A Distraction (homily)
Fourth Sunday of Easter
Acts 13:14-52; Revelation 7:9-17; John 10:27-30
Once when Maggie was about twelve we were driving to mass and I was yelling at her. I was shouting. The tendons were popping out on my neck I was so mad.
We slammed into the parking lot, I raced into church, threw on my alb, processed up the aisle, proclaimed the Gospel, and looking out at the congregation, got ready to preach.
And there was Maggie, looking back at me, in tears.
I am an ordained minister of the Catholic Church. I have been ontologically changed.
And: I am an ass. I am a hypocrite.
And Maggie of course already knew that. She knew that and she forgave me.
She didn’t lose her faith. She was able to separate things out: the human from the divine.
Pope Benedict is a sinner. He is a flawed human being in need of grace just as I am and you are. He has a confessor. He has a past. He has a personality. And he’d be the first to tell us that if he were here.
Pope John Paul was a sinner, and Pope John the Twenty Third was a sinner, and every Pope who ever lived was a sinner all the way back to Peter himself, and not just when he betrayed Jesus during the Passion but after, in all the events that are narrated in Acts, when he waffled and fought and got things wrong even as the Spirit was moving through him and he was helping to create the Holy Catholic Church.
That’s the thing that’s so inspiring to me about the book of Acts: how messed up the early Church was. Just like now. Because the Spirit is always moving through our personalities and our conflicts and our gifts and our flaws and we never need to panic. Just grow up. Just accept reality.
All the voices we’re hearing, in the media and on the internet, all the voices attacking the Church because of the scandal in Europe now, all the voices in the media defending the Church, just as loud, just as shrill.
Ignore them. They are not the voice of the Shepherd.
Here’s the voice of the Shepherd, here’s the sign of the Shepherd: Pope Benedict praying with the victims of abuse in Malta. Asking for forgiveness. Tears in his eyes.
There’s a great liturgy going on in heaven, in the universe, in nature. It’s going on all the time. It’s the liturgy described in the book of Revelation today, with the multitudes singing and the Lamb on the throne, and our liturgies are aligned with this, they tap into this, they catch a glimpse of this, through all our imperfections and distortions, like a stained glass window that both admits the light and refracts it.
But the mass here is not exactly and completely the mass in heaven, the Church is not God, as the Scriptures are not God, are inspired by Him and contain Him but are not exactly Him, and if we let ourselves think that they are, we are sinning, we’re getting it wrong, we’re indulging in a fantasy that the Church herself preaches against and more important that Jesus preaches against.
The Church is a finger pointing at the moon. It’s not the moon.
Imagine the Church exactly as you would want it to be. The ideal Pope. Just the kind of people you want ordained, just the kind of doctrines, just the kind of liturgies. If you’re an arch-conservative, an arch-conservative church. Everybody else kicked out. If you’re a liberal, a wildly liberal church. Everybody else kicked out.
You’d still have to get up in the morning and look in the mirror. You’d still have to face your own sinfulness. Your own sadness. Your own fear.
What would really change? Would anything really be easier?
No. I don’t think so. In fact, if we didn’t have anything external to complain about, we’d really be in trouble. We’d really have to start being Christians, and that’s hard. That’s doesn’t get into the New York Times. That doesn’t get on Fox News. That doesn’t get into some sort of mass email: hey, everybody, I prayed the Psalms today.
I mean to be talking to all of us, to the people so intensely attacking the Church and to the people so intensely defending the Church. The problems in Europe right now are real problems and important problems and we have to face them and solve them, structurally, with justice and compassion and wisdom. But.
There’s a great temptation here. A great distraction.
It’s easy to look outward. It’s easy to worry about the Other. But all those things described in Acts today are inside of us, in our souls, and that’s where the real work is. The believers in Antioch, the resisters in Antioch, the jealousy and the abuse are all within us, are all dimensions of our own personalities, and our call is to turn and face those things, humbly and honestly. All we can reform is ourselves—our own failure to listen to the voices of the people we’ve hurt, in our own lives; our own imperiousness, our own arrogance, our own devotion to power and to structure.
And we can’t do that anyway. We can’t reform ourselves. Only God can.
Until this life is over and we join the multitudes in heaven in the heavenly liturgy, we will hunger and we will thirst, the sun will fall on us and the rain will fall on us, and we have to stop expecting otherwise.
If a twelve year old girl can figure this out, so can we.
Get off the net. Stop reading the emails and writing the emails. Stop standing in the square and telling other people what to do.
Go into your room and pray. Join Pope Benedict and pray, in tears.
Because it’s only then, in the silence, that we can really hear the voice of the Shepherd. It’s only then, when we stop shouting and stop listening to the shouting, that we can hear the Lord calling us.
And here’s what he’s saying. Here’s what he’s always saying: peace be with you.