A couple of months ago I decided to put a new welcome message on the home page of St. John’s website. I wanted to try to communicate something to curious visitors, right off the bat, about what makes our congregation special. So I decided to mention the recent schism that tried and tested, and at the same time renewed, this community. I wanted to do this for two reasons; first, because it highlights our commitment to being an inclusive church, where people of all different kinds are welcome and affirmed. This commitment, and the high cost that St. John’s paid for it, is nothing to be ashamed of, and indeed is attractive to some people.
The second reason was that a lot of people in our surrounding community know that something happened here, something painful or scandalous or at least controversial, and I thought we should set the record straight at the outset, so visitors aren’t left wondering what we’re hiding. So I wrote my new little welcome blurb that contained this sentence: We are proud of our commitment to inclusion, having recently reclaimed our parish from a breakaway sect opposed to equality for women and LGBT Christians within the church.
Then, in early June, I got an email from a woman who described herself as a frequent visitor at St. John’s over the years, who keeps up with us via our website. She copied that sentence in her email, with the words “breakaway sect” highlighted in red. And then she wrote the following:
It is revealing that you find it necessary to attract new members by denigrating your fellow Christians. Were I to consider joining your congregation for one Sunday, or forever, I could not set foot in the place based on that statement alone.”
I wrote her a reply in which I thanked her for staying in touch with us, and assured her that I didn’t mean to give offence or to denigrate anyone. I told her everything I just told you about the reasons why I’d put those words up there, and that I’d merely been trying to describe, as accurately as I could, what happened. I explained that the American Heritage Dictionary defines “sect” as, "a religious body, especially one that has separated from a larger denomination", and that I’d used that word because it was the most precise one I could find. But I also told her that I had a grave concern that she had interpreted that language as insulting, and, because others might read it the same way, I’d have to seriously re-consider using it.
I meant to communicate one thing, but what that woman heard was something very different. Saying what we want to say, in a way that others can understand it, is one of the great challenges of being human. This is true even with the people we trust the most and love the best. But it is especially true with strangers, and when the subject matter is something people have passionate feelings and firm convictions about, such as politics or religion, it’s that much more difficult. We might think that if we were more eloquent, or charismatic or persuasive, we’d be more successful in getting others to understand us, and that might be true up to a point. But the fact is, people are going to hear what they want to hear, or are ready to hear, no matter what we say or how we say it.
Maybe we can take some comfort in knowing that Jesus had the same problem. When Jesus spoke to groups of people, he had a very specific purpose. He wasn’t trying to impress them, so that they would go away saying, “Wow—that was awesome. I can’t wait to tell my friends what I heard. Maybe they’ll want to come with me next time I go hear him speak.” He also wasn’t trying to persuade them to agree with his opinions, so they’d say “You know, I’ve always been skeptical about ‘eternal life’, but Jesus really made a convincing argument. I think I’m going to believe in that from now on.”
No, I think what Jesus was trying to do with his teachings was to bring his listeners into a completely different perception of reality. He was trying to use words that would break through into their hearts and awaken a profound response of recognition. He was betting on the possibility that if they could see themselves the way he saw them, and know God’s loving, and empowering presence the way he did, that they would be changed forever.
Just in case we might think that he was talking about something vague and subjective, some kind of private experience that only certain people can have but that isn’t actually relevant to your average person or everyday life, Jesus called this reality the “kingdom of heaven” or “the kingdom of God.” No “Kingdom” is one translation of the Greek word basilea. Basilea is a word that the people gathered on the beach at the Sea of Galilee would have known very well. They would have already heard an earful about a certain Basilea that some people said was divinely ordained to bring peace, order, and prosperity to the world. They would have heard that anyone who opposed this Basilea was a public enemy, a criminal who should be killed as an example to others. Another translation of Basilea is “empire.” The Basilea that Jesus’ listeners would have known best was the one centered in Rome.
I think we have to assume that Jesus knew what he was doing when he used that word. He knew what associations it would have in the minds of his audience. He had to know that when he talked about the Empire of Heaven there would be some people who wouldn’t understand. Some who would think that he was setting himself up as a rival Caesar, that he was calling them to join him in a war of liberation. Which he certainly he was not. But he also understood that as long as they lived in fear of that other Basilea, so long as they believed in its claims to be the hope of humanity, and the supreme and eternal reality in an uncertain world, they would never know what he knew, or see what he saw.
So when he spoke to them about the Empire of Heaven, he used parables. He used figures of speech drawn from the everyday experience of farmers and fishermen, so his audience might understand that this Empire was not governed from some great city far away, but was fully present in and around them. He knew that some people would not understand, and that the spirit of violence and rivalry would snatch this vision away from them before it could sprout in their hearts. There would be others who would embrace it for a time, but lose it when faced with the blazing hatred of the uncomprehending. Others might be drawn to the message but find it only good for Sunday morning sermons, and not for the gritty realities of trying to feed your family and get ahead in the world.
But there would be some people who did understand. Not very many. At the end of Jesus’ life it would be clear how very few there were. Some of his closest disciples wouldn’t get it until he was raised from the dead. But when that happened they remembered what he’d said. They remembered the parables of the Empire of Heaven, and the seed that fell on the good earth and bore fruit. And the new life in the spirit, the indwelling power of the God who raised Jesus from the dead, was suddenly not just some nice words, not just a “religious idea”—it was a reality. It was the reality, in comparison with which all their former lives were a living death.
They in their turn became sowers of the word, and we are their harvest. And because a share of the harvest is the seed of the next year’s crop, we, also are sowers. St. Francis of Assisi told his followers, “preach the Gospel at all times—even, when necessary, using words.” We don’t have to be knowledgeable and articulate. We just have to share, to the best of our understanding, what is in our own hearts about The United States of Heaven. The birds will get some of it, some will land among the rocks, and the thorns. But some of what you communicate will land in the good soil, and bear fruit, one hundred-, sixty-, thirty-fold.