We Who Are in the World
By Rev. Dr. Louise Westfall
Today I am remembering two American heroes. One was a dynamic young man who married a woman in a church I formerly served. Ken was career military, a West Point graduate, driven by deep commitment to the American dream of freedom and opportunity. He served with distinction and in his second tour of duty in Iraq, was killed by an improvised explosive device. He was buried with full military honors at Arlington Cemetery. His twin son and daughter were born four months later. Ken’s photograph in his dress blues with a gaze that is at once eagle-eyed and open-hearted is the picture that often comes to mind when I sing the National Anthem or pledge allegiance to the flag.
The other hero is a young man who came of age in the nineteen sixties. Eric and his family were active church members in their small Kansas community, and he was a few years older than I when we met on a high school mission trip in Kansas City. In between painting and clean-up of an inner-city clinic, we talked about life and faith and poetry and peace. He was vehemently opposed to the Vietnam War – really, any war—largely because Jesus had said to love one another, even your enemies, and Eric couldn’t imagine himself taking the life of some mother’s son. We stayed in touch for a time. He registered as a conscientious objector, patiently endured the insults and scorn of many neighbors and peers, and volunteered for alternative service in a Mennonite-run mental hospital. Eric taught me about standing up for what you believe is right, even at the risk of reputation. I am grateful to live in a nation that protects the freedom to worship as one sees fit, so he also comes to mind in moments of national pride.
I share these stories today because each reveals something of what it means to live in the world. A world created good –very good!—yet one in which terrible things happen; a world of contradictions and complexities; one that is messy and requires decisions that are rarely black-or-white. A world of people with different perspectives and understandings and guiding stars, that sometimes leaves us feeling adrift, uncertain, a mystery to ourselves and others.
When I read the morning Scripture text, one phrase in particular caught in my mind. It’s part of a longer passage, portrayed as a prayer Jesus offered shortly before his betrayal and arrest. Since no one was on hand copying his every word onto papyrus, most scholars believe this prayer is the product of the early church’s reflection on the meaning of Jesus’ ministry and death, interpreted retrospectively through the resurrection. In the opening verses, Jesus commends his completed earthly work to God. Then he prays earnestly for the people God has given him—and here’s where the phrase is spoken. Now I am no longer in the world, Jesus prays, but they are in the world. They are in the world. Jesus prays for them, and through countless generations, Jesus prays for us. We who are in the world. Because whatever else may be said about how we are in that world, we are not alone. We belong to God. Listen for God’s word to you in the reading from John chapter 17, at the first verse. [JOHN 17:1-19]
Among the many ways to live faithfully in the world, a surprising one has recently caught popular attention through a bestseller called The Benedict Option, by Rod Dreher. Dreher, a devout Orthodox Christian, has given up on the church transforming the increasingly secular culture, and advocates withdrawal from it to form spiritual communities in which faith can be deepened, purified, and preserved. He draws upon the tradition of sixth century monk Benedict as the model for these communities, gathered around order and stability, daily prayer practices, and hospitality to strangers. Dreher believes both progressive and conservative American churches are far too engaged with politics, pinning their hopes on leadership and legislation, when these in his mind cannot bear the weight of hope or witness to the light of God. But he also cites workaholic behaviors, addiction to technology, and what he sees as the erosion of traditional marriage as assaults on Christian faith, making it nearly impossible to live as Christians in the world. He calls believers to secede from mainstream culture, pull their children out of public schools, and develop alternative communities that practice the principles of orthodox Christian faith. One reviewer of Dreher’s book hailed it as a blueprint for “building strong arks for the long journey across a sea of night.”
Though The Benedict Option is getting its moment in the sun right now, it’s only the latest of many such perspectives down through the ages, all predicated on a proposition that since Christians belong to God and not the world, the world constitutes a threat to our identity and purpose. Living separately from the culture is a defense against accommodation and assimilation and a watered-down version of faith that bears little resemblance to our Founder.
One of you posted an article recently with a similar suspicion of cultural accommodation but leading to entirely different consequences. This one pointed to the failure of mainstream American churches to follow the word and witness of Jesus to love one another, particularly the vulnerable, poor, and outsider. The author noted … the reality is that following Jesus is extremely hard. It demands giving away [our] most prized possessions and abandoning [our] biggest fears. So while there might be political, economic, financial, or safety reasons for implementing policies that harm people and refuse them help, there are certainly no gospel reasons. He also drew from the past to point the way forward — the witness of the early church — which refused to bow to the emperor and go along with the policies of the Roman government. For them, they gave everything to the point of being persecuted and even martyred — for the purpose of serving Christ and serving others, the result of choosing to dedicate their lives to the truths of Jesus rather than the ideals of the ruling empire (Sojourners magazine, January 25, 2017).
It seems clear that persons of faith might reach different conclusions about living with integrity in the world. What’s compelling for me in both of these, however, is that they are prompted by a faith perspective, rather than a national narrative, personal ambition, or cultural expectations. They articulate visions of how to live in this world as ones who belong to God. People and communities who seek to pattern their lives, choose their priorities, develop their worldview, and engage that world informed and reformed (and transformed) by the word of God.
Our father in faith, John Calvin, thought you didn’t have to remove yourself from the world in order to be faithful to God. In fact, he taught that every believer has a vocation to serve God in the world—in every arena of human life. While acknowledging that to remain behind cloistered walls (whether literal or figurative) is less risky and may feel more secure, he encouraged believers to show up in the public sphere as salt and light and yeast, reforming and renewing culture. What sometimes might be thought of as “politics from the pulpit,” may in fact be the preacher’s attempt (admittedly imperfect) to integrate belief and action; to apply God’s eternal word to us through the changes and chances of life; to identify that still point in a turning world, while humbly accepting the mystery of truth.
Honestly, friends, this isn’t finally an academic exercise. It’s one that will determine who we are and how we spend our time. And if you need a reason: here’s one. As you know in this congregation, every confirmand writes a faith statement, expressing what they hold in their hearts at this point in their young lives. Reading the batch from the class just ended inspired both joy and a sense of urgency. They spoke of faith-forming experiences and relationships, questions and doubts, and times when they have felt close to God. One young person put it this way: Jesus came from God to show us how to love so no one would be lonely.
I think he got it just right: Faith is living in this world to love one another, so that all may know at the depths of our being that we are not alone.
Teresa of Avila represents spirituality that is both monastic (she lived as a cloistered nun) and worldly. May her words help us bridge the divide so our lives and communities might reflect the love that protects and brings peace, and makes us one.
Christ has no body now but yours, no hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he sees compassion on the world. Yours are the hands through which he seeks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world.