In a session of spiritual direction last week, my director and I chatted about the challenges of living an authentic and faithful Christian life in contemporary America.
There is a strain of militant secularism in America, but that was not the challenge that occupied us. Militant secularism may be a bad thing, but it is not a temptation for me personally, and in fact no one prevents me from practicing my faith. It may be a problem, but it is not my problem.
The challenges that I face, the challenges that most of us face, are both more pervasive and more subtle than open intolerance or hostility. I think particularly of three. You have heard me fret about all three before.
One challenge is the sheer busyness of contemporary life. Many of us have near constant demands on our time. Those demands take a lot of different forms, but the one that stands for them all in my mind is e-mail.
Now, e-mail is a wonderful way to connect with people and an efficient way to get things done. I love that about e-mail. But I sometimes feel like I could do nothing but e-mail twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week and still never catch up. So e-mail has become my metaphor for the busyness of contemporary life.
All that busyness, of which e-mail is just one example, can squeeze God out of our lives. Some of my old friendships have basically withered away because neither my friend nor I made time for each other. The same can happen to our relationship with God. Like every relationship, a relationship with God takes time, and constant busyness prevents us from spending the time necessary for true intimacy with God.
A second obstacle to authentic Christian faith in our culture is exaggerated individualism. Too many of us act as if our wants and our needs are all that matter, as if we can pretty well forget about the common good. We see that most obviously among some of our politicians. But it is certainly not limited to politicians. Many corporate leaders don’t seem to care about their employees. Many individual consumers don’t seem to care about the environmental impact of the products they buy or the working conditions of the people who produce them.
I say what is obvious when I say that, if my self-interest, if my convenience and advantage, is all I care about, I have turned my back on God and my neighbor.
A third obstacle to authentic Christian faith in contemporary America is our materialistic and consumer-oriented culture. It will be on full display in the Super Bowl advertisements (which I intend to watch and enjoy!). Unless this year is different from every other year, one consistent message will be that all of our wants and desires are ultimately material. And we will be told, over and over again, that the best way to meet our material wants and desires is to buy the right product.
So, for example, advertisements will show that the best way to attract the ladies is to own the right car and drink the right beer. I have never owned the right car, and I only rarely drank the right beer. I also mostly didn’t attract the ladies, so the advertisements could be right. But I kind of doubt it. And, for the record, I am happy with the lady I ended up with, despite having the wrong car and drinking the wrong beer!
So, contemporary America invites us, among other things, of course, to a life of busyness, self-interest, and material consumption.
Jesus invites us to a different way. Jesus tells us to love God first. Jesus tells us to love our neighbors as ourselves. Jesus calls us to a life of sacrifice.
But how can we hear, and accept, and hold on to Jesus’ invitation when we are constantly bombarded with a very different set of messages? That was what my spiritual director and I talked about last week. And that was the question I brought to our gospel reading. Thankfully, our reading has the beginnings of an answer!
First, a bit of context. First-century Jews, who were a minority in the Roman Empire, had two basic options. They could reject Roman values altogether in an effort to remain faithful to their religious tradition. They could turn inward. Or they could abandon parts of their tradition in order to be good Romans. They could turn outward.
How about Jesus’ family? When Jesus was forty days old, Mary and Joseph took him to the temple in Jerusalem to offer the sacrifices required by the law. That took commitment. They had to walk twelve miles round trip, with a newborn, to make this sacrifice.
Not only that. While at the temple, Mary and Joseph met a pair of prophets who looked “forward to the consolation of Israel” and the “redemption of Jerusalem.”
Clearly from his birth, Jesus was firmly rooted in the practices and hopes of his religious tradition.
What about the larger Roman world? We would expect anyone who grew up in such a traditional household to turn inward, to be hostile to Gentiles, that is, to non-Jews. But that is not what Luke tells us. The prophet in our reading who looked forward to the consolation of Israel proclaimed that Christ came, not only “for glory to [God’s] people Israel,” but also as “a light for revelation to the Gentiles.”
Jesus’ commitment to the practices of his religious tradition did not imply turning away from people who were different from him. Exactly the opposite. Jesus was faithful to his religious tradition and, in that very faithfulness, managed to offer good news to people outside his religious tradition. Jesus was a practicing Jew who shined as a light in the Roman Empire.
Our calling today is similar.
In some important ways, American culture offers a seductive alternative to Christian values. It would be easy to abandon our tradition and embrace the American preoccupation with efficiency, consumption, and self-interest. A lot of people do, including many who call themselves Christian.
Or we might simply condemn America as un-Christian and take shelter in a self-imposed religious ghetto.
But Jesus shows us a third way.
Jesus calls us to remain rooted in our religious tradition, in the practices that define us as who we are and who we want to be. Jesus calls us to practice our faith day by day, even when it is not perfectly convenient, even when we don’t much feel like it.
Regular practice is the only way we can resist those cultural values that compromise Christian faith and life. Regular practice is how we cultivate love for God and neighbor. Regular practice is how we prepare ourselves to take up our cross and follow Christ.
At the same time, Jesus calls us to remain engaged with the larger culture around us, to shine as lights in the world, to embrace God’s mission to change the world from the nightmare it is for so many into the dream that God has for it.
Christ calls us to be agents of God’s grace and love in the world. But to be agents of authentic grace and love, to have truly good news to share, we need to be spending time in prayer and worship. Prayer and worship is not an alternative to true and effective engagement in the world, Prayer and worship is the necessary preparation for doing God’s work in the world.
And so my prayer for us is that we practice our faith, just as Jesus’ family did. And I pray that we shine as lights in God’s world. In Christ’s name. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Harvey Hill
Third Order Franciscan