Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time - January 31st, 2021
My friends in Christ, three weeks ago, I threw down the gauntlet and challenged all of us to respond “yes” to the High Call of Jesus Christ…to be His faithful, joyful disciples – no matter what the personal cost to us His discipleship might incur…. And now I see that all of you are here today, and so I shall assume that you have, indeed, chosen wisely to respond “yes” to the High Call. Very good! And I shall further assume that since you are here today…then you are ready (or at least you want to be ready) for what comes next. And what does come next? Well, before we can answer that, we do well I think first to consider our present context and situation…the opportunities which are present before us…but also the considerable challenges which threaten to hinder and oppose us.
But even before we get to that: first, a brief summary of this homily series thus far. And we remember that it all begins with prayer, because if we are not even bothering ourselves to pray, then we should just hang it all up and go home. Prayer is our direct line of communication with God, so that we who dare to claim the blessed name of Christian simply must be praying. The body needs to breathe in order to live; just so, the soul needs to pray in order to live.
Then we launched into the kerygma. Now, people frequently ask me: what does it mean, the word kerygma? It is a Greek word meaning “proclamation” or “preaching.” Simply put, the kerygma is, as I have been saying, the Greatest Story Ever Told – the very core of which (or, as it were, what we might say is the crux) is the Sacred Story of Jesus Christ…what is called the Paschal Mystery (the Birth, Life, Death, and Resurrection). The Bible tells the Greatest Story Ever Told. The writers of the four Gospel narratives tell of the Sacred Story of Jesus Christ. If I can offer you a summary of what the Bible is all about…. Think about your favorite novel. Mine is The Lord of the Rings. And I can tell you all about The Lord of the Rings – and not just the plot, but also the characters, the setting, all sorts of other things – and I definitely can tell you, with great gusto, why I love that book so much.
Now…if I can do that…with the Bible…then I can proclaim the kerygma.
Here now is a concise yet comprehensive summary of what the Bible is all about. The first part of the Bible is: Created. God created the world; God created us. And God created us for the sole reason that God wanted to, willed to, because God loves us…. The first part (Created by God) is told in Genesis chapters one and two.
The second part of the Bible is: Captured. Adam and Eve rejected God’s love, and so it was that sin and death were allowed, by their free choice, to enter our world, and the human project has been sinning and suffering and dying ever since because of it – utterly trapped in a vicious, hell-bent, downward spiral of temptation-sin-death-repeat like a hellish merry-go-round broken down…. The second part (Captured in sin) is told starting in Genesis chapter three and ending at the very end of the Old Testament with the Prophet Malachi. The third part of the Bible is: Rescued. God did not give up on us, for God the Father “so loved the world that He gave His only Son…that everyone who believes in Him might not [die] but might have eternal life.” Jesus has rescued us from Satan’s tyranny, redeemed us – that is, He actually bought us, and at the infinite cost of His own life. He has broken that hell-bent cycle. He has fixed that broken-down merry-go-round. He has destroyed death and has flung open for all the faithful the gates of Paradise and invites us – and in point of fact He begs us…to come home…. The third part (Rescued by Christ) is told in the four Gospel narratives. The fourth part of the Bible is: Response. How will we respond to the Lord’s invitation to come home? The Acts of the Apostles tells us the stories of how the Apostles themselves and their first disciples responded. The New Testament Epistles teach us how we can respond and what that response should look like. The Book of Revelation shows us that blessed and eternal reward of all who do respond, as well as the sad and horrifying fate of those who do not respond…. And yet, for all of that…the Bible still seems oddly incomplete; one question remains before the Greatest Story Ever Told can ever be told in full: what will be our Response to the High Call of Jesus Christ? How we respond hopefully would look like something that can be expressed with a very handy three-letter acronym: RIM. Relationship…Identity…Mission. When we acknowledge the truth of our existence that we are Created by God, we recognize immediately that we are made by love, and for love, and in order to love; in short, we are made for relationship. From the very beginning, our first parents were clearly in relationship: with God, with each other, with themselves, and with the world. And so it is with us. Who I am has nothing to do with what I do or how I feel; rather, it has
everything to do with the fact that I am made for (and thus I am invited into) a relationship with the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
And then comes Identity; because I am made for and thus invited into a heavenly relationship with God, who I am is this: a beloved child of our loving Father Who art in Heaven…and a chosen friend of Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord…and a holy temple of the Holy Spirit Who descends upon us. Child, friend, temple: that is my Identity.
