Pentecost 17

Proper 18  ~  Lectionary Year  A  ~  September 7, 2008

Holy Trinity & St. Anskar


Incline my heart to your decrees *
and not to unjust gain.


Do not take the word of truth out of my mouth, *
for my hope is in your judgments.


I will tell of your decrees before kings *
and will not be ashamed.


+In the Name of God, the Holy and Undivided Trinity


Jesus was what we would now call an Organizer – a community Organizer, even. That was, in fact, His main achievement as portrayed in the Gospel. His teaching and healing ministry was all part of that organizing work. He called people together, explained reality to them, cast out the elements of alienation and disintegration, and founded an organization ~ which we call the Church ~ upon the Rock of Peter. We heard about that two weeks ago. Then last week we heard the same Rock become a stumbling block ~ an obstacle in the road, an Adversary ~  satan, in Aramaic.  Organizations have a way of petrifying like that. And they have to be renewed constantly, reminded of their mission, reminded that their goal is not bureaucratic self-preservation, which is petrification.  What is true of each of us is also true of our organizations: whoever would save their life will lose it.


So, community organizing is an ongoing task. This week, we get some practical advice about how to run the organization, how to deal with conflict within. If necessary, the whole community must decide what to do about the problem. Because of the solidarity that is the essence of the community – because we are members of one another – an injury to one is an injury to all, and the whole Body is involved in the healing of an injury. Jesus was a community Organizer.


It is a mistake to take any political leader for the Messiah. But while I would never compare Barak Obama to Jesus Christ, I will say with certainty that community organizing is a Christ-like activity, because it calls people into the solidarity of which I spoke last week. Community organizing calls  people to repentance: to change their minds, their consciousness about who they are, to recognize that they are not isolated individuals, but members of one another; to value one another as infinitely important, to see that an injury to one is an injury to all; and to realize that together they are powerful.


Whatever you shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven

and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.


This remarkable declaration of earthly power is made twice, in short succession: two weeks ago to Peter at Cæsaræa Philippi, and today to the whole Church.  Peter quickly turns into satan, concerned about preserving life.  Maybe that’s why the Lord has to clarify his pronouncement today: the authority to bind and to loose belongs to the WHOLE community, not to Peter by himself.  And maybe Peter’s mistake was that he thought this authority once, bestowed, belonged to him unconditionally.  Well it doesn’t. The Church’s authority is entirely conditional on the Church’s fidelity to its mission ~ the mission to defend the poor , to heal the sick, to cast out demons, and to raise the dead.  The willingness to lose its own life. When the Church forsakes this mission, it loses its authority, just as Peter did.


I think the mission to defend the poor is what our Lord meant when He said that where two or three are gathered in my Name, I am there among them. I am convinced that this does not mean merely the magical incantation of the Holy Name, nor the claim of a brand or cultural identity. The Name of Jesus is His reputation, His purpose, His project in the world. For the Church to bear the authority to bind and to loose, we have to be faithful to the same purpose.  When we fall away from that purpose, we lose our authority, just as Peter did. Furthermore, any two or three who DO gather to further that work, Jesus says, are gathered in His Name,  and He is in the midst of them ~ WHETHER OR NOT THEY KNOW IT! He doesn’t say they have to pronounce His Name, just to gather IN it, and then they, too, have the authority to bind and to loose. Remember those people the disciples complained about, who were casting out demons in Jesus’ Name, though they were not part of His following. Those who are not against us are with us, He said. To further our Lord’s project of liberation is to act in His Name, whatever brand you may bear.


Those who gather in His Name cannot lose. They may die, their organization may be destroyed in this or that locality, just as the dwellings of the vegetarians and peace activists were vandalized by the Empire last week, right here in the Twin Cities. But that is not the same as losing.  Quite a number of Church members died and local churches were severely damaged in a good many places before the Roman Empire finally submitted to the Church. (We may argue whether that was a good thing, but that’s another subject). The fact ~ the supreme spiritual fact ~ is that our Lord’s project of liberation cannot fail. Nor is the victory entirely eschatological ~ something that must wait for the Second Coming. He has told us, after all, that the Reign of God is already among us.


It is present among any two or three gathered in His Name, gathered for furthering His purpose, gathered to help organize the community. The more I think about it, the more I am appalled by the sinister significance of last week’s ridicule of community organizing as a qualification for high office. Together with sneering at organized labor as a “special interest”, this attitude toward local efforts to build human solidarity reveals an imperial consciousness, which considers the only serious kind of human organization to be a top-down hierarchy of power, epitomized by military organization. But community organization is the only means the poor have to defend their rights and their dignity. Community organizations, labor organizations, environmental organizations, peace and justice organizations, charitable organizations, human rights organizations, and religious organizations (when they are not co-opted and subverted in their purpose) ~ in short, all the structures of civil society ~  are a thorn in the side of Empire, and it is no wonder that imperial consciousness views them with contempt. Because, for imperial consciousness, the only kind of organization that fits one for political leadership is military organization.


Ironically, this is about as far as you can get from genuinely evangelical consciousness ~ from a mind conformed to the Gospel of the Redemption proclaimed and won by Jesus Christ. That Gospel is the good news of human solidarity and personal equality. The Gospel is the good news of the One Who puts down the mighty from their seat and exalts the humble and meek, Who fills the hungry with good things and sends the rich empty away. The Gospel is good news for the Poor, and Bad News for those who incline their hearts to unjust gain.


So, may God deliver us from the seduction of vacuous prattle about “family values” and “individual freedom” . The family we value is the Body of Christ; the freedom we cherish is not the alienation of the individual, but the solidarity of free persons in voluntary, liberating organizations. The freedom that is based in community organization.


Jesus was, and is, a community Organizer.