Preferential Option for the Wall-Flower
In 325 AD, because there was much strife in the Church, Constantine called all the bishops to gather at a council in Nicaea. At this council, there was a solid contingent of what we refer to today as Arians. They were those who deny the true divinity of Christ. A catch phrase of theirs would have been a play on the first chapter of John saying, “There was a time when the Word was not” claiming Jesus was created, not eternal. There was also a solid contingent of bishops who stood by the truth of Jesus’ divinity. These two parties and many others across the spectrum came together at the Council of Niacea to hash out what exactly we believe about Jesus, and how do we are to speak about him?
So what do you picture when you think of this?
The cynic in us probably imagines a bunch of church bureaucrats sitting around a desk making distinctions, defining terms, dissecting words and lobbying for their personal interpretation. The more pious part of us imagines a group of old men sitting in a chapel praying and reading the Bible until the Holy Spirit inspired one of them with the precise way to describe the nature of Jesus. Well, there certainly was prayer and there certainly were a lot of distinctions, however it was much more than that. These men felt the burden of discerning the nature of Jesus Christ! This is an impossible task and they knew that, but it was also an incredibly important task. They could not get it wrong, else they would doom all Christians to pray to a God constructed by them, not the true God.
This burden creates tension, and such intense strain amongst a bunch of men makes for some pretty interesting incidents. In one such story Arius himself was defending his position when Bishop Nicholas- aka Santa- stood up and punched him in the face. In another story, one of the Bishops from the east who had brought many of his personal hermits along to bolster the orthodox position set them loose on an opposing bishop. You can picture a bearded, unkempt hermit sporting a camel hair shirt, jumping up on table and sprinting toward the man who just offended our savior’s divinity, ready to deploy just judgment with his own hands.
I tell these stories not to scandalize anyone, but to point out the importance of our Faith. The content of our faith is important, as Hebrews tells us today it is, “The realization of what is hoped for and the evidence of things not seen.” Jesus came and revealed himself to us; this is not a guessing game, we are not grasping in the dark, the Holy Spirit is guiding us. However, following the Council of Nicaea, and Constantinople 50 years later, we are given this clean, precise, beautiful creed, and it can give us the impression that the Church has figured it out. Still today we can get the idea that these truths, so fundamental and important to us, must be protected from the secular world, more eager than ever to degrade and dilute them.
This fear that is so easy to fall into makes life very difficult when we consider our call to go out into the world to evangelize those outside the Church. Why? Because when we go out in the world, to the fringes, what will we see? Broken people who are living rough and broken lives. So what do we do? We cannot confront this situation head on with the cold hard truths of the faith, this is clear. Someone who has not met Christ cannot live the life the Gospel demands.
Let us look to an analogy to help explain this. When we teach kids how to play basketball, we do not start with a thorough explanation of a motion offense. We don’t even explain basics like double-dribbling, 3 seconds in the key, and shooting form. We tell the kids to get out there and try to get the ball in the basket. It looks ridiculous and chaotic, a bunch of kids just crowding around the ball, but they are having fun! It is only after they begin to love the game a bit that we give them the rules, with the promise that, though it seems restrictive at first, the rules of the game are what give you the freedom to play it. So, as coaches we are always toeing the line, knowing that the rules are good for a kid but at the same time they may also be the very thing that drives him or her away.
To bring this back to our missionary life as Christians, we know everyone around us needs the truth of the Catholic Church, they need the faith. But first and foremost they need to meet Christ! Before they get all the rules, they need to enter into relationship with the one who died for them and wants to know their heart. This first encounter with Christ is almost always an experience of love from another person. It is a mess! It’s uncomfortable, it is vulnerable, we will see sin and hear stories that hurt to hear. But we need to be known, to be heard and to be loved. It may seem like a dangerous mess, but God is in the mess, he loves us right in the mess.
This makes perfect sense, because the truth of our faith did not come from the voice of an angel, it came through the incarnation of God as man. What does this mean? Well, we can trust that the mess does not compromise the truth. To love someone in their brokenness without immediately demanding them to change is not cowardice, it is the hard love that a real relationship demands. Again, this does not mean we compromise the truth, for we know it is only the truth that sets us free. It does mean that like good basketball coaches, we know when someone is ready for a particular hard truth, and when they are not. We cannot know this if we remain at a distance, we must be in real relationship with that person.
I will admit this homily is for me, I need to hear this. It is so easy to love those who are my friends, who I agree with, who I naturally like. It is also so easy to politely ignore those in my life who I do not naturally get along with- that person with whom the conversation never flows naturally, who knows exactly what to say to frustrate me. If you also have this struggle, know that God is calling all of us to go out of our way to love that very person, the stranger, the awkward person, the lonely and vulnerable person, the person we think is weird. Whether this is at school, at work, in the streets, or in the grocery store.
In the Church we have the common principle called the ‘Preferential option for the poor.” A priest I know named Father Gary Selin instead called this seeking out of the those on the fringes the “preferential option for the wall-flower.” We are to love them in a way that gives God room to work, for him room to move their hearts to the truth. This is what Jesus himself did, he jumped into the mess of our broken humanity, he did not pull away for a single moment, not even when we crucified him.
So where are the fringes? Do we need to go on mission? Well, it is a mission of sorts, but we need not go anywhere to do it: We are in mission territory. The second largest denomination in the United States behind Catholicism is fallen away Catholics. Even amongst professing Catholics, only 25% attend mass every Sunday. First, that gives me a deep gratitude for every one of you in this church today. Long gone are the days of being a Christian out of habit. You have made a choice, and God will bless that choice with a peace only he will give. This mission to the fringes of our culture is part of that blessing!
So I encourage you to start today, as I will myself, and ask the Lord, “Who am I called to enter into relationship with?” He will answer, and we may not like the answer, but if we follow his call it will bring us deep joy, the joy of learning to see Jesus Christ in every person. The content of our faith is so important and beautiful, and as the fathers showed us it is literally worth fighting for. Yet as it was forged in a messy world, it is deployed in a messy world. In this world, evangelizing demands relationship, so let us gird our loins, search out the wall-flower, and begin that beautiful work.
This Homily was inspired by Betsy Gordon, Father Gary Selin, Father Jim Thermos, and John Henry Newman.
Photo Credit: “Thinking…” by Luis Marina