Bishop Lee's Reunification Convention Sermon

June 08, 2013

175th Diocesan Convention, Part II

June 8, 2013, St. James Cathedral

When I was serving as rector of a church in Milwaukee I had a parishioner who was the CEO of a large manufacturing company. The leadership of the company had made a difficult decision about a plant closing that resulted in the elimination of a significant number of jobs and the local press had had a field day with my parishioner. Raked him over the coals. He’d ended up having to get security guards at his house because of all the threats he and his family had received. All this took him totally by surprise. His family had been prominent members of the community for generations, trusted (so he thought), even admired for all their civic contributions. So the violence of the response pulled the rug out from under him. In response to all this, one of the things he did was to initiate an annual forum on the ethics of business leadership. Heavy duty ethicists delivered papers and seminars to business leaders invited from all over the city. At one of those forums I heard a well-respected, conservative ethicist from Catholic University say to a room full of Midwestern business movers and shakers the following words: “Without an absolute value system attached to it, capitalism is simply demonic.” Not exactly (I suspect) what a lot of those folks were expecting to hear.

Now, before the word goes out that the Bishop of Chicago is preaching Marxism from the pulpit, let me say that I also noted the next sentence uttered by that ethicist from Catholic U: He said that socialism and communism were very good at equitably distributing wealth; they just weren't any good at generating any of it.

I have no intention of turning this homily into a lecture on economics. And what (you might ask) has any of this got to do anyway with the purpose of this reconvened convention and with the scriptures before us today? Plenty I hope. One of the chief preoccupations of the bible is economic justice. Read the prophets. Jesus tells stories all the time about economics. Today he's using the economics of subsistence farming -- something his hearers knew all about -- to point to something way beyond but not unrelated to the mechanics of all human systems. The sower goes out to plant her seeds with a remarkably inefficient method of broadcast sowing. Open-handed scattering of the seed in all directions, apparently not even looking where she was throwing it. This is not agri-business. This is a peasant scratching out a living -- still the way of life for most of the human beings on the planet.

Oh yes, Jesus was preaching about economics. And pointing way beyond it. The sower you see is God, and shares of God, Inc. would not do very well in a public offering I suspect. Our economies work on models of scarcity. There’s not enough capital, not enough money, not enough raw resources, not enough cheap labor … not enough whatever. That’s the principle that generates value, isn’t it? Scarcity or the perception of it. But God’s economy turns all that on its head. The Sower does not care that there’s only so much seed … you know why? Because there’s more than enough; the supply is endless. The Reign of God is not Wall Street. Love and care, compassion and self-giving are utterly different kinds of resources. Their value doesn’t depend on their scarcity and how much we hoard them – quite the opposite: the more we throw them around, the more we spend them, the more precious and the more abundant they become.

And that's just what we're banking on in this work of reunioning with our sister diocese of Quincy. In the face of years of fearful theological obsessiveness and the inevitable divisions that result from that kind of scarcity thinking, our sisters and brothers there have been daring to practice a radical trust in God's overflowing goodness. Their commitment to Christ and to the fellowship of this church is an act of sheer, foolish, godly trust. Today we stand with them and we pledge to join them in learning to sow the seeds of God's love for this world with absolutely wild abandon. We join them in seeking to practice a genuinely catholic witness to the love and mercy of God, one that knows to the depths of its being that no one, no one, stands outside the economy of grace. I love a little interchange I read about in the paper this week between the recently departed Father Andrew Greeley and his bishop, Francis Cardinal George. The two of them didn't land on the same side of a lot of theological issues. But they both loved the opera and on one occasion attended a performance of La Traviata together. On the way out a reporter asked Fr. Greeley if he'd enjoyed the performance and he said, "Yes, because it's the most catholic of operas ... In the end everyone is forgiven."

In our churches, at this table, you and I gather week by week to practice this strange economy of God in which everyone and everything inevitably is healed. We are intentionally and gratefully wasteful here. By any measure the world has to offer, all this is a waste of time. A holy waste of time. Church takes a lot of work. We throw a party in our churches day by day and week by week. We fling open the doors and we invite anyone, anyone who wants a place to join us. We don’t ask questions, we don’t have a dress code (well, at least we shouldn't have one), we don’t ask for payment. We throw the seed around and let it fall where it will. And we trust. We trust that it is not up to us to make the harvest plentiful. That’s none of our business. At our best we practice the kind of generosity Paul writes about to those Christians in Corinth. At our best we rely on the faith that missionary prophet Roland Allen knew -- that this is God's church not ours. It's not up to us to get it all right. We try to refuse the anxious games of the world’s economy: profits and loss by the sweat of our brows, cooking the books of our lives to keep up the appearance that we have it all together when God knows we do not, praying for ways to serve not the needs of the strong and the powerful, the beautiful and the sleek, but the desperate needs of a world that is bleeding to death.

My stout German great-grandmother’s favorite phrase was “Waste not, want not.” Well, I want to give it a different spin today: let's go ahead and risk the waste. Like Jesus, let's give away our lives. Practice prodigal love. Pray for the grace to serve those in this world who are in most need. Let us give ourselves to the life of this community of faith, to this reunited diocese that we might find more and more ways to do it all together. Waste it all so that we might want for nothing. St. Francis, in a prayer attributed to him, said it better than anyone could. On this history making day let us pray.

Lord, make us instruments of your peace. Where there is hatred, let us sow love: where there is injury, pardon; where there is discord, union; where there is doubt, faith; where there is sadness, joy. Grant that we may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen.