September 12, 2010
The Fifteenth Sunday after Trinity
(Nativity of Our Lady)
Very briefly, sense the Nativity of Mary’s feast day landed on Tuesday, I wanted to take a moment to give us moment of reflection on her. I debated for some time this week whether to celebrate her day or to celebrate a day with a higher octive in our Liberal Catholic Rite that we use, by celebrating a day of devotion to the Holy Spirit. I chose to make the prominent celebration that of the Holy Spirit. We all know that God, who created us, create Mary as well, and that she would be perfectly happy sharing the day with the Holy Spirit. In modern time, most churches simply skip her feast, because it landed on a weekday.
The Feast of the Birth of the Blessed Virgin Mary has been celebrated in the Church at least since the 8th Century. The Church's calendar observes the birthdays of only two saints: Saint John the Baptist (June 24), and Mary, Mother of Jesus.
John the Baptist is considered especially sanctified even before his birth. His birth to Elizabeth and Zachariah is foretold in the first chapter of Luke, and it is also recorded that Elizabeth felt the infant John "leap in her womb" when Mary approached her soon after the Annunciation.
The birth of Mary was also miraculous. She was conceived without sin as a special grace because God had selected her to become the mother of His Son (the feast of her Immaculate Conception is celebrated on December 8). The dogma of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary, though generally believed throughout the Church for many centuries, was formally declared by Pope Pius IX in 1854.
There is nothing contained in Scripture about the birth of Mary or her parentage, though Joseph's lineage is given in the first chapter of the Gospel of Matthew. The names of Mary's parents, Joachim and Anna, appear in the apocryphal "Gospel of James", a book dating from the 2nd Century AD, not part of the authentic canon of Scripture. According to this account, Joachim and Anna were also beyond the years of child-bearing, but prayed and fasted that God would grant their desire for a child.
In celebrating the nativity of Mary, Christians anticipate the Incarnation and birth of her Divine Son, and give honor to the mother of Our Lord and Savior.
“What’s in it for me?” “I don’t need to go to Mass to get close to God.” “I had a bad experience with the Church.” “I don’t get anything out of Mass.” I don’t have the time.” “I’m a sinner. I don’t deserve to be at Mass.” Hmmmm
An old cartoon from the pen of Joe McKeever shows a lakefront shop named Anglin’ Sam’s that rents rowboats labeled “Little Green Chapels.” Out front, Anglin’ Sam himself is holding one of his green rowboats upright, with its stern resting on the ground and its bow pointed toward the sky. In that position, the boat does look a bit like the arch of a chapel, and Sam is explaining to a potential customer that the boats are “for those who prefer to do their worshiping on the lake.”
The cartoon, of course, is a potshot at the explanations people sometimes give for spending Sunday morning fishing, golfing, going out for a leisurely breakfast or even sleeping in instead of attending church. The heart of that argument is “I don’t need to go to church because I can worship God by myself.” (Translation: “Who needs to get up, get dressed, drive in, be harangued and then be asked to pay for the experience?”) Pastors typically respond to such explanations as if they are excuses or rationalizations. We point out, for example, that while it’s true you can worship God alone, most people who make that argument, don’t actually spend their alone time worshiping. When they’re climbing a mountain, walking on a golf course, sitting by a stream or lying home in bed, chances are pretty good they aren’t thinking about God at all. And even if they are, we all know, it isn’t quite the same. In fact, all arguments about why you should attend church have validity. The problem is that they sometimes have an undertone of either desperation or ambition. We pastors have a vested interest in not only the survival of the churches we serve but also their growth. In that case (and that is the case in many places across America today) our arguments about why people should attend church can sound self-serving. But are they really? Both worrying about survival and having the ambition to lead a growing congregation might make us sympathetic to the chaplain who accompanied a volunteer militia led by Benjamin Franklin back in 1756. To defend the Pennsylvania colony against Indian attacks, Franklin led his recruits in to the building of a fort in the Blue Mountain region. Once established inside the wall, the chaplain — “a zealous Presbyterian,” as Franklin called him in his autobiography — complained that few of the men were showing up for his worship services. Franklin, ever the practical man, solved that problem by putting the chaplain in charge of the daily ration of rum. Franklin told the preacher, “It is, perhaps, below the dignity of your profession to act as steward of the rum, but if you were only to distribute it out after prayers, you would have them all about you.” The chaplain accepted that duty, and Franklin reports that thereafter, “never were prayers more generally and more punctually attended.” That solved the attendance problem, but we might wonder just how much good those prayers did the soldiers under the circumstances. It’s better to remember that we all benefit from participation in church life. A faith community provides instruction, support, feedback and accountability. It brings order to our lives. Attending worship is an important way of putting the events of our lives in helpful perspective. In support of the benefits argument, the preacher might trot out that hoary old illustration about the longtime church member who had always attended regularly but then suddenly stopped coming. After a few weeks, the pastor decided he’d better make a visit. He went to the man’s home and found him alone, sitting in front of a blazing fire. The parishioner invited the pastor in and directed him to a comfortable chair near the fire. After an initial greeting, the two sat in silence, watching the roaring fire dance over the logs. Then the pastor took the fire tongs and picked up a brightly burning ember, which he then placed to one side of the hearth by itself. That lone ember’s flame began to flicker and eventually died. Soon it was a cold, gray coal, with no life or warmth whatsoever. Then the pastor picked up that coal with the tongs, and placed it back into the middle of the fire. Within seconds, it began to glow, with light and warmth, ignited by the flames around it. As the pastor rose to leave, the parishioner said, “Thank you for the sermon, Pastor. I’ll be back in church next Sunday.” Who knows if that incident ever really happened, but the truth it presents is plain enough: Our individual faith gives off more light and warmth when kindred believers support it. Someone once asked a woman who faithfully attended church why she did so. Her only response was “because God said so.” For her, that settled it, but actually, it isn’t easy to make that argument from the Bible. Nowhere in Scripture does God say, “Go to church every Sunday.” Granted, the Bible has many texts in which God tells the Israelites to worship him. Consider these: ~ In 2 Kings 17:35-36, God says: “You shall not worship other gods or bow yourselves to them or serve them or sacrifice to them, but you shall worship the Lord, who brought you out of the land of Egypt with great power and with an outstretched arm; you shall bow yourselves to him, and to him you shall sacrifice.” But those verses are really talking about the ancient sacrificial system, which was something different from how we worship God in church. ~ In the fourth commandment, God said, “Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy,” but Sabbath-keeping is something larger than attendance at a public worship service. It is the devotion of a whole day every week to God and the life of the spirit. It includes lifestyle changes for that day and special family practices designed to remind one of one’s covenant with God. But the gospels document Jesus as one who sometimes broke the Sabbath rules, doing such things as healing people on that day. As he put it, “The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). ~ If we count Sunday as the Christian equivalent of the Jewish Sabbath, there are important examples in the Bible for us about attending worship. Luke tells us it was Jesus’ custom to go to the synagogue on the Sabbath day (Luke 4:16), and Acts reports that Paul had a similar custom (Acts 17:2). ~ Some of the first members of the early church apparently worshiped daily. Acts reports, “Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple ... praising God ...” (Acts 2:46-47). ~ The closest reference to a command to attend Christian worship comes not from God but from the writer to the Hebrews, who said, “And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another ... ” (Hebrews 10:24-25). Taken together, all those things give us a biblical basis for attending church, but none quite in the way that woman put it with her “because God said so” response.
Yet she likely had it right. And maybe the best place to see that is from a text not usually thought of as referring to church attendance: Jesus’ parable of the lost sheep in today’s gospel lectionary reading. The shepherd has 100 sheep, but when one wanders off, the shepherd leaves the 99 (presumably somewhere safe), and searches for the lost one until he finds it. And when he does, he brings it back to the flock and then asks his friends and neighbors to rejoice with him. According to the text, Jesus told this parable in response to some Pharisees and scribes who were grumbling because Jesus was welcoming known sinners to listen to him. In fact, he was even eating with them. So in the parable, the shepherd can be viewed as a stand-in for Jesus. And what does he do when the sheep wanders off? He hunts it down and brings it back to the flock. While finding the sheep was of some benefit to the shepherd, it was of even more benefit to the sheep, which, had it stayed apart from the flock, probably would have become a mutton-chop dinner for a wolf or lion. Can we draw from this parable something of God’s perspective on our church attendance? Perhaps the main reason to be present in the flock that is the church is simply because that’s the place to which the Divine Shepherd drags wandering sheep. In the parable, the shepherd does nothing for the sheep beyond bringing it back to the flock. Of course, the sheep is only an animal, so the shepherd cannot seek a commitment from the ovine creature that it will obey the shepherd henceforth and not wander off again. But it’s a parable, and so if the wayward sheep represents sinners, there are human applications. Yet the only one Jesus makes is that the return of the sheep to the flock qualifies as “repentance.” This is where today’s Gospel reading continues in the perennial story of the Prodigal Son. And maybe that’s the point. Although we can enumerate benefits to our faith from being in church, the main reason for being here isn’t for the benefits but because it’s where God wants us to be. Yes, shepherds do go out after strays, but most of the work shepherds do with sheep is while they’re in the flock, and most congregational flocks are nourishing locations where God can work with us. We can talk about why we should attend church in terms of the church’s survival or of the benefits we receive from being there, but it’s enough to notice that when we wander off and Jesus comes looking for us, he will likely push us toward a flock, toward a community, toward a place of safety, sustenance and nurture. And when we get there, there will be joy in heaven. “Just so, I tell you,” said Jesus, “there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.”
However, it is not as easily said as that. Nor are you getting off the hook that easy. For three additional weeks, with maybe a brief hiatus for Michaelmass, we shall explore this topic. I have oodles of information to throw at you, so don’t even think you will get a break with a short sermon!
Seriously though, we shall continue this exploration for three additional weeks. We shall explore some sound reasoning’s for why we should attend church. Obviously, I hope those who attend Mass on Sunday’s will benefit from it. However, given we also have a presence on the web, I hope that it may benefit those who are not attending with us each Sunday, or any service on Sunday’s for that matter; so as hopefully we can all appreciate more the positive benefits to genuine worship on Sundays. And if, as we go along, I touch a nerve or a heart, I hope it will bring greater appreciation and devotion to our Blessed Lord.
God Love You +
+ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens
Pastor – St. Francis Universal Catholic Church
San Diego, Ca.