The greatest sacrament

February 21, 2012

phyllis strupp[Episcopal News Service] On the eve of the Super Bowl, a luncheon speaker reflected on his 50-year career, which included positions as a head college football coach and leader of the National Football Foundation and Football Hall of Fame. Football, he declared, was all about the money, and a well-oiled publicity machine keeps it at center stage for the American public. On the topic of football head injuries and neurological disorders, the speaker reported that tackling used to be done with the shoulders; but some thirty years ago, coaches began to encourage players to tackle “head on,” a more forceful display that impressed television viewers. There is no helmet strong enough to protect a player’s brain from this vigorous thrust into the muscular body of an opponent.

Sports-related head injuries have become a hot topic, ever since a House Judiciary Committee grilled National Football Commissioner Roger Goodell about this issue in late 2009. A recent episode of the television program “Harry’s Law” featured parents who had lost their son to a concussion suffered while playing football; the judge’s ruling was to give this issue a hearing in court with a full trial. Indeed, that is what is happening off screen: in 21 lawsuits across six states, more than 300 players and their families are charging the NFL with negligence, and in some cases fraud and conspiracy, saying the league should have done more to warn them about the consequences of brain trauma. In the meantime, the NFL has stepped up penalties for dangerous hits and has pledged to spend $100 million studying the issue over the next 10 years.

The secular world seems to be one step ahead of the collective church in this advocacy battle and many others as well. A notable exception is the Episcopal Church’s advocacy for gay rights in ordination and marriage. The church was ahead of society on this one, as recent legal victories for gay marriage bills have confirmed. Perhaps the church was out in front on this issue because its role as a sacramental gatekeeper.

Ideally, the church would be out in front on advocacy issues that do not involve its own turf, such as football head injuries, ecological degradation, or the Occupy Wall Street movement. Perhaps this is too much to expect from a graying church that prefers to spend most of its time and money on Sunday worship services and property maintenance.

On the other hand, if the church is motivated to guard its role as gatekeeper to the sacraments, perhaps it’s time to consider adding another sacrament–one that would engender a culture of proactive advocacy in the church.

A sacrament, a Christian rite believed to be ordained by Christ, is an outward sign of an inner, spiritual grace. The seven sacraments of the Episcopal Church are:

Anointing the Sick

There seems to be a sacrament missing from the list, one that would embody something near and dear to Jesus’ heart. In Matthew 9:9-13, Jesus calls Matthew the tax collector to follow him, and then starts dining with Matthew’s buddies, tax collectors and sinners. Looking to stir up trouble, the Pharisees ask Jesus’ disciples why Jesus does this. When Jesus learns about this, he responds:

“Go and learn what this means; ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’”

Jesus was quoting the prophet Hosea, who had spoken the same words some 800 years earlier (Hosea 6:6). Mercy is the ocean that feeds the rivers of justice and the never-failing streams of righteousness. Mercy arises from a generosity of spirit earned by resisting temptation, as Jesus did for 40 days in the desert.

The greatest sacrament of all is the outward sign of advocacy, reflecting the inner grace of mercy. This type of advocacy meets the spiritual standard of James 1:27: “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.”

When it comes to advocating for the poorest people on the earth, the secular world is way out in front of the church with an initiative called the Millennium Development Goals. Well done, good and faithful servants. You are worthy of the greatest sacrament of all. Imagine how much more effective this secular effort will be if the church contributes its advocacy know-how and spiritual power.

If the Episcopal Church is going to add a sacrament, it will take a while. In the meantime, assessing our personal mercy budget as a Lenten practice might be a good start. What are the inflows and outflows of mercy in our lives? Do we expect more mercy from God and others than we give? Perhaps you deserve more mercy than you receive. But if your mercy budget could use more mercy outflows, consider giving your time, treasure, talent, and heart to a worthy cause that speaks to your soul. God is delighted when we learn what this means: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” And it is never too late to learn.

More information about the Millennium Development Goals is here.

—Phyllis Strupp is author of Church Publishing’s Faith and Nature curriculum, which includes spiritual formation on the Millennium Development Goals.

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