This past week was rather exhausting. We celebrated the birthdays of three members of our community, and Wednesday was also my mother's 85th birthday. I don't even want to think about cake.
Thursday I took Fr. Bede, a 78 year old member of our Dominican community who has been diagnosed with dementia and lives in a residence near our community, to Evan Almighty. Since he loves animals, I figured he'd get at least two of very kind in the movie. It's entertaining, though rather heavy-handed and boilerplate at times, but the central visual image is challenging. All the advertising shows a white-bearded, robe wearing fellow surrounded by pairs of animals.
You don't need to know much more to get the gist of the movie.
Evan has a rather odd mission given to him by God.
That places him at odds with his own plans and with the expectations of his family, his neighbors, his government, and the constituents who elected him to Congress.
They elected him because of his ambitious campaign promise to "change the world," not "build an ark for God."
The whole beard and robe schtick is a real challenge for a man whose personal mantra is, "I'm strong, powerful, handsome, happy."
When he finally gives in to the request, he appears to lose everything – until the happy ending, of course.
The Gospel last Sunday begins with a huge transition in Luke's account of the ministry of Jesus. Jesus has set his face for Jerusalem, where he will lose everything, even his life, which he offers to His Father on our behalf.
The Samaritans won't welcome him because he's going to Jerusalem, and they rejected Jerusalem as the place to worship God; thus James and John want them destroyed for their insult.
Jesus rejects the "eye for an eye" mentality.
He lives by a different standard than his countrymen. The question is, are we willing to do the same?
According to Cardinal George in a 2002 address to the U.S. bishops, "Our culture tells us what to do. It is a normative system. So is faith in Jesus. If the faith and the culture clash or disagree, as they always do to some extent, it is because faith is a gift from God and culture is a human construct. There will be tension in us because the faith and the culture are both inside us.
That's why one of the most controversial articles of the creed is the one that says, "I believe in God, the Father almighty." One of Jesus' most controversial statements is, "All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me." The belief in a powerful God, an almighty God, an all-powerful God is, in a secularized culture, appears as a threat to human freedom."
Since freedom is our primary cultural value, and one that we'll celebrate on the 4th of July, claims that God has power over us are very problematic.
While atheism is becoming more vocal these days, I doubt we'll become an atheistic country in name. But there is a subtle way of reducing the threat that God's power might have for us, and that is to tame God. This is the kind of secularization that we live with in the United States. We'll slap a "God bless America" or "God bless our troops" bumper sticker on, but you never see a "God LEAD America" bumper sticker. We don't let God make any demands on our behavior, because that would be to give Him power. We cannot permit Him to have power or we will lose our freedom.
The freedom that we celebrate today in America is the freedom to do whatever we want, say whatever we want, buy whatever we want, with no thought of consequences. Lawyers are hired to protect our rights, and to expand them, if possible.
When this is the case, religion becomes akin to belonging to the Lion's club or the Lady's Garden Society. It's a nice, pleasant way to spend some time on occasion with like-minded folks. But you don't expect it - or permit it - to change your behavior, your opinions, your thoughts.
In our thoroughly post-modern American culture, any objective truth claim is illegitimate, primarily because it threatens freedom. If there is an objective truth, then it can reasonably demand a response on my part; a response that demands that my subjective desires be limited by a reality beyond me. Religious truth claims in particular are a threat. We have managed to weaken them and even dismiss them, however, by misinterpreting Jefferson's famous phrase about the separation of Church and State. Rather than referring to the Constitutional prohibition against state-sponsored religion, we've taken it to mean that political positions can't be argued from the basis of one's faith.
For a Christian to live by faith, he or she has to submit to the idea that many things should not be done. I shouldn't call down fire from heaven on those who insult me. I shouldn't pay my employees unjust wages. I shouldn't ignore the poor, the homeless, the hungry; and there are consequences if I do. St. Paul, whose life was transformed by his encounter with the risen Lord, reminded the Galatians of Jesus' command, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." Within that simple positive command is much activity that is forbidden.
The question is, do I really believe in an almighty God? Can I honestly refer to Jesus as , "Lord," as we do throughout the Mass and our prayers. To call Jesus "Lord" means that He is calling the shots in my life. When Evan Baxter asks God for help in changing the world, God answers, but the plan that's followed can no longer be Evan's, but God's.
Do I believe in God, the Father almighty? Or Fr. Mike Almighty? That's the question, and it's the age-old garden-variety temptation. You know what garden I mean. The tempter seduces Adam and Eve with the promise, "eat this, and you will be like gods." Meaning, of course, "You won't need God to tell you what to do anymore." You'll be Eve Almighty, Adam Almighty.
When St. Paul talks about freedom and slavery, flesh and the Spirit, he's looking all the way back to the fall. Because for St. Paul, freedom is the hallmark of Christian existence. Christians are free because they do not have to earn salvation by their own works. Redemption is a gift, and they are free to embrace their salvation in grateful obedience to the command, "love one another as I have loved you." This is life in the Spirit.
"The flesh" isn't our earthly body, it's life under the power and control of the tempter, who keeps up the empty promise of freedom as doing our will, rather than God's. The flesh is a life lived according to the principle, "I'm #1." The flesh is a life lived at odds with others; competitive, compulsively consumeristic, fraught with rivalry, jealousy and distrust.
So what's it going to be? Do we believe all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Jesus? Are we willing to follow him?
There's a price to pay if we do. One would-be follower says, "I will follow you," and Jesus lets him know the cost – for he himself has "no where to lay his head." No place to call his own, where he can be safe and comfortable.
Another says, "Let me first bury my Father." That was one of the most laudable, pious things a Jewish son could do, yet Jesus' response indicates that following him is life, and everything else - even fulfilling Jewish law - is death. So too, following Jesus for us must supersede any other law – even civil law. We cannot make the accommodation John F. Kennedy promised the American people. No Christian can.
The third would-be follower asks to do exactly what Elisha did when Elijah called him. The placing of leader's cloak over your shoulder was a symbol in the ancient near east of being chosen to take the leader's place.
Elisha says farewell to his family, kills his oxen, burns his farming equipment to cook them, then feeds his family and leaves them forever. With the tools of his trade destroyed, he literally has nothing to go back home to. There was no looking back for him.
Nor can there be for us, Jesus says. The only way we can follow him is to keep our eyes on his back; not knowing exactly where he's leading us, except for the next few steps.
The challenge is not so much knowing what Jesus commands us. Paul easily summarized it, "love your neighbor as yourself." Do to them exactly what you would want them to do to you.
Do that, and you'll be at odds with the culture.
Do that, and people will think you're odd – or worse
Do that, and you won't change the world – Jesus will.
Because HE's "almighty."