4th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A) – January 29, 2023
St. Paul – Lyons, KS
Zephaniah 2:3, 3:12-13; Psalm 146:6-10; 1 Corinthians 1:26-31; Matthew 5:1-12a
From Last Week: Finding Our Way Again
Welcome to week two of “Rerouting…” If you weren’t here last week, or are visiting—get out! I’m just kidding. No, welcome! Last week we officially began our twelve-week series called “Rerouting…” As I’ve mentioned, everything is online, on our website: videos of the Sunday homilies, the handouts, the video for the deeper dive. So catch up! No one left behind.
I hope something has been stirring in your heart since last week. We talked about how easily we can feel lost at Mass. And not just here, but also out there as well, even more so out there—why am I here, why do I exist? where is my life going, really? how do I get there? where can I find real and lasting happiness, not just fleeting moments of fun and pleasure? Did any of that resonate? Did you connect with any of those experiences? Or maybe, did you begin to ask them in a more serious way? Because these questions are the questions of life, the “stuff” that makes up our life. In the “iceberg” that is our life, these questions are the 90% that lurks below the surface: we may not always see them or be aware of them, but they’re there and they’re huge!
And the great news is that God gives answers! God has revealed the answers. He has told us why I am here, where I am going, and how to get there. He has told us how to find lasting happiness, not just fleeting experiences of pleasure.
And he’s revealed this most fully in Jesus Christ. Jesus is the fullness of God’s revelation to us. That’s why Jesus first invitation isn’t, “Go be a good person. Hope life goes well.” It’s, “Come, follow me. Come, share my life. Come, have breakfast.” I often think of those extremely comforting words from Jesus: “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest.” This is what “Rerouting…” is. It’s a guide, a path, practical and concrete steps to help us follow Christ, to go to him, to learn from him—to find true rest for our restless hearts.
Our Damaged DNA
So we should be jumping all over this! People should be knocking down our doors! Harassing us! Begging us to tell them more and give them a piece of the pie! …but they’re not. Why?Jesus is offering the fullness of life, full and abundant life starting right now, today!Why isn’t everyone in the county here today? Lot of reasons, duh. But I’ve found that an increasingly common one is that we have taken on a mutated understanding of this.
Do you know what a genetic mutation is? Do you know what genes are? Do you know what DNA is? Real simple: DNA is that material in you that gives instructions for your body’s development, function, and growth. It’s the roadmap, so to speak, for your body to develop, function and grow. A gene—a gene is one section of your DNA, containing specific instructions (one part of this “roadmap”) for one specific molecule (usually a protein). And it’s these proteins that control everything. And there are thousands of genes! The human genome contains over 20-thousand protein-coding genes. And all of this is tiny, microscopic!
But what happens when one, just one of these microscopic genes undergoes a mutation? What happens when the “roadmap” is faulty? Just one mutated gene, one tiny, microscopic gene can threaten your entire body. (Just think of how a bad “roadmap”/GPS led Michal Scottt astray in The Office.) Your DNA, the very thing that should be guiding your body and keeping it “on track”—one single mutated gene can threaten everything.Deafness, cystic fibrosis, muscular dystrophy, sickle cell anemia, neurofibromatosis—all a result of one single gene out of whack.
So why aren’t people knocking down our door, harassing us, begging for more? Because something in our DNA is mutated. St. Paul often compares the Church to a body (c.f., 1 Corinthians 12). So I think it’s fitting to talk about how in the Church, in this “body,” simple “mutations” can cause drastic complications, hinder our growth and development and function. We can get 99% right: Jesus, Scripture, the Eucharist, Grace, Love, Mercy, Peace. But when even just one “gene” is off… everything can be threatened. And it’s real: close to 70% of Catholics in Rice County do not come to Mass on a regular basis. Thousands of others don’t follow Christ at all. Why? Because they’re bad people? No! I know a lot of them! For the most part, they’re good, hardworking, decent people. So why do they stay away?
Something has gone wrong. Some mutation holds them back. And to be sure, it’s usually more than one. So today I want to focus on three of them. Three concepts, three key elements of the Catholic faith that have undergone a mutation in our understanding—with devastating effects. But also, I want to propose a different understanding, one that can put us back on the right path.
a) Faith: The first of these is “faith.” What is faith? If you go ask a random person on the street? Faith is believing something with no evidence—like believing in Flying Spaghetti Monster. Faith is for people who have never picked up a science book. It’s a thing people that can’t get their life together and work hard enough to get things done for themself resort to. Faith is a “religious status,” a brand of “spirituality”: Catholic, Lutheran, Baptist, Hindu, Muslim, the Three-Headed Lizard God of Sunflowers—whatever “spiritual thing” floats your boat (just keep it to yourself). Yeah? Have we hear these things?
