22 Jan 2017
3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
Growing up, my family moved a few times. And sometimes when we’d move from one house to the next, there would some things left on the curb. It was stuff that we’d collected, and we just didn’t need it. And so, each time the family moved, it was sort of like a fresh start. We kept everything that was important, and parted with (most) everything that wasn’t.
And I mention this because something similar happens when we encounter the power of the gospel (whether or not we want to go along with it). When Jesus starts tugging at our minds or pushing buttons in our hearts, it’s like Mom and Dad saying, “Kids, we’re thinking of moving to a new house.” And you start deciding what you want to take with you, and what needs to be left behind on the curb.
But, you know, not everything that’s left there on the curb is junk. Some of it’s pretty good stuff, and you hate to get rid of it. And so, getting ready to move—whether it’s to a new house, or stepping out in faith to follow the Lord—getting ready to move and make a change isn’t always easy. It isn’t like when Jesus called Peter, James, and John; they just left everything and followed him. It isn’t like that with us.
Being asked to move—whether that’s in a spiritual sense or in a literal sense—reveals a weakness in us. It reveals our (sometimes) inability to let go. It’s like trying to move a plant from one spot in the garden to another, and you dig it up—only to find how thick and tangled the roots are. And it’s a challenge to get that plant to “let go” so you can move it. Again, when we’re asked to move (either spiritually or in some other sense), more often than not, we discover we have connections that we really don’t want to let go of. We have a lot of good “stuff” that we don’t want to just throw out on the curb.
Now, when St. Paul wrote his letter to the community in Corinth, he was basically helping them to sort through the stuff they didn’t want to let go of. He’d been told that many people in the city were saying: “I belong to Paul;” or “I belong to Apollos;” or “I belong to Cephas;” or “I belong to Christ.” They each had their own ideas of what was right, and who was the best spiritual leader to follow.
That’s what St. Paul found out in the Lord’s garden—he found roots, lots of them; he found attachments to ways of thinking and believing. He found a people who had heard the gospel, and were starting to move, spiritually, but then they got stuck and couldn’t move any further. And you know what they say about history: It repeats itself. The story of the Corinthians sounds a lot like ours today.
And this isn’t just about where we worship. This isn’t just about saying, “I belong to . . .” fill in the blank: “I belong to Askeaton;” or “I belong to Greenleaf;” or “I belong to Wrightstown.” There’s more to it than that. This is about ways of thinking and believing; this is about how we view the world and the church. It’s about who we let influence us and shepherd us.
After almost eight years, we still hear about Fr. S----- and Fr. K-----. We still hear about how things were before the God-awful merger happened. We still hear about old grudges and wounds and arguments which some refuse to let go of—even after decades. “I belong to Paul; I belong to Apollos; I belong to my Mass time; I belong to my way of doing things . . . and no merger is going to make me change that.”
This is what we find when we start digging up parish communities and try to shuffle them around. We find roots—lots of them. This is what we find when we start going through our belongings in preparation for a move. We find beliefs, alliances, feuds, unforgiveness—some of which are too “valuable” to just put out on the curb. Of course, you know, there are plenty of people among us—just like the Corinthians—who say, “I belong to Christ.” And it’s a pretty good number who do say that, thanks be to God.
But St. Paul’s challenge—and every spiritual leader’s challenge—is to get all the people to say, “I belong to Christ. I’ve heard the gospel; I’m putting the stuff (sometimes the garbage) I don’t need on the curb, and I’m going to move with him.” That’s St. Paul’s challenge. And, really, that’s a pretty high expectation. But it’s an expectation that comes with our baptism. It means saying that, ultimately, “I do belong to Christ and his ways,” more or less. “I am a Christian; the Lord is my light and my salvation. I belong to him, not to me.”
Now, there are some in the wider church who will hear that—who will hear the basic call of baptism to put Christ first; they’ll hear that and be immediately . . . suspicious. It’s just the opposite reaction that the Apostles had when Jesus called them. And this isn’t hesitation and timidity, which many of us experience in trying to follow God. This is . . . suspicion: “What’s Father getting at when he’s talking about ‘belonging to Jesus’? What’s the hidden agenda?”
Well, here we’ve run into a big root, haven’t we? And we’ve gotten a little too close to some personal belief which is perhaps more valuable to a person than Christ himself. The suspicion—the fear—is that that “thing” or that “root” is going to be taken away if I say, “I belong to Christ.”
“What’s Father getting at when he’s talking about ‘belonging to Jesus’? What’s the hidden agenda? Is he trying to steer us away from our churches so the diocese can close them? Is he trying to use Jesus as an excuse not to address real concerns like . . . those other people in the parish who are just terrible? What’s he getting at? What’s he trying to take away from me with all this ‘I belong to Jesus’ talk?”
Unfortunately, that suspicion and fear and lack of belonging to Christ has caused some pretty bad things to happen. When the previous pastor announced at Mass that he was leaving, and some people actually applauded and cheered—what a shocking and appalling thing to do. When Mass times were changed seven months ago, and some said, “We’ll hit ‘em in the pocketbook,” until we get what we want—what an awful thing to hold in one’s heart.
“I belong to . . . Fr. S----; I belong to my Mass time; I belong to the power of money; I belong to me.” And what can we do for those brothers and sisters of ours except pray for them? (And we must do that. We must pray for one another that our fidelity to Christ is first and foremost. Without him, without our light and salvation, we’ll be lost forever.) And what can we feel about our brothers and sisters other than sadness that they’re unable to say “I belong to Christ?” What else can we feel but pity that they do not trust anyone, not even Jesus himself.
They’re like somebody who’s just sitting on the curb with their stuff. The moving van is packed up and ready to go, Jesus is calling, but they just can’t let go. They refuse to go.
For the rest of us, however, we move on with Christ and with one another. Even in the midst of differences, and even though we’re not necessarily close friends with one another, we nonetheless move together because we belong to the one Christ; we belong to the one Body of Christ, wherever we are, no matter which Mass we go to, regardless of our sins and mistakes. We move on as a people who each can say—more or less, “I belong to Christ.”
I belong to Christ. He is my light and my salvation. Of whom should I be afraid? What do I have to lose?