Saturday after Lent 3, Small Church Alliance, Church of the Resurrection, Franklin

“For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt-offerings” (Hos. 6:6).

The prophet Hosea and the author of Psalm 51 are in cahoots today, conspiring together to pull the rug out from under the sacrificial system of ancient Israel. In the face of this well-developed system, attested to in the Scriptures of ancient Israel, the prophet calls instead for “steadfast love” or hesed in the Hebrew, sometimes translated as “lovingkindness,” or “covenant love;” and then for the “knowledge of God.” In turn, the psalmist tells us that God requires a “troubled spirit” and a “contrite heart” instead of offerings at the altar (Ps. 51:17-18). What we have here is a two-fold agenda, involving repentance (that’s the “contrite heart”) and a new commitment to the covenant of God with Israel, and the knowledge and love of God.

Our prophet and our psalm offer a substantial criticism of the notion that what God really desires are well-honed religious systems, technical fixes for the problems that beset the human race. There was a substantial belief in the twin kingdoms of Israel and Judah that if the fires of the sacrificial system were kept stoked then everything would be alright. Notice that the psalms and prophets are not critical of worship per se, but are instead inviting the People of God into worship that is pleasing to God. The prophets and psalms posit an alternative to the technical fix, the totalizing religious system: that is, to dig down deeper, into the heart and mind where love itself is kindled and then bursts into flame. That’s the work of Lent, this season of the Church year, going on in parishes and churches of all sorts throughout the world.

Well-honed religious systems will not get us from where we are to where we need to be, according to the psalms and the prophets. It was true in ancient Israel and it is true today. Some of us may be envious of the well-organized and efficient parish, with lots of resources and lots of programs. At least one of us in the room might confess to a similar envy of well-organized dioceses, with canons for this and canons for that, and programs that promote the latest thing that the Church at large is abuzz with. What a wonder: salvation by program! These are fine-tuned systems (at least, they appear to be). Surely they are pleasing to God?

The psalms and prophets posit an approach that differs from salvation by religious program, by religious system, encapsulated in the twin appeal to repentance and the renewal of the covenant. Repentance concerns the mending of relationship, and the knowledge and love that are at the heart of the covenant are functions of relationship as well: the knowledge and love of God. These are the things that are at the heart of ancient Israel, and at the heart of the Church. We long for right relationship with God and with one another. Lent is our time to rediscover these truths, and (more fundamentally) to return to right relationship with God.

I’ll let you in on a secret: in their heart of hearts even the well-organized systems of the largest and best-resourced church know that relationship is central to the common task that’s before us as Christians. Only the truly blind think that we will be saved by programs, by our own versions of ancient Israel’s religious system. The interesting truth is that large churches have to work twice as hard to reproduce what the humble parish church has most naturally: community and connection. The large churches, if they are doing their job, have to create opportunities for people to gather in small groups so that they connect with God and each other, in a way that is difficult in the packed nave of the church, with five hundred of your closest friends.

Small churches have their own problems, but this is not one of them. Our challenge will not be to create the opportunities for people to connect or for community to form. Our challenge will to be to ensure that community is working on repentance and the knowledge and love of God, instead of something else. Our challenge will be to be open to those whom God will send to us: to invite them, along with us, into the practices of repentance and the knowledge and love of God. Our challenge will be invitational, to share our relationship with God in Christ will others, in a way that is graceful. We may be so loving on our neighbors, our fellow members of the church, that we forget the call of repentance, and the new neighbor who is in our midst, and the neighbor who is farther off.

Our religious systems, as fine as they are, will not save us. Right relationship with God is the definition of salvation! The small church has a great strength: the clear knowledge that relationship is at the heart of the great cause we are involved in: the reconciliation of all people to one another in Christ, and all things to God. That’s our strength, and we must play to it, to fulfill our mission and ministry.

  • The Rt. Rev’d John Bauerschmidt, Bishop of Tennessee