- In 'Overcoming Racial Faith,' Willie Jennings begins by reminding us that to be a Christian is to be a Gentile:
Somewhere, probably in many places and many times, Gentile Christians got tired of remembering that they were a thinking margin that had been included in Israel’s promise. They decided—we decided—that those who followed Jesus were the only people of God and that Jewish people, Israel in the flesh, were no longer the people of God. We also decided that we should look at the world as though we were at the center of it and not at the margins with a Jew named Jesus. We forgot we were Gentiles, the real heathens. A Christian world was turned upside down and remade in our image.
- Also, a sermon by Sam Wells - The Stone that the Builders Rejected - in which Wells reminds us that inclusion is "not quite" the right word for what happens in his church. After naming the paternalistic and condescending qualities that usually form the shadow side of the word "inclusion," Wells wonders whether "whole idea of a sorted and normal center" - on which the notion of inclusion rests - "was profoundly flawed all along." He goes on to observe that
"The Church is down in the dumps because it thinks it needs to be full of big and strong and powerful people, but Jesus was the stone the builders rejected and in his ministry he surrounded himself with stones that the builders had rejected.
"Jesus didn't found the church on the so-called center: the sorted, the normal, the benevolent, and the condescending. Jesus assumed the Church would always need the work of the Holy Spirit: the work of miracle, of subversion, of turning the world upside down. Nothing has changed, except - for a lot of the intervening years - the Church has forgotten who Jesus was and whose company he kept.
"We're not talking about a bland and affirming insight, that a lot of people who've been overlooked in life turn out to have some important things to contribute. That's true, but what Peter sees in Acts chapter 5 is much more radical than that. The stones that the builders rejected didn't find a place in the wall somewhere by being thoughtfully included, like a last-minute addition to a family photo. The rejected stone became the cornerstone, the keystone, the stone that held up all the others, the crucial link, the vital connection. That's what ministry's all about. Not condescendingly making welcome alienated strangers, but seeking out the rejected precisely because they are the energy and the life-force that will transform us all."That last bit reminds me of a suggested spiritual discipline in Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals, which is to enroll in a Bible study taught by someone with less education than yourself. The first time I read it, I thought the suggestion was absurd.
In all of this, a recurring theme - and what seems to me to be a natural consequence of my not being the center of my faith - is the conviction that God is at work in that part of the world that isn't me. Thus, we are called to trust and believe that God shows up in others. It is a peculiarly human phenomenon that being blessed by others is for us as much an act of discipline and humility as a generous gift to receive.
I was recently talking to a clergy friend about the emphasis St. Francis House places on holy friendships. My friend liked the idea, but asked about the need for a complimentary program component. "People need more than just a few more friends," he observed. He is right. "That's where the word 'holy' comes in," I offered. We seek to cultivate friendships of particular quality - praying for and reading Scripture with are two regularly mentioned criteria - such that life together becomes content-rich encounter with Christ and one another. In other words, what if - our friendships - we expect to meet Jesus?
Of course, we have program/teaching nights, too, but we seek to purposefully exaggerate our participation in our baptismal promise to seek and serve Christ in all persons, which we read as God's promise to be there for the finding in all persons, too.
There, for me, is the real fruit of the evolving conversation: that what began - with inclusion - as a conversation about me and my church has become a conversation about the person of Christ and the activity of God. To be so de-centered is at the same time frightening and the only truly hopeful thing: to find our stories surrendered to the cruciform story of God.