The church that I served for nineteen years stood on a steep hill. When a crew broke up the sidewalk in front of the church in order to replace it several years ago, everyone wondered what they would find underneath it. After forty years sections were cracked and uneven, and holes had developed. When the street caved in a year before that, with a hole large enough to swallow a car, we thought that the same caverns might have developed in other areas nearby, including the sidewalk. Erosion had obviously taken its toll, at least in the view from the top. Would there be gaping holes, and even damaged drains and pipes?
Yet when the concrete was gone, there were the sand and the gravel that had been tamped into place before the last sidewalk was poured, with little evidence that the water flowing downhill for decades had done much damage to that base. Where the old window wells had been filled, there was no sign of subsidence. In a few places the curbing, damaged by snowplows and weather, had allowed some erosion, but not nearly what we expected.
There has been a lot of social erosion over the same forty years, at the same time that there has been significant progress in some areas of justice and equality and understanding of diversity among people. The frequent outbreaks of crime and violence, alongside some severe cracks in the moral stature of religion as people practice it, make us wonder what is happening to the foundation of personal and social life. Our world is awash in money and choices for some people, not all of which are constructive. Masses of people are themselves in danger of washing away, sold down the river. Are there gaping holes underneath? Or are the obvious cracks and holes and unevenness just a sign of a need to replace the obvious areas of damage? To work on and replace the surface?
Our answers determine how radical we get with our proposed solutions. We need to check the foundations, and tend to them, but do we need to replace them? Is there more there than we suppose or expect?
The Gospel that we revere is radical in the sense of being rooted where we believe it has always been—in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. You will not get the sense that people need to tear the world up or each other apart when you listen to Jesus’ words or attend to Jesus’ actions. They live quite substantially in many of the world’s spiritual leaders, even those who come originally from non-Christian faiths.
It is certainly instructive to break up the surface once in a while, if only to examine what lies underneath.