18 Nov 2012
“The Word of God [is] at work within you who believe.” (1 Thess. 2:13)
In the name …
Downstairs on the parish hall bulletin board is a flier looking for volunteers to participate in a test over at UMass. I went this past Wednesday. They’re looking for people 45 and older so that they can study how hearing changes with age and how this may then affect cognitive functions like memory and speech perception. For the hearing test they put you in this sound-proof room and send tone signals through ear phones. You’re supposed to click a button every time you hear one sounded. After the test I was told that I was clicking the button even when no tone was being sounded at all. I told the student who was giving me the test that after wearing the earphones for a while I started getting a ringing in my ears. I couldn’t tell the difference between the sounds she was making on her little machine and the ones I was making in my head.
Today in the Eastern Diocese we celebrate Word of God Sunday. It’s a celebration of what God is saying to us even now rather than only what we are willing to hear. On this day we focus on a sacrament that is found only in our church. Back at the Second General Synod of 1909 the clergy and lay delegates voted to declare the Word of God Heard and Preached a sacrament. That was back in the day when we were brave enough to be different, to walk on new spiritual paths. We named a new sacrament! The sacraments weren’t declared by Jesus. They’re not even defined in the Bible. But in the tradition of the church the seven sacraments have still been around for a very long time. But they are a tradition of the church. They are defined by the church. And so in 1909 our 12 year old church added the Sacrament of the Word of God Heard and Preached. We were continuing in the tradition of the sacraments as being defined by the church and for the church. We didn’t look around to see what others were doing. We didn’t ask how others would react. This was a sacrament created by us and for us. This is one of the reasons why I think it’s a bit disingenuous when I hear that we can’t continue to be innovative as church because we have to wait for everyone else to act along with us. We created a sacrament! We changed a thousand-plus years of tradition! We weren’t imitators. We were innovators.
We weren’t acting rashly or frivolously when we named this sacrament. It wasn’t named just to be different. It was named for a purpose, and it was created with a great deal of respect for the biblical example of Jesus and the earliest church. We have no examples of Jesus baptizing [cf. Jn 4:1-2], confirming, marrying or ordaining, but the Gospels are full of Jesus preaching. In Mark’s Gospel, the risen Jesus actually says to the disciples, “‘Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation. The one who believes and is baptized will be saved.’” (16:15) In this selection, it is the Word that is Christ’s first presence in a person’s life. Baptism actually follows the Word of God. The Word of God is the first Christian sacrament.
This divine power behind the proclamation of the Word is emphasized throughout the book of the Acts of the Apostles, which is the story of the earliest church after the time of Jesus. Once the Holy Spirit descends upon the earliest church on Pentecost, the first sign of inspiration is the proclamation, the way it is preached and the way it is heard. The church is now doing what Jesus did – and it’s the Word of God! Both the ones proclaiming the message and the ones hearing it are empowered by the Holy Spirit. It was the Word that was the first encounter between Christ and so many in the crowd. At another time the church prayed for boldness to be able to preach fearlessly in the face of persecution, and we then read in Acts, “When they had prayed the place in which they were gathered together was shaken; and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the Word of God with boldness.” (4:31) Sacraments convey the real presence of Christ. The earliest church would have no argument with the statement that the Word of God carried with it Christ’s presence, a presence shared by both the proclaimer and the listener. This is why I always amend the final prayers of most Masses. In those prayers as written we thank God for being able to receive the Eucharist, but I add for also being able to receive the Word of God.
In 1909 our church reaffirmed this presence and power in the Word of God when we named it a sacrament. And it’s just possible that this could only have come about in a church like ours. As a Catholic body we revere the sacraments as God’s greatest and most powerful gifts to us. And as a democratic church we respect the voice of each and every member of the church. A docile congregation is not a National Catholic congregation. As you walk into this building one of the first messages you encounter is etched into the glass of the sanctuary doors. The official motto of our church is “Truth, Work and Struggle.” And at the center of the symbol of our church is the wide open Bible. Progress, movement, change is part of who we are and why we are here as church. And this whole process of spiritual and religious evolution is based on that wide open Bible. In the opening prayer of today’s Mass I read the words from the Epistle to the Hebrews that “the Word of God is living.” Mary Ellen read the words that “the Word of God [is] at work within you who believe.” The Word of God is never stagnant. It changes with each generation, with each pronouncement. To be faithful to the Word of God is to realize that it is living, working, changing.
It is our duty as church to make ourselves open to this living, active Word of God. It is our responsibility, as it says in today’s Gospel, to be the good soil that receives the Word so that it may produce a harvest for us and for others. And to be able to do this we have to be able to distinguish between what the Word of God is trying to say to us and what we’re only willing for it to say to us. It’s like the hearing test I took at UMass. It’s not always easy to distinguish the real sounds from the ones that are only in our own heads. To hear the living Word of God requires a lived faith. For the Word of God to work within us we have to work at our faith. God is still speaking to the world. May we be prepared and willing to listen. May we let His living, active, changing Word guide us as church and Christians. It is for this that we pray this Word of God Sunday, in Christ’s name. Amen. (+)
Fr. Randolph Calvo