With Us or Without Us
Sermon preached by Fr. Antony Hughes on Sunday, April 3, 2022
The Church is a hospital for the sick and a place of refuge for the lonely and dispossessed. In the Church we should find the same love and compassion that Jesus shared when he walked this earth. If we do not, be sure that there are egos blocking the flow of compassionate energy. Richard Rohr notes that, "The ego moves forward by contraction, self-protection, and refusal, by saying no. The soul...does not proceed by contraction but by expansion...not by exclusion, but by inclusion." And behind every overactive ego and failure to expand and include there is fear. Fear of change, fear of expansion, fear of life itself. "Perfect love," say the scriptures, "casts out fear." To love perfectly is the way of inclusion.
The Lord's promise, "I will never leave you nor forsake you" is not meant for a select few, but for all. He who leaves the 99 sheep to search for the one lost in the hills cannot be thwarted by anything including our lack of compassion. Love will always find a way with us or without us, in the Church or outside of it.
Didn't Jesus say as much on Palm Sunday when he said, "God can make children of Abraham out of these stones?" And if the people are made to cease their hosannas "the stones themselves will start to sing." If the Church fails to teach and live the Gospel, the irrepressible Word of God will find another way, for his Word never returns to him without accomplishing what it was sent to do. It is like water. If a flow of water meets an obstacle, then it will find a way around, under, or over. When we read the Gospels we see Jesus creatively and boldly healing, teaching, forgiving in a number of interesting ways and rarely in exactly the same way. The religious authorities were often most displeased with him for a variety of reasons and yet the Lord did not allow them to stop the flow of God's love through him. Remember as St. John says, "he did not come into the world to condemn it, but to save it." That he has done and that he is still doing.
Every meeting with Christ catalyzes an expansion of God's Spirit into the life of the world so that no corner goes without experiencing the light of Christ. Today we see the healing of an epileptic boy and hear these memorable words, "Lord, I believe, help my unbelief." To which Jesus replies, all it takes is faith the size of a grain of mustard seed to move mountains. What a glorious expansive teaching! What an amazing event! Faith is powerful. All it takes is a little.
The same is true of every virtue. Often I have found myself counseling priests whose parishioners are unhappy with them. Once I was amazed that one priest had not even thought to say I'm sorry to his people when he had done something offensive. I told him about the value of vulnerability. That, too, was foreign to him.
The same was true of a troubled couple. It had never crossed the husband's mind to apologize to his wife. Often just a little application of love, compassion, repentance, apology and humility is enough to turn the tide. Really, it doesn't take much to get the ball rolling. Even just a smile or a simple acknowledgment can be enough. Patience can help as well. Sometimes reconciliation is not possible, at least at the moment. If not, we can remember the sage words of St. Paul who wrote that "insofar as is possible, be at peace with everyone." Sometimes the time is just not right, so we must wait for the right moment. We need to give people space to grow. In the meantime we pray and nurture our own ability to love so that when the door opens we can walk through it. So we must practice patience. The reconciliation we desire will become possible in due time.
I love this quote from George Washington Carver, "if you love something enough, it will reveal its secrets." So true! I have experienced this time and again in the prisoners with whom I work. A few weeks ago it happened. A young man opened his heart and shared his pain. I had known him for quite some time and made sure to let him know he was loved as did my assistant and the other inmates. A safe place was created for him to share. and he did. What happened was miraculous. The Church must be a safe place for everyone to tell their stories no matter what they are.
Everyone's path to Christ is personal and mysterious. And love means respecting one another's unique journey. We must not limit the freedom of each person to grow into the likeness of God in the way that is authentic for them. Who in the world are we to judge? Who are we to tell people how to live their lives? It takes time for a flower to bloom. If you try to force it, the bloom will be damaged and the plant may die. When people ask me to be their spiritual father, I always tell them that one, I don't know that I am a very good one and two, all I can do is take them by the hand and walk with them and together we will see what the Lord has in store. God is the healer, mentor, father, and counselor and I am only a witness and a facilitator. The rest is mystery.
I am convinced that no one is outside of God. He who promised, "I will never leave you nor forsake you," is faithful to all. I am thinking specifically of the eunuch Phillip meets and baptizes on the road in Acts. The eunuch was traveling home from Jerusalem where he would have been denied entrance to the Temple. Eunuchs were not permitted to go inside. But Phillip, armed with the Gospel, invites him to enter the waters of Holy Baptism and be welcomed into the kingdom. This is the Spirit of the Gospel. The Lord makes a way for everyone and it is a way specific to each person. No matter what, all are welcome.
Turning for a moment to St. John Climacus' Ladder, growth in God is not a conquering of one rung of the ladder at a tim so that we can move on to the next. Growth in God occurs on many levels at once and not sequentially. The yeast of faith grows subconsciously and penetrates all of our being unbeknownst to us. Until at last we discover that we are different, that the chains of besetting sin have loosened or even fallen away. The Holy Spirit fired by our willingness to grow is like yeast in a loaf. We change, we grow, we become more like Christ and we cannot even say exactly how. "The wind blows where it wills," Jesus said to Nicodemus. "We can see its results, but we cannot see where it comes from or where it is going.".
The Church must not be made into an exclusive, elitist club with rules and regulations and dress codes and dietary restrictions, making burdens far too heavy for people to bear, behind walls bristling with defense, existing like a gated community, peopled not by the faithful, but by the fearful. We have become so defensive in some quarters, something Jesus never was. Trust in God to bring the change that is necessary. Only he knows what must be done.
Domineering Churches like that are a dime a dozen. Orthodoxy doesn't need to be another one.. Instead, we need to be like Christ who voluntarily went to the Cross and not like the suffering world afraid of its own shadow. Professor Yannaras wrote that sometimes the Church transfigures the world and sometimes is transfigured by it. When we hunker down out of a fear that we might be infected by the evil world, in actuality we are bowing to it already and being transformed by it. We have already been infected! We are, after all, commanded by Jesus not to be afraid so why are we running like scared rabbits?
I believe that it is the job of every Christian to seek for the secret beauty of every person we meet and to create a safe place for it to be revealed. As Thomas Merton asked, "How do you tell everyone that they are going around shining like the sun?" You could say that to some and not to others. First, we must be made aware that this is true of everyone by virtue of creation itself. Secondly, we must lay aside our fears and look deeply into one another, below the crust of sin and death, beneath the legions of other selves that form our formidable self-defense, the walls and ramparts that protect the hidden self from pain and suffering.
"By laying aside all defense we sinners offer unto thee as Master this supplication, have mercy on us." Does that sound familiar?
In Psalm 23 notice that it is while we walk through the Valley of the Shadow of death we are called to lay aside all fear, we are led to lie down in green pastures beside still waters where our souls are restored. It is there, in the presence of our enemies, that we find the table richly laden not simply for us, but so that we can feed our enemies. It is there that our heads are anointed with oil and our cups are made to overflow. The great abundance is found in the land of scarcity, peace and happiness in the land of Shadows. Faith comes alive when the chips are down.
Faith is revealed to us today in the life of an epileptic child. Last week through the bold action of friends lowering their paralytic friend through the roof of our Lord's home in Capernaum. What great miracle is not wrought out of deep despair?And what is the need of courage if we are not afraid? Isn't compassion catalyzed by tragedy and love by its scarcity? We feed the poor because they are hungry. We visit prisoners because they are lonely.
Often the question is asked, "Where was God in this tragedy?" The better question is, "Where was I? Where were we?"