HOMILY at the 9h and 10h30 MASSES for the FIRST SUNDAY after TRINITY (A) 201
There is a book which is causing something of a storm in the United States at present. It’s called the Benedict Option and in it the author, Rod Dreher, paints an apocalyptic picture of life in the States. He suggests that things there are now so inimical to Christianity that there is only one option left – hence the title, The Benedict Option, though it is a misnomer. By that, he means that the liberal agenda has so overtaken society and its ethics that true Christians have no other option than to withdraw from the world and live in holy huddles, in separated communities.
Sadly, this week, the leader of United Kingdom Liberal Democrats, Tim Farron, has resigned. He has taken this step because, he said, to be a political leader – especially of a progressive, liberal party in 2017 – and to live as a committed Christian, to hold faithfully to the Bible’s teaching, has felt impossible for him. Clearly other Christians in politics, including the UK Prime Minister, would not agree with that.
How much in this he has been influenced by the senior party officials who persuaded him to stand down after a disappointing election result, and how much he has been influenced by the Benedict Option thinking is not clear. But there is a frightening similarity between these two ways of thinking.
Frightening, because the Benedict Option is catastrophically misguided and, I believe, about as far away from S. Benedict as it might be possible to be, despite Dreher’s book being acclaimed in the US as the most important theological book of the decade. In reality, it is a complete hotchpotch of ideas culled, in part from the rule of S. Benedict and taken completely out of context, and from a whole lot of other disparate sources, all thrown together and laced with heavy seasoning of Dreher’s very considerable obsession with sex. Or rather his obsession against it, which probably amounts to the same thing. Significantly, he and his wife were initially converts from Methodism to Roman Catholicism, from which they moved on (disgusted by sex abuse scandals) to Eastern Orthodoxy. Now, his solution for Christian people is complete withdrawal. Keep your hands clean. Get out of society. The title of his book comes from the moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre’s famous work After Virtue, the last sentence of which looks for a new S. Benedict to keep alight an ethical and spiritual framework for life in community. I have no problem with that. It seems to me that this is one very clear aspect of the calling of the whole Church. But I do have a problem about withdrawing from society. Benedict’s Rule was indeed for those consecrated in a particular way for community life. But community within the wider community, a sign to remind rather than an alternative life.
Now today’s readings at the Eucharist are about our calling. They include the conditions of service for God’s people, and we might see support here for the idea of withdrawal! After all, the first thing that we see is how radically opposite is the business of God’s call and service of him from the realm of achievement, returns on investment and efficiency savings that have become such determining forces in our Western culture today.
Let’s look at today’s first reading, for example. God calling the Old Testament people of Israel to be his own people. Reiterating his Covenant with them – a Covenant which has been established and which meant that the people were carried on eagle’s wings out of the grasp of the Egyptians and now are about to be settled in a land of full of promise. A Covenant of Salvation. Now it is clear that the people of Israel were not a large nation, nor a particularly strong one from the viewpoint of international politics of the time. Nor, for that matter, were they particularly faithful or efficient. The experience of the desert years was one of continual wandering, including wandering from God and moaning about the leadership of Moses. Yet, for whatever reason, God chooses them to be, out of all the nations, his very own. And they are to be a kingdom of priests, a consecrated nation. Not because of any natural strengths, abilities or virtue of themselves, but simply because God chooses them. And through them, through all their backsliding, all their waywardness, all their flaws and faults, as well as through their moments of faith and hope and love, God will show himself to the world. Ultimately as Christians, we believe that that love and power of God will be shown through the offspring of one chosen from among that race, Mary the Mother of Jesus. Again, not chosen because she was powerful, or from the best tribe, or from the right background, or because she always did the right thing. But rather because God chooses the weak and the downtrodden, the little people of our world to show us his glory, and to bring about great things beyond our imagining. Not by withdrawing from life, but by living in the midst and being ready to live with ambiguities, difficulties and the messiness of ordinary existence.
