. There were no doubt still people who were left out, or who kept themselves out of the circle, uncertain of their acceptance, or certain that their experience was beyond translation to us. But there were also the seeds of something larger, a mustard seed which might even grow so that the birds would nest in its outer branches.
We did not agree on everything. Some strong opinions ran crosswise to one another, but the trust that was offered in sharing a true word, and the trust that was rewarded in the listening went a long way toward watering that mustard seed.
As a preacher of the gospel, I have some pretty strong opinions about what the prophets, apostles, and Jesus say about a few things. As a curious person, I have some ideas about which policies might further those values. As a pastor, I find myself listening time and again to people whose understanding of God and of themselves is at odds with what I hold in my head (as well as to those with whom I agree). I do not often find my mind changed by their stories; I regularly find my heart softened.
In yesterday’s gospel, the sentence that stood out to me was when Jesus said, “If the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” (Matthew 24:43-44)
The owner is on the defensive, but Jesus is coming anyway. I wonder, as my defence hangover ebbs, whether I am defending against the right temptations, and whether I should be listening in those dangerously political, pastoral moments for the stealthy footsteps of Jesus coming as a thief in the night to steal the strongbox that locks up my heart.
The Revd Rosalind C Hughes is Rector of the Church of the Epiphany (Episcopal) in Euclid, Ohio. She blogs at over the water and is a contributing editor at the Episcopal Cafe. She is a contributor to the RevGalBlogPals book, and her own first book, A Family Like Mine: Biblical Stories of Love, Loss, and Longing is due out April 1, 2020 from Upper Room Books.
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