Monday, June 27, 2016

Benedict Option, part I: Order - a sermon for 19 June 2016

Hosea 6:1-11
Romans 11:13-24
Luke 9:57-10:10

"He who does not have the Church as his mother, does not have God as his father."  St. Augustine of Hippo

Many of you have probably heard of the so-called “nuclear option” in the US Congress.  The “nuclear option” is defined as the most drastic or extreme response possible to a particular situation.  In WWII it was Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  In the Congress it is a parliamentary procedure that can be invoked when all other options seem unworkable.  Of course, the need to be so drastic is subjective according to whichever political party happens to hold the majority.  It is a way to stick it to the other guy.

The Benedict Option is the same idea but without the vindictive nature.  It is “an extreme response to a particular situation”, but what makes it seem so “extreme” is not the actual practice itself.  Rather, we would only see it as “extreme” because it demands complete obedience and humility before The Lord in His Church.  It requires that all else in our lives be placed secondary to our primary being and purpose, and it adheres to the biblical reality that we “cannot serve two masters” (Matthew 6:24).

“The primary purpose of Christian community life [whether in a monastery setting or in the Church] is to form Christians.  The Benedict Option can teach us to make every other goal in our lives secondary to serving The Lord.  Christianity is not simply a “worldview” or an add-on to our lives, [as it has come to be taught by the Church and practiced by church members].  Christianity must be our lives, or it is something less than Christianity.”  Rod Dreher, “The Benedict Option”, The American Conservative

In a manner of speaking, then, the Benedict Option is the “nuclear option” of the Western Church.  The more we understand it, the more we may come to realize just how far from our faithful witness we have drifted; that the primary purpose of our being – to form Christians - has been relegated to secondary or even incidental status, and our baptismal vows rendered void.  It is as when those who expressed a desire to follow Jesus but first wanted to take care of other things, and our Lord’s simple answer was: nope.  That’s not how this works.

Jesus was clearly unwilling to compromise, and yet somehow compromise has become the natural order of the Church.

St. Paul had very strong words for the Gentile believers in Rome when he wrote of the boundaries of The Lord’s patience.  That is, we can quite possibly drift so far off the holy grid that we may soon be “cut off” (Romans 11:22), assuming we are not already cut off, as in much of Church practice and practical living by which we claim to “know God” but we do not really “honor Him” (Romans 1:21).

This state of being leads us to a point at which we are given up “to a debased mind and to things that should not be done” (Romans 1:28).  Though St. Paul’s inference seems to be directed toward “that issue” which keeps haunting the Church, we must be willing to acknowledge there is much more we can do, have done, and still do to dishonor our God and Father; things that have come to be quite normal to us.  This is when we can honestly say we are CINO (Christian In Name Only); when we “honor The Lord with our lips while our hearts are far from Him” (Isaiah 29:13; Matthew 15:8).

So the Benedict Option seeks to radically change the course of our thinking and doing and being.  And the first order of our reorientation must be toward the “order of the Church”, but this “order” has nothing to do with the weekly bulletin or committee meetings or budgets.  Rather it speaks of how we order the very life of the Church itself to reorient ourselves to the Church’s primary purpose: “to form Christians”, to make disciples who are equipped to make disciples themselves.  The Church does not and must never exist to entertain nor to comfort those of us who are already a little too comfortable for our own good. 

Jesus said, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the Kingdom of God” (Luke 9:62).  That is, if we set ourselves on the work of the Kingdom and yet try to somehow make secular Christianity work for us, we are not “fit” for the Kingdom.  We are not ready; we are unprepared.  This can mean one of two things: we have either gone back to our old life, whatever it was; or we can acknowledge we still have a lot of work to do before we are “fit” or actually prepared for the Kingdom itself.

Jesus is defining a critical crossroads every believer faces at one time or another, and yet this passage has been taken so lightly by the contemporary Church to have been stripped of any real transformative meaning and power.  Think about what is happening in the Church today.  Fornicators, adulterers, gamblers, gossips, slanderers, homosexuals, drunks, addicts, and hoarders and lovers of money all claim to “know God”, all claim to have been “saved”; but few have a notion or even a concern about what it takes to truly “honor God”.  They testify of their salvation, almost proudly boasting of being a “sinner saved by grace”, but they never even try to “put their hand to the plow” for The Kingdom, having been convinced it is unnecessary and, consequently, missing the entire purpose of the Christian faith and the Church.

Now we can easily dismiss any of these by saying “they are not really saved”, and there may be some merit to this, but it is not for us to say. Such a dismissive and shallow statement fails to look more deeply into the life and the order of the Church – the Christian community - that has made such a narrow mindset and state of being possible.  “Don’t judge me” has become the favored defense of these who refuse to repent, and the Church has turned a blind eye to that “leaven” which threatens – and has largely already infected – the entire Body.

What does this mean to us who can clearly see “others” so narrowly engaged but cannot – or will not – see the complicity in ourselves? 

The first thing we must do is to acknowledge the reality of The Lord.  Not to simply say He exists (which is intellect, not faith), but to fully understand His Holy Nature revealed in His Law, His prophets, AND His Messiah.  Looking to the prophet Hosea – as the other prophets – we see a God whose arms are always open to the truly repentant; but we also encounter that same God who offers no excuses even to His own chosen people, and certainly not to those who try to live on both sides of the fence, working diligently to prove we CAN “serve two masters” in spite of Jesus’ direct words to the contrary. 

The Lord’s judgment is harsh and yet just – and is coming.  Those who will find favor with The Lord fully repent; that is, they do not merely apologize for their mistakes and hope for the best.  They make a complete determination to radically change their behavior and the trajectory of their lives.  They not only pray for mercy; they actively engage in acts of contrition and mercy, “bearing fruit worthy of repentance” as The Baptizer insisted upon, making right their many wrongs especially in the lives of those whom they have deliberately harmed.

Truly penitent persons do not try to justify their sins nor does our Holy Father justify us in our sins.  We must not take salvation to be so extremely personal that we fail to understand our place in the greater Christian community, to recognize, embrace, and then use our particular spiritual gifts for the sake of the Church’s whole and holy purpose.  It is how we learn to “love The Lord our God with everything we have and with every fiber of who we are” so we are then enabled to “love our neighbors as ourselves”. 

The Spirit of the Living God is our Teacher and our Guide.  It is only in this Reality  we are able to live fully into the ordered life of the Church toward its primary purpose of making, teaching, and then training disciples as we grow in discipleship ourselves; according to our fullest desire to truly transform ourselves into that Divine Image in which we are created.

There is a lot of angst and anxiety, fear and anger about the direction of this nation; but if we truly desire to transform this nation, we must first transform the Church to be the community we are called to be.  Not a “club” in which we get to make up our own rules and do as we please, but a living, breathing, disciple-making organism alive in the Spirit of our Holy Father to do His Will.  The Benedict Option drives us to it because St. Benedict knew our God requires it.  And in Benedict’s time, the Church was falling apart much like today.

We are nothing without the fullness and the wholeness of the Church, but the Church cannot be the true Body of Christ without devoted disciples of Christ, diligent and active members dedicated to Christian excellence in service to our God and to one another.  Anything less is something less than Christianity, unfit for the Kingdom of God.  Amen.

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