Yesterday I had the privilege of “speaking out of the silence” during the semi-programmed worship at the Minneapolis Friends Meeting. Semi-programmed means someone is asked to “share a brief message (two to ten minutes) which will lead people into worship rather than serve as the central element.”
Very different from preaching a sermon, obviously. Since yesterday was the first Sunday in Advent, I thought that sharing some of my reflections on the season was appropriate. So I began my message with this passage from God Is in the Manger: Reflections on Advent and Christmas, by Dietrich Bonhoeffer:
Jesus stands at the door knocking (Rev. 3:20). In total reality, he comes in the form of the beggar, of the dissolute human child in ragged clothes, asking for help. He confronts you in every person that you meet. As long as there are people, Christ will walk the earth as your neighbor, as the one through whom God calls you, speaks to you, makes demands on you. That is the great seriousness and great blessedness of the Advent message. Christ is standing at the door; he lives in the form of a human being among us. Do you want to close the door or open it?
If I choose to open the door, who will I see? In addition to the homeless and the hungry, this Advent season I see the weary and the worried as well, all those who’ve already been affected by the results of this election—ethnic minorities, Muslims, women, immigrants, LGBTQ people.
Now, more than ever, God calls us to be with them.
The question for me is, How? How am I to be with them?
Sam Wells, the current vicar of St Martin-in-the-Fields in central London and author of A Nazareth Manifesto: Being with God, “argues that Jesus spent 90% of his life simply being among the people of Nazareth, sharing their hopes and struggles, therefore Christians should place a similar emphasis on being alongside people in need rather than hastening to impose solutions.”
For Wells, “with” is the most important word in theology. Rather than working for or even working with others, we are called first and foremost to be with them.
Wells closes a lecture he gave on A Nazareth Manifesto with a “quotation, from the mystic Thomas a Kempis, in his work The Imitation of Christ. He writes, ‘That which is done for love (though it be little and contemptible in the sight of the world) becometh wholly fruitful.’ Working for may be done for love, or for many other reasons. Working with may be done for love, though it is possible to have other goals in mind. But being with, as far as I can tell, has only one motivation: it is because the other is precious for their own sake, solely to be enjoyed with no thought to use. Being with can only be done for love. And in that, it imitates the way God loves us. God is with us, Emmanuel, for no other reason than that God loves us for our own sake. God enjoys us. That is the mystery of creation and salvation. That is the mystery that all our ministry, service and witness must seek to imitate and emulate. If, and only if, it does, it will become wholly fruitful.
I closed my message there because, as I mentioned earlier, the purpose was to lead people into worship rather than serve as the central element. Anything beyond this would have started to sound like a sermon. It was kind of liberating to end things there.
If you’re interested in learning more about what Sam Wells has to say about “being with,” you can find a PDF of a lecture he gave on A Nazareth Manifesto here: nazarethmanifesto_samwells.