Thursday, June 21, 2007

Baptized Life, Writ Large

This is Father Andrew Gerns' sermon on June 20, 2007 at the Cathedral Church of the Nativity on the occasion of the first Annual Vows of Sr. Patricia-Michael Hauze as a solitary religious in the Diocese of Bethlehem. Sr. Patricia-Michael is the Administrator at Trinity, Easton, PA, and was a member of Trinity, Bethlehem, PA. She is now under obedience to the Bishop of Bethlehem. The Gospel lesson was Matthew 16:24-27.

See Sr. Patricia-Michael's reflection downstream: "The Next Step."

May only God’s name be spoken.
May only God’s name be heard and believed.

You may have noticed that we have in our culture a strange ambivalence about people in vowed life.

If you don’t believe me, turn on Turner Classic Movies sometime; when you see on one day Ingrid Bergman in nun’s garb, and then on another Anne Bancroft, you will know what I mean.

When I was a chaplain in a Roman Catholic hospital sponsored by a religious order in the middle of the Bible belt, ambivalence was in the air. On the one hand, there was a lot of nostalgia for “The Nuns.” On the other side were the Sisters who sponsored that hospital, who gave up their habits and veils long ago. Over and over again, patients would wonder out loud to the staff chaplains—some of whom were in fact Sisters of St. Joseph—about where the nuns went and how much they were missed! When this community gave up their habits for lab coats and picture IDs, they did not realize that they would be trading one kind of transference for another.

Back at the movie house, there is another film rubs our faces in that ambivalence as only a relentless British satire can do. Remember Monty Python and the Holy Grail? Just before Arthur comes across a crowd of peasants who want to burn a witch just for the fun of it, a group of monks pass in front of the camera chanting

Pie Iesu domine, dona eis requiem.

before they hit themselves in the head with a board or something. It is a transitional scene, a throwaway, but startling just the same. The audience thinks it’s hysterical. Even though we’ve forgotten that the scene is really making fun of another kind of film that they don’t make any more, people still find it funny. The truth is that I think it’s funny…but for different reasons.

For most people—most Christians, too, I have no doubt—vowed life is met with a degree of suspicion. We love the people who choose it. We respect them. We are curious about them. And deep down we hope our daughters never become one.

So as much as I hate to admit it, Jesus knew what he was talking about when he said that following him would mean something like carrying a cross. Following Jesus will mean that we will have to confront how the world counts power and importance, and we will challenge that. The world does not take kindly to that.

Choosing to live life as Sister Patricia-Michael does, as a publicly vowed person who is living out her vows in the world for all to see is, as far as the world is concerned, crazy. To give up a good job at a high powered office to work for peanuts in a parish church is crazy enough, but to also give up the trappings of success and comfort in our society to live a vowed life is crazier. To live life in voluntary obedience in a world that values individual freedom is crazy with a capital "k." And to do that in a way that makes one stand out for all to see is like, well, hitting yourself on the head with a board.

It may be crazy. It is crazy. Like a fox.

Patricia Michael is in the process of taking on a life focused entirely on God. She has chosen to organize her life around Jesus. She has chosen to train herself to listen to the Holy Spirit.

She is choosing to live a life of intentional obedience. That means that she will not only listen for God, she will listen for God through Christian community—that’s us. By being a solitary, it means that the Community she listens for God through, the community through whom she expresses obedience, will be the messiest, least predictable and at times the most contradictory of Christian communities. And that would be us.

Patricia-Michael is choosing to live a life of chastity. That means, that against all the advice of the world, she will live modestly and subject her “stuff” to God’s will.

And she is living a life of prayer. Here she deliberately places herself between God and all of the pain, the hopes and dreams of the world and will plead our case before God. To pray this way means that she knows that to rest in the heart of God is to rest in the heart of creation.

To rest in God’s love, to know the stability that the Spirit brings is not to live apart from the world, but to be intentionally God’s person in the middle of the action.

I have a question, and be honest: Does any of this sound the least bit threatening to you?

Does it make you a little uneasy that here is a person who has come before us not to take on a role of leadership, or fame or renown, but who has come to us seeking our help to live this life of obedience, stability and conversion of life—giving up the things we work so hard to attain—make you a tad ambivalent? I don’t think I am alone in this room.

Because if we think that we are here to wave farewell to Patty on this leg of her journey, we are going to be disappointed. If we harbor any ideas that by supporting her, we let ourselves off the hook, forget about it.

You see, what Patricia Michael is doing is living Baptized life writ large.

We all took vows, you know. At our baptisms, we promised to do some things as well. To say prayers, break bread and gather in community to learn what the apostles taught. We promised to seek Christ in all things and in all people, and to love our neighbors as ourselves. We promised to strive for justice and peace and to respect everyone’s inherent dignity. We promised to proclaim by what we say and what we do the Good News of God in Christ.

So we are crazy too. It’s just that we can hide it better.

Just when thought all this was about keeping gothic buildings open, heated and paid for; just when we thought that all this could be done once, or if we are really good, twice a week, along comes God calling people like Sister Patricia-Michael to say out loud that she will take on what we all have taken on, all the time.

If she is crazy, then we are too. If Patricia-Michael has taken up her cross, then so have we and if she has decided to put stand between God and a world spinning in it’s own despair, then so have we. She is not the only one in this room who has taken on something radical, something of God.

Sister Patricia-Michael has heard God’s call to align her will to God’s will and to let go of the outcome. She has heard God’s call and chosen to live among us as a solitary Christian standing between our need and God’s love in prayer. She has chosen us in the Diocese as her community. It is crazy but it is true: this is baptized life, writ large.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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