“Are you better off than you were four years ago?” The question reverberated through the air at the Republican National Convention and caught democratic strategists off-guard. A question far more complicated than the stark responses for which it begs, I’m sure it has kept at least a few of us awake at night. … Even now, I sense I have raised the anxiety in the room! And not just in those protective of our tax-exempt status! Are you better off than you were four years ago? It depends, it seems, on what you mean by “better”.
Our question today is not that question – not whether we are better off than four, but more like 60 years ago, when Bishop John Hines, coadjutor of Texas, founded this seminary. Is the Episcopal Church better off? Depends on what you mean by “better”. In terms of numbers, the Episcopal Church has declined over the past 60 years. In 1952, there were 1 and a half Episcopalians for every hundred folk in the US. By 2011, to get to 1 and a half Episcopalians, you’d have to gather at least 225 people. The life of the Episcopal Church has been slipping away, one might say. Naturally, some yearn for the good old days, when youth groups burst at the seams, potlucks filled the parish halls, and all of the women were casserole baking, bazaar organizing members of the ECW. Oh, that we could go back to the robust and wealthy Church of those days. Shall we go back? Are we better off, my friends, than we were 60 years ago? What measure shall we use to judge the state of the Church?
Our scriptures, honestly, overflow with references to the numbers of God’s people. 600,000 men led out of Egypt; five hundred thousand soldiers devoted to the Lord; 72 to go into all the places to which Jesus was headed; 3000 baptized in one day! Apparently, numbers matter. But God never accepts numbers in lieu of God’s higher standard. God calls God’s people to fidelity – faithfulness to the Lord and to the Lord’s purposes and ways. Think we’re cozy with God because we’re rich or popular or numerous? Think again! God wants to know whether we love God with all our heart and love our neighbors as ourselves. God measures the Church by whether she lives that love into concrete reality – doing justice and loving mercy, following Jesus, whatever the cost. More than sixty years ago, John Elbridge Hines joined the long line of prophetic voices calling the Church to measure herself by the same standards.
And so… Are we? Are we better off? Are we more faithful to God’s demands for justice?
Long before John Hines took up residence in Houston on the path that would lead him to election as the Episcopal Church’s 22nd Presiding Bishop, Amos from Judah took up residence in Israel. And God gave Amos a prophetic vision about the measurement of God’s people. As God spoke to him, Amos saw a plumb line. A plumb line to measure whether the wall that was Israel was straight and true. A plumb line to judge the wall’s reliability and worthiness to stand. Alas! By God’s word Amos knew the wall of Israel rose crooked from the land. Rather than on the straight blocks of justice, and fairness, and concern for the poor, Israel’s wall was filled with the rubble of greed and self-indulgence and oppression. The wall would surely fall.
When John Hines looked at the Episcopal Church in which he ministered, he assessed it as if with Amos’ plumb line. He saw a Church indulging in the same habits of injustice which filled the society. The segregation of the races, which perpetuated poverty and stymied upward movement of African Americans. A blind eye toward the crumbling life of the nation’s cities. Self-satisfaction with ritual and institutional life that resisted change, lest the peace, beauty and strength of the church be threatened.
Hines, though, did not speak as Amos spoke to Israel, as an outsider, but as a son of the Church. When Bishop Hines preached to the Church, his word was always “we” rather than “you.” And when he wanted to preach to society, to repair injustice and to bring good news, he pressed Christ’s own people to act. Hines battled injustice in the world by calling the Church to change first: outraged by segregation, he proposed the integration of church institutions. Reflecting on the exclusion of women, he pressed his diocese to admit them as delegates and Vestry members. Witnessing first-hand the devastation of urban riots, he advocated the spending of the church’s own resources.
Hines knew there would be a cost for his zealous insistence on racial equality and inclusion and no-strings attached funding. And there was – for Hines and for the church – a shortened ministry for Hines, withheld funds, angry colleagues, damaged relationships, empty pews, …fatigue, even mission curtailed. And if we minister, as we surely do, in a church shaped by Hines’ vision, we still pay the price. It’s been a costly toll.
Some critics of Hines and the Episcopal Church point to the decline and label Hines as a culprit – a reckless social justice advocate who confused worldly aims with gospel standards. They argue that numerical decline proves the Church has been unfaithful. And they yearn for earlier days, before a progressive social agenda advocated either a courageous stand for the oppressed, or a wholesale abandonment of the tenets of scripture… depending on who you ask. Do they really hunger for those days? Days when programs inside our parishes kept us sheltered from human suffering in our streets? The days in which we, the Episcopal Church, politely defended our right to segregation, and piously justified a second-class status for women, minorities, and others, by referencing select passages of Holy Writ?
Today’s Episcopal Church reflects the commitments to justice and inclusion for which John Hines fought. If we are to measure whether we are better off than we were 60 years ago, whether we would like to go back, we must surely ask whether the Church, measured by Amos’ plumb line, rests more firmly on God’s call for justice than in those days.
Are we better off? Are we better advocates for God’s brand of justice?
If the cost paid proves fidelity, we must certainly be on the right path! We’ve become a church expert at taking one for the justice team! Some days it seems that all it takes to get a majority of the Episcopal Church fired up is to say the two magic words…..”justice issue”. Don’t get me wrong. I love that about our church. I’ve not only drunk the kool-aid; I was weaned on it – the Hines’ vintage, nonetheless! I wonder, though, does the angry resistance and a justice banner prove, without question, that we are carrying a cross right behind Jesus?
Lest we assume that Bishop Hines would be thrilled with the state of the Episcopal Church today, let us recall the commitment upon which all his prophetic witness rested. Hines grounded his life – and called the Church he led – to an unwavering devotion to Jesus Christ. His demand for social justice was not for some universal notion of social justice, equally obvious to all people of all faiths. No. Hines’ standards were the ideals and demands he discovered in the gospel of Jesus Christ. He called the Church to deny herself, take up her cross, and follow Jesus. Jesus’ life, Jesus’ teachings, Jesus’ sacrifice – Jesus’ compassion toward the hungry, the poor, the excluded, the oppressed – Jesus’ willing embrace of the cross – these defined the broad scope of Bishop Hines’ understanding of the word justice.
Are we better off? Are we following Jesus?
Sometimes it’s hard to know. The claim that a matter is a “justice issue” often chills efforts at theological reflection within the Church. Try to initiate theological conversation about women’s health and abortion, or consumption, commoditization and the environment, and you, too, might discover my dilemma! Where does this paralysis leave us? We, the Episcopal Church, cannot discover a particularly Christian approach to justice in these matters unless we have the courage to talk about Jesus. Unlike John Hines, we who follow him have failed to master the art of planting our flag of justice within the shadow of the cross on which we, and more importantly the world, have been redeemed.
A Church in which it is more acceptable to say justice than to name Jesus is no Church at all. Christ cannot be incidental, and never was for John Hines. At his service of installation as Presiding Bishop, he preached, calling on St. Paul: “God’s mandate to the Church requires that we preach not ourselves – but Christ Jesus as Lord. And this can happen only when we in the Church are caught up in a real and saving encounter with Jesus Christ as Savior!” (Kesselus, 214-215) Justice, for all its good, does not save. Jesus does. Too often over our recent decades, our advocacy for the social gospel has dissolved into “social” without much “gospel”. We have been zealous to pursue some brand of “justice” – while too timid or confused to proclaim with Bishop Hines why we do so.
Are we better off? Yes. Because justice matters, and God emboldened John Hines’ to lead and shape the Church as the servant of God’s justice for the sake of the world. Are we? Yes again. Because numbers matter, but never so much as God’s call to do justice. And what about sixty years from now? Will the Episcopal Church be true to God, servants of God’s mission, followers of Jesus? I guess it’s left to us – us happy few! May the Lord fill us with the clear vision and voice of Bishop Hines – about society, and the church, and, especially, about Jesus! Let us, in our own day, follow boldly behind our savior, the one whose face reveals true justice! Let us, like Jesus, live and love justly, whatever the cost.