2004—Second Sunday of Advent—A
CONVERSION: THE CALL OF AN UNMANAGEABLE GOD
I. There is a remarkable religious paradox within American culture today.
A. By any external standards such as religious practice, symbolism and professed belief, the United States is one of the two most religious nations among the major industrial powers - India being the other.
B. But at the same time among the intellectuals of the nation and among its professional elites in media and journalism, there is a disproportionate and pervasive skepticism about religious beliefs and religious practice. The statistics here are overwhelming.
C. At the basis of so much of this cynicism about religion lies the conviction: that what human beings call and worship as God, is really a human manufacture. Religion is an uneducated attempt to deal the demands of life and the terrors of death through projection and magic.
D. This religious critique has been with us for almost two centuries. It marks so many of the major thinkers of the 19 century: Feuerbach, Marx, Freud or Durkheim
E. Basically it maintains: "God is something you make up."
II. And before we rush to defend Christian faith, I wonder if we should not considered that there may be much truth in this critique.
A. I wonder if we do not live -- at a very deep level of our lives -- with the continual temptation to make God more manageable for our own needs -- manageable God -- a useful God - a comfortable God -- one that sees life pretty much as we do and to whom we can relate comfortably.
B. This is to remake God and His revelation in our own image.
C. But if this is followed out, what we end with is idolatry, a religious narcissism, and finally irrelevance and disbelief. We finally stop believing our own adjustments.
D. Because somewhere deep inside of us, we sense dishonesty and bad faith. We recognize in an unacknowledged way the nonexistence of this manageable God.
III. American culture as a whole conspires to strengthen our adjustments:
A. For years, we have felt the sense of fraud settle upon us as politicians invoke God in rhetorically useful ways.
B. We have watched media evangelists who speak to millions as if God were in their back pocket or who rev their audience up to fever pitch of emotions.
C. Can we not see among ourselves, American Catholics, the middle-classing of God, the somewhat distant chairman of the board, the mindlessly benevolent protection against our neurotic fears, the one who could never be very serious about such stark claims as the love of enemies or about such a catastrophe as damnation.
D. And the clergy themselves as pleasant enough, but slightly unreal, slightly removed from the realities of life.
IV. There is nothing Catholic that has not been tempted to adjust the Gospel to another form of the American way of life: Take one example the Catholic university.
1. Some fifty years ago, when I was a student, there was a Catholic university that - by reputations --did not admit African Americans, but almost every other week, you would hear an uncompromising sermon on chastity or purity to the point of boredom.
But if someone had had the courage to get up in that same pulpit and preach that discrimination against the African-Amercans was a rejection of Christ, it would have caused a sensation and a very angry reaction.
2. But now I wonder if we have not adjusted in the other direction. Commonplace in that same place are homilies and exhortations to racial and social justice -- and this is an obvious advance. But I wonder if it would not evoke a comparable sensation if a priest were to preach the Pauline doctrine that fornication and adultery and serious sins against chastity separate one from the kingdom of God?
3. Must we ourselves not ask honestly if we also are projecting a manageable God - one, whose demands and concerns are so coincident with drifts of American culture.
PART II. That Question makes the Gospel we have just read so important.
I. For we would be left to this plastic, this comfortably managed -- but finally unbelievable God, if the compassionate revelation of the Gospels did not challenge us to move beyond it.
A. For into all of this self-assurance comes in today's Gospel and with it John the Baptist appearing in the desert of Judea and calling out: "Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand."
B. the terrible figure of John the Baptist -- with the heroic voice calling out in the desert: a prophet in our wastelands or in the unreal city.
C. And the One whom we encounter through him is no easily managed God.
D. How often in our churches have we heard homilies that even faintly ring like John's?
"Even now, the ax is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree that is not fruitful will be cut down and thrown into the fire. [And so] I baptize you in water for the sake of your conversion." But the One who is coming will divide the wheat from the chaff.
II. "Conversion," "repentance," "reform of life": Do we hear those words very often?
A. It is hard -- it is irritating -- to hear these words in a world of a bourgeois morality that makes no searching demands, and that does not in any serious, searing way contradict our culture. It is very hard.
B. And yet these words come out of the compassion of God, the God Who sends the prophet that we may have a belief that is real, so that - in the words of Isaiah - the Church might become a signal of hope and peace for the nations.
C. For perhaps only the words of the prophet can save us from a meaningless life of religious management -- can call us beyond ourselves to a faith that is more than a dull formalism -- to a strong hope and challenge and a new sense of meaning.
III. For to us also is given John's demanding Advent word:
"Reform your lives! The kingdom of God is at hand! Prepare the way of the Lord [in your lives], make straight His paths."
A. What does this mean in your life? What does it mean in mine.
1. That call must mean something of cosmic importance.
2. But only each of us can answer that question for ourselves.
3. And we can only answer this question if we have heard it.
B. And we cannot say that we are priests, religious, Jesuits devout and militant Catholics -- because He calls the Sadducees and the Pharisees even as they were moving towards his baptism "a brood of vipers."
C. And we cannot say that we are Catholics and that we have heard this gospel a thousand times -- for "God can draw up children to Abraham out of these stones."
D. To all of these and to us, John demands: "Give evidence in your lives of conversion."
IV. What would such evidence be? The themes we have heard a thousand times -- what we just heard again from Paul writing to the Romans: "Accept one another as Christ has accepted you."
A. What is Paul asking from us? That we make room within our lives for the needs of others: the kindness, the compassion, the fairness, and the concern for others -- yes, and also the honesty, fidelity, and chastity with which we live our lives.
B. What has more power de facto in our lives: this endless call for Christian unconditional forgiveness and love for one another - to love those who hate us and do good to those who persecute -- or the histories we can dredge up of remembered injuries and slights?
C. But Paul urges this unrelenting compassion as we experience the defects, even the shameful defects and betrayal of others -- for God remains faithful to his promises to us.
D. Conversion has always meant a sacrifice of time and preference to the terrible needs of poverty and suffering . That is why Paul can speak of Christ as the servant of" others. But only each of us can say what this is to mean in our lives.
V. For conversion is the just opposite of the projection.
A. In projection and managing God, we subtly make God over in our image.
B. In conversion, we allow God to make us over in His image. -- we become increasingly the image of His Son.
VI. May God then visit us with his Spirit this Advent, converting our hearts and our lives and purifying us of all falseness, even as the winnowing-fan is in his hands. That we might prepare for His coming And that He might recognize us as his own.