Catholicism, Fundamentalism, and the Presences of Christ

Homily for the 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time – August 22/23, 2009
For the communities of Dignity/NoVA at Emmanuel Church-on-the-Hill in Arlington, VA and Dignity/Washington at St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church, Washington, DC.

Readings: Jos 24:1-2a, 15-17, 18b; Eph 5:21-32; Jn 6:60-69

I won’t ask for a show of hands, but was anyone just a little bit uncomfortable when we listened to that passage just heard a few moments ago – the passage from Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians in which he says that wives are to be subordinate to their husbands? No doubt that is one of those passages in Scripture that can offend the sensibilities of many of us. In the Gospel passage from John, which continues the long “Bread of Life Discourse” that we have been hearing these past weeks, and in which Jesus previously said his followers must eat his flesh and drink his blood, we hear these followers today saying that these words are hard to accept. For those of us in 21st century America, Jesus could well be speaking about the passage from Ephesians when he asks his followers, “Does this shock you?” While we may not be shocked by more conservative societies around the world displaying their very rigid social norms about how wives and husbands, men and women – as well as young and old, parents and children – are to relate to one another, we are I think just a bit shocked when we hear scripture passages such as this one – and many others like it – which on their face can seem very much out of step with the norms and values that we seek to uphold in a free, democratic and open society, a society which claims to see equal human dignity present in every person.

By drawing our attention to this passage, I intend not to raise for our reflection the particulars of how husbands, wives, spouses should relate to each other; but rather I’d like to say a few words about a bigger issue about who we are as Catholics and how we understand and hold together some of the basic and formative elements that define us as Catholic Christians.

In 1963, the Fathers (and yes, they were all men) of the Second Vatican Council and Pope Paul VI approved and promulgated the first of 4 “Constitutions” of Vatican II. This first constitution—Sacrosanctum Concilium – was The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy. Early on in the text, the document identifies four ways in which Christ is present in the Sacred Liturgy. Specifically the document states:

“To accomplish so great a work, Christ is always present in His Church, especially in her liturgical celebrations. [Christ] is present in the sacrifice of the Mass, not only in the person of [the] minister, …but especially under the Eucharistic species. …[Christ] is present in His word, since it is He Himself who speaks when the holy scriptures are read in the Church. [Christ] is present, lastly, when the Church prays and sings, for He promised: “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Matt. 18:20)”

These four presences – the minister, the Word of Scripture, the Bread and Wine of Eucharist, and the Gathered Assembly – these all speak to the richness of who we are and what we do whenever we gather together “in word and in sacrament.”

Why is this important? Why does it matter that we are conscious of these various ways in which Christ’s presence is known and experienced? Well, I think it’s important – especially in our own day – because we are constantly surrounded by and bombarded with declarations about “what Scripture says” and “the authority of God’s word” and “the Bible says…” Such declarations claim that Scripture is the final authority on all things, and they come very close to home when people claim they are just adhering to “biblical precepts” when they make pronouncements about the sinfulness of homosexuality, or about justifications for war, or about the distribution of the wealth and the world’s resources that keep so many millions in poverty; … and yes… we still hear Scripture used to justify the oppression of women and so many others.

Perhaps you’ve seen that bumper sticker or t-shirt that reads: “God said it, I believe it, that settles it.” This sort of fundamentalism, a fundamentalism that leaves no room for the assent of faith, no room for the human person struggling to balance faith and reason, doubt and certainty; a fundamentalism that in effect denies the presence of Christ in the Gathered Assembly – such fundamentalism is foreign to us as Catholic Christians, and truly foreign to the most traditionalist understandings of Christianity.

Earlier I mentioned Vatican II’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy. In that document’s opening paragraph, it states that one of the constitution’s purposes is, “to adapt more suitably to the needs of our own times those institutions which are subject to change.” Let me read that again: “to adapt more suitably to the needs of our own times those institutions which are subject to change.”

Fundamentalists thinks that when it comes to God and religion, nothing is “subject to change.” They dismiss adaptations to the needs of our times as being unfaithful at best, and heretical at worst. And yet, throughout the history of the Church, faithful Christians have struggled with how to live out the truly fundamental, the foundational beliefs of Christianity, the ones that transcend time and place and culture, giving them concrete expression in the context of the times and circumstances in which they found themselves. We saw an example of this just yesterday as the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America – the largest Lutheran denomination in the US – voted to lift a ban that effectively required gay and lesbian ministers to be celibate. Their action affirms the loving, committed relationships that gay and lesbian people can and do form and recognized that our understandings about sexuality and human relationships have grown and evolved with the passage of time. As one man quoted in the today’s Washington Post story about the ELCA’s action put it, “We are responding to something that the writers of Scripture could not have understood.”

Applying this same approach to this passage from Ephesians about husbands and wives, isn’t it possible to understand that, even though there may be suggestions of male dominance, influenced by the context of the first-century in which Paul was writing, the real and enduring meaning of this passage is that spouses are to put each other first? Of course it is.

