Friday, November 22, 2013

Of Vacuous Homilies, Rogue Methodists, and Manipulated Evangelicalism

Trappist Nuns at Our Lady of the
Mississippi Abbey in Iowa
I heard a particularly bad homily this morning.  I had gone to Mass for the feast (well, optional memorial) of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary.  I hadn’t seen this particular priest before—he is one of those “Spirit of Vatican II” leftovers Weigel calls—somewhat contemptuously—“a progressive.”   Note, I don‘t say “Vatican II” leftover but “Spirit of Vatican II” leftovers—a “make it up as you go along” type who draws on an imagined latitude far beyond the imagination of the Council Fathers.  His homily wasn’t outrageous; it was just theologically sloppy.  In his homily he said, referring to the scriptural text where the Mother and brothers of Jesus are waiting outside to see him: “I’m not going to tell you what the Church says about this Gospel, I’m going to tell you what Joe (himself) says about this Gospel.  It sets up an ‘us/them’ dichotomy.  As of 6:30 this morning the population of the world was 7 billion, nine hundred thirty nine million, four hundred and fifty-seven thousand, one hundred and twenty-nine people.  I’m sure that God loves every one of those as his own children.  God does not distinguish in his love between those who “know Jesus” and those who don’t know him by that name.”  Opportunity wasted. Point missed.  Nobody but a Calvinist—or the strictest of Lutheran orthodox—would argue the point that God does not love each and every one of the billions of persons he has created. We Catholics aren’t into this idea that until we are baptized we are enemies of God—or if we are in some sense his enemies, that God himself doesn’t follow the injunction he revealed in Jesus to love our enemies.  God loves us.  All of us.  Ok, we got it.  But Jesus, in declaring “my mother and my sisters and my brothers are those who hear the Word of God and put it into practice,” isn’t dividing the human race into the beloved and the hated, he is constituting the family on a new basis.  He is saying that most sacred of institutions—the family—isn’t a matter of blood but of discipleship.  What makes us family is not marriage or consanguity, but discipleship.  Boy, isn’t that an attack on “family values”—and isn’t that relevant to today.  The bonds of discipleship trump even those of natural family. 
I think this ties to yesterday’s posting.  Maybe Pastor Schaefer should have considered this text before agreeing to perform his son’s wedding in violation of Methodist discipline.  Maybe he did; I am not judging.  But he should not have agreed without wrestling with this text long and hard.  And maybe Jon Boger should have wrestled with this text long and hard before avenging his mother’s wounded pride in being fired by Pastor Schaefer by going out and resurrecting a six-year old wedding certificate to indict the Pastor with a breach of Church discipline.  And maybe the ecclesiastical jury of his peers should consider this text over and above the Book of Discipline—or whatever Methodist Canon Law is called—before suspending Pastor Schaefer in a trial that is not really about a crime but about jealousies and fears and self-righteousness in a congregation that has gone rogue.  And maybe Zion Methodist should consider this text when they argue about just how inclusive and mission- oriented their congregation should be.  Jesus isn’t into comfort zones—even when his Mother and brothers are waiting outside in the cold.  You want warm pat-on-the-back religion, you’re looking at the wrong Messiah.  The Church—like Jesus’ family—is not constituted by natural bonds of “aren’t we all alike” but it has open doors that welcome anyone and everyone to come and hear the Word—and having once heard it, may find their hearts changed and their steps walking in a new direction.  And those changed hearts and new directions aren’t just for the strangers who wander in from the fruitless paths of this passing world, but for us who have been sitting in the pews from our own childhood as well.  I need conversion as much as anyone else—more than most.  Like the Pope says: “I am a sinner.”  And that claim—not that I was a sinner but that I am a sinner—is precisely what gives me a place at the table with Christ.
I think this issue also ties to my reading Evangelical Catholicism by George Weigel. In this morning’s homily “Father Joe” went the populist road of how God loves everybody.  And I believe that God loves everybody—and those in need of his mercy even more than those whose lives have already been put into some degree of moral order.  He loves the sinner more than the saint because the sinner’s need for his love is greater.  No problem.  But that is not the end of the story.  If we want to be mother and brother and sister to Jesus we need to hear the Word of God and put it into practice.  We need to be disciples.  We don’t need to be disciples for God to love us, but we do need to be disciples to constitute this new family Christ builds—the Church.   And sorry, Father Joe, but being disciples does set us apart.  Jesus tells us in John’s Gospel that he has come to set us apart.  We are in the world with the rest of humankind, but we don’t belong. We are stranger and aliens in this culture-or we should be. I know that is not politically correct to say that we need to stand apart from the culture around us.  I know that doesn’t fit the modern fashion. But it doesn’t mean we are “exclusive”—to the contrary, we are “inclusive” because we are a community that welcomes all to come and hear and we offer to accompany all on the path of discipleship. Everybody is welcome to come along on the hike.  But if you decide not to hike the path of discipleship, you’re not part of the family by your own choice.  