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Curse you, Rev. Jonker!
Well not really, but we were coached to open provocatively.
Still, it’s 3:34 am and I am re-listening to his sermon. I have coffee going and I need to lead a field trip at 8:30 but here I am blogging instead of sleeping. I’m going to pay for this when I run out of gas this afternoon.
Parachuting in online, I caught Rev. Jonker’s sermon (LaGrave Avenue Christian Reformed Church) on Romans 12 where he focused on phrases “share with the Lord’s people” and “practice hospitality.” And it’s kept me awake.
Sharing, he explained, is the Greek word koinonia, which is difficult to translate directly but includes elements of generosity (Romans 15:26), fellowship (1 Corinthians 1:9), and partaking in the context of communion (1 Corinthians 1:10).
He emphasized that Romans 12 is a universal truth but must be understood in the context of ancient Roman culture where life for common people was crowded, squalid, and chaotic. Emergent then is a direction to radical community marked by radical giving and sharing of all things.
The early church ideal was captured in instruction from the Didache:
“Give without hesitating and without grumbling. Never turn away from the needy. Share (koinonia) all your possessions with your brother. Do not claim anything as your own.” (Transcribing from Rev. Jonker here.)
The second phrase (practice hospitality) means that radical giving is rooted in radical fellowship, fueled by sincere love. Not obligation — giving out of love.
And then, Rev. Jonker paused and allowed for his listeners that all this radicalness might be impractical.
And my heart sank.
Impractical. That word. I’ve been teaching this week about the climate crisis and recalling a conversation with a colleague who argued that we should focus on solutions like emerging carbon capture technologies that were practical – implying that transitioning from fossil fuels to renewables and even actively working to keep fossil fuels in the ground were impractical.
Who gets to decide what’s practical?
Before I fell asleep, I read a grim new study (released August 1) in the respected journal PNAS that argued that the climate crisis may have all of creation (humanity included) trending towards a more dire and catastrophic future by 2100 than even the IPCC reports have predicted. You can read The Guardian’s account here.
By themselves, carbon capture technologies might be helpful given the urgency. But independent experts say that the technologies likely are insufficient given the scale of the problem. At worse they become a false hope that fossil fuel industries exploit to give cover for continued pumping and polluting.
Similarly, helping poor people directly, (and Rev. Jonker gave a beautiful example of a foot-care clinic his church runs for the homeless in downtown Grand Rapids) is imperative, but it can also give empowered and wealthy Christians opportunity to “check their charity box” so they can avoid using their privilege to address systemic causes of homelessness and lack of access to healthcare. A modern koinonia addresses systemic problems not in place of but in addition to direct demonstrations of love.
Rev. Jonker’s church almost certainly skews toward disproportionate wealth and political influence relative to the median person in North America. The same can be said of most of the readers of this blog (and western Christianity generally) relative to the median person on the planet. We have agency. Using it is a matter of faithfulness.
Impractical is a dodge, it gives cover to the status quo when radical change is needed. It’s a failure of imagination and a barrier to faithfulness.
If Paul were writing to wealthy western Christians, I think the context would be the global scope of climate injustice and a more expansive view of fellowship and community, one that would fold in the rest of creation.
Radical giving would then mean more than giving of our finances. It would mean a giving from (giving up?) our breezy love of convenience and our blithe idolatry for social, political, and economic structures that enable our privilege and drive the climate crisis.
The second phrase, “practice hospitality”, is from a Greek word (philoxenia) that means love of strangers. This phrase, seems to me, has an inherent imbalance between one who is vulnerable (stranger) and one who is empowered to be able to show hospitality. Here again, an expanded view of the phrase would recognize a special responsibility for those who have agency to use it for the greater good, including non-human creation. This point from this passage was directed at me in the sermon preached at Carol and my wedding (34 years on Friday!) no doubt because the pastor knew I was a biology major headed to graduate school in an environmental field.
The climate crisis is fast becoming a climate catastrophe and it’s a source of deep injustice to the world’s poor, non-human nature, and future humans and non-humans. This is no longer an abstraction. I have three decades of reading, writing, reviewing, and editing for scientific journals. Recent language in the characteristically staid and conservative voice of science journals is singularly alarming. Even optimistic predictions for emissions reductions will result in bleak futures for children alive right now. We are called to exercise radical love, impractical love.
Paraphrasing Rev. Jonker again, he told his church: “I am not called to tell you practical things. I’m called to tell you what’s in the Book.” With respect to the radical nature of koinonia and philoxenia, he said that Paul meant it, the early church interpreted it that way, and that’s what they did.
He then said: “We have work to do.”
(My thanks to Rev. Jonker for allowing me to riff on his sermon. You may watch it here. The sermon runs from approximately the 1:02 mark to 1:24.)