February 9 2014
5th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A.
(revised from a homily first
posted on 1.24.11)
The Lectionary Gospel reading for this Sunday continues Jesus’ famous, Sermon On The Mount, by calling upon those who would follow him to consider their current footing in the world as they daily move to take up the cross and to become his partners in the Jesus-way enterprise of walking circumspectly in the world.
In this text the Master challenges his Hebrew hearers to live faithfully to their vocation as GOD'S chosen people, and by extension this text also falls to his twenty-first century followers to do so as well. We too, somehow, must faithfully fulfill our calling to be salt and light within an increasingly desperate world at war with itself. The church, if it is at all to be church, must give itself away in order to bring glory to the Father in heaven. This text, therefore, puts both those original hearers as well as the current church on the spot. Here we are pointedly asked, were his followers then, and is his church now, faithful to his Gospel?
Please note that we are here building upon the foundation of the the Beatitudes, those powerful promises of blessing, as an occasion to allow Jesus' words to sting us with demand. This demand is nothing less than a final and full allegiance to the Christ, and nothing else, especially not ecclesiastic survival.
This idea is critical, and in point of fact may be the most important means by which the church will return to the ways of the Christ instead of the futile exercise of standing vigil at the death of Christendom.
First, make no mistake, Christendom -- and by that I mean the those social and institutional support structures (both political and private) that made Christianity plausible, real and true to the culture -- Christendom is dying right before our eyes.
This reality, this cultural shift, is so very evident that all one needs for proof is to discuss the current challenges facing the church in the West with someone say, over fifty years old, someone who has been churched a long time. By asking what has changed with church you quickly discover just what has been lost and how this loss is felt, viscerally. But what you also discover is that much of what is lost has little to do with the Gospel walk of life, a walk that lives out redemption and reconciliation before the watching world.
The loss I am describing (and all change is experienced as loss), which is clearly active within the church and within our own hearts, is grave. In a time when we see our beloved church institutions fading with the sunset zenith of hyper-modernity, the bias to save our churches -- our positions of social power, our properties and buildings, our job security -- is actually the impulse and addiction that is most preventing us from the incarnational plunge that the gospel of Christ demands. Here the questions are stark: Will we as church give up our own well-being to follow Jesus? Will we offer our blood and treasure so that the church as the people of GOD truly becomes salt and light? Will we as church seek our own glory (re: survival) or GOD'S?
Spoken in terms of the text, what is at stake is the question of hiding the light of the of the Gospel -- the living presence and continuing incarnation of the Christ -- under the bushel of worldliness. That is to say, if the church operates out of fear -- fear of what we may lose -- then defeat is present already in the heart. And, if the church continues to live out a faith which has been locked away into the dead thought-forms of a distant and past generation, then the salt of the Gospel, at least in the West, will increasingly be trampled under our own feet.
The term worldliness is here chosen with great care, but it should be noted that in this context it means something considerably different from that of the religious fundamentalist. Within the lexicon of this message, worldliness is a sustained willingness by the church to identify with ways and means of our American manner of life, and then to call this gospel. It is succumbing to the selfish values that surround us and somehow finding in Jesus a way to justify this stance. It is allowing the culture of greed and self-absorption to take over within the church, so that we offer the Christ a nod and a wink and not our very lives. It is, in short, a steep cultural captivity.
- What the church faces here are the very serious questions of incarnation:
- Will the church offer ourselves for the world?
- Will the church suffer (and this is the correct word) the loss of all things for the sake of the Christ?
- Will the church forgo our own peace, prosperity and safety for the sake of this world?
- Will the church abandon our own rights for the sake of the another?
- And, Knowing that only GOD can change the world, will the church become deeply part of that world (taking the unantiseptic risk) in order that he may do so?
- Will the church stand beside the outcasts and the weak, those who have no champion, no alternative and no way out.
- Will the church center ourselves on the call of the Christ and go where we are sent?
- And finally, will the church station ourselves against violence, and even willingly suffering persecution for the sake of the Christ who called us?
Or, said differently, a Gospel which costs the church nothing is no Gospel at all. A Gospel which merely reinforces ones own political agenda -- either from the left or the right -- is not the Gospel of Christ. A gospel that has as its primary purpose institutional survival in the face of a steep social decay that everywhere confronts us, has nothing whatsoever to do with the, “Come, follow thou me,” from the lips of Jesus.
Or, said still differently, a church without the blood and guts of the human condition staining her knees and heart, is not the church Jesus founded. It is something, but it is not truly the church.
Here, I am reminded of the crowd jeering at the cross and saying:
Yet, in this poignant moment of the cross, to save others he must not save himself. This was the entire point of the Gospel. And it is now the church’s moment to walk this same lonely road of self-denial (“take up your cross”) and to suffer the wounds of sacrifice (follow me).