19th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A)
1 Kings 19:9a, 11-13a
I’ve wanted to talk about the things going on in our society, to help us to digest everything and, ultimately, to frame everything in the context of our primary lens, which is our faith. Every weekend, I do my homily research, and then I look up to the image on the wall in front of me of Christ on the cross, and say, “Ok, tell me what you want to say to your people,” and then I go take the dog for a walk and contemplate. And every week, what comes to me has been about teaching the truth in the readings, such as last week’s focus on the mystery of the Eucharist, and the week before that on being patient, relying on our trust in God that he knows there’s weeds in with the wheat, and he’ll sort it all out in his time. So finally, this week, he said, “This is the week. These are the readings. This is the right framework. Now let’s talk about it.” I’m probably not going to give you all that you want to hear. God doesn’t usually work that way, as you may have noticed.
I’ve never been good at keeping up with the news, and so the news articles shared through social media have been a great help to me. But it’s both a blessing and a curse to have friends across the entire political and social spectrum. I see the news articles that my friends share, because they find them informative and helpful, as the right way to understand the events unfolding, and where events are likely to lead. And they are all over the map.
The difference between right and left news sources isn’t just about the interpretations, they report different realities. And without fail, when I actually take the time to go behind the reporting of an event, I find that both sides have cherry-picked the facts that support the “truth” that they want to report. And so, if you’re following only one side, then there’s a strong temptation (based on what you have read) to uncharitably judge people on the other side as evil, or stupid, or both. The divisive bias of reporting on the issues is its own part of the issues. And the disparity in the reporting has led to irreconcilable differences in believing what our society was, is, and should be, and how we should respond to that. And that’s aside from the more important irreconcilable difference, between those who follow Christ, those who oppose Christ… and then, there are those who think they can do the former in their heart and the latter in their actions.
Once in a great while, I’m tempted to jump in (for one side or the other) and add my two cents. And every time, I get busted down. Both sides have their rhetoric, their facts, and their memes to shut down any opposing posts. And every time I get busted down, I get an unmistakable message that it wasn’t just my friend calling me out, but Jesus reminding me, “I told you not to get into it. You’re not to get down into fighting for one side or the other. You’re to transcend above it, to minister to the people on both sides, and bring the attention of those on both sides to what transcends the sides, which is the shared human reality of needing love, needing hope, and meaning, and encouragement, and joy; and you’re to pull people toward me, toward personal holiness.”
So my focus, my response, to all that is going on, is that we’ve lost our focus. Our eyes are focusing on the storm, and not on Christ, and that’s when we get that sinking, drowning feeling of fear. That’s Peter in the Gospel. Whenever and wherever in our life that we get all panicked, we need to reach up, for Jesus to embrace us, and pull us up out of our sinking, and out of our panic, and we return our gaze to him. And at least in our hearts, he calms the storm. He says to us, “Oh my dear little one, why did you doubt?” And we respond, “Truly you are the Son of God.” And when I do that, he grounds me back on the steady rock that is himself, and my storm is calmed.
Jesus was constantly being tempted to take sides. Most particularly, perhaps, you may recall a question that was posed to Jesus regarding whether to agree to pay the Roman tax or not. Jesus, with divine insight, transcended the question of sides, and brought the focus of the people of God back to God, “and all were amazed at him.”
Yes, we unequivocally reject and oppose racism, and all unjust prejudice, and any abuse of trust and authority by police, or clergy; we oppose the willful taking of innocent human life, the willful destruction of public property or the private property of another, for example, the destruction of stores, or homes, or churches, cemeteries, and images of saints. Yes, we also reject laws that infringe upon the inalienable right to live—privately, and professionally, and in managing our businesses—according to the truth of human nature as revealed by our faith, and not be forced to choose between acting against our conscience, or sacrificing our professional position or career.
At the same time, we shouldn’t be surprised that the Church and her children have her rights offended. The Church and the world have always been in conflict. But up until recently, we have been used to Western society coming from Christian Europe, and its foundation in “Christendom,” with the Church having a privileged position and respected voice of authority in society. But that’s no longer the case. Christianity is essentially being slowly pushed back into the catacombs, as it was when it flourished in its beginning.
In 1969, in the tension of all that was going on in the world at the time, Cardinal Ratzinger, who later became Pope Benedict XVI, gave an interview in which made a prophetic prediction. He said, “The future of the Church can and will issue from those whose roots are deep and who live from the pure fullness of their faith. From the crisis of today the Church of tomorrow will emerge — a Church that has lost much. She will become small and will have to start afresh more or less from the beginning. She will no longer be able to inhabit many of the edifices she built in prosperity. As the number of her adherents diminishes, so it will lose many of her social privileges… As a small society, it will make much bigger demands on the initiative of her individual members… The Church will be a more spiritual Church, not presuming upon a political mandate, flirting as little with the Left as with the Right. It will be hard going for the Church… It will make her poor and cause her to become the Church of the meek… But when the trial of this sifting is past, a great power will flow from a more spiritualized and simplified Church… And so it seems certain to me that the Church is facing very hard times… But I am equally certain about what will remain at the end: not the Church of the political cult, which is dead already, but the Church of faith. It may well no longer be the dominant social power to the extent that she was until recently; but it will enjoy a fresh blossoming and be seen as man’s home, where he will find life and hope beyond death.” 1969 (51 yrs ago) he said that.
So in our society, and in our life, the Church won’t be the strong imposing establishment that it once was. Older Catholics already lament the loss of the “parish culture” they remember from their youth, providing a scaffolding of support to bolster faith and morality, providing a social context that helped some more timid souls get to heaven, by protecting them from spiritual danger. The dominant flow now goes in a different direction, and souls that are not strong enough—or not taught well enough—to resist the current, are in greater peril. It will be harder to be Christian, which will bring more difficulty and suffering, and more falling away.
But what was elucidated for me in all this was that this is how Christianity started: with a network of Christian communities, with emissaries like Paul and Barnabas connecting them together with common texts and practices; sharing stories of troubles and successes; exchanging resources; building each other up; ministering to those searching for more (meaningfulness) than what society seems to offer; ministering to those imprisoned, lonely, depressed, and sick, and of course coming together to pray, worship, and grow in love for God and each other. Certainly, the early Christians gave to the Church for its expenses and needs, but this was not a substitute for personal ministry, but a deeper personal investment in what it means to live the Christian life.
The description of a church like this may seem to us to be uncomfortably new, a shadow of the church’s former glory. But for the Church, it will be familiar: a new springtime, as Pope Saint John Paul II called it (though perhaps not in the way he envisioned it). A renewed and deeper conversion of the members of the mystical body of Christ. I’ll close with this quote, originally attributed to St. Barnabas, which was part of last Sunday’s Liturgy of the Hours: “When evil days are upon us and the worker of malice gains power, we must attend to our own souls and seek to know the ways of the Lord. In those times, reverential fear and perseverance will sustain our faith, and we will find need of forbearance and self-restraint as well. Provided that we hold fast to these virtues and look to the Lord, then wisdom, understanding, knowledge and insight will make joyous company with them.”
We will have our rights violated, and our faith mocked. That’s already happening. We should not be surprised if the secular courts favor the secular world. But we will keep pushing for justice, for the rights of human dignity, for ourselves and for the needy and vulnerable.
But I think we should individually hold on to and keep coming back to today’s readings. I think these readings for today are a constant reminder for our consolation and humble confidence; our reminder of God’s calming presence in the stormy world we’re passing through. Jesus, God, is calling us out of our comfortable safety, for us to push aside the distractions, the fear, and the storm; to faithfully, obediently, and humbly walk toward him, neither to the right, nor to the left; to trust the calm whispering voice that says in the quiet depths of our heart, “Take courage. Do not be afraid. Come. Follow me.”