22 Oct 2017
29th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Chances are, most of us have some money in our pockets; maybe a dollar bill, maybe some change. And on it are various symbols of our country. On the dollar bill, for example, there’s the year of our founding, 1776. There’s the shield with thirteen stripes, signifying the original thirteen states, and then a horizontal bar that connects them, signifying the Federal Government. There’s the image of George Washington, and then it says who the money belongs to: the Federal Reserve.
But the interesting thing about our American money is that it isn’t just about the country; it also expresses something about God, and the place of God in the fabric of the country. For example, on the back of the dollar bill, there’s the pyramid—and the all-seeing Eye of God atop it. And above and below the Eye are two phrases in Latin: “Annuit Coeptis” and “Novus Ordo Seclorum.”
“Annuit Coeptis” is something like a prayer, asking God to “support this new undertaking;” the formation of a new country. And “Novus Ordo Seclorum” means “a new order for the ages;” the beginning of the new “American Era.” A new country had been formed, but it was not to be a country devoid of God; instead, God was its founder and overseer, its guide and judge. But, in case we miss the Latin and the Eye of God, there’s the very straightforward: “In God We Trust.”
The money we carry in our pockets represents the blending of two worlds: the world of business, money, taxes, regulations, property, and so on; and the world of God. And our money portrays those two worlds in the right order: God first, and then society. If Jesus were to look at our American money, he probably wouldn’t have a problem with it. Our money itself gives to God “what belongs to God;” namely, our trust and the security of our lives. And it gives to “Caesar” what belongs to “Caesar;” it is “legal tender for all debts, public and private.”
And this blending of these two worlds is one of the life-long activities we engage in as Catholics. We live in the world—the world of business, money, property, and so on; but we don’t belong to that world. God is first; we belong to him. Our citizenship in heaven comes first, and then our citizenship in the world. And to do that requires some really intentional living on our part.
Last week we talked a little bit about the Post-Modern Era, and the challenges of being a Catholic in this era. And the first challenge is to keep “the world” and God in their proper balance. And one of the few places we’re going to find support for doing that is the Church. Our situation really isn’t that different from when St. Paul was traveling to Greece, helping to form the Church.
His first letter to the Thessalonians we heard from today was written only twelve to fifteen years after the Resurrection. The Church was as new as a little baby, and it needed a lot of careful nurturing; that’s what Saint Paul was doing on his visits and in his letters. He was building up the Church in the world, one little community at a time. And Paul’s activities were vital; the only place those first Christians could find support was among themselves. The community of faith came first—it had to, and then their life out in the world came second. They weren’t “Christian Thessalonians,” they were “Thessalonian Christians.”
We look at ourselves today, and we see that we’re both Christians and Americans, at the same time. But which comes first? Where’s our primary allegiance? To country, or to God? That’s a question those Thessalonians had to deal with on a daily basis. And they only had each other as a reminder that God comes first; the life of faith, hope, and love comes first. Their Christian life shaped how they lived in the world.
The word Saint Paul uses in his letter to describe the community, the Church is “ekklésia.” It refers, literally, to those who are “called out from” the world by God. It refers to those who are “assembled” by God, who “stand apart from” the world as a people who have chosen to put God and faith first. That’s the Church, the “ekklésia.” And even up to today that’s how we understand ourselves.
In this Post-Modern Era, which tries to abolish God from all areas of life, it’s especially vital that we remember we’re part of the “ekklésia.” Not only is God not banished from all areas of our life, God is at the center of our life, both as individuals and as a community. We’re about as anti-Post-Modern as you can get. But that’s our place in the world today—to be the “ekklésia,” to be a community of faith.
When we go to work or school, and we’re tempted to get involved with the latest gossip, our identity as the “ekklésia” kicks in and we remember, “Oh yeah, gossip goes against the values of my community.” When it’s the weekend, and we just want to relax or travel, our identity as the “ekklésia” kicks in and we remember, “Oh yeah, we need to go to Church, too; it’s the Sabbath.”
When it comes to election time, or local and national politics are on our minds, our identity as the “ekklésia” kicks in and we remember that, “There is no perfect politician; nobody champions the Catholic faith exactly.” And when we get into disputes with others in the community, our identity as the “ekklésia” kicks in and we remember, “Oh yeah, this is a brother or sister in Christ; I need to treat them with honesty, with charity and mercy.”
Our identity as a people who’ve been “called out” and “assembled”—by God, doesn’t mean we stop living in the world. Obviously, we still live in the world. But we do it a particular way, with particular values and hopes, with a particular kind of love.
One of the key phrases to come out of the Second Vatican Council was “full, conscious and active participation.” And it’s used in reference to the liturgy, in particular the Mass. But we have to stop and ask: “What are we supposed to be participating in? What exactly are we supposed be doing here?” But the answer isn’t so much about what we are doing; instead, it’s more about what God is doing.
Why are we here? Because God has summoned us here. God has “called us out from” the world, and brought us to himself. This is a gathering of the “ekklésia.” And we participate in what God is doing by getting in our cars and coming here. God “gathers a people to himself,” and we let ourselves be “called out” and gathered by him.
And then God gives himself to us in Scripture and in the Eucharist. God is at work, trying to make us even more a people grounded in faith, and in hope and love. God is doing the work here at Mass, and we participate by letting ourselves be influenced and shaped by what we receive. God is the potter and we participate by being the clay. But it doesn’t end there.
The “ekklésia,” the Church, is made by God to be a force for good in the world. At the heart of our life is love of God, and love for one another. But our interior life as the “ekklésia” spills over into a love of the world, and a desire to see the world become always a better place. And that sounds very idyllic and nice. But, as the lives of the martyrs and many of the saints remind us, the “ekklésia” is often met with resistance in the world.
When Jesus went around and preached, there were a lot of people who fell at his feet. But there were many more who “tried to entrap” him. Jesus was subversive; he went against anything in culture which was unjust or untrue, anything which was in direct opposition to the values of God’s Kingdom. He had lots of friends; he had lots of enemies. He still has lots of friends, and lots of enemies. And that’s because the “ekklésia,” the community of faith, continues his work in the world even today.
The “full, conscious and active participation” we’re supposed to be involved in doesn’t end when we sing the closing song at Mass. The liturgy—the work that God is doing—goes on out in the world. And we participate in that by being the community of faith out in the world; in the workplace, in school, on the roadways, on the sports field. Wherever we are, there should be the “ekklésia:” the subversive, culture-challenging, slightly rebellious community of faith.
The writer G.K. Chestertons put it exactly when he says, “We do not want a church that will move with the world. We want a church that will move the world.” We do not want a church that will move with the world. We want a church that will move the world. We want God to be the foundation and the ultimate guide of everything we do, whether on earth or in heaven.
The designers of our dollar bill got it right: “Annuit Coeptis.” May God bless our country; may he bless the “ekklésia,” the Church. May he bless and keep us all.