Monday, January 27, 2014

The Death of Christendom & the Life of the Church. A Homily for the 4th Sunday in Ordinary Time from Matthew 5:1-12a

February 2, 2014
3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A.
The Beatitudes
Matthew 5:1-12a
(revised from a homily first
posted on 1.24.11)

This Sunday's Gospel reading from the Lectionary brings to us the famous teaching of Jesus commonly called The Sermon On The Mount. Here Jesus takes to the mount in the position of the new law-giver and offers to his hearers the outline of his new covenant, which may be characterized as the walk of a new humanity.

These words have inspired and challenged would-be disciples through the centuries, but the question here at the beginning of the 21st century is rather simple: Can they do so again? Can these words inspire us? Or are we past listening? Does this teaching even have anything much to do with us?

At first, this seems to be a simple question of interpretation -- What is meant by what is said? What are we (those of us who live now) to make of Jesus' words?

But the dilemma is deeper rooted. At this late date in Christendom -- given the straits of constriction through which the Christian faith in the West is now passing -- does this teaching have anything relevant to say to us? Can Jesus' teaching touch his disciples who live a world with unheralded greed and war and violence and decadence? Is there any use moving toward what seems to be an ancient life-posture that seemingly offers defeat from the outset in a culture at war with itself?

Of course, my answer is yes. These teachings are relevant and speak deeply to us.  (What did you expect me to say?)

They are relevant because in his teaching from the Mount Jesus opens wide what may be called the "narrow way," or what Bonhoeffer called the "Cost of Discipleship."  Here, in a surprise move, Jesus' teaching turns inside-out the values of the Western world and challenges us to a new way of seeing, a seeing that cuts the pride of life, the prestige of possessions and the esteem found in position, slicing it away through a call to action. Here Jesus calls into question all systems of the American culture that rip away the humanity of people by telling them they aren't good enough or pretty enough or rich enough. Here he punctures the world of conspicuous consumption and presents instead a life based upon sacrifice and moral realism.

Think of it in this way: The world is a desperate and lonely place where those-that-have medicate away the pain by what they have thinking that what they have makes them, and those who have-not medicate away the pain by other means. It was that way when Jesus spoke; it is that way now. The culture cues us to use people for our own ends and abuse the humanity of the one in front of us in order to meet our own needs. But in the sermon Jesus offers a different way, one that places premium on the other.

I mentioned Bonhoeffer because he is quite helpful here. I am convinced that his experience at the edge of the moral abyss -- where the West was locked in a deadly battle to destroy itself -- is instructive for our own time as well. In a book compiled from his correspondence while in a Nazi prison entitled, Letters and Papers from Prison, he writes a special piece called "Thoughts on the Day of the Baptism of Dietrich Wilhelm Rudiger Bethge". It is a powerful and poignant statement, made all the more so by his absence from the blessed event because of his imprisonment. Toward the end of this meditation he writes: 
"Our being Christians today will be limited to two things: prayer and righteous action among men. All Christian thinking, speaking and organizing must be born anew out of this prayer..."
Even in 1944 Bonhoeffer understood that the stakes had changed and that a self-absorbed and narcissistic church bent on self-survival at all costs had no place in a world creating its own hell. In this same piece he also writes:
"Our church, which has been fighting in these years only for its self-preservation, as though that were the end in itself, is incapable of taking the word reconciliation and redemption to mankind and the world."
Does this not truly describe the current Western church locked within the death-throes of Christendom? Aren't we incapable of taking redemption and reconciliation to our social context in a way that is understood and really heard? Are we not merely seen as, at best one more voice in the marketplace of ideas -- pushing a GOD-soaked agenda, and at worst a bigoted mob attempting to impose our meta-narrative on a world long since unwilling to listen?

Enter the Sermon on the Mount. By allowing these words to capture us we are presented with the action Bonhoeffer describes. By attempting to live out the sermon, through taking this teaching seriously and offering ourselves to its ways -- and the only way this can be done is through prayer -- we ourselves become immersed in the social slide of humanity, declaring by how we live that reconciliation and redemption is achievable.

Jesus here preaches an inside-out world where the cost of discipleship is the cross and sacrifice. He himself is immersed into the underbelly of humanity and suffers along with everyone else, experiencing the crushing power of evil and hate as it consumes humanity from the inside out.

This is really what the incarnation means. It is the offering of ourselves for the world. It is the loss of all things for the sake of the Christ. It is forgoing our own peace, prosperity and safety for the sake of this world. It is the forgoing our own rights for the sake of another. It is knowing that only GOD can change the world and becoming deeply part of this world in order that he may do so. It is standing beside the outcasts who have no champion, no alternative and no way out. It is focusing on the call of the Christ and going where we are sent. It is moving against violence and willingly suffering persecution for the sake of the Christ who called us.

Finally, to quote Bonhoeffer again: 
"Costly grace is the gospel...It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life."   -- Dietrich Bonhoeffer