July 26 — A Ministry Together

As many of you know, last week was the occasion of the ground-breaking at the location of the newest Habitat for Humanity House.  The house will be located on the corner of Crosset Hill Road and Morse Road.  At the ground-breaking, which I’d taken to calling a mud-breaking, I reminded all of us gathered for the worship service that this is a Christian ministry.  Not Christian in the unfortunate, but not uncommon sense, of having to follow a certain set of rules, of which is included a command to “do good;” to provide shelter for the homeless. Not Christian in the ubiquitious centering of thought on the winning of heaven and immortality and not Christian in the unfortunate presentation of Christian acts as designed to win people for the church.   But definitely Christian in the sense that the Habitat’s activity concentrates religious interest on one of the great ethical problems of social life, and does so with feet on the ground and without any preconceived notion about what people need, in order to deal with their problems.

One of the healthy things about Habitat for Humanity is that it tries to engage in the ethical problems of social life in an empirical way — meaning that it does not assume what the best solution is to a problem, but meets the problem where it is lived and seeks to engage others in working on alleviating them.  An empirical method of solving problems does not try to put dogma to the rescue, does not try to argue that the solution to societies ills lies in claiming Jesus as your Lord and Savior, for example.   An empirical Christian social action is not a program to get people into the pews, but to get people off the pews and addressing real life problems in intelligent ways.  Empirical ethics embodies Rauschenbusch’s notion that the consciousness of God and the consciousness of humanity blend completely.

Millard Fuller, who is the founder of Habitat for Humanity, wrote that “Religious life and action are central to a full-bodied faith and certainly to a theology of the hammer.  Unfortunately, many people act as if Jesus had taught that the first and greatest commandment is “thou shall go to church.  And, the second is like it:  Thou shall try to get others to go to church.”  His approach to ministry together is explicitly not a modern day evangelism method whose ulterior motive in doing good is to win souls into the church.  He is concerned to discover community outside the church.  He is convinced that this common discovery transforms people — and he doesn’t care if you call it zen or salvation or fana, the Islamic doctrine of annihilation.

It seems that Jesus was this way too.  For the one who reads the gospels through the lens of Rauschenbusch’s and Fuller’s theology of the hammer, there can be no doubt that Jesus had serious issues with the religious insitution of his day.  Clearly we don’t know what he would have thought about today’s church.  But we can surmise that because Jesus’ criticisms of the temple  swirled around concerns with practises that broke social contracts, like regressive taxation,  discriminatory  standards,  and burdensome ritual his issue was not with the idea of people coming together to worship.  We can surmise that to the extant that salvation gest lost in fearful concern that it be salvation and not zen or fana, Jesus thought we were missing the point.  To come together in worship is one thing, and a good thing. But to replace the act of coming together to worship, with the commandment to worship in this way, was to lose the importance of community, and thereby lose any sensitivity in dealing with the social problems of our day.

I find much in the Letter to the Hebrews troubling for its seeming obliviousness to this point.  I do appreciate its effor to convey that we are brought together, not to recite rules, but to “consider how to stir up one another to love and to good works.”  It is troubling to me that this simple, important message, which we just read, is often lost in the letter by this basic confusion — a confusion which blurs that simple message and misleads.

Let me reiterate what that basic confusion is in the context of our reading from Hebrews.  For the author of the letter of Hebrews, Jesus was the High Priest — the one who “passed through the heavens” in a surpreme act of sacrifice, and who through his sacrifice is now able to save.  But the important thing to realize is that this was language used to explain Jesus’ continuing significance, a significance despite the fact that he was dead and gone.   People continued to talk about Jesus as the one who somehow is still relevant, still powerful, still important — that the activity of Jesus still goes on.  And so they borrowed ritualistic language that people had already used in their day to express this importance.  Over time, that language became separated from the original understanding of the words as expressions of the continuing relevance of Jesus, and because the content of what one had to believe in order to experience the contemporary relevance of Jesus.  This, however is terribly and tragically misleading.  The result of this kind of language which the author of the Letter to the Hebrews employed regularly, has been a church that turned first to doctrine as a way into the experience of Christ.  The result, of course, is that this experience is markedly different than the liberating experience of Jesus in one’s own place and time that compels someone to seek to establish God’s kingdom by righteous life and action in the shelter of a community of people seeking out of their experience God’s kingdom.

Let me conclude with a story related by Millard Fuller in his book, The Theology of the Hammer.  It’s about a from a speech by a friend of Fuller’s named Dick Fernstrum.

My first exposure to Habitat was when a group of eleven of us from First Presbyterian Church of Sarasota Florida, went to Immokalee, Florida, to spend a week working on a Habitat house.  . .  The house we were to work on was the last in a row of six on a new street.  The block walls were up, the trusses were set, and the plywood was on the trusses.

The newest Habitat family on the block was the Perez family, right next door.  They had a bunch of little kids — there must have been five or six of them.  Each morning as we began to work, out came the Perez children . . . .They were constantly underfoot and always eager to help.

As far as I was concerned, the presence of the children was unsafe, annoying and an interference we didn’t need.  It didn’t occur to me that by their willing presence they were trying to express gratitude for their home . . .  to me they were just in the way.

On our last day, we finished the roof.  I was one of four people nailing shingles.  I put down my hammer to get another package of shingles. When I returned I found this little boy up on the roof.  I told him to move away, to go back down; he was interfering with my work.  But he didn’t so I told him again — rather rudely, I suppose.

A co-worker said, “He only wants to help you, Dick.  Why don’t you let him hand you the nails?”  So I did — but still not very cheerfully.  I told him that if he could do it right and he obeyed me, he could help.  I showed him where to squat and how to get the nails out of my nail apron and hand them to me one at a time as I placed the shingles.  I was still being quite crabby, but he was very agreeable.

As we began, I said to him, “If you’re going to be my partner, I’ll have to know who you are.  My name is Dick.  What’s your’s”  He looked up at me with his round dark eyes and a big smile and said, “I am Jesus.”

The conclusion should not be may we see Jesus in one another.  The conclusion must be, instead, may we discover through feet on the ground ministry together, through community solving community problems, real blending of the consciousness of God and the consciousness of humanity.  Amen.

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