Homily for the 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time
23 September 2018
Cathedral of St. Raymond Nonnatus
One of the blessings of being at the Cathedral has been the chance to live with Fr. Benedict Zele. For those who don’t know, he’s a priest from Malawi in Africa, earning his Masters in Educational Leadership at Lewis and living at the Cathedral. He’s been a priest for 11 years, so he’s a great model of the priesthood but he’s also eager to share his Malawian culture with us.
The other night after dinner, he and I took a walk around the neighborhood. As we were walking, Fr. Benedict said, “you know, if we were in my home village, there would be children in the streets and they would all be running out to join us.”
“wow,” I said, “because we’re priests?”
“No, no,” said Benedict. “Because you are a mzungu! And this will be rare for them!”
“A white man.”
Fr. Benedict explained that it will have been perhaps five years or more since the people of his village have seen a white person. He also told me that the word for white person, “mzungu” (which is the Chichewa word for “gringo”) is also used to represent someone of learning, high culture, and class. For those in his Malawian village, high culture and class and almost synonymous with white people.
He told me that when he goes back to Malawi, he too will be referred to as a mzungu because of how much time he has spent in America studying.
On our walk, we started talking about differences between Malawian and American culture. Fr. Benedict observed that many in Malawi would be quick to note our emphasis on freedom: land of the free, home of the brave; the self-made man; the American dream; don’t tread on me; the Freedom tower.
I often wonder whether our understanding of freedom isn’t a little bit warped. With the changes in culture, and the prevailing attitude of “you do you and I’ll do me; my truth is my truth and your truth is your truth”, is it any wonder nobody can agree?
More than this, and more relevant for us, people have begun inventing their own versions of Jesus. Maybe this was a possibility in a world of pagan gods, when nobody really knew who they were or when their will and preferences seemed to change depending on circumstances. But we have seen Jesus! In Jesus, God has visited his people! The divine has taken on flesh and lived among us!
Further, he came to preach one message, one mission. He didn’t say, “I am one truth among many,” but I am THE Truth. Even more, what happened to our belief that Jesus himself founded the Church, our Church, and sent the Holy Spirit upon it to guide it and sanctify it, and that Jesus promised us, all of us, that he would be with us until the end of the age? And we celebrate so often the Great Commission of Jesus, to go out and teach and preach and baptize; he wants us to teach all the nations what HE has commanded. Why have we become so content in so many areas to teach the nations what we’ve dreamed up? To live only the teachings we prefer to live?
We have come to understand freedom to mean the “absence of bonds.” “I can do whatever I want!” “I don’t have a bedtime.” “Nobody tells me what to eat for dinner.” “I can create my own understanding of the way the universe works.” “No one is in charge of me.”
But without some arbiter of the way our lives are lived, the only thing that guides what we do is our whims, our own desires. And soon, and we’ve all been here at one point or another, but when the only one who decides what we do is us, when we become the end-all-be-all, the great determiner of reality, we become slaves to ourselves…and thus our feeling of freedom is only a facade.
The Church has a very clear understanding of her doctrine, and why she believes what she believes. And five minutes of simple study will reveal that the doctrine of the Church does not exist to oppress, suppress, or repress the people of God. It exists to set people free!
It does not mean that we can do whatever we want. Baptism in Christ, reception of the sacraments does not give us the supernatural power to invent the truth, but to live the truth well.
The intentional corruption of the doctrine of the Church, on matters related to any category: sacraments (baptism is only a symbol of the cleansing God has already done), sexuality (there’s no meaning to my body or what it can do, so anything goes!), women priesthood (if Jesus were alive today, he’d let women be priests!), clerical celibacy (who is the Church to tell those men who they can marry or not?)….the intentional corruption of the teaching of the Church will always lead to a corruption of our moral life.
The essential element to living a morally upright life is the firm belief that God’s will is real, is applicable to me, and that it is the thing that will make me ultimately happy. There is a saving objectivity to the Catholic tradition. A morally upright life is not something I make up as I go along, but is something concrete and objective that I strive toward.
Think of it this way: we’re all terrible bowlers, and all we want to do is roll a strike on the great bowling lane of life. Sanctity is a transformative experience. So little by little, Jesus the Divine Bowling Coach, take us by the hand and corrects our stance and follow through and wrist position. But along the way, he puts the bumpers up on the lane, those things that help us from throwing gutter balls.
The bumpers have names: orthodox doctrine, the sacraments (especially confession and the Eucharist), the virtues, community, regular and fervent personal prayer.
“Where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every foul practice. But the wisdom from above is first of all pure, then peaceable, gentle, compliant, full of mercy and good fruits, without inconstancy or insincerity.”
The doctrine of the Church is a gift to us, a great helper to us. One of the points Fr. Benedict made on our walk was that the people of Malawi, and other pretty much every culture besides ours, would say that freedom in the truest sense means being radically available to pursue noble things. Jesus is the one who teaches us what is noble: “The Son of Man is to be handed over to men and they will kill him, and three days after his death the Son of Man will rise.”
That is the vocation of every Christian person. We aren’t pantheists, who say that everything is god. And we aren’t deists, who think that god is far away from us.
We are Christians. And our God, who took on flesh in the person of Jesus Christ, died. He died because that’s what you do for the ones you love. You lay everything on the line, even your life if you have to, to make sure the truth will survive in the hearts of the ones you love.
There is not more than one true Truth. This is impossible.
There is not more than one version of the Church’s doctrine. This is impossible.
There are many ways to live out the Christian life, but none of them include making up our own version of the Truth so that we might not have to die, or so that the process of becoming a saint won’t be as arduous, or so other people in our lives who hate the Church or don’t believe will still like us and want to be around us.
We are Christians. And we do love everyone, but not because they’re perfect. We love others because we love God, because we know that, despite our own imperfections, God has loved us.
“The wicked say, let us beset the just one because he is obnoxious to us.”
Who cares if people think you are obnoxious because of Christ? If they think you’re obnoxious because you believe that life begins at conception, or that marriage is holy, or that priests should be men, or that not all priests abuse children, or for any one of a thousand other reasons…who cares if the wicked think we’re obnoxious?
They call us obnoxious because we prick something in them, we poke something in them. What we stoke in the world is the pilot light of Truth that lives in every single person we meet, because we all are made in the image of God. The pilot light of Truth burns faithfully in every single person, and when it convicts them in their wickedness, when it convicts US in our wickedness, this is a good thing.
But if we sell out, if we try to change the will of God, the teaching of Jesus, or if we try to go against the influence of the Spirit, is it any wonder there is tension in our pews? Discord in the world? Jesus came to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.
May the Eucharist we receive today be the strength we need to stand firm, stand fast, stand forever in defense of all that is good and beautiful and true. May we take Fr. Benedict’s advice and a hint from the people of Malawi, and live for things that are noble and good and holy.
May we each become holy and free according to the will of God. May we then go out to make others holy and free. When others become holy and free, then the culture will become holy and free, and when the culture is holy and free then society becomes holy and free. When society becomes holy and free, then, and only then, will we really see what the Kingdom of God is all about.