Archive for leaving the church

The Housesitting Experiment

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 27, 2017 by timtrue

vintage-key-clipart

Matthew 16:13-20

1.

Authority is a curious idea.

Here’s what I mean.

Let’s say, for example, that Holly, the kids, and I are going away for a week on a family vacation. It’s June; the kids have just finished school; and we decide it’s a good time to get away for a spell.

Now, let’s say, too, that there’s a parishioner named Ulysses. (Is anyone here named Ulysses?) And Ulysses has a son, Virgil, who has just graduated from high school.

By this time I’ve been in Temecula long enough so that Ulysses and I have struck up a good friendship. So I ask, “Hey, Ulysses, would your son be interested in housesitting for us while we’re away? We need someone to take care of the dog, get the mail, water the plants, and so on. I’ll leave the fridge stocked.”

So Ulysses brings Virgil into the conversation, we discuss logistics, and agree to this housesitting experiment.

The day comes. We’re about to leave. Virgil arrives. I hand him the keys to the house, the mailbox, and the community pool. And we say goodbye.

Now, in handing over the keys, I’ve just given this kid a certain amount of authority. In exchange for feeding and walking the dog, getting the mail, and watering the plants, he has the place to himself for the week. The fridge is stocked with user-friendly meals and stockpiles of beverages for the underaged. TV, sound system, video game consoles, baby grand piano—they’re all his for the week.

But somewhere about midweek the cogs in Virgil’s mind jam. He’s been given authority over the house by me; so he decides to use this delegated authority—or, should I say, to abuse this delegated authority—by throwing a wild party for forty-two of his closest friends and associates.

Now, you and I—and Ulysses—all know what happens when forty-three fresh high school graduates get together for an evening of unsupervised fun. (For we were all fresh high school graduates ourselves once.) But Virgil hasn’t thought it through too well. The cogs were jammed, remember?

For starters, the dog didn’t get her walk that night. Instead, she somehow was fed or got into some substances that didn’t agree with her stomach. “I thought I cleaned it all up,” Virgil admitted later, “but, yeah, I guess the kitchen still smells pretty bad.”

Then, two of the Wii remotes ended up broken and somehow—“Don’t look at me!” Virgil said—the satellite dish had gone out of alignment.

There were footprints on top of the baby grand piano too, like someone had been dancing on it.

And, maybe worst of all, seventeen of the kids ended up in the community pool and hot tub, many of them freaking out the neighbors and otherwise calling attention to themselves because of their improvised swimsuits.

I said maybe worst of all because we’re allowed only six pool guests: now I’m in trouble with the Homeowner’s Association!

Finally, the cops showed up at about midnight, due to noise violations, they said; and the kids all went home, leaving Virgil alone with his thoughts and to clean up.

Needless to say, yes, Virgil abused the authority I’d delegated to him.

Now, let’s tease this scenario out just a little more.

We’re going to be having a conversation about all this, yeah? Virgil and I—not to mention Ulysses, members of the Homeowners’ Association, several neighbors, and maybe even the police—are going to sit down together over some beverages for the underaged and talk it out.

Maybe I expected too much of Virgil.

Maybe I should have been clearer in my expectations.

Maybe Ulysses should have talked through things a little more with his son ahead of time.

Or maybe, just maybe, Virgil should have acted with more maturity and prudence.

Yes, Option D, we all agree, is the best one.

Finally, let’s say a year rolls by—time has a way of healing past wounds—and Holly and I plan another weeklong family vacation. Do we ask Virgil to housesit again?

2.

Now, how do you think Jesus felt when he handed Peter the keys to the kingdom?

Peter! He’s that impulsive apostle.

A few weeks ago, on the Mount of Transfiguration, he’s the one who spoke first. Something absolutely mind-blowing had just taken place—Jesus turned bright as the noonday sun before the disciples’ eyes—and Peter, uncomfortable and awkward, broke the silence, speaking before thinking. The Bible even comments: he did not know what he was saying.

Two weeks ago—remember?—he was panic-stricken one moment and walking on water with Jesus the next.

And looking ahead, right after today’s Gospel, right after Jesus hands him the keys to the kingdom, Jesus actually calls him Satan!

Handing Peter the keys to the kingdom surely must have been something like handing the house keys to Virgil for a second time.

Yet Jesus does it anyway: Jesus delegates the authority of his very kingdom to Peter, the rock on whom he will build his church.

Peter will carry on Jesus’ mission. Peter will possess the power to bind and loose. Peter will begin a kind of apostolic succession that continues to this day.

And that’s because Peter is a rock. Peter is a solid foundation. Peter is nothing like the sand, unstable and uncertain. Right?

He would never do anything like deny Christ, right?

3.

Authority is a curious idea.

Was Jesus leaving his church in good hands when he delegated his authority to St. Peter the Impulsive?

But let’s think about the idea of authority.

What mom has ever acted perfectly in her inherent authority as a parent?

Did your mother always make the right decisions? Did she always allow you just the space you needed—not too little or too much; but just the right amount—to grow and mature from child to adult?

