Sunday, July 7, 2013

Returning Home

Last Sunday, it finally happened: on her way out from Mass, a woman kindly stopped to say, “Nice sermon, Father!”  Trouble is...I wasn’t the one who preached.  (Good thing she was a visitor, otherwise I’d never be able to trust a thing she says!)

All that to explain why there was no post last week...

   Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (#1)    

Rod Dreher has published a memoir,
reflecting on the recent death of his sister 
at the age of 41.
From childhood, 
he’d been drawn to life in the big city.
But while Rod fled 
the small Louisiana town of his youth
just as fast as he could, 
his kid sister, Ruthie, never left.
He was deeply moved
by the outpouring of support 
from that same small town
which his sister received 
when she was diagnosed with cancer—
and which sustained her until she died.
As an adult, 
Rod began to recognize in his hometown
a greatness he’d been unable to see before.
With his wife and three kids, 
he moved back there.

Interviewed about his book, Rod reflected
on why he’d never had that same experience of community in the city.
            “We were always looking at life as consumers,” he said,
            “as what can we extract from this place.
            In every single place we lived,
            we could have made it our community
            if we had just resolved to stay there, put roots down,
            and get involved in the community.
            That’s one lesson I want people to take away from the book,
            is you don’t have to have a small town to move back to,
            but you do need to commit yourself
            to putting down roots.”  (NPR, On Point, 7/5/13)

How many times I’ve heard some of you lamenting
that Malone just isn’t what it used to be!
I hear nostalgic stories
of window-shopping in a beautiful downtown
and a string of thriving factories—now all gone.
But the change isn’t simply economic.
Even here in a small town,
our greatest loss is an authentic sense of community.

This Sunday, we find Jesus giving some peculiar advice.
And he’s not only giving it to a select few;
the Lord’s harvest of souls, after all, is far too valuable
to let it rot in the field for lack of workers.
Jesus isn’t speaking to the inner circle of his twelve Apostles,
but to seventy-two other disciples—
disciples who stand in for all of us.
And as Jesus—rather predictably—sends these disciples out
to spread his message far and wide,
he quite surprisingly tells them
to bring no money, nor luggage, nor foot wear.
Lacking such apparent essentials,
they’re not going to get very far.
And that would appear to be his point,
as Jesus also tells them repeatedly to stay in one house
and eat and drink whatever is offered,
rather than shop around for better food or accommodations.

Yes, it’s peculiar advice for would-be-missionaries…
…unless we consider the lesson Rod Dreher learned.
Isn’t Jesus telling the seventy-two—telling us—
that when it comes to bringing others to know and love him,
it’s essential that we stay put, that we sink roots,
that we make a commitment, that we fully invest ourselves?
Isn’t Jesus telling us not to wander about,
but to form community?

As the Western world has grown more urban and industrial,
our culture has also grown more consumer-driven.
Good consumers are never satisfied—at least, not for long—
and they expect their needs to be met
with the least hassle and at the lowest price.
This is the approach that created Wal-Mart.
But it has also created “retail religion.”
Eager to both hang onto her members
and bring back those who have strayed,
the Church has sought to provide
an attractive array of programs and services,
and to make them as convenient as possible.
But by attempting to market herself as best she’s able—
giving people what they want, 
how and when they want it—
the Church inadvertently branded herself 
as just one more product
in an increasingly vast and fickle marketplace.

So we now have several generations 
of “consumer Catholics,”
and the Church finds herself competing 
for their leisure time
(and—let’s be honest—for their money)…
…and losing more often than not.
Why?  Because this isn’t our game.
Faith is not a product.  You can’t sell Jesus!
Church isn’t about racking up customers—
no matter how loyal;
it’s about building a true community around Christ—
even if only a small one.
And we can never do that 
by providing convenient services;
we can only do that thorough genuine caring,
deep commitment, and honest-to-goodness conversion.
Retail religion is a dead end.
Need proof?  Just look around 
at all the empty pews!  (cf. M. White and T. Corcoran)

By God’s design, the Church is meant to be
a community within the wider community.
The universal Church is like Jerusalem—
a big city, with room enough for any and all.
But this city isn’t cold and indifferent, like a modern metropolis;
rather, as Isaiah describes her,
she’s a mother who cradles us with tenderness.
That’s because the Church isn’t a multinational conglomerate
focused on output and efficiency,
but the living Bride and Body of Christ.
We don’t encounter the Church in a string of identical franchises,
but in a parish:
a unique and stable gathering of believers tied to a particular place.
The Church is a group of neighborhoods within the City of God:
she’s a community of Christ-centered communities;
she’s people reaching out to people.
Or…that’s what the Church is supposed to be.

Now, I don’t have a cure for what ails Malone
in the twenty-first century.
But I know that Jesus has given us a plan
that will renew his Church in every age.
We need to sink roots.
We need to really get to know one another—and him.
We need to make a commitment, to get involved.
We need—every single one of us—
to focus more on what I have to give than on what I have to gain.

Have I become a consumer Catholic?
Have I unwittingly fostered that mindset in my family?
And—if so—am I willing to buck the system and break that mold?
Let me warn you, though: it’s not easy.
All this close contact with other people
is bound to cause some suffering.
As St. Paul reminds us:
our only boast is the cross.
But in the grander scheme of things—in the face of eternity—
it’s rather a small price to pay.

If we hope to see this parish grow,
if we long to see it 
not only survive but thrive,
then we must leave behind 
the big city of retail religion
and make this a real, small town, 
community Church
to which people would want to return.
That’s where the harvest is abundant.
That’s where your labors 
are so urgently needed.
That’s where the Kingdom of God 
is so close at hand.

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