Comfort and Challenge in Christianity

Here is my homily from this Sunday for what was probably a mixed audience at St. Paul the Apostle Catholic Community in LA.  The readings can be accessed here.


I have to admit - I was hoping for some more comforting readings today.  For some, it’s been a very difficult week and for others it's been a week of celebration.  But I might say that for all of us, it has been a long and exhausting election.  And just when we thought we were DONE with all of the negative campaign ads, we hear in today’s first reading from Malachi, “Lo, the day is coming, blazing like an oven, when all the proud and all evildoers will be stubble, and the day that is coming will set them on fire, leaving them neither root nor branch, says the Lord of hosts.”  Jesus isn’t much more help.  “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be powerful earthquakes, famines, and plagues from place to place…”  You can almost imagine someone after these disturbing readings saying, “I am such-and-such a candidate and I approve this message.”  

But of course, as we are so often reminded, church isn’t always here to make us comfortable.  If we are being true to our Christianity, we know and regularly experience that maxim of comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.  And in this election, it’s fair to say that as Catholics we found aspects of each candidate that left us partially comfortable and aspects that left us partially afflicted.  Those who have devoted their lives to the pro-life movement in this country are now experiencing an optimism not felt in decades and maybe even some vindication after seeing concern for the unborn being dismissed over the years.  Yet I’ve also talked to too many other people this week of who are of a different color, who were not born in this country, and of a different faith tradition that they are even more afraid—for not only their own well-being but for the well-being of those they love—than they were last week.  So maybe it’s not the worst thing in the world that we are not hearing a message of comfort this weekend.   Maybe God meant for us to be a little afflicted no matter who won.  

One of my favorite preachers is a Lutheran pastor named Nadia-Bolz Weber.  She has written some great books and she has this great way of bringing to life the victories and failures and complexities of living out a faith in Jesus Christ in every day life.  Nadia formed a church in Colorado called House for All Sinners and Saints and, not surprisingly, it has drawn a lot of people who call it home.  

One thing Pastor Nadia does, however, when new people come to the church and seek to join it, is she goes out of her way to tell people that as great as church is, it is also a place that will—at some point—disappoint them.  She tells new members of her church, “This community will disappoint you.  It’s a matter of when not if.  We will let you down, or I will say something stupid and hurt your feelings.”  Pastor Nadia says that she’s not that idealistic about any kind of human project… but she’s completely idealistic about God’s ability to redeem our shortcomings and our mistakes.  So Pastor Nadia tells her new members that before that disappointment actually happens, please decide on this side of that happening that you will stick around “because if you leave, you will miss the way God’s grace comes in and fills the cracks of our brokenness and it’s just to beautiful to miss.  Don’t miss it.”   

I was showing a video of Pastor Nadia giving that speech for some staff development we were doing this past week here at St. Paul the Apostle.  As she was talking about the fact that while church is something that we all aspire to and will inevitably let us down, I was also thinking that that line of thinking could easily apply to America as well.  We often call America a great hope for humanity with our commitment to freedom and liberty.  America has been referred to as a “Land of Hope and Dreams” and the “Shining City on a Hill” and throughout our history we have shown that to be the case.  But if we are being honest, America is just as much an ideal to which we regularly fall short.  America is a place where we are inspired by the spirit of welcome symbolized by Statue of Liberty… and the place where we get disturbed by the huddled masses gathering at the bottom of the statue.  America celebrates our ability to give everyone an equal shot… but often leaves people who fall short in the dust.  We uphold E Pluribus Unum as our motto,  but continue to divide ourselves into our respective camps of 48%.

So maybe it’s okay that God’s words to us today leave us a little uncomfortable.  Because it’s when we are a little uncomfortable that we are more likely to draw closer to God.  Because America, like any community, is a very human endeavor, no matter how divinely inspired we may or may not be.  Maybe we need a reminder today that America, like our various political parties, is meant to be the vehicle by which the values of life and justice and equality and freedom are made manifest in the world… but is not the ultimate source of those values.  

We might not want to rush into being comfortable, so we can be challenged by God to seek his lead more, both as Americans as Christians.  We might need to stay disturbed for a while, because it is only then that we can open ourselves up to the direction God is calling us as a people… even if it deviates from what we originally believed or how our politics was previously disposed.  Even if it means there may be challenges ahead.  

And so on this first weekend where we may be free of campaign commercials but are still given challenging readings, may God bless those who are especially afraid and vulnerable this morning.  May God bless all of those who fight to protect both the mothers who might be in crisis and the children they carry.  May God continue to bless, comfort, and challenge us in all of our honest aspirations, sincere efforts, an occasional hypocrisies.  And may continue to bless, comfort, and challenge America.  

My name is Fr. Tom Gibbons and I approve this message.