22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time B
Jesus answers the question what defiles us. What makes something designed to be good to produce something bad and sometimes even rotten? How does it happen with our bodies, the Law or the church? I have been spending a lot of time thinking about that question in the last couple of weeks as the crisis in our church had deepened. However complicit I might be as a member of the clergy, I believe I share your anger and frustration. And those feelings are not abstract or theoretical. They are close, personal and intimate. It feels like when you have been hurt by someone or something you love. And there is nothing that wounds quite as deeply than being hurt by love. It is a different experience when it is love. We feel a sense of betrayal. We recognize the potential and all the good that has occurred and it makes the pain more acute, more shocking. And what we love is meant to represent holiness, the highest good, it is even more horrifying.
What has been of comfort to me though are the readings we have heard over the last few weeks. They seem to be speaking directly to our current situation. But perhaps that is always how the word of God works, hitting us at sharp angles when we need it most. Jesus as a pious Jew knew the glory of religion of course, but was just as aware of its pitfalls. The scribes and Pharisees point out that the followers of Jesus are not strictly observing the “tradition of the elders.” But Jesus knew the law was meant to reflect what was happening interiorly. When the emphasis is on the external, people care more about appearance and perception than a conversion of heart. After all, you could keep every rule and still be mired in the muck that defiles.
It reminds me of the church’s problems. I don’t think our leaders who failed by and large were evil men protecting and promoting evil people. But they were concerned about buttressing the status and structure of the church more than protecting those who were grievously abused. George Weigel wrote a telling article reminding us that this is not a new crisis in the church; it is the only crisis the church ever faces. It happens whenever the church focuses on itself and not on Jesus Christ. The church is meant to be the vessel of Christ, not the object of faith. Then the church is like the Pharisee who can get everything “right” and fail in love and justice.
There are times when I wonder whether we should even bother being an evangelizing parish. How can we share the good news when all we ever hear is bad news? But we are baptized. Within each of us is an instilled hope and an ever present light. I believe this is the beginning of the new evangelization. You see, the enemy of evangelization is not bad headlines, but maintenance. When the church is turned inward, concerned more about its place than its mission, it becomes defensive, isolated and arrogant. But that church has failed. What if we were stripped of our power and pretense – what would be left? Just the works of mercy, the “pure religion” St. James speaks of that takes care of widows and orphans, the most vulnerable. What would be left? The word of God that still has the ability to sear us and the sacraments where Jesus still comes to us. What would be left? Nothing but the Gospel, nothing but Christ. It would be a new church.
Dream with me of this new church. What if we did not talk about suffering, but were willing to suffer? What if we did not just offer penance, but were penitential? What if we did not just preach mercy, but begged for it? What if we surrendered our status but never surrendered an inch on justice? What if we welcomed survivors, listened to them and let them show us a new way? What if the shepherds trusted the sheep and the sheep could in turn trust the shepherds? What if we were truly radical, meaning rooted, only in the Gospel and what if our only measure of success was how faithful we were to the Gospel? What if this Church was truly poor, truly holy, truly open and truly Christ’s?
To echo the words of Bishop Scharfenberger, don’t give up. As we always do with our loved ones who have hurt us, don’t give up. Remember and celebrate all the good we do, still support the work that changes lives every day and makes Christ present in the lives of hundreds of millions of people. Don’t give up, but help transform us. Join us on September 13th as we host listening sessions and share suggestions as to what we should do now. Don’t give up, but be the reason we change. Make us stronger. Make us accountable. Make us better.

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