Is the Church a Refuge?

Sunday of the Fathers of the Seventh Ecumenical Council, October 15, 2017
Titus 3:8-15; Luke 8:5-15
Very Rev. Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.

Today in the eighth chapter of Luke’s Gospel we read again the familiar parable of the Sower and his seed. As we consider this passage, we might compare the various kinds of conditions into which the seed falls—the seed that falls by the path and is walked on or eaten by birds, that which falls on rocks and withers, that which is choked by thorns, and that which falls on good soil and grows.

Today I’d like to focus on a condition which makes those negative kinds of metaphorical “soil” possible in our hearts. And to open up this question up for us, I want to read for you a passage from the book Churchianity vs. Christianity by Metropolitan Anthony Bloom. Metropolitan Anthony writes this in the first chapter:

And yet what we see is that we treat the Church as a place where we can take refuge; we run away from life into the Church. We hide from life in the Church. How often it happens that instead of coming out of the Church in order to be sent “like sheep among the wolves”… we go out, ready to run away from all danger, to hide, to refuse to face any challenge. God tells us to go out into the world for his salvation; we run back to be hidden under his cloak. And this not only in great things. I’m not speaking of martyrdom, I am speaking of our everyday life. We do not live our lives on Christ’s own terms. We want God to live on ours. We want him to be our protection, our help, our safety. We almost… say to him: “Die for me. I’m afraid of dying, both for myself or my neighbor, or even for you.” (p. 20)

Okay, so let’s unpack this a little. Metropolitan Anthony is speaking here of an attitude toward life in the Church which I think is very common and which is even passed on between us as though it is a normal and good way to understand what we are doing here. It is the understanding of the Church primarily as a place of refuge.

As he says, we think of God and His Church as a protection in which we can hide and refuse to face challenges. He is not speaking here of the challenges of “life” in the sense that we might normally think of them—jobs, school, relationships, etc. He does say that he is speaking of “everyday life,” but look at the context he ends with—it’s about death.

So what does he mean? He is not talking about literal death here. He is talking about the death to self that is true Christianity. That is why he talks about it as running away from challenges. It’s not that we don’t solve problems, etc. It is that we run away from the change that we have to do in ourselves. We don’t want to change. We want to stay the same.

Social media is a good example of how we do this, though there are of course many ways that we avoid death. With social media, with just a click, you can turn on or off any person or idea that you do not like. Or if you don’t turn them off, you just resist them, push back against them, and don’t ask yourself how you need to change in the face of the challenge of their existence and their ideas.

Now, we may say, “Well, that person is wrong.” And maybe he is. But there is still something in him that is challenging you, that is the occasion for you to feel angry or annoyed or whatever. And you do not ask why you feel angry. You just take it as a given that you have the right to be angry. You do not ask whether the anger is about fear or the need to control others or never to hear anything which you disagree with. You are simply angry and have every right to be.

But most of our anger is not the holy anger of Jesus Christ, Who cleaned out the Temple of the moneychangers. We think it is. But it isn’t. Our anger is the anger of fear and of rejection and resistance toward other people, who are God’s creatures and called to be His sons and daughters. This is just one example.

The point is that we do not want to change. We do not want to die. We want to remain as we are, and we may go to God’s Church for protection and comfort when we are threatened with death. We just want a quiet place to pray on Sunday morning. We just want to be comforted when we hurt. We just want to run away from the cares of this world and make this a place of refuge.

In other words, we just want to be the seed that falls in places where it can remain self-contained, where it can remain itself, where it is not challenged to break open and die and therefore become the locus of growth and development and change. That is what all three of those bad soils have in common—they are the ground on which the seed does not fall into the ground and die. They are the ground on which the seed simply remains itself.

But isn’t it right that we should see the Church as a refuge? Does not the Lord promise to wipe away the tears from every eye and to protect us from the evil one? He does promise these things, but those promises are in the context of our accepting our own deaths.

The Lord will indeed protect us from the evil one, but we want Him to protect us even from ourselves. We want Him to protect us from dying to self, to protect us from change, to protect us from true, personal challenge.

But that is not how the good seed in the parable of the Sower works. Jesus tells us about the destiny of the good seed in John 12:24, where He says, “unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it produces much grain.” He is speaking here of His own death and the resurrection that followed it, but this is also our model. We are also called to be seeds that fall into the ground and die.

How does this work, practically speaking? I will give an example from my own life, and I will tell you how I have both failed and succeeded.

When I come home from work, I am tired and I am ready to sit down and do nothing until dinner. And there have been many times that I have done exactly that, even though I am surrounded by opportunities to die to myself—my wife could use some help with the baby or with dinner, one of the kids wants to play a game or read with me, another wants to tell me about what he did that day, another has been hurt and needs comfort, or another has been hurting and needs correction. But these are the last thing I want to do. I want to crawl inside my shell and remain alone.

But sometimes, I listen to the grace of God speaking to me and set aside my sense of refuge and wanting to be protected from the challenge of growth, and I say “okay” to one of those opportunities. And I will say that, even though I might feel more tired or frazzled or whatever, I have not regretted it. And I will also say that, when I say “okay,” I find it often comes a little more easily next time.

We are not here in the Church to have a quiet place away from the world for a little while. We are also not here primarily to be comforted. These things are part of our Christianity but they are not its point. The point of our Christianity is to repent, to be challenged and to change. And if we do that, we will find that we are more than we were. We will find that we are not just “better people,” but that we are creative, active, and moving toward God.

What kind of seed are you? Are you the kind that remains in its shell and does not do anything? Or are you the kind that will fall into the ground and die and thereby bring forth fruit?

To our Lord Jesus Christ be all glory, honor and worship, with His Father and the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.

3 comments:

  1. I appreciate this look at this parable. I think it has added to my understanding of it. I am afraid I all too often like to stay in my shell! I desperately want change, yet I’m afraid I wish God would change me without me having to actually die first… Lord have mercy!

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