30th Sunday in Ordinary Time A

My job would be a lot easier if every rotten, lying, mean and angry person did not believe in God or did not profess a particular religion and if every good, kind, compassionate and happy person did belong to God and followed a religion.  Then all I would have to do is just say, “Look around!”

But we know that is not true.  We all know so many people who do not profess a common belief that are kind, caring and loving, especially to their neighbor and to the poor.  And to be honest, we all know that there are a couple of bad apples in our bushel basket.  I bring this up because in the Gospel Jesus says that the first and greatest commandment is that we, “love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.”  The second commandment is connected, and indeed like it:  “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  But it seems to me that many people are skipping step one and going to right to step two and quite successfully.

What we are talking about is the fastest growing religious group in America.  (Spoiler alert:  it is not the Catholic Church.)  They are the “nones” – those who claim no religious affiliation at all.  They usually describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious.”  They have built their world on a spirituality that they have named and owned for themselves.  And I get what is attractive about.  No one passes a collection basket around to support your own beliefs!  More importantly, they have an integral sense, a feeling that it all hangs together, that must be gratifying for their spirituality can match their values, ideology and politics.  Everything fits for everything is theirs.  And in this anti-institutional age, there is not bigger institution that the Church.  To be free of institution feels like freedom. And one is not bound to the pain and the stain when the institution fails as we endured when our Church failed to protect our young people as they should have.

But I believe there are five important advantages to being both spiritual and religious.  Six if you count my wanting to remain employed. The first is evident before us – community.  It is not possible to form community around beliefs that are simply your own thing.  When we form community, we know what we are about and why we are formed.  There is a spirit that brings us together.  And while there are certainly other ways to form community, there is nothing like the one that is formed around something ultimate; something from the heart of our lives where our souls are revealed and we promise to be there for both the good and the bad, the rejoicing and the tragic.  I met my best friends over thirty years ago at Chapel House at the University at Albany, now called the Interfaith Center, which is bizarrely threatened by the University.  We don’t talk about it much because it would be weird, but we know there is a reason we have stayed so close and mean so much to each other.  It is because God brought us together.

Second – there is what we are doing right now:  worship which is again precluded by not belonging.  We all have incredibly busy lives.  The beauty of worship is that for an hour our lives are not about our calendars and our agendas.  They are about something bigger. Worship enlarges our world which so increasingly becoming cramped and claustrophobic.  It is good that we can look up to something bigger than ourselves and be able to do it together; to spend some time on something not just important, but of ultimate value; something that is meant for the heart.  And that happens in any worship in any faith.  When we worship however, we celebrate that the God who became incarnate to live among us is still coming to us in this gathered community, in his word and in most intimately in the Eucharist.  In our world that values individuality, I believe we are craving the experience of knowing we are not alone.  Worship reminds us that we never are.

The third reason might seem contradictory for it is the opposite of one of the advantages of being a “none.”  I think it is good to have tension and conflict among your beliefs.   Do any of you have a problem with any position of the Catholic Church?  Don’t raise your hand.  And I won’t raise mine.  Yet, that tension has caused me to grow as I seek the wisdom of another way of looking at the Gospel, trying to see how others have come to a different conclusion based on the same material.  After all, how can we grow without stretching?  Like-minded people tend to be similar in background and concerns and can form a self-selecting group.  The very word catholic means universal; it means here comes everyone.  Diversity in people and thought is at the heart of true community.  Look at the different people Jesus gathered around him.  Besides,For the danger of only believing what you believe is that it limits God or any mystery.  We cannot know it all for the universe is unfathomable.  We must leave some space in our lives for the likelihood we are wrong.

Reason number four is the question of why.  When “religious and not spiritual” people express what they value, they usually say things like compassion, justice, forgiveness and love of neighbor.  I think to myself that sounds pretty familiar.  We are a society rooted in a Judeo-Christian tradition and our common values are at the very least related.  But my worry for my family and others is what happens after generations when we have become unmoored from the founder of those beliefs?  When someone says. “I don’t want to forgive; why should I?  Why should I care about the poor if I am not poor?  Why involve myself in someone else’s fight for justice?”  Without a foundation in Christ, these values all come down to a choice.  For us, there is no choice.  We must follow the Master.

And that brings me to number five.  We are not here because we share the same values or moral code.  .  We are here because we have had an experience, an encounter with Jesus Christ.  Ascribing to a certain doctrine does not make one a Christian.  We are formed by having a relationship with Jesus Christ.  Our God came to dwell among us in friendship, to show us a way and to save us here and then forever.  He intimately and completely loves us and I can’t imagine my life without him.  It has formed into the person I am and I find my greatest joy by growing closer to him.

I cannot emphasize enough that I am not casting aspersions on anyone.  I admire and love so many of these people.  Many of them are far better “Christians” than I am.  Nor do I blame them.  Jesus drew a line between love of God and love of neighbor.  We hardly ever do.  How often do you say I love God therefore I am serving at the Welcome table.  Or I love God therefore I am helping my neighbor.  Or I love God therefore I am speaking for the voiceless.  I ask you, if we do not draw the line, how do we expect anyone to see it?