13 August 2016

On the Risk, Cost, and Promise of Gospel Faith

Domesticated Christianity gets no hearing in today's Gospel! The love of God is not merely comforting and consoling but makes true in a way which can set those closest to us at odds with us. Jesus says that Father will be set against Son and vice versa; Mother will be set against daughter, daughter against Mother, family member(s) against family member(s), and so forth. Who among us have not experienced this kind of conflict and challenge? My first sense that perhaps this could be true occurred when I was preparing for baptism as a Catholic while in high school. "Not while you're living in this house!" my Mother exclaimed emphatically. It was not the last time I sensed the truth of this passage. It's quite a risk: one has to understand and be pretty trusting of the worth of what they are embracing to let go of family and friends in the process.

Sister at First Profession sings the Suscipe
And of course, that is really what Jesus himself knew intimately and lived and died to incarnate (reveal) exhaustively --- a treasure beyond all price, a Kingdom which made ultimate sense of every absurdity, a Divine Love which could bring to fullness every partial and fragmentary love, a Gospel Truth which could verify every distortion and make whole every brokenness. But, as for Jesus himself, there is no room for equivocation. Nor can we stand comfortably with a foot in each reality and be authentically Christian. One chooses the Gospel and all it entails or one does not. One entrusts oneself completely to the power and promise of God's sovereignty and makes oneself entirely vulnerable to the hope and wholeness-making (hallowing) of God's love or one does not. There is no middle ground. Either God IS our God (meaning we allow God to BE God in every way and to whatever extent God wills) or (he) is not. Today's readings emphasize both the worth and the dearness, the consolation and the costliness of discipleship and we need to hear both dimensions.

Prophecy that Brings Conflict:

The first reading from Jeremiah is certainly clear about the costliness of being a prophet who speaks God's will into the present situation with integrity. Do this and you may find yourself tossed into a cistern up to your neck in mud and in danger of starvation! How many of us today have tried to speak of the morality and urgency of peace and been accused of "demoralizing" the soldiers among us? How many, for instance, have argued the case for gun control, smart weapons, the priority of life over "the (supposed) right to bear arms" outside the context of "a well-regulated militia" and found themselves cast out of a job or political position? Examples could be multiplied of course depending on which facet of the vision of the Kingdom of God one sees most clearly --- and each will involve conflict and cost. Jeremiah's vision is greater than that of those opposing him, and greater than that of King Zedekiah as well. And he commits to this vision, proclaims it, and ultimately suffers for it. Such is the life of an authentic prophet -- both then and now.

A death that Brings Life:

The second reading from Hebrews reminds us of the struggle against sin, that is, the struggle against the brokenness, incompleteness, distortions, alienation, and untruths of our lives and world. It is clearly a difficult and costly struggle --- one, the author of Hebrews finds most clearly symbolized by the cross of Christ. But what is striking in this second reading is the emphasis on the joy and victory which comes from persevering in this struggle in the way Jesus did. Victory is always a matter of perspective and of maintaining perspective --- and maintaining perspective means courageously keeping an eye on Jesus and his life and death so that this "Christ Event" is first and last what defines us as persons. In every Catholic home, and often in every main room of every Catholic home (living room, bedrooms, dining room, study) there is usually found a crucifix. That  is certainly true in my hermitage.

And in whatever I am doing here, whether prayer or lectio, writing or study, personal work alone or with my director or delegate, resting or doing chores, struggling with illness and pain, eating alone or celebrating a rare meal with a friend, playing violin or meeting with clients, the crucifix is never more than a glance away so that I might be reminded of both the consolation and the costliness of faith while I silently reaffirm the Event and perspective that give meaning to everything I am and do. And when I believe my life is too difficult, the work too hard, the schedule too tedious, the "rewards" uncertain, etc, Hebrews reminds me as well that I have not yet resisted sin (that is, I have not yet embraced truth and life) to the point of shedding blood; in Christ I am yet stronger than I know and the victory is greater than I have yet witnessed to with my very life. I can and will maintain the truly human perspective of faith: I can and will persevere in this journey to wholeness for despite the cost, in this is my greatest joy and the victory of God's own will for the whole of his creation as well! Aren't we each called to know and commit to something similar whatever our vocational path?

A Love that Sets our Hearts and Creation Ablaze:

The Gospel lection brings all this home and sharpens it with an image of all things set ablaze. As inspiring as this image may be, for most of us it is also frightening. And so is the vocation of the Christian. Jesus' own vocation, his own humanity is defined in terms of suffering but also in terms of great joy. The baptism he speaks of is the baptism of kenosis, the baptism of a self-emptying which is exhaustive to the point of death and beyond into hell itself. But he undergoes and consents to this suffering for the sake of making known and personally real the Love of God that makes full and true and is (the source of) abundant life beyond all imagining. Jesus' empties himself and embraces abject weakness and shame so that he may be entirely transparent to the God he calls Abba and recognizes as the empowering source and ground of life. He gives and risks everything to gain everything really worth having; the Gospel we proclaim as Christians says that risk was entirely worth it for Jesus and is entirely worth it for us. At the same time then what we gain is not without cost --- for ourselves or for others! Jesus reminds us of the conflict that will inevitably occur even with those who love us as family member is turned against family member --- or even as parts of ourselves are brought into conflict with other parts and something trusted and even beloved MUST die so that something even more worthy of love CAN live!

The fire that Jesus brings and wishes were already blazing is the fire of God's love, the fire of the presence of Love-in-Act. We cannot even imagine a world/creation ablaze with the love and sovereignty of God but that is the promise of the Incarnation and of the Cross whose final word is resurrection and the place in God's own life associated with ascension. The Christianity we know and are comfortable with is an altogether tamer variety of faith, a domesticated version which allows us to stand with feet in the Kingdom and that which is antithetical to the Kingdom so that no one is very much troubled by it. It is all-too-often a compartmentalized faith which gives time to God on Sunday mornings (sometimes!) and uses the crucifix as a sign of our identity as Catholics. These may hang in every room of our homes but they do not define every space within our hearts. But what we are made for and called to is so very much more than this! And so very much more challenging! Today's readings call us to embrace the risk, the cost, and the promise of a faith like Jesus' own, a faith which asks quite literally for everything from us but also pledges everything we are made for in return.
A Prayer

My prayer is that we may each embrace and persevere in the promise of a love that will set first our own hearts and then all of creation on fire with the presence of God. May we make whatever sacrifices and give up whatever lesser securities we have to allow that to happen! May we trust that whatever price we are required to pay will be more than abundantly compensated by the love and grace of God. And may we live the truth that by "seek(ing) first the Kingdom of God all else will be added unto us" knowing and persevering in the knowledge that ultimately we cannot and will not lose anything because we are God's and God loses nothing at all!