If we are ever to enter fully into the glorious liberty of the sons of God, we are going to have to spend more time thinking about freedom than we do. The church, by and large, has had a poor record of encouraging freedom. She has spent so much time inculcating in us the fear of making mistakes that she had made us like ill-taught piano students; we play our songs, but we never really hear them, because our main concern is not to make music, but to avoid some flub that will get us in dutch. -- Robert Farrar Capon, Between Noon and Three (hat tip to Brian Stoffregen )
And even though
It all went wrong
I'll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah -- Leonard Cohen
Sin boldly, and trust in God more boldly still. -- Martin Luther
The other evening I was watching the PBS broadcast of this year's Mark Twain Awards ceremony honoring recipient Steve Martin. The show featured clips of Martin's career, and as I laughed yet again at Martin's 70's-era stage shows and "Saturday Night Live Appearances" -- which my wild-and-crazy high school friends and I pretty much knew verbatim -- I recalled one of Martin's most famous signature phrases back then: "Let's get small!"
You know what? We human beings love to "get small," spiritually as well as chemically. Our tendency is to live our lives curvatus in se -- self-absorbed, self-protective, turned in on ourselves, like an imploding star on its way to becoming a black hole. Because we all fall short, and don't get it right, Christians are every bit as likely to curve inward as the people around us. And from that flaw proceeds sin -- failure to love God and failure to love our neighbors.
Our love of our own smallness keeps us afraid of and resentful of the God who seeks to pull us upright out of that cozy, dark fetal position and grow us up in an expansive, Godward direction. Our dedication to staying small makes us fear and hate both the needy and the different, the other, among us, whose presence threatens our autonomy and our self-image. "Leave me alone, damn it! Leave my soul alone. Leave my mind alone. Leave my possessions alone. Leave my cherished cultural mores and prejudices alone. It was nice and quiet and safe here, but now you're ruining everything."
And, since the Church is made up of sinners, all too often the Church chooses to play small; in fact, if you take a quick Cliff Notes run through the history of the Church, every time the Church has dropped the ball, it's done so in service to smallness. Being afraid of letting the "wrong" people in, or of chasing the "right" people out. Being afraid of losing its privileges and prerogatives. Being afraid of upsetting the powers that be in the dominant culture. Being afraid of the God it claims to relate to as the Lover's Beloved.
Jesus' parable of the talents is all about the peril of playing small when called to live large. One of the best commentaries I read about it this week noted that the ruler in the story never exhibited the negative qualities that the third, fearful servant ascribed to him -- after all, he entrusted his servants with his money while he left town! It was only that third servant's resentful, fearful attitude, his perception that the money given him was a burden rather than an opportunity, that created what amounted to the servant's self-fulfilling prophecy of an angry master.
What happens when we give ourselves over to the love of a God who can untangle us from our cowering inward-turning and stand us upright? We learn to be brave, because we know that God's grace isn't dependent on our being good enough or "right" enough. We learn to take risks, because we know that God loves us and will stick by us no matter what. We learn to reach out, because that's what we see Jesus doing. We learn to get out of our own way, because that's what we hear Jesus telling us. And that is true on an individual and a collective level. Just as the Church's worst blunders in history have been grounded in fear and defensiveness, its finest hours have been when it has focused on the lordship of Christ and not on its own continued institutional existence or comfort; when it has exhibited courage in the face of persecution; when it has practiced radical hospitality and inclusion in the face of indifference, cruelty and intolerance; when it has dared to reach out, by word and action, to "the least of these" in society.
Today at church one of my fellow lay preachers shared this quote: "You are a child of God. Playing small doesn't serve the world." Living in fear, rather than by faith, doesn't serve the world. So let's stop doing it, as sisters and brothers of Jesus and as members of the Body of Christ.