Sometimes the good news can sound like bad news: we are loved by God no matter what, but that means we must love each other no matter what.
The good news is that God exists, that God is love, and that God became one of us to befriend us and to draw us back into the force field of God’s love. Our first challenge is to imagine that this is true for us individually. Jesus our shepherd calls us each by name, over and over, until we heed his personal summons.
That summons (as attested to by countless Christians through the centuries) is an invitation into the dynamics of mercy. We are invited to receive acceptance and relief whether or not we have earned it. In turn, we are to extend the same acceptance and relief to everyone who crosses our path.
If we close our ears to Jesus’ call, it is probably because we are afraid to be this open to whoever crosses our path, be it spouse, child, store clerk, homeless person, undocumented person, or someone emerging from prison. But if we ignore Jesus’ love for us for fear that we will then have to love others as he has loved us, we are, as the old saying goes, cutting off our nose to spite our face. We cannot reject radical openness to the neighbor without rejecting Jesus’ radical openness to us. This principle lies at the heart of the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who have sinned against us.” This is not just about forgiveness but about offering to our fellow human beings all the kindness and slack that God has offered us.
So sometimes the good news can sound like bad news: we are loved by God no matter what, but that means we must love each other no matter what. This can only end up being good news for us if we acknowledge the deep satisfaction and joy that can come from random but genuine encounters with other people.
Such encounters come our way whether we like it or not. But if we decide ahead of time to embrace them, we will encounter them as good news, and the good news that God embraces us as well will seem all the more real.
This is what I mean by a phrase I often use: following Jesus into the neighborhood. God’s mercy, made evident in Jesus, propels us into merciful engagement with everyone, without exception, beginning with those who are closer to us but stretching to the ends of the earth.
I have received a lot of positive response to the idea of following Jesus into the neighborhood. Most of our congregations understand that engagement with their neighborhood is the key to spiritual authenticity and institutional sustainability. If we don’t put what actually surrounds us first, we quickly become a well-defended backwater. But if we do pay attention to and engage with what surrounds us – our neighborhood – we will regain our reason for being, which is to bring hope to a broken world. That hope is none other than the possibility of friendship despite difference.
For the most part, our churches are surrounded by people who are different from us. In some cases it is the difference generated by economic or racial inequality. In many instances it is difference generated by political disagreement. In most instances it is difference generated by the sharp decline in anyone’s desire to be identified with any religious institution whatsoever. As churchgoers, our natural response to all this difference is to hunker down and weather the storm. But the storm we are experiencing is not a storm to our neighbors – it is just normal life, without the comfort that life has ultimate meaning.
It is our job as followers of Jesus simply to make friends with our neighbors. Not to preach, unless called upon to do so. Not to absolve, unless requested to do so. Not to admonish, unless our own convictions compel us to do so. Rather, to get to know our neighbors – for instance, the local police, the school principals, the neighborhood council, the local businesses and those who shop there – and to begin to be in communion with them.
There is no question but that the Holy Spirit is pushing us in this direction. Congregations across the diocese are asking how they can engage with their neighborhood. I am calling for a convocation or gathering of the diocese to do three things: (1) To check out whether there is consensus about the need for this engagement; (2) to provide some concrete methods and models for congregations to pursue this engagement; and (3) to gather feedback from all participants regarding the direction of the diocese (e.g., what is the Holy Spirit pushing and pulling us toward?), so that a task group can write a statement of direction, to be presented to diocesan convention in November for possible ratification.
I am calling for this convocation to take place on Saturday, September 16, 2017, from 9:30 a.m. until 4 p.m. at the Procter Center. Rooms and Friday night dinner will be available at cost for those who are coming from a distance. I hope that every congregation, large or small, will be represented.
You should also be aware of a diocesan-wide Big Read project that is closely related to this convocation. A number of people have called for a diocesan study of the Book of Exodus, the second book of the Bible. If we are following Jesus into the neighborhood, we are aligning ourselves with a central biblical theme – exiting from slavery and/or privilege into the glorious liberty of the children of God, and this, of course is what Exodus is all about. So on August 27, we will all begin working through Exodus as our first reading on Sunday mornings. For more on the Exodus Big Read project, see page 7 or go to www.adsobigread.org.
The Rt. Rev. Thomas E. Breidenthal serves as bishop of the Diocese of Southern Ohio. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.