When Rachel Held Evans, a wife and mother of two small children, died on May 4, 2019, at the age of 37, it was not just her family, friends and acquaintances who were saddened. Thousands of people across the nation who’d never met her face to face also felt a deep sense of loss. The bond was forged because of what Evans had written about the Christian faith in her popular blog and books.
Such was the power of her words about moving from the evangelical faith of her youth to a progressive stance on Christianity that a writer for The Christian Century called her “the most influential mainline theologian of her generation, the C.S. Lewis of her time.” While Evans herself was neither trained nor credentialed in religious studies, and was not ordained and never pastored a church, she influenced many people who entered the ministry, especially women.
Although she was raised in a conservative Christian home and environment and as a teen embraced that expression of Christianity, she eventually found herself pushing back against traditional evangelical positions. She challenged gender roles in the church and advocated for LGBTQ inclusion. “At times, she was a friendly dialogue partner,” said journalist Kate Shellnutt, writing in Vox. And other times, Evans was “a watchdog against the tradition she grew up in — earning the title ‘the most polarizing woman in evangelicalism’ per The Washington Post, and being described as ‘saying the things pastors can’t’ in the Christian magazine Sojourners.” The Atlantic dubbed her a “hero to Christian misfits.”
“RHE [as Evans was known online] taught the beauty of a messy and complicated faith,” wrote an Evans follower, Cristina Rosetti, on Twitter. “She showed us how to hold multiple perspectives in tension. She made people feel safe to talk about doubt.”
Here’s where this summary about Evans meets the epistle reading for today: Although Evans eventually moved away from her evangelical faith to a progressive position, she never left the church, instead moving to a congregation of a mainline denomination. In her book, Searching for Sunday, she says that she remained a Christian despite all her doubts and objections to traditional theology “because Christianity names and addresses sin. It acknowledges the reality that the evil we observe in the world is present in ourselves. It tells the truth about the human condition — that we are not okay.”
Which, of course, is what Paul says in different words in Romans 5: “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. … But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us” (vv. 6, 8, emphasis added).
We are not okay.
Of course, Paul was not the first to say this. Centuries earlier, the prophet Isaiah wrote about a Suffering Servant and declared, “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way,” and as a result, the Lord has laid on that servant “the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53:6). And many generations before Isaiah, the Lord told the Israelites to put fringes on their garments so they would remember “all the commandments of the Lord and do them, and not follow the lust of your own heart and your own eyes” (Numbers 15:39).
Ah yes, the lust of our own hearts.
We are not okay.
But we don’t need to go way back into Scripture to know this. Many of us are aware that we individually and collectively have piles of moral garbage that we don’t want to others to see.
If the past two weeks have taught us anything, it’s that we – as a human race – are not okay. Of course, I pray it has taught us so much more. After decades of mistreatment in the “land of the free” and many failed attempts at addressing the abuses inflicted on our sisters and brothers of color, it looks like a coming together of all sides may occur this time; following the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmad Aubrey. It’s sad that more people had to die before a combined group could acknowledge that we are not okay.
In Searching for Sunday, Evans spoke of the stark language in prayers of confession, which acknowledge plainly our sinfulness, and likened them to the kind of introductions that are typical at Alcoholics Anonymous meetings: “My name is _____, and I’m an alcoholic.” In the way that those introductions equalize attendees at those meetings, Evans said, prayers of confession equalize worshipers in church.
These prayers, said Evans, “remind us that we all move through the world in the same state — broken and beloved — and that we’re all in need of healing and grace. They embolden us to confess to one another not only our sins, but also our fears, our doubts, our questions, our injuries and our pain. They give us permission to start telling one another the truth, and to believe that this strange way of living is the only way to set one another free.”
But, Evans noted, our churches sometimes feel more like country clubs than AA meetings, especially when we mumble through rote confessions and merely exchange pleasantries with fellow worshipers “while mingling beneath a cross upon which hangs a beaten, nearly naked man, suffering publicly on our behalf.”
She said she suspects this habit stems from the same impulse that told her she should drop a few pounds before joining the Y (so as not to embarrass herself in front of fit people), “the same impulse,” Evans said, “that kept my mother from hiring a housekeeper because she felt compelled to clean the bathroom before the Merry Maids arrived (so as not to expose to the world the abomination that is a hair-clogged shower drain).”
“The truth is, we think church is for people living in the ‘after’ picture,” said Evans. “We think church is for the healthy, even though Jesus told us time and again he came to minister to the sick. We think church is for good people, not resurrected people.”
Stan Purdum writes about an experience he had at a country church he pastored years ago. He decided one Saturday in October to harvest the black walnuts that were falling to the ground, encased in tough green husks as large as baseballs, from a large tree behind the parsonage. He headed outside with two bushel-baskets, which he soon filled with the rough-husked nuts. Purdum knew the nuts themselves were deep inside these tough outer skins, and that they couldn’t begin to dry until the husks had been removed. While he supposed the husks would eventually split open of their own accord, he saw no reason not to speed the process along with a knife.
He attacked the first husk. It was tougher than he expected, but eventually the sharp knife sliced into the skin and penetrated until it hit the nutshell. He then turned the husk over and hacked a similar cut into the other side, with the clear juice from the meat of the husk running onto his hands. He had hoped the outer skin could now be peeled off, but it resisted his tugging and twisting.
But finally, after five minutes of high-energy labor and some prying with a screwdriver, he shucked the outer layer off and revealed the nut inside. It still had strings of the outer flesh clinging to its surface. It took another half-hour to free the second nut, and at that point, he gave up.
When he washed up, however, he found that the husk juice had left dark stains on his hands that would not come off, not even with undiluted bleach.
That’s when Purdum remembered that he was to serve communion the next day, stained hands notwithstanding. So in church the next morning, before starting the communion ritual, he told the congregation of the walnut adventure, and that despite appearances, his hands were clean. The whole congregation had a good chuckle at his expense, and nobody seemed to mind being served communion by stained-hand pastor.
After the service, one of the older farmers said, “You know, there is a way to get the nuts if you still want them. Just dump ’em in your gravel driveway and leave ’em there for a few days, running over them with your car as you come and go. This will remove or loosen most of the husks. The rest will be loose enough to pry out manually — but wear gloves,” he added.
Purdum narrates a slightly fictionalized version of this walnut-harvesting incident in his book, New Mercies I See, but says that it was only later that he realized he had missed a good opportunity for a solid theological statement: “Nobody comes to the Lord’s supper with clean hands.”
Fortunately, God doesn’t require that our hands be clean before welcoming us. The gospel message tells us that God sent His Son not to condemn us, but to save us (John 3:16-17). And although Psalm 24 says that only those with clean hands and pure hearts can stand before the Lord (v. 4), the point is that God cleans our hands and purifies our hearts so that we can stand before Him.
Whether we actually say these words or not, we come before God, as Evans indicated, with the AA-type statement: “My name is ________, and I’m a sinner.”
And God responds with, “Your name is _________, and you are redeemed.”
That’s what Paul tells us in our text: “But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.” He’s the servant upon whom, Isaiah said, “the iniquity of us all” — our moral garbage — is laid, and He carries it away. And Paul concludes: “But more than that, we even boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation” (5:11).
Rachel Held Evans, despite her persistent doubts and knee-jerk cynicism, found the right reason to stay with the church — “because Christianity names and addresses sin” — and directs us to the Lord, who cleanses and redeems us. And we truly need to hear and heed that now!