Relationship…Identity…and then Mission. Given my heavenly relationship with God, given also my identity as child, friend, and temple of God…now I can understand and execute my Mission: to proclaim to all the world the glorious Gospel message of Jesus Christ – that all of us are children, friends, and temples of God…and that all of us, therefore, should live accordingly.
But sadly, all too many of us have this exactly backwards – not RIM, but MIR. Sounds like a Russian space station! When we fall victim to that sadly common mistake of making mission the top priority, then we run into all kinds of problems: other human beings are reduced to mere tools and instruments of utility and pleasure…our jobs become way more important to us even than God, or families, or even ourselves – our health, for example…and then soon, entire systems of government, economics, and culture systematically begin treating persons as mere cogs in the machine: babies are hindrances to happiness and convenience, and so abortion…young women – and even young men, more and more – are objects of sexual pleasure, and so pornography, prostitution, trafficking…and so on and so on…. So, we must understand that first comes Relationship, then Identity, and only then comes Mission.
Okay. So…what is our mission then? What is our primary focus? Well, here is where we get into no small measure of debate and dispute even within the Catholic Church. But where does all of this confusion come from, I have no idea. Because from the very beginning, it seems to me that the mission has always been clear and obvious: the salvation of souls for the glorious majesty of God.
Why do I say the mission is as clear and obvious as that? Because the world is passing away, and at the end of days, only Heaven or Hell will remain. Any utterance of mission, therefore, that is disproportionately focused on the things of Earth is just plain wrong. Our mission, then, is not to be nice, or some shallow sense of unity for its own sake; it is not the environment; it is not social justice; it is not to feed the poor. It is not “co-exist” or “wag more, bark less” or whatever the bumper sticker says it is. Yes, those things are important, there is no question about that…but none of them are the primary focus of our God-given Catholic Christian mission. What is the primary focus? Again, it is the salvation of souls for the glorious majesty of God.
But you know, for me even to state that fact is very controversial because it goes against the prevailing narrative of our modern times. Our faith is private (or so they say). And our religion is to be kept quiet except where it is deemed acceptable and permissible to be public. The powers-that-be would have it that my Catholic Christian faith be no more than what they deem it should be, and so my faith would be reduced to society-approved social services!
Saint Paul, too, stated some very controversial things; our Scripture text today from him, for example, comes from his First Letter…to the Corinthians. Now, we must bear in mind that Corinth in that time was very cosmopolitan, very upper-crust. The San Francisco of its day, or Manhattan, or Hollywood…and, at least in the beginning, very not Christian. And then, Saint Paul comes along to stir the pot, and in direct confrontation with the secular powers-that-be of that very secular city, he spoke truth to power…and he suffered because of it! Read his Second Letter to the Corinthians. In it, he clearly alludes to things that they had said or written to him in response to his First Letter and in response to what he taught when he was actually there with them. A bunch of angry parishioners got together and composed their biting rebuke of the tough and difficult truths that he had gone to them in order to teach and profess. Angry parishioners writing angry letters? Huh! Well, that sure sounds familiar! Ha!
But read very carefully what Saint Paul actually wrote: the highest priority is the salvation of souls for the glorious majesty of God. And his written correspondence is filled with various nuances of that teaching as well as direct exhortations of how people really ought to live if they so choose to answer “yes” to the High Call of Jesus Christ. “So, you tell me that you are Christian,” he seems to say in his writings. “Well then, let me teach you how true Christians ought to live their transformed lives of a genuine Christian faith.”
