Monday, January 28, 2013

First Things First

(A sermon by Father John-Julian Swanson, OJN
Epiphany 3 - January 27, 2013
Julian House Monastery, Waukesha, WI)

In his second inaugural address the other day, President Obama mentioned that his presidency would be remembered for the end of two wars—the war in Iraq and the war in Afghanistan. 

The serious question I find myself asking is, “Can these two countries succeed with a democratic form of government?” Do the people in these countries have the insight, the wisdom, the stamina, and the commitment to make it through this difficult time? The fear I have—and it is shared by some serious observers of the world scene—is that the only means these people have ever known to solve problems such as food shortages, wages, corruption, etc. has been to turn to a centralized, totalitarian government to solve the problems for them (as did Germany in the 1930’s), and it is not at all beyond the scope of possibility that they will cry out once more for a Big Brother government to take care of them—and by choice they may revert to totalitarianism. 

The story is the same among some of the relatively new democratic regimes in Africa and South America—people inexperienced with a democratic way of government, with a transfer of power that involves no violence and no revolution, are having a terrible time. It looks to us as though they are behaving like children, without restraint and self-control. 

What we forget is that our social and economic system began to develop about seven hundred years ago. 1215 was the date when the barons of England forced the king of sign the Magna Carta. That didn’t work, either, and it had to be done again and again almost up to our own century. And even when the American form of democracy was shaped by the Founding Fathers, most people don’t realize that it took twelve years from the time of the War of Independence until the first national popular elections were held in the United States—twelve years before we could be a truly democratic nation—and even then, it was only males who owned land who were allowed vote. It then took an additional 144 years before women could vote and another 44 years after that before African-Americans were finally truly enfranchised. 

Now, Christianity is just like that—just exactly like that! The Christian life is a long, long, long, slow, subtle developmental process that cannot be hurried. And in virtually every parish I know of what is being taught is aimed at the level of Algebra or Geometry at a time when neither teachers nor learners even know the fourth grade basics. 

Look, let me try to put it as simply as possible: virtually every Christian one might ask would agree that the purpose of Christian religion is to help people to live better, more moral lives, with less sin and less wickedness. And therefore our job as a church is to lead people into the narrow paths, and show them how to live better lives. -- And that is simply utter nonsense! The living of a “better life” is not the way one becomes a good or active Christian. If a Christian does change and live a better life, it is a fringe benefit, not the purpose of Christianity. Indeed, “living a good life” is one of the last things Christianity can provide—because living a better life only happens when one is daily more perfectly united to and bound up with God. 

 Living a “better life” is absolutely and completely and totally impossible without union with God. Until one has discovered and accepted that union with God, any efforts to live a better life are a waste of time. So we have it all backward—we teach and promote people to live better moral lives—without hatred, without war, without wrongdoing, without drugs, without racism, without sin, etc., etc., etc. But every one of those things can only be changed, can only be overcome and can only removed from our behavior if we are in union with God. We cannot “be good” without that union. 

 Let me try to say it this way: “Being good” is one of the hardest tasks human beings can undertake. “Being good” is college-level Christianity. And it will never work, it will never succeed, it will never come to any fruition unless one has passed the elementary school examinations first—unless one has absorbed the basics, the fundamentals first. One cannot even know how to relate with other people until one has related with God. One cannot comprehend true relationship itself until one has found it in God. Indeed, “being good” is only a manifestation of God within ourselves when we begin to relate with God within others. 

So you can understand why you often hear me despairing of parish life. 99% of all parishes spend all of their time totally missing the point. Bible Study, Sunday School, Bazaars, Evangelism programs, Stewardship drives, Mother’s Day commemorations, etc, etc., etc. are, in fact, all futile and useless—or they are at least far too early. The Bible makes no sense whatsoever except to someone who is striving for union with God. Helping the needy, feeding the hungry, housing the homeless are all very good, but they are the product and result of union with God, not the cause of it. 

Most Christians tend to fail in their Christianity—and the main reason they do, is that they are starting off at a graduate-school level. 

Jesus knew us—inside out! He knew just what we needed in order to get ourselves ready for these advanced things like forgiveness, peace, joy, and fulfillment. We needed divine food to feed out souls—so he gave us the Mass. And we need a surrounding community that will support us when we stand against the rest of the world—so he gave us the Church. 

Do we really think that Jesus Christ died so that a parish could have a Spring Bazaar? So that Sunday School students could color autumn leaves and make cotton snowmen and learn the story of Noah and the Ark by heart? Do we really think that is what it is all about? Do we think Jesus went to the cross of Golgotha so that we would stop using dirty words? Or be nicer to our next-door neighbor? Or give five bucks to the next panhandler we see? 

No, not at all! Not at all! He died so that you and I could die, too, die right into him, die and be born inside his Body, in perfect union, savoring that mystical meal of the altar when he and I become one thing, one being. 

The starting place is exactly where Jesus Himself put it: in the Church—and at the altar. When we have that totally assimilated that, then we will be ready for whatever else God has in mind. 

No comments: