Proper 13(C): Getting Closer to the Whole Gospel
By: The Rev. Dr. Hannah Adams Ingram
I’ve spent a lot of time recently thinking about my two different Christian “families” I’ve been a member of: evangelical Christianity and progressive Christianity. Because we use these words in so many different ways at different times, I’ll start with a quick personal explanation of my use of these terms, and I’ll also apologize in advance for the simple reduction in terms. When I say evangelical, I’m not actually positioning it politically against progressive Christianity, but instead, I’m thinking of a whole culture. Evangelical culture, both of my youth and today, centers the New Testament and the salvation narrative of Jesus and Bible studies and worship music and personal relationship and well, evangelism. The progressive Christian culture of which I’ve also been a member centers the social justice messages of the Bible and the Jesus that suffers with and stands for the marginalized and is careful not to proselytize about Heaven, but instead, preaches a gospel of a more just world here on earth.
There are differences between the two, sure, but as someone who has been formed by both, I’m pretty defensive for each when one of them comes under attack by the other. I’ll stick up for the loving evangelicals and the activist progressives when the other team dismisses them because I recognize in both a commitment to love and serve Jesus. And what happens when we turn we clearly delineate between groups? We fall into the trap of thinking there’s a right group and a wrong group, and often, we like to think whichever group we’re on is the right one, or else we would be in the other group.
One thing I’ve discovered about my progressive Christian family is that we often like to discuss action above heart, what we do above what we believe. I myself have taught in class that “impact is greater than intent,” which is a suggestion that it matters not what you meant to do, but what your actions accomplish. (For example, this is an important distinction in conversations about the harm inflicted by policies that have disproportional consequences for people of color. A voter might say, “I’m not racist,” but the implication of their vote says otherwise.) For this group, it is essential to get away from personal language because sin and evil in society tends to be systemic, it is written into the codes of public policy and institutional life, so a single person’s intention is irrelevant.
This text in Luke, though, pushes us beyond action and into the realm of actual intent. Here, the heart matters too, because the heart is the root of the actions. In this case, it is greed that is undergirding the hoarding of resources for the rich man.
My progressive family knows what to do with a message about not storing up treasures—this is an anti-capitalist message against the hoarding of resources by “the rich” at the expense of “the poor!” It fits our categories of activism, and it preaches easily in a progressive context. (That’s probably what I’d do if I were preaching in my UCC context.)
My evangelical family knows what to do with this message, too—guard your heart against greed. Know that your time will come at any moment, and your heart should be right with God. Your life is not your own, so get your heart on board with that.
I have a nagging suspicion that neither approach is enough, which brings me back to my recent reflections about my two different church families—the evangelicals and the progressives. The social justice commitment deep in my soul knows that this text pushes us beyond individualistic hoarding, which has a detrimental effect on our society. The message missing from that, however, is the actual heart of the matter. You see, when progressive Christians focus solely on the societal implications of the text, they miss the individual conviction of how we are tempted to live on a daily basis. On the other hand, if we only personalize the texts every time we read them, we miss the conviction about what this radical idea might mean in an individualistic society.
If the only message I receive about this text is that the rich hoarding resources is bad, then I’m off the hook. I ain’t rich. And I vote for social safety networks to make sure poor people aren’t hurt by the corporations that practice corporate greed and underpay their staffs. So if I am only called to look at actions, to examine impact rather than intent, I never go to the deeper level in myself that is undergirding my actions. Why am I tempted to hold on tightly to what I have? Is it greed, fear, anxiety? Evangelical Christians are more likely to admit that we are broken people that act out of our brokenness, and if we’re willing to prayerfully examine ourselves, we might be able to grow through these broken patterns.
If the only message I receive about this text is that my heart needs to be unselfish, then our society is off the hook. I ain’t rich. And I donate money to causes that are important to me to make sure I’m not greedy. So if I’m only called to examine myself and make sure my own heart is right, I never look beyond at the impact of my actions or the actions of the larger group. Progressive Christians are more likely to look at society and see how people are being hurt by greedy systems, and if we’re willing to pull back the lens, we might see more that needs to be addressed outside the church walls.
What if we find a way to preach the whole gospel at once? What each group has in part can be integrated as one transformative, liberative message for both the individual and collective. Perhaps I am to be convicted to look at my heart, how I’ve tried to shore up safety and security for myself by holding tight to my possessions, while also looking at my actions as an individual and as a member of society. The gospel is so much bigger than any one church group. If we open our ears to each other’s messages, we might get a bit closer to what Jesus was trying and is trying to do with and for us.
The Rev. Dr. Hannah Adams Ingram serves as the Director of Religious Life and Chaplain of Franklin College in Franklin, Indiana. She grew up in non-denominational evangelical land and is now an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ. She earned a BA from Anderson University, a Master of Theological Studies at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, and a PhD in Religion and Psychological Studies from the University of Denver and Iliff School of Theology. Her areas of interest include education, practical theology, and escaping overthinking by baking, crafting, and watching TV.