Ok, that’s the mutation. But what is it? Faith is a way of knowing, a way of seeing, and a way of living. Faith is a way of knowing, it is a type of knowledge—and we use it every day! When you go to the grocery store, do you take every piece of food to a laboratory and use a scientific test to see if it is poisonous? No. When you walked in today, were you worried that I might lock all the doors and fill the church with a poisonous gas, killing us all? No—but you are now. No! When your mom told you that she loves you, did you pull out a lie-detector test to verify that she was telling you the truth? No! Why? Because we know these things not by scientific test or by seeing with our eyes…but by faith. Faith is a way of knowing. And it’s also a way of seeing. A person who is incapable of seeing with the eyes of faith is what we call paranoid. They’re paranoid because they do need to test every piece of food for poison, they do need to sit next to a breakable window in case I try something funky. They can’t see with faith.
But it even goes a step further than that! Faith isn’t just a way of knowing and seeing, it’s also a way of living. What do I mean? There is this story of a man by the name of Charles Blondin. Back in 1859, Blondin walked on a tightrope stretched over Niagara Falls—almost a quarter of a mile. Thousands gathered to watch. And he made it look easy: on stilts, on a bicycle—easy! And then with a wheelbarrow full of rocks. Back and forth. And the crowd went crazy! After about the third time pushing the wheelbarrow across, he turned to the crowd and said: “Do you think I can do it again?” “Yes!” they cheered. “Do you think I will make it?” They cheered louder, “Yes!!” “Do you think I could do it with a person in the wheelbarrow?” “Yes!!!” they shouted. Then Blondin dumped out the rocks and asked for a volunteer. And no one moved.
Faith isn’t just a way of knowing and seeing, it’s also a way of living. Ultimately, faith means entrusting yourself to a person, freely placing your life in the hands of another because you have come to the knowledge (based on faith) that they are worthy of that trust. We do this all the time: we entrust our health to the grocery store, you’re entrusting your safety to me right now. But when it comes to God—do we? Or do we say we believe it (“I believe in one God”), but then don’t put any skin in the game. Faith is entrusting yourself, you life, everything, every part of our life, to Him. Faith is entrusting our life, surrendering our life to another—to Christ himself.
b) Church: The second big mutation is “church.” What is church, the Church? What do people hear when they hear “church”? Many people think of a building: 1205 S Douglas. Others think of an event you can attend: we “go to church.” Others think about different “flavors” of “Jesus people”: Catholic Church, First Presbyterian, First Baptist, First Christian, First United Methodist, First Church of the Nazarene … lotta firsts. Church is a group of like-minded individuals, a spiritual “Country Club” that is there to support you on your spiritual journey. Or call any spiritual thing “church”: there’s a country song that talks about listing to the radio in the car as “church.”
Ok. So what is the Church? This past week we celebrated the feast of the conversion of our patron, of Saint Paul. And Paul (whose name was Saul)—Saul was originally a great persecutor of the Christians. But one day Saul is on the road to Damascus and gets knocked down by a vision of the risen Jesus Christ. And Jesus asks him: “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” (Acts 9:4). And notice what Jesus says: “me.” Not, “Why are you persecuting those people who follow my teachings,” or, “Why are you persecuting those people who are just trying to be good people, listening to the radio in their car?” Nope. “Why are you persecuting me?” Jesus makes a radical connection between himself and this group of people who follow him, who have entrusted their lives to him in faith. What am I getting at? The Church is an incredible mystery that we participate in, because the Church is the continuity, the continuation of Christ himself in time. The Church is a great mystery, a great sacrament, the living and enduring and continuing presence of Jesus Christ himself, here, now, today. “Where two or three are gathered, there I am in the midst of them” (Mt 18:20).
The church isn’t a building, it’s a people. It’s not just “you and God,” it’s you and me and Cheryl and Steve and Leslie and God. Jesus didn’t teach us to pray, “My Father, who art in heaven,” but, “Our Father.” But the Church isn’t just a people, it’s a people filled and imbued with the divine life. By the gift of God, we are filled with the life of Christ. When we are baptized, we become different kinds of humans—Christ-ians, little Christs. We are not just “nice people” trying to follow “nice advice” from Jesus while we listen to the radio in our car, no. We carry the very life of the risen Christ within us. And there’s more: all of this is characterized by a new kind of life, a deep and profound relationship, a profound communion, a union with God and humanity. That’s why St. Clement, who was the bishop in Rome after St. Peter—Clement always urged for unity: unity in our beliefs, but also unity in our worship, and unity in our leadership. Just like in the Old Testament God would teach, and give rituals for worship, and appoint leaders—so too, Jesus gives teachings, he gives rituals (think of baptism and the Eucharist), and he appoints leaders: the apostles, and the chief apostle Peter (who we now call the Bishops and the Pope). This new union, this unity with God isn’t just me “feeling” close to God, it living this relationship. “He is the vine, we are the branches.” “He is the head, we are the body.” You can’t have Christ without his Church.