Okay…. So, we reviewed, one more time, the essence of the kerygma…. And we are mindful that we are in Relationship with God, from which we recognize our Identity, and then we are able to understand and accept our God-given Catholic Christian Mission…. And now…we can consider the context of our present situation…the opportunities that are present before us, and the considerable challenges which threaten to hinder and oppose us. I shall introduce some thoughts and ideas here and then conclude, and in my next two homilies, I shall expand upon these points, which will bring us to the start of Lent.
A few fundamental convictions with regard to where things stand. First: the world is crying right now. Obvious evidence of this is all around us, of course; I would draw particular attention to one instance of this, which is an issue near and dear to me personally: suicide. Here in our country, in these days of COVID, the statistics show that suicides have far outnumbered COVID deaths; for children ages ten to fourteen, suicide is the second-leading cause of death. I personally know of three instances, just in the last year, where a minor actually did attempt suicide or at least threatened harm to self or others…. It seems that our country is losing the will to live, especially amongst the youth, the future of our country…our children…our grandchildren.
Second: the Church is crying right now; and I know that I am, too! I mean, just look at the whole McCarrick scandal! Look at the McCarrick Report – which did not actually report anything in my estimation! But even apart from the particularly notable sins and failings of certain members in the Church, we need only to observe the general trends of the last half-century. For example, Mass attendance. It is not merely declining – it is plummeting; it is in free-fall! And you all know it way more than I do. I mean, this particular parish church was built this big because of your large and growing parishioner base way back in the sixties and early seventies. The building’s fire code capacity is nine hundred! But today, except for Christmas maybe…we would be lucky to get nine hundred people here in a weekend of four Masses – let alone nine hundred people for just one Mass! But we look around at everything and just sort of shrug our shoulders and say, “Oh well. Easy come, easy go.” And so, it sure seems to me that we have become a Church overall that no longer strives for mission but merely settles for maintenance. We are Church that has allowed itself to ease into a state of simply managing decline, and we settle with putting big, expensive band-aids on things, a well-managed and elegant retreat from the fields of battle, no longer a bold and brazen cavalry charge into glorious mission!
The world is crying right now…the Church is crying right now…and third conviction: we are born for this! Saint Joan of Arc said – and we do well to say this, too: “I am not afraid. God is with me. I was born for this!” And do I wish that none of this had ever happened? Well then, we remember not only what Saint Joan said, but also what Gandalf said – and there I go again! Just a big dweeb LOTR-nerd! Perhaps I do wish that none of this decline and decay ever happened. But then again, “so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide; all we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us….” Be not afraid…. God is with us…. We are born for this!
And the final conviction, and here is where we will take it up again next week: in the history of the Church, there have been times and places that experienced what we might call a Christendom context…and there have been times and places of what we might call an Apostolic Mission context.
Christendom is a cultural context where the Christian ethos is saturated throughout, right in the very soil, even. Prayer in public schools, crosses in public cemeteries, even archbishops winning Emmy Awards for television programs that simply teach the Catholic Christian truth, and so forth.
Apostolic Mission is a cultural context where it is unacceptable, even illegal, to be Christian.
America in the 1950s is an example of the former; ancient Rome during the days of Nero is an example of the latter…. And beginning next week, I will present an argument that right now, we are certainly no longer in a Christendom culture…and things are only going to get worse…but fear not! Because though, yes, there certainly are (and there will continue to be) challenges in a Mission context…there are also plenty of blessed opportunities. And in the end, regardless of whatever the cultural context, ours always will be the God-given Catholic Christian mission of working with one another, and with the grace of God, in the vineyard of the Lord…tilling the soil, planting the seed, bringing in the harvest…which is: the salvation of souls…for the glorious majesty of God.
on Monday, February 1 at 3:22PM