Jared Witt l September 15, 2016
Before Jesus was a religion, he was a person.
Before his life was turned into a doctrine, it was a story.
In two thousand years, we’ve all but completely managed to remake him into a moral or a dogma. It was sort of inevitable that we would, because such things are more usable to us than persons. It’s not at all clear what we're supposed to do with someone who was born into this world without so much as an invite and then did what he did, whether we approve or not. It's tough for us to shoehorn our own ego needs into his story. That's practically the main thing about stories, they just sort of happen a certain way. It is what it is. Outside of our own story, we don't get much say in the matter. Religions and doctrines, on the other hand, are much more useful in all kinds of ways. We can claim them as our own, hold them over the heads of others, and use them to remind ourselves that we’re right, for instance. But it seems there is something in Jesus which resists fully becoming an idea or an institution. Something which stubbornly goes on being his own person with or without our permission.
Because of that, in every church basement, I’ve discovered, there is a little old church lady, arthritic and doubled over, probably washing dishes. If you saw her, you might think of her as a warm, grandmotherly figure. You likely wouldn’t think of her as a rebel or a radical, someone who is subverting our very way of life and the system which sustains it.
Don’t be fooled.
She all but refuses to participate in our economy, stitching up the holes in her sweater for the fourth time.
She undercuts our core values like industriousness and self-sufficiency, bringing soup to the homeless shelter each Wednesday morning and then resting all day on Sunday.
Every night, before bed, she prays that our nation might be toppled and replaced and our leaders usurped. “Our Father, who art in heaven…” she says, “Your kingdom come. Your will be done…”
And if you leave her alone too long with her grandchildren, she’ll teach them to do the same.
She might be hard of hearing and her apron probably says something cozy and nonthreatening like, let’s say, “God bless this mess.”
She is a real thorn in the side of a system such as this. Most old church ladies aren’t subversives. That would be a weird generalization to make. But this one is. And every little Lutheran or Methodist or even Baptist church has one like her.
She is so because she remembers. Remembers that Jesus is a man. Not a set of rules and guidelines for becoming an upright citizen. Not a nice, neat set of peccadilloes that one should avoid. Not a theological formula. A man. A man who was killed by a system. Killed for all the right reasons.
And she loves this man. No, not like that. Though she would say she loves him more than any man she’s ever known. She loves him for his goodness, his compassion, his depth of soul. She loves him not because of what he can do for her but for who he is.
She loves him because, whether or not she can put words to it, something deep inside her knows that she lives in a world that has divinized power. Literally, made a god of power. So she worships a man who became weak for the sake of the weak.
If your god is whatever you worship, she senses that Power is the one true god of her world, whatever we call him. And some will try to confuse the issue by calling Power by another name. For instance, they’ll say that Power is the Christian god. They’ll use clever doctrines to try to explain how Jesus’ weakness was just a temporary gimmick—that we really are dealing with a frightful god of power and control after all.
But she isn’t fooled by all that. And she really doesn’t much care who decides to call themselves Christian. She never much loved doctrines or titles. She loves the wandering Nazarene. She loves him because he puts his hand on the skin of lepers and washes the feet of losers.
Devotees of Power can have their little rallies. They can shout whatever name they want for their little slogans and soundbites: “We worship the Christian god. We worship the Christian god. He brings us victory. He keeps us safe. He defends us from outsiders.”
But this little old church lady knows her Jesus when she sees him. And that’s not him. Besides, there’s more power in one whisper of forgiveness of a crook or an adulteress than in all the shouting in the world.
So she washes another dish. And she smiles to herself as she ponders the one thing worth smiling about.
Cheers and Blessings,
Jared Witt is a pastor in the ELCA and, along with Aaron Schmalzle, is a Founding Director of Castle Church Brewing Community and Castle Church Faith Community.
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