11 Sept 2016
24th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C
It’s fundamental to our Catholic faith that life never ends, it only ever changes. From the moment we were conceived, our life has been changing, growing, going through ups and downs. Life never stands still; it’s always on the move. And we have so many reminders of this reality.
Just last week, school started. The summer vacations are over, and students are getting used to a new school year. Last year’s 4th Graders are this year’s 5th Graders. The 8th Graders went off to High School. The seniors graduated last spring and are trying to get used to a new life of college or work or family.
Of course, every time we look in the mirror we see it, too. The middle schoolers and high schoolers see the physical changes that come with adolescence. And that’s something new to get used to. You become an adult and see your first slightly grayish hair, and that’s a change to get used to. Life never stands still; it’s always on the move.
Anybody who’s under the age of 20 would have no memory of the events of September 11, 2001. But that day, life changed pretty dramatically for Americans, and for the world, too. It’s why we have such tight security at airports; it’s why we struggle to separate in our minds Muslims from radical Muslims; it’s a reason why racial tensions have become so elevated even today. It was a bad day, September 11, 2001. Life changed in an unexpected and terrible way.
But, you know, life changed in other ways, too. At the time, I was an organist at St. Mary’s in Oshkosh. And I remember that the churches were packed on 9/11 and the weeks afterward; the pews were absolutely full—and that was a change. People who hadn’t set foot in a church in years were there. And it seemed like the two things we can be sure of came together that day.
Life changes—that we can be sure of. And in the midst of those changes, God is stable—that we can also be sure of. But sometimes it seems like God is not stable. For instance, look at the way he acts in our Scripture today.
When God is speaking with Moses, it sounds like God is ready to destroy his people because of their sins. Moses has to step in and say, “Whoa! Hold on here, God. What about the promises you made to your people?” God has kind of a hot head there when he’s talking to Moses. It sounds like he’s even ready to disown his people because of their sins. Did you catch what he said to Moses? He said, “Go down at once to your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt.” To which Moses said, “Why, O Lord, should your wrath blaze up against your own people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt?” It’s like God is trying to say: “I don’t want to have anything to do with these people, Moses; they’re yours!”
But then we compare that with the parable of the prodigal son. The Father doesn’t disown his child because of his sins; he’s concerned about his son and is overjoyed to see him come back. He ran up to son, embraced him and kissed him, and then threw a party for his son, sinner though he was. If Jesus tells us that story to show how God deals with sinners, well, then we’re confused. What happened to the vengeful God who Moses had to hold back? It almost looks like God has changed; that God is not stable.
But, here, God is not the one who changes—humanity is. Our understanding of God, and our relationship to him is what changes. Back in the days of Moses, the gods which were seen to have authority were those who were powerful and even vengeful. A god was a being to be feared. There was no such thing as a weak god. God had revealed himself to his people, yes, but they understood him to be like any other god.
But then, eventually, Jesus comes along—God himself walked among us—to show us, to demonstrate very clearly to humanity, that God is, indeed, powerful; but that God’s real power comes through being weak. Remember what Saint Paul said: “It’s when I am weak that I am strong.” He’s simply echoing what God himself would say: “It’s when I am weak that I am strong.” God has been, and always will be, God. God is constant. But our understanding of God will continue to deepen; our life of faith is what changes. And that is sometimes difficult.
Fifty years after the Second Vatican Council, the Church still struggles with the changes and the aftermath of the Council. Some people see Vatican II as practically the savior of the Church, while others condemn it as pure heresy—in respect to all areas of life: our worship, social justice, Church government, devotions, our understanding of God and humanity, and so on. With Vatican II, our life as Catholics changed dramatically, and fifty years later, we’re still trying to work through those changes. Even right here at Saint Clare, we’re still doing that.
When we look our buildings, they’re really quite beautiful. They were built at a time when the devotional life was important, when art and visual aesthetics were meant to nurture the interior life. Just look at our stained glass windows, the Stations of the Cross, the statues. Look at the ceilings and how they’re height is meant to raise our minds and hearts to things divine. Even the pews are meant to show how the flock is all heading together in the same direction toward our One Shepherd.
But with Vatican II, Catholics were asked to consider also the Body of Christ—the gathered faithful—who come to worship God, and are also sent out into the world as disciples of Christ. A lot of new churches were built to foster a sense of community, and to make a visual statement that God is not only present in the Eucharist, in Scripture, and in the ordained priest, but also in baptized faithful. Catholics were asked to maintain their devotions, their art, their interior life; but also to add to it.
And so, our church buildings are caught in the middle of us still trying to work through those changes that happened over fifty years ago. And, I think, we intuitively know that. You know, while there are debates about money and politics and all that, fundamentally, our debates are about faith and God, and what’s important in life, and what it means to be a Catholic in today’s world. I think we intuitively know that. And so, our struggle to get it right is a good one.
You know, the Church is neither progressive nor traditional—it’s both. It must be both. When we know something is true, we don’t just throw it away; we hold onto it, we treasure it, and we pass it along to the next generations. And that same time, though, we don’t know everything. God is constantly leading us into greater truth—about himself, about us, about the world and creation, about life and death. We don’t know everything, and so the Church is also open to newness; to truths we didn’t know before. The Church is both traditional and progressive. We treasure what we know to be true, and we treasure new truths and discoveries that come to us as well. And that’s simply because God is Truth, and whenever we uncover a bit of truth, we uncover a bit of God.
There’s truth in these old buildings. And there’s truth in new buildings. The struggle is to get through this without compromising any of the beautiful truths God has given us. And it is a struggle. Anytime we’re trying to work through the changes that life brings, there’s going to be some struggle. And that’s okay. We’ll be fine, as long as we rely on God who is constant.
I think of newly married couples, or families with a newborn, and the amount of adjustment that has to happen in the home. I think of newly ordained priests and the parishes they serve and the amount of adjustment that has to happen in the parish, in the office. I think of people who are suddenly hit one day with the realization that, “Oh wow, I’m getting older.” And I think especially of teens and young adults whose whole lives for at least a few years is nothing but change.
Life is always changing; it never stands still. Sometimes it’s like a tornado—even our sins and honest mistakes can turn our souls upside down and topsy-turvy. Other times life is like an evening breeze that just rustles your hair a little bit. But it’s always changing, always becoming something else; life never stands still.
But in the midst of all that change and restlessness, we hear a very familiar voice, and it’s the voice of our God who says, “Be not afraid. I am with you always. Be not afraid.” And he can say that because he is, truly, the one constant in life and death and beyond. God is our Rock. He’s like the prodigal son’s father, who is simply there as a refuge, as a source of strength for the weak, as the one who is Mercy and Peace itself.
“Be not afraid,” the Lord says to us. “Go to your inner room, close the door, and talk with your heavenly Father in secret.” Life is always changing; it never stands still. And sometimes it’s unsettling. But our God is stable; he is peace itself; he is Our Father, who stands at the door of heaven looking for us to be safe amid the changes of life.
He is there. He’s always there.