What about your dad? Like moms, dads possess an inherent authority over their children too, simply by nature of being a parent. Does that mean dads act perfectly, always and everywhere, as dads?

Or look at it this way. After becoming a mom or a dad, does a parent always make perfectly right decisions for her or his children? Do they never say a word to their children out of frustration, anger, or impatience?

Why, it’s ludicrous even to suggest it! We all know that such perfection is humanly impossible.

Nevertheless, each mother or father since time began possesses an inherent, God-given (if you will), authority.

It’s the same with bosses and employees; and teachers and students. Do bosses or teachers always make good and right decisions simply because they possess authority over their employees or students?

What about deacons, priests, and bishops? The road to spiritual authority, for most clergy I know anyway, is long and hard. Once they’ve earned it, does that spiritual authority then guarantee that they will lead and guide Jesus’ flock as faithful shepherds?

Not at all!

In fact, it’s kind of the other way around. Mistakes are the norm, not the exception. We humans are wired to grow and mature; and we make a lot of mistakes along the way. If wisdom and maturity were prerequisites, there would never be any parents, bosses, teachers, or clergy.

But someone’s got to carry on the mission.

And in the case of Jesus’ mission, that someone was St. Peter the Impulsive.

4.

Which brings up a very important point.

Earlier this summer my family did in fact take a vacation. (And, in case you’re wondering, yes, we did have someone take care of the dog; but, no, there were no wild parties.)

This vacation was a family reunion at Lake Tahoe.

Mealtimes were very revealing. I sat with different extended family members at each meal; and I never brought it up; yet, somehow, at each meal, the discussion would turn to religion.

That’s one of the byproducts of being the token family priest, I suppose.

Anyway, more often than not the person on the other end of the conversation would say something like, “Well, I don’t go to church anymore—gave that up a long time ago! But I am a Christian. I do believe Jesus is my Lord and Savior. And according to the Bible that’s enough. So why should I go to church?”

Have you heard these kinds of statements too? Statements like:

  • What gives the church the right to tell me how to live my life?
  • Pastors are just after my money anyway.
  • Who needs church at all? I’ll just go spend some time at the beach. That’s my church. That’s my Sabbath rest.
  • I’m spiritual but not religious; I worship God in my own way.
  • Besides, organized religion has done a lot more damage in the world than good: there have been far more wars fought over religious differences than for any other reason.

Well, the answer to this question—Why should I go to church at all?—is because church is where we find Jesus Christ’s authority on earth.

Of course, people today like to question authority. People don’t trust the church’s authority anymore. People want to question Jesus’ decision to hand the keys of the kingdom over to St. Peter the Impulsive.

But is it worth it?

To walk away from organized religion is to abandon the only institution that inherently possesses the spiritual authority of Jesus Christ. To walk away from organized religion is to make oneself a spiritual orphan. And who wants to abandon Mom and Dad?

Jesus did not delegate his authority to Christian radio; or to Christian authors; or to 501(c)(3) non-profit religious corporations; or to public education; or to a political party; or even to individuals like Paul, Apollos, Peter, the Pope, Michael Curry, Billy Graham, you, me, or any other single person. Jesus Christ’s authority rests only in his church, collectively; for the church is his body: where he has chosen to dwell on earth.

5.

But this brings up another very important point.

There are times when a family becomes so dysfunctional that intervention is necessary: abuse, neglect, and abandonment—to name a few examples.

Maybe church decline is a sign for our family, the family of Christ. Maybe people are leaving the church—maybe they do not trust organized religion anymore—precisely because the church has abused, neglected, or abandoned them.

Fair enough.

I have two things to say in response.

The first is to those who are thinking about running away: Don’t give up.

Yes, the church family is full of annoying siblings, moms and dads, teachers and bosses, and many other people who are growing and maturing and making mistakes all along the way. Nevertheless, the church is the institution on earth where Christ’s authority rests.

Jesus was patient with Peter, so much so that he handed the keys of his kingdom to him. You can be patient with Peter too. Don’t give up on your spiritual family.

The second response is to those who have already left the church: to those who feel the church has in fact abused, neglected, abandoned, or otherwise failed them; to those who feel they would rather be orphans than a part of our spiritual family. And it is this: Maybe you’re right. The church has fallen short. But why walk away? Can’t we at least talk about it?

This is my response to those who have left the church. But, of course, they’re not here! Because they’ve already left!

Which brings it all back to us, doesn’t it? We are left with something of a challenge, aren’t we? This challenge is called reconciliation.

How can we go out and find those who feel abused, neglected, or abandoned by the church? And once we find them, how do we begin the process of reconciliation with them? They’ve left the church already; so how do we get a conversation going with them?

Well, I don’t really know.

But I have a hunch about where to start.

Why not begin with Virgil, Ulysses, the neighbors, the offended members of the Homeowners’ Association, and the police? Why not begin with those we already know?

And so, yeah, Virgil will be housesitting for me again this summer.

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