12 Mar 2012
“‘I am the vine, you are the branches.’” (John 15:5) In the name …
Today the parishes of the National Catholic Church celebrate the 115th anniversary of our founding. We were, to be honest, a preposterous idea in 1897. Poor, formally uneducated, discriminated-against, working class people decided to organize a church in which they would be respected, in which they would share the sacred privilege of authority, and in which the church would be the humble servant of a gentle Saviour. They were tired of hearing of a vengeful God and the sadistic torments meted out by Him for the smallest of infractions. Their lives were difficult enough, filled with danger and disease, poverty and isolation, without being told that God was more of the same. Theirs was not just a new church building; theirs was going to be a new kind of church.
As you approach our first church in Scranton, Pennsylvania you first see a mosaic of Jesus Christ with his arms outstretched in a gesture of welcome and embrace. This is an important first message. For a people who were ostracized and ridiculed because of who they were and because of how they chose to worship, our reply was signified by that prominent mosaic of a welcoming Jesus. We returned to the often overshadowed original gospel message of a non-dogmatic, reforming preacher from Nazareth who came to challenge institution and to make believing in God personal again.
As you then come closer to the church building, as you walk up the front stairs, but before you actually enter the church, you will see a bronze plaque there dedicated to the lay people who organized our first parish. This denomination did not begin with Fr. Francis Hodur. It began with the lay people who were looking to build a new church. They are the ones who first stood-up to abusive clerical authority and said they would not take it any longer, who organized themselves into a functioning group that began to build their own church, and they are the ones who eventually turned to a sympathetic Fr. Francis Hodur and asked him to become their priest. Theirs are the names on that plaque. We began in the pew. We began among the people. This is why we are a democratic church.
These two symbols, the mosaic of the welcoming Jesus and the plaque honouring the lay leaders of our first parish, capture in simple form who we are as church and why we are here as church even now 115 years later. When we hear about religion in the news nowadays it is often judgmental and narrow-minded. For example, long before Rush Limbaugh made his insulting remarks about the female Georgetown University Law student, a woman who was speaking to an almost empty chamber about insurance coverage for contraception, a much larger and well-attended hearing was conducted. That hearing was chaired by Congressman Darrell Issa, and even though the very intelligent and articulate Sandra Fluke had been petitioning Georgetown University for three years on this very issue, even though she had been invited to speak, she was not allowed to be seated. Instead, the only ones who could testify about female contraception were men. The picture in the newspaper showed all men at the table, and in the foreground, elderly, celibate men – speaking as authorities on female contraception.
Religion can be kidnapped by outside forces and for their own purposes. The religious discussion taking place now among our political leaders is unimportant. The topics are trivial. A 2011 survey, for instance, shows that 99% of American women have used birth control at some point in their lives. The religious discussion on this topic has no impact, and yet it is being framed as an issue as important as religious freedom, a Constitutional right. Or you can look at it from a theological perspective, where it remains trivial. The opposition to contraception is based on a story taken out of context from Genesis. Onan was supposed to perpetuate his brother’s lineage after his brother died without an heir, but Onan realized that his own finances would be better served without a competing heir so he, in the words of the Bible, “spilled his semen on the ground.” (Gen. 38:9) This is not about contraception; this is about greed. If it has to be based on this story, and it is, religious arguments against contraception are biblically ungrounded.
This is an example of why a church democracy needs to be vibrant. It needs to have real power and authority. And it has to be an expression of people who know and live their faith in a consequential manner. Otherwise you end up having discussions about unimportant matters among leaders who are separated from the congregation’s spiritual and practical reality. Jesus says today that “I am the vine and you are the branches.” That’s a metaphor of a tangled, interwoven growth. This image is easily applied to the messiness of church democracy. All of us are interconnected to the vine and to each other. This is our imagery of church. Our cornerstone right here reads: “Of the people.”
And this populism gives the welcoming Jesus a better chance to speak. Kristin sent me a video from college this past week. She’s never done that before, but it is a cause that has motivated her (kony2012.com). It has huge moral implications. It speaks of critical subjects such as peace, justice, the protection of children, and the universal equality of people; and it frames morality as action. It has sparked worldwide interest among millions people who see this as a moral cause. This is an issue that would have also offended Jesus of Nazareth and compelled Him to action. It is a real religious issue of the Jesus of outstretched arms, but it is being led by activists not by churches. Our church has to care about real-world morality like we did 115 years ago when we stood up as and for the disenfranchised. We need to reunite morality and religion. We need to return to our founding ideals and to become enthusiastic again about being a people’s church. Religious posturing about trivial issues while ignoring real ones only exposes church to ridicule. So on our anniversary may the open-armed Jesus once again guide us so that religion may again inspire morality. In His name we pray. Amen. (+)
Fr. Randolph Calvo