When Jesus saw others leaving because they were not able to hear the deeper meaning of his words within the depths of their hearts, he turned to the Twelve and asked if they were leaving as well. Like Peter and the others, we have come to believe that Jesus is the Son of God, that Jesus does have the words of eternal life. We believe that Jesus is present not only in the Words of Scripture and the Bread and Wine we bless, but that Jesus is also present in each of us and in our community, gathered as we are in His name. Although there may be some who might want us to leave, let us today make our own the words of Peter. Peter said, “Master, to whom should we go? You have the words of eternal life.” Put another way, our response might well be: “You know, Lord, we’re staying with you; we’re not going anywhere.”

Homily for the 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time

19th Sunday in Ordinary Time – August 8, 2009
Dignity NoVA

As you know, a new justice to the US Supreme Court was confirmed by the US Senate this past week. Earlier today in fact, Judge Sonia Sotomayor actually took the oath of her new office and become Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the newest member of one world’s most select group of people – one of only nine people who, in our judicial system, have a voice in that Authority which can decide whether existing laws and their applications are or are not consistent with our Constitution. Now, I’m not an attorney or any sort of legal expert, and so it doesn’t matter whether I do agree or don’t agree with her selection and confirmation or what I think about any of the varied legal and other issues that were raised during that process.

What I found fascinating, however, was one of the main reasons – perhaps THE main reason – that was given by many in the Senate who voted against her. In explaining their vote of disapproval, several senators cited what they believe is her commitment to a so-called “empathy” standard and that this would inappropriately sway her one way or another in making sound legal judgments.

As I said, I’m not an attorney, and I don’t know whether it’s appropriate or not for “empathy” to play a role in the making judicial judgments. Nonetheless, this little drama in our national life can provide us an opportunity to think about what exactly empathy is and how it does or does not fit with our own lives. Empathy comes from the Greek – empathes, with its roots em and pathos, meaning feeling, or emotion. As it’s currently defined in English, empathy (according to Merriam Webster) is: “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another [of either the past or present] without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner.” Empathy is different from sympathy; although they’re similar and related, empathy has a little bit more of a sense of “I know where you’re coming from,” “I can relate,” “I’ve been there, too.”

In today’s second reading from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, we hear very clear and explicit guidance on how the followers of Jesus – members of the Christian community – are called upon to act and to treat not only one another, but all others. Even though the specific word “empathy” is not used here, it certainly is consistent with that list of Christian virtues about which Paul writes – kindness, compassion, tenderness, forgiveness. As followers of Jesus, Paul reminds us that we are not to be characterized by bitterness, by anger, by shouting at one another and having malice toward others, as I’m sure we all feel like, on occasion. Similarly, I’m sure we’ve all felt like Elijah does – like throwing in the towel and calling it a day. Even though he has just successfully defeated the prophets of Baal and demonstrated that the God of Israel is indeed the one true God, nonetheless Elijah is dejected and worn out as others are trying to have him killed.

Now, I don’t know about you, but for me it’s not always easy to be kind and compassionate, to be upbeat and positive. It’s not always easy in the day to day lives that we live to go on with the journey of life that God has given us. I’m from New England, and I’m what you might call your typical “Boston driver.” For some reason, all the patience I have goes out the window when I’m driving and dealing with other drivers who – from my perspective (!), would probably be much happier walking or taking public transportation! I’m sure many of us would rather not have to deal with certain colleagues, acquaintances, neighbors, or others with whom we interact with regularly.

Likewise, I’m sure that each of you can easily call to mind someone with whom you occasionally get angry or frustrated; perhaps someone you’ve even had words with and shouted at. I’m sure you’re aware of those situations which cause you to be less than patient, less than kind, less than understanding and compassionate.

Today’s readings not only remind us of how we are called as followers of Jesus to be in the world and to act toward one another, they also remind us how we are able to do this. Left to our own devices, who knows what our lives and our world would look like. But as followers of Jesus, as ones who believe that God so loved the world that God took on our very humanity, our flesh and our bones to become, as we say, “One like us in all things but sin,” we are nourished and strengthened every time we come together in prayer to break bread and share in the Eucharist.

The sacramentality of our Catholic Christianity is perhaps most characterized by the Eucharist. This is what we DO as Catholic Christians … we gather together, we listen over and over to the stories that have formed us, we break bread and share the cup, and by doing so are not only nourished and strengthened to live as Paul encourages us, but we in fact become that which we celebrate. We become Christ’s living presence in the world, in every contact with the incompetent driver, in every encounter with the frustrating colleague, the troublesome neighbor, the aggravating person in the grocery store checkout line. John reminds us, in the words of Jesus: “I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.” It is indeed our prayer and our hope that not only will our sharing in this same Bread from heaven bring us to the fullness of eternal life, but that we can in some small way be the living presence of Jesus in our world – a world in which just a little more empathy probably wouldn’t be such a bad thing.