…I attended Mass at a church in a town located along the St. Croix River in western Wisconsin. I was on a trip to meet various Catholic Workers in the upper midwestern United States. As advocates I was overwhelmed by what they were sacrificing for the sake of doing God’s work of love and peace and justice in their communities and in their nation and in the world.
And then I went to Mass. Four years ago. Yesterday. Seven hundred miles away from my home.
The car in which I arrived there was in tatters and full of rust. We were surrounded by new cars and pickup trucks. The church was packed. Walking up to the church my companion and I were button holed by a young man hawking a Catholic organization. We were pressed hard to join it, and told that it would secure our spiritual lives, that it would give us brothers and purpose, and that we would strengthen the church by doing so. We listened politely, tried to break away several times, thanked him again, and were saved by the fact that Mass was starting. Not once were we asked about who we were. We were dishonoured as people.
With that background Mass started. There was a full choir and a grand procession. We were seated in the back since that was the only seating left. We sat among the parents with infants and young children…a section assigned to them. Squirming. Crying. It was grand. Real life!
And the reading for the day four years ago was the same as it was yesterday:
Sell everything you own and give the proceeds to the poor and you will have reward in heaven.
It was the story of the rich young ruler who had striven so hard throughout his life to follow precepts, but whose heart and life was compromised by idolatry – they are connected ya know. And I eagerly awaited the homily. Okay, folks, take out your credit cards and put them in the offering! Would the priest dare say such a thing? Having been clergy for thirty years I doubted it. Nor did he disappoint me. According to the pastor it was not the actual sacrifice which pleased God, instead it was our desire to please God which pleased God. So actual acts of sacrifice were not needed in the end. The gospel message was not proclaimed. Lives were not changed. Not four years ago. Not yesterday with the reading of the same text and the followup in my home church.
It’s an incredibly simple thing to read scripture simply. But the simple reading of this text – like so much of what Jesus taught – is both unpalatable to unredeemed people and simultaneously unable to redeem people if it is not simply proclaimed.
I asked a friend of mine some years ago who grew up in the Catholic church and who uses birth control how he could do such a thing when it is in direct conflict with the teaching of the church? He responded that not all priests taught the same on it and when some priest or other would be more strict on it, that he would just stay away until a new priest came who was more in line with what he thought and the praise of modern society. I do not write this to pick on Catholics though. I found the same to be true in every church that I served as clergy as well. There is idolatry everywhere in the church. People are fickle. And the financial success of the church-as-corporate is directly related to a cleric’s ability to make the gospel palatable to the locals who pay the bills and his salary and the diocese. In fact, if a pastor has not believed these words themselves, that is, if they have not lived these words – sell everything you have – then how can you expect them to teach and show others how to do the same? Bu they have not. Their heart is somewhere else. You cannot serve God and money. If the church is full of inveterate self-interested people it is because the church is full of fat-cat clerics…pastors, superintendents, priests, bishops. At least Pope Francis got that one right, that one of the greatest problems in the church today is clericalism.
Yesterday after Mass I drove to a local lake in a nearby provincial forest. I had hoped to see the last open water for the next five months. I was too late. This far north even the slightest elevation has significant impact on the weather. Whereas it had been barren ground at home and the ponds still unfrozen, twenty miles away and eight hundred feet higher there was a foot of snow and a half inch of ice on the lake. I stood at its edge and watched a family of four otters running across the ice and sliding into a small patch of open water, scramble out, and do it all over again. You can see them a quarter mile away in the video if you watch closely (watch in full size on Vimeo to see them clearly).
I watched them for a long time. And I wondered then as I did most of my life why people who profess to follow God are virtually universally so callous to the words of God that could bring so much joy to their own lives as they serve others, even as these animals so naturally brought joy to their own simply by being who God made them to be? I can name why. I have been taught to analyze why. I was charged with the task of doing so in the church. And unlike most other clergy whom I have met, I did so. But in the end I realized that there was this inertia that would always work as a counterweight to the gospel when it comes to people’s actual lives. I did not leave ministry out of spite. I left ministry because no one was interested in dying to themselves and living to God. Not really. It was a waste of my life.
Today I celebrate the change in this man Romero who was officially made a saint yesterday. He started out as a dispassionate cleric, but managed to actually hear the gospel, and who somehow took a first step of action to live out the gospel, which led to another step, and then another, and then to his ultimate martyrdom, because he pissed off so many whose lifestyles were threatened by the love of God for all people. And I wonder, where are God’s people today? Where are the people who do more than go to church, and sit in the pews, and are taught to justify their lack of faith? Where are the ones who see life differently than getting up and going to job to see to their own desire for comfort? Where are the people who see the poor and needy through God’s eyes and will not rest until their own lives are burned out in serving these others? Where are the ones who see through the social order built by principalities to serve their own needs and who only give lip service and dredges to those who they keep in servitude to them? Why don’t people see this?
Yesterday, watching those animals I simply found myself asking, When the Son of Man returns, will he find faith on the earth?
I think that the otters know.