“Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”[i] This is the line that Jesus gives to a would-be follower. I think this is interesting, because there are three would-be followers in this story today. The next two seem reluctant, and Jesus speaks plainly to them about the need for a total commitment. But this first one is very committed. So is this line, this statement that the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head, what is it? Is it an admonition, in the same way the other two would-be followers are admonished? Is it a lament on Jesus’s part, as in other places in the gospels where he is frustrated by an insistent crowd? Maybe. To me, today, though, this reads more as a warning. An eager (perhaps overeager, starry-eyed, not quite sure what he’s getting himself into) but nevertheless eager would-be follower approaches, proclaiming his devotion, and Jesus sees fit to speak of the constant homelessness, alienation, and inability to rest that comes with this call. It seems meant to be sobering.
And there has long been within the Church a sense of unease at things being too comfortable. If things are going fine, without complication or difficulty, that suggests perhaps we’re not struggling where we need to be. The first few centuries of the Church, this struggle wasn’t difficult to come by. Blood, and tears, and prayer flowed in equal measure. But with the legalization of Christianity in the Roman Empire in the early 300s, much of the Church’s martyrdom, struggle, and witness stopped. Or, rather, it wasn’t obvious where it would come from. It’s long been pointed out that monasticism only rose to prominence in the Church right around this time, right around the time Christians were seeking greater difficulty, intensity, and challenge. The fact that any of us are here right now is in debt to this ancient pursuit of struggle.
Even more directly relevant, a series of Christian thinkers in various the 1800s also lamented the lack of struggle. They used a particular word with some serious contempt, Christendom, to juxtapose that with the Church and its holy struggle. The practiced Christianity of state and cultural institutions was stale and performative, robbed of any vigor. Soren Kierkegaard, a Danish theologian-philosopher and a man called “the father of existentialism” rejected the tame circumstances of his church upbringing to insist on the necessity of a person’s grappling with their own existence, struggling for meaning. His thoroughly Christian answer to this struggling was the necessity of faith. And at the very same time, in Britain, the Oxford Movement had its beginnings, questioning the legitimacy of the state-run Church and insisting on the need for prayer and theology beyond the banal and comfortable. From this movement came Richard Benson, and the founding of SSJE.
Benson had plenty to say about the relationship of the Church to the broader society, but there’s one excerpt in particular that stands out to me. Benson was fascinated with India; he had always wanted to go, and was deeply invested in preaching and witnessing to the Gospel there. This fascination, though, was paired with a skepticism toward the state-approved church apparatus, and SSJE, though present in India, regularly found itself at odds with the other missions there. Benson, in one of his letters, wrote this:
Whether India will ever be a Christian country may be very doubtful. I cannot say I wish to see it. The experience of Christianizing countries leads one to believe that the country is Christianized at the expense of souls… We must look for Christianity… in India in some very different form from that of the West. Let us hope that it will be a form of never-ceasing stand-up fight with the world around.[ii]
That approach is, you might already recognize, pretty radically different from most colonial missionaries. The idea that this man, so enamored with the idea of preaching the Gospel in India, so clearly did not want India to become “a Christian country,” might strike us as odd, even contradictory. But I think that says something meaningful about the relationship between the Church and its surrounding society and culture, something relevant to us about who we should be—and what traps we may fall into—as the Church in the world today.
I think, though I’ll make it brief, we need to talk about abortion. I don’t want to, but we probably should. The recent Supreme Court ruling makes it necessary.
I, perhaps obviously, am an Episcopalian. In the words of an Episcopal clergyman who shall remain nameless, “I can’t say I love the Episcopal Church. I love the God who the Church has enabled me find.” So it was with some trepidation that I looked into the canons of the Episcopal Church, the various rulings and statements pertaining to abortion by the Episcopal Church. Here’s what I found. The Office of Government Relations of the Episcopal Church summarizes it this way:
In a series of statements over the past decades, the Church has declared that “we emphatically oppose abortion as a means of birth control, family planning, sex selection, or any reason of mere convenience.” At the same time, since 1967, The Episcopal Church has maintained its “unequivocal opposition to any legislation on the part of the national or state governments which would abridge or deny the right of individuals to reach informed decisions [about the termination of pregnancy] and to act upon them.”[iii]
I was gratified to read that. I think it avoids the trap of relegating serious moral questions, purely to the realm of the personal; it grapples with the fact that Scripture continually witnesses to the sacredness of human life, even as that life is knit together in one’s mother’s womb, as the psalmist says. It also recognizes, as Father Benson did, the distinction between Christianity and Christendom, the intrinsic destruction and devastation inevitably brought about by infusing the state with the legitimacy only God can rightly hold. We don’t need to look far to see the destruction already wrought, the arrests and trials of women who have had miscarriages, the denial of necessary medical treatment to women for fear of running afoul of abortion laws. These aren’t theoretical fears, they have already happened.
“Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” Maybe it was a lament. Maybe it is a sobering recognition that the world as it exists will never be a proper resting place for Christ, and those who follow him. There will always be, in Benson’s words, a stand-up fight with the world to be had. If you feel scared, I don’t think you’re wrong to feel that way. If you feel angry, I don’t think you’re wrong to feel that way. But the message of the Gospel is neither one of despair nor escapism. The Christ who knew our weakness once knows our weakness still. And the admonition, that following this Christ, and pursuing the justice, the morality, the mercy, and the love that he requires of us would be a difficult road, is necessary for us to hear. But this difficulty is not where the Church has withered or been defeated. This struggle is where the Church has thrived, been the most alive, been most the Church. So in the words of this Christ who has not abandoned us in this struggle, take heart. In the world you face persecution, but Christ has conquered the world.[iv]
Third Sunday after Pentecost
[i] Luke 9:58 (NRSV)
[ii] Richard Meux Benson, Further Letters of Richard Meux Benson, S.S.J.E, Cowley, ed. W.H Longridge (London: A.R. Mowbray & Co. Ltd., 1920), 165.
[iii] Office of Government Relations, “Summary of General Convention Resolutions on Abortion and Women’s Reproductive Health,” The Episcopal Church, May 17, 2019, https://www.episcopalchurch.org/ogr/summary-of-general-convention-resolutions-on-abortion-and-womens-reproductive-health/
[iv] John 16:33 (NRSV)
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