Sunday, September 30, 2012

In & Out

'Guess I was a little wound up this Sunday...but hopefully not too batty...

   Twenty-Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time   B 

We had a bit of a problem 
with bats in the rectory over the summer.
Trying to figure out what we should do,
each of us three priests had a different approach.
Fr. Stitt—being a rather gentle soul—
first suggested that we trap the bats live
and take them away to return to nature…
…but no matter how far he took them,
they kept finding their way back.
Fr. Tom—having lost his patience with the little critters—
tried to shoot the bats down…but his aim wasn’t so good;
we lost a few windows, but not a single bat.
Finally—being the seasoned old pastor—I stepped in,
knowing exactly what ought to be done.
First, I baptized the bats, then I confirmed them.
Not a single one of them
has come anywhere near the church ever since!

That old joke (with a new twist) came to mind
as I had lunch Friday with some friends from out of town.
They shared that their new pastor has a policy:
if the kids and their parents in the Confirmation program
don’t go to church, then they won’t get confirmed.
They wanted my opinion…but that’s tricky a one.
Indeed, it’s pretty clear:
all Catholics—not just those preparing for another sacrament—
unless hindered by sickness or another serious obligation,
are bound by God’s law to attend Sunday Mass.
The Eucharist is absolutely foundational to who we are as Catholics.
If you’re not going to Mass,
why would you even care to be confirmed?
And yet—on the other hand—I’ve seen a few people over the years,
who started out with the intention
of only jumping through the hoops to get confirmed,
but who actually come around in the end
and become regulars at Mass when they hadn’t been before.

So…where do you draw the line?
That’s precisely the question—is it not?—
asked in the scriptures this Sunday.
Who’s in?  Who’s out?  
And who gets to say?

When it comes to drawing 
the lines around religion,
things don’t quite appear as black and white
as they may have seemed years ago.

Specifically, when it comes to the Catholic Church:
who’s in and who’s out?

Most are fairly sure about the Church’s relationship with non-Christians.
Yes, we have kinship in the one human family.
Yes, we respect and honor
all that is good and true about their way of life,
whatever their religious tradition—if they even have one at all.
But we do not share a common faith.
Now, that doesn’t mean they’re bad people.
And that doesn’t mean heaven’s closed to them.
But you can’t really be said to belong to the Church
when you don’t believe in its founder.

Then there are our Protestant and Orthodox brothers and sisters.
In recent decades there’s been a new emphasis
on all the things we share in common:
our belief in Jesus as the only Savior of the world;
our recognition of the Bible as the inspired word of God;
our one baptism into Christ.
There’s a whole lot that unites us.
But it’s becoming increasingly common to hear people say,
“Well, it’s pretty much all the same.”
We do a great disservice, my friends, to all involved
when we give in to that sort of thinking.
Because it’s not all the same.
Sure, we sing many of the same hymns,
decorate our churches in similar fashion,
and even dress up our clergy in near identical robes.
A growing number even use the word “catholic”
in their denomination’s name.
But we still disagree on some rather major things:
on the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist;
on the role of the Pope as chief shepherd of the Church;
on some serious questions of modern day morality;
even on which books are found in the Bible.
It’s a blessing that we’re growing closer and cooperating more,
but we never help the cause by wallpapering over our differences.
We are in communion with each other…but only partially.

And then there are all the Catholics we have on the books,
but whom we rarely—if ever—see.
(We’ll look at those numbers in detail
when I present the parishes’ annual reports
near the end of Mass today.)
At a workshop I attended this past week
making preparations for the upcoming Year of Faith,
this group was referred to
as having been “sacramentalized but not evangelized.”
One of my professors in the seminary put it a little more bluntly:
he called them “baptized pagans.”
It’s a relatively unique problem to our age:
all these people who are technically Catholic,
but who don’t have much sense of what that means;
who think of themselves as part of the Church,
but don’t often find themselves inside a church;
who know a little something about Jesus,
but have yet to be really introduced to Jesus on a personal level.
It follows much the same pattern we see in marriage these days,
as the majority of our young people decide,
“Let’s start a sexual relationship, move in together
then have a few kids, maybe buy a house…
…and after all that we can talk about a wedding.”
The cart is put well before the horse!
We want all the benefits,
but without first making the commitment.
We know what effect this trend it having on marriage:
fewer and fewer people are bothering with it at all.
We mustn’t be surprised that it has much the same effect
as more and more Catholics are members
without ever truly being converted.

Where do you draw the line?
Who’s in?  Who’s out?  Who gets to decide?
Even when you’re dealing with something
as structured and carefully defined 
as the Catholic Church,
you see how very, very messy this can get!

In the midst of all this messiness,
Jesus teaches us two very clear lessons this Sunday.

The first: 
do not count anyone out too quickly.
Like Joshua had spoken to Moses,
so John speaks to Jesus 
on behalf of the other Apostles—
concerned about who’s in and who’s out.
Jesus’ words encourage caution:
no one can do genuine good
and at the same time be against his cause.
Those who do not now follow 
might yet become disciples;
their hanging out around the edges
might someday become real faith.
We wouldn’t want to chase them away
when there remains a chance to bring them in.

And the second lesson:
never underestimate the power of your example—
either for good or for ill.
One of the saddest things I hear in the confessional
is when young children come in
and confess having missed Sunday Mass.
The kids know where they’re supposed to be…
…but they can’t get here on their own.
Jesus has rather stern words
for those who cause his littlest followers to sin.
Let us lead by good example;
our presence here at Mass says so much all by itself.
And yet, we must do more than just show up!
If we hope to bring those on the margins
deeper into the life of the Church,
then we have to speak and act in a way that’s attractive.

If we Catholics are always complaining,
always tearing down one another or the clergy,
constantly hostile to this point of doctrine
or that aspect of the liturgy—
who’s going to want to be a part of that?
A kind smile, a warm handshake, a word of welcome—
like that simple cup of water mentioned by the Lord—
can go a long, long way toward bringing outsiders in.
If you’re happy to be here, if you’re happy to be a Catholic,
then make sure your face gets the message!
People will see it, and they’ll want what you’ve got.

Yes, we really had bats in the rectory this summer.
No, there were no guns involved!
But let’s all do what we can to make it the case around here
that the punch line of that joke is no longer funny.
Drawing our energy and our joy from the Eucharist,
let’s work at bringing everybody in and leaving nobody out,
that all those who have been baptized and confirmed
might join us regularly at Mass.
It is here, after all, that we Catholics belong
because we belong to Christ.

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