That message is continued in today’s Gospel reading. That includes something about the employment conditions of God’s people! And they would make the average Union leader pull out his hair! You received without charge, give without charge! But that’s not really the point. Let’s look at what’s going on here. First, Jesus sees the need. Matthew’s words about the crowds for whom the Lord has pity are not that they were “harassed and helpless” as it appears in the NRSV and certainly not because they fainted, and were scattered abroad as in the King James version, but rather because they were “mangled and cast down” – like sheep who had been ravaged by wild animals. And he put this forcibly to the disciples – the harvest is rich but the labourers are few. If you saw a field of corn ready to be harvested but no one to do the job, what would you do? Wait for the right person to come? No, of course not. So immediately after exhorting them to prayer, prayer which unlocks the inner potential of us all to respond faithfully to God’s call, Jesus tells the twelve what they must do. They are to proclaim the Kingdom of God – and make it real for those to whom they go. And they are to take no account in this for their own well-being or needs – those needs will be met. They are sent out, not because they have really understood all Jesus’ teaching, or all that he was about. They are not sent out because they are shining examples of sanctity, either. One of them was to betray Jesus to death. They are sent out simply because they are the ones who happen to be there, and because God has chosen them. Chosen them to be, just as Israel was of old, those through whom God’s glory can shine. Shine through weakness, human frailty, doubt and sin, forgiven, reconciled, raised up, as well as through the high moments of faith, confidence and joy in the Gospel they go out to proclaim. They are sent out into the world around not told to withdraw from society. And – despite the wringing of hands of people like Dreher – I am quite sure that first century Palestine was every bit as ambiguous, difficult and messy as twenty first century America. And even more dangerous!
The disciples are sent out because they are empowered. Empowered, ultimately, by that knowledge of which S. Paul speaks in today’s reading from the letter to the Church at Rome. It is the knowledge that, in his words, whilst we were still sinners God loves us. For each and every one of us, God has his purpose. And purpose is so important in our understanding of the faith, and indeed, in our understanding of ourselves, too. Each and every one of us has a purpose which arises out of God’s love for us. His calling of us is sheer free gift, not merited by anything special about us, but just coming out of his infinite love for each and every one of us. And see what S. Paul is saying here. When we go for a job interview, we arm ourselves with all our achievements, all our abilities, all our acumen for the post that we seek. Because that’s what a potential employer would be looking for – the ability to do the job, to achieve results, to be efficient. But Paul contrasts that kind of way of thinking with God’s way. Whilst we were yet sinners he says God loved us and died for us. It’s just like an employer saying I don’t care what experience you have, what your skills are, what you can bring to this job – apart from yourself.
And this is about all of us. Each and every one discovering her or his vocation, calling. Our calling by God to a unique purpose, arising out of his gratuitous love for us. No matter how good or bad we may think we are, we are, each and every one of us, called. Called to be what exactly? Called to be ministers of God’s Kingdom, priests of the new creation. Not in a “Churchy” sense, or in an ordained sense. But in the sense of being ready to serve Christ our Lord in all the situations of our lives – seeing him and serving him in one another, and above all, worshipping him. We should not worry that our numbers are few – did not our Lord warn the twelve of the same? The labourers are few, but the harvest is great. Pray then, yes, pray. But remember that true prayer opens the heart to active service. Opens our hearts and our eyes to see things differently. And it will surprise us just what God calls us to do, but above all, what God calls us to be. God calls us to be his people – and through that people he will do great things, however unpromising we may think we are. God promises that the people of his Covenant will be a blessing to all. That, above all, is our calling. To be a people through whom God brings blessing. A people called to live by Gospel truth, empowered by the Holy Spirit, not being afraid to face the ambiguities and mess of modern life. And through all of that, in all of that, to bring God’s blessing, light and above all, his salvation. For that is the great desire in God’s heart, that is the motive of his continual Covenant with creation. And it is a desire that all that is may find that salvation. Not just the holy few who withdraw from the world.