Are you alive, dormant or dead?
A Homily for the Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Readings: Isaiah 58:7-10 1 Corinthians 2:1-5 Matthew 5:13-16
You never know what kids know, do you? I am sure that there are educational benchmarks for each grade in primary school. A kindergartener should already be able to name colors. A first grader has been introduced to addition. It is the life-stuff that is so slippery. Who can say when a child learns sarcasm? And when do they know that a truth is being withheld from them?
I was walking with a first grade student. We were on our way back to school. As we passed the rose garden, she said, “Your roses are dead.” She may have already learned the art of small talk—that’s just it. When does a child learn this? She had every reason to search for a change of subject.
She had been brought to the rectory for what, in Catholic primary schools, is the nuclear option of student discipline: the proverbial “talk with Father.” Although, here at Saint Joseph School, it is quite like my mother saying to the small child I once was, “Wait until your father gets home.” The talk with Dad was nothing to dread.
“No, they’re not dead. It’s January. They’re dormant. They will come back to life in the spring, and then I’ll prune them,” I told her. If a child does not know vegetation and the seasons, maybe bringing up pruning was imprudent. In any event, if her purpose was a change of topic, it worked. And to be honest, I was as happy to be onto a new subject as she was.
Here is the Gospel question. Considering that Jesus himself likened us to branches, can others tell whether you are alive, dormant or dead? It is a variant on that old query, “If Christianity were a crime around here, would there be enough evidence to convict you?”
What the Gospel, with its talk of salt and light, makes clear is that being a Christian is more than having a positive opinion of Christ. He calls us to discipleship, and what is that but to assume his mission, his identity? We are to be the Father’s mercy, poured out upon the world.
Pour the mercy patiently and gently. However correct our insights, however noble our intentions and whoever we are, we should always act with an awareness that we might be wrong in part or parcel.
If you are not baptized, not yet incorporated into the body of Christ that is the church, you can have whatever opinions you like about Jesus, and no one has a right to expect more than that. But once that water washes over you, the rest of us have a right to encounter another Christ, shining a light, salting what has gone stale.
Of course, you can repudiate your baptism. That was understood if you were baptized as an infant. And there is a certain integrity in someone who says, however wrongly—or perhaps because the church has failed that person, “Now that I am an adult, I want nothing to do with this Christ and his church.” But there is no integrity, only excuses, in those who would separate the two, Christ and the church. However much she gets it wrong, that is the mission Jesus gave to the church: to be Christ still alive, still pouring out the Father’s mercy upon the world.
If you have problems with the church, do not part company with it, for you are still called to be another Christ. That might mean pouring out the Father’s mercy upon the church as well. We need that clemency as much as any other part of the world.
But pour the mercy patiently and gently. However correct our insights, however noble our intentions and whoever we are, we should always act with an awareness that we might be wrong in part or parcel. Even the great St. Paul did as much:
I came to you in weakness and fear and much trembling,
and my message and my proclamation
were not with persuasive words of wisdom,
but with a demonstration of Spirit and power,
so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom
but on the power of God (1 Cor 2:3-5).
Indeed, a lack of intellectual humility marks a fanatic in any faith or movement. Yes, black is black and white is white, but only God never sees gray.
Back to the Gospel question: Are you alive, dormant or dead? Here’s a partial list of people wondering about that: the poor, the sick, the excluded, the homebound, the elderly, and kids who need an example and encouragement. If they do not know, something has gone wrong with your discipleship. And add your pastor to the list. Granted, being Christ for others does not begin or end at the doors of a parish, but Christ calls us into community. It is your pastor’s job to know who is dead, dormant and alive. With the Holy Spirit, spring is always coming, and he needs your help in the fields.
Unless a family is literally fanatical about faith, to the point that the kids flee the first chance that they get, the sociologists have done the research. Kids who see their parents practice the faith (especially, surprisingly enough, their fathers) grow up to do the same. But is that not a basic law of nature? Life comes from life, and, at a certain point, dormancy means death. Why, even a kid knows that.