It is not that everybody belongs; it is that everybody is welcome to belong.  Some will hike faster than others and some will go further than others.  Some will step smartly and some will limp along.  No problem.  But if you picnic by the side the road and wave us on—we love you but you aren’t on the path and you’re not on the team.  Lots of people choose to picnic.  They might sing hymns to encourage the marchers on.  They might even break some bread and guzzle some wine. They might feel like they are part of the hike, but there are those who sign up for the team and those who sit on their butt.  There are hikers on the path and picnickers in the fields.  God may give a prize to everyone—team and picnickers alike—and I hope that he does, but that isn’t the point.  Weigel says—and I agree with him—that the Christian today, in order to be a Christian, can’t just soak in the ambience of the Christian culture around us because that Christian culture is gone. The Christian today must make a conscious choice to embrace a life rooted in the Word of God and in the Sacramental Life of the Church.  You don’t get to be a Christian by sitting by the side of the road. 
What is beginning to make me nervous about George’s thesis, however, is how this works out in the concrete.  I am not sure what he means by a life rooted in the Scriptures.  So far—and I am only about a third of the way through the book—he hasn’t said anything about how one embraces the Word of God except a pious exhortation that we should read the scriptures every day.  I agree with that, but when he describes what this will result in, it is merely one who supports the right to life of the unborn and the essential nature of marriage as being between one man and one woman.  Now, I am with the Church entirely on the issue of protecting the unborn.  And my understanding of The Sacrament of Matrimony (note, I said Sacrament of Matrimony (theological), not marriage (civil law)) is that it essentially commits a man and a woman to a union open to and desirous of the generation of new life.  But, you know, I have read the scriptures for fifty plus years now.  The Gospel is Good News for the Poor (Luke 4:18).  I am not seeing that in George’s book.  Maybe it will come later.  I read Amos and Isaiah and I am not hearing in George how the social structures that create poverty have to change.  I am not reading how the immigrant among us needs to be protected.  I am not reading about how swords need to be beat into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks.  I am not reading about how the poor are fed and the rich sent away empty.  I am not reading about how the evil shepherds will be replaced by wise and loving shepherds.  Maybe it comes a little later in the book—I will let you know—but right now a superficial and empty fervorino about living the scriptures seems little more than handing out baseball bats to bash anyone who challenges the established agenda of the Tea-Party at prayer. 
And as for rooting ourselves in the sacramental life of the Church—George holds up the monks at the Tridentine Abbey in Clear Creek Oklahoma as a paragon of prayer.  Now, I am sure that the good monks are men of prayer but while Weigel claims that the old what he calls “Counter-Reformation Catholicism” isn’t able to engage the modern world, he turns and shines the spotlight on a bastion of “Counter-Reformation Catholicism.”  In a similar vein he points to the Nashville Dominican Sisters and the Alma Sisters of Mercy as examples of his “Evangelical Catholicism,” while as relatively successful as they may be with vocations my experience of them is that they are anything but “evangelical.” The type of religious life they of offer is the old Reverend-Mother-says top down authoritarianism in which the individuals are not given the freedom of the Gospel to develop their diverse and particular gifts but cookie-cuttered into “good nuns.”  And the ministry they offer would bind others in the same lack of evangelical freedom in favor of a blind and unquestioning acceptance of prelatical authority.    I am not saying that you need to turn to Wicca practicing lesbian priestesses, but if you want good examples of religious communities who are in the process of embracing an evangelical renewal, I suggest you might look to the Trappistines at Wrentham or Dubuque particularly; to the Benedictines at Regina Laudis and to several of the men’s abbeys and some of the women’s congregations; to the Society of Jesus, to the California/Arizona province of the Discalced Carmelites, and to the Friars Minor.  And there are other communities, I am sure, that are trying not to re-create the environment of the sixteenth or eighteenth or nineteenth centuries in which they were founded and return to a “Colonial Williamsburg approach” to religious life, but engage the charism of their founder(s) with our contemporary age.  Personally I admire greatly the Sisters of Mercy whom I have known and the School Sisters of Notre Dame with whom I have often worked.  I find these women—and I am sure women of many other congregations as well—as very much shaping their lives according to the Word of God.  It seems that the difficulties many of the women’s congregations were having with Rome have blown over, in great part because they have found a kindred spirit in Pope Francis.  And that brings me to this final observation about Weigel’s book.  It was obviously prepared in the days when no one dreamed that Pope Benedict’s course for the barque of Peter would be altered, but altered it has been.  We have a Pope now whose evangelical vision has refined the meaning of “evangelical Catholic” beyond what Weigel seems to have had in mind.  And I, for one, am excited about that vision.

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