Sunday, April 03, 2011

When Expulsion is the Cost of Discipleship

Today's Gospel (John 9: 1-41) is about the blind man who, after being healed by Jesus, is expelled from his faith community by its orthodox leaders.

And why was he thrown out? He was expelled because he recognized Jesus as God's liberating and transforming presence in the world. He was expelled – excommunicated, if you like – because the religious leaders of the day were "blind" to this presence in Jesus. They were men spiritually blind, and thus unresponsive to the liberating and transforming presence in both the blind beggar, whom they deemed unworthy of God's mercy, and in the action of Jesus healing on the Sabbath, which they deemed unholy and wrong.

As I listened to this Gospel reading this morning, and to the insightful homily that was shared in response to it, I couldn't help but think of the communities and individuals expelled today from the "official" church by a ruling clerical caste that refuses to "see" the presence and action of God in its midst. I think of these communities and individuals again as I write these words.

I think of communities like St. Mary's in Brisbane, Australia, and my own faith community here in the Twin Cities, The Spirit of St. Stephen's. These are communities so deeply rooted in the Gospel message of compassion, justice and inclusion that they have upset the orthodox leaders of today. These "leaders" (clerics, really) seem more intent on establishing a ghetto of "true believers" than in following Jesus' example of radical hospitality. Those communities that do endeavor to embody such hospitality are deemed to be in error. They cannot be tolerated.

I think of situations where the local clerical leadership has banned LGBT people from speaking on "official" church property. These people's experience of God in their lives and relationships are deemed unacceptable and incapable of facilitating new understanding and thus potential growth in the "official" church.

And I think of individuals like Roy Bourgeois, threatened with expulsion from his religious order because of his support for female ordination. Again, here is someone recognizing and living out the radical message of the Gospel being punished by the "religious leaders" of the day. Such treatment, of which there are many more examples, seems to be the age-old price of "seeing"; an age-old cost of discipleship.

It's a discouraging realization, isn't it? – this shabby treatment of those who most fully see and embody Jesus. It's also an appropriate realization for this season of Lent – that time when, both as individuals and as a community, we're called to reflect upon our failings and shortcomings.

Lent, however, is not a destination but rather a road. It leads us to and prepares us for Easter – the triumph of Love!

And so I remain ultimately hopeful in the transforming power of God, in that power of Love manifested in Jesus and in so many inspiring individuals and communities around me. They have shown me that expulsion as a cost of discipleship can actually be a liberating experience, perhaps even a necessary one for true discipleship and for the reforming of the church. I also remain hopeful because of the visions and insights that these individuals and communities experience and share – which reminds me of the wise words of "modern day mystic" Chuck Lofy, whom I interviewed in 2005 for CPCSM's Rainbow Spirit journal. I'll conclude this post with what Chuck has to say about spiritual blindness, and what we can do as followers of Jesus when faced with the spiritual blindness of the institutional church.


The institutional church is a power structure that in some areas of life is intellectually dishonest or spiritually blind – something that Jesus consistently warned against. For me, one of the most important things Jesus said was when he said to the religious leaders of his time, “If you knew you were blind, you would have no sin. It’s because you say, ‘We see’, that your sin remains”.

What happens in religion is that people have experiences of God that are ineffable. And they’ll lay down their lives for what they’ve experienced. When people start taking the names that the mystics have given to these experiences and pass them on, then for the next generation or two there’s not necessarily the experience underneath the names. And so we end up with language that, as Joseph Campbell says, is “not transparent of the transcendent”. It’s become opaque. It’s become like a rock. It’s monolithic.

The temptation for any form, image, or organized structure is to become monolithic; to become crystallized and to become an end unto itself. In some ways that is what’s going on with the church right now. The function of any monolith can become primarily to continue itself in its current crystallized, opaque form. Yet Jesus said the form profits nothing. It’s the spirit that gives life.

All of this can, of course, be overstated. The church is, of course, a beacon of light to the world in many ways. But like all of us, it has a shadow side and, in my view at least, that shadow side lies in the area of sexuality.

So if I had to say what people – GLBT or straight – can do to go beyond monolithic structures and language, it would be to become conscious, to embark on the Hero’s Journey of consciousness.

Becoming conscious means that you really understand what’s going on within you as you encounter the forces of the monolith, and that you develop an almost detached – or perhaps better stated – more mature, adult-relationship with the institution you’re trying to change.

It’s a paradox, I know, and it can cause a lot of grief. Internally what people need to do is affirm themselves, while externally they need to be doing just what CPCSM is doing – fostering dialogue, building networks of support, and building community. It’s spiritual work and it’s prophetic work.

In light of such work, the question becomes: How can we create forms in the church and in our lives that nurture and express our spirit, that enable us to be vital? The church always has to be in reform. There always has to be a reforming according to new insights, according to the ever-changing historical realities. We no longer think slavery is right. Some day the church won’t teach that homosexuality is wrong.

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Truth-Telling: The Greatest of Sins in a Dysfunctional Church
Thomas Doyle: "There's Something Radically Wrong with the Institutional Church"
Rome Falling
The Roman Catholic Pyramid is Crumbling
An Offering of Ashes
The Real Crisis
Of Mustard Seeds and Walled Gardens
Roger Haight on the Church We Need
A Brave Hope
Genuine Authority
Staying on Board
Clearing Away the Debris
A Time to Re-Think the Basis and Repair the Damage
An Update on St. Mary's in Brisbane
An Update on the Spirit of St. Stephen's in Minneapolis

Image: "Christ Healing the Blind Man" by El Greco (1567).


Chris said...

"It's a discouraging realization, isn't it? – this shabby treatment of those who most fully see and embody Jesus." Thank you, Michael. I read this comment and thought, on one level you are absolutely right. On another, imagine that people who best embody Jesus are treated like Jesus--and that seems entirely appropriate. Those who aspire to power-over will come to the same mistakes as their predecessors.

bobfett11 said...

Powerful words, thank you for sharing.