c) Mission: And so that brings us to the last mutation, and that is the element of “mission.” What is the mission? “Uuhhh what? What mission? What are you talking about?” That’s the usual response: “Uuuhhh, wut?” And if I press, people will say, “Well, I’m Catholic. So the mission is to love God (whatever that means to you), go to Mass (when it fits into my schedule), and be a good person. Oh, and serve those less fortunate than me! …when it’s not too much of a bother.” If I were to ask you: “What is the mission of this parish? This parish exists in order to … ?” What would the answer be?
So think about it: if the Church is the continuation of Jesus Christ in time, then us, the members of the Church, the members of His Body—our mission is to … to continue His mission in our time and in our place. Again, think back to the Gospel last week. Jesus sees Simon-Peter and Andrew. And he said to them, “Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men” (Matthew 4:19). Jesus calls people, first and foremost, to be with him, to enter into a profound relationship with them, to share his life with them—so much so that they embody him! “Come after me.” But then what happens? “Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men.” It doesn’t stop there! Those chosen and called are then gifted and sent out. In Mark’s Gospel, Mark makes this clear. As Jesus is about to call the twelve disciples, Mark clarifies why he does so: “And he appointed twelve…to be with him, and to be sent out to proclaim the message” (c.f., Mark 3:14). To be with him, and to be sent out.
And this is nothing new. In Scripture, no one is given an experience of God without also receiving a commission. Moses experiences God in the burning bush, and is then sent back to Egypt to liberate the people. Isaiah has a great vision of God in the Temple, and is then sent to preach. Saul experience the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus, and is then sent out.
The Church throughout history, then, has summarized Her mission into three essential elements: the Church worships God, the Church serves the poor, and the Church evangelizes. That’s it, those three things. And the Church has fun Greek words for this: Leitourgia (liturgy or worship), Diakonia (service), and Martyria (witness). So leitourgia: the Church worships God. Think of the Mass, the greatest act of worship. Think of the Sacraments. Think of offering sacrifices to God throughout our day. The prayers we offer: the rosary, praying with scripture. All of this is leitourgia. St. Paul in his letter to the Romans says, “Offer yourself as a living sacrifice—this is true worship” (c.f., Romans 12:1). Diakonia is the element of service, most especially to the poor. So think of soup kitchen, homeless shelters, hospitals, the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. This is diakonia, service. So leitourgia, diakonia, and martyria. Martyriais the element of “witness,” of evangelization. And this is the one we usually skip. And yet, this is the most fundamental. Pope Paul VI said, “The Church exists in order to evangelize” (Evangelii Nuntiandi 14). Pope John Paul II, he said, “I sense that the moment has come to commit all of the Church’s energies to a new evangelization” (Redemptoris Missio, 3). What’s the point? The point is that all of this is far from trying to “be nice people.” That mission is a high call—for all of us!
These three elements are key: Faith, Church, and Mission. The mutation of these three elements has had devastating effects on the Church. And yet, a proper understanding of them, embracing a proper understanding of them can have transformative effects.
The “On Ramps”
Each week in “Rerouting…” we have a road sign to go along with the homily. This week the sign is “On Ramp.” These three elements of Faith, Church, and Mission are three “On Ramps” that can bring us back onto the road that will take us to the destination our hearts are truly searching for. 1) Faith is that way of knowing and of living which allows us to entrust our lives to Another, to Jesus Christ himself, to the designs and plans he has for us. 2) And we don’t just entrust ourselves to some “ethereal,” “pie in the sky” Jesus, alone and however we see fit, no. We entrust ourselves to the Church, to the life of the Church, to the leadership and community of the Church. Why? Because the Church isn’t just a “spiritual country club.” The Church is Christ, the Church is the continuation of Christ in time. The Church is how Christ continues to meet us today. 3) And when we are members of this community, then, our life is no longer about us. We take on the life of Christ, we take on his mission. Just as Christ is the one sent by the Father, so we are sent by Christ.
If we have entrusted the entirety of our life to the Church by faith, and if the Church is the continuation of Christ in time, and if Church exists in order to carry on the saving mission of Christ—if this is what is going on here, then… then…our lives are incredibly important. Our lives have been elevated to the level of importance of the life of JESUS CHRIST himself. And that is a life worth living for.