Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Br. Randy Greve, OHC
RCL - Proper 16 A - Sunday 24 August 2008
A few months ago at Sunday dinner we had cherry pie for dessert - with ice cream, if I recall. It was good; really good. Some was leftover, so I mentally made plans to have another piece for supper that night. The anticipation stayed with me all afternoon. After Vespers I went to the pantry to be reunited with my treasure. I opened the refrigerator - nothing. I checked the walk-in assuming that someone had stashed it downstairs - nothing. It was gone. Someone had eaten MY cherry pie! How could these people do this to ME? What selfishness! What gluttony!!
Monastic life is not immune to the influence of a culture of materialism and instant gratification. Part of our witness to that culture is the hard work of purging ourselves of the illusion of possession. When we are formed in the game of what I can get, what I can keep, what I deserve, now not later, the realization of how easily we lie to ourselves is startling and humbling and must drive us to our knees. The word MINE is the four-letter word that brings the most destruction and chaos to Christian communities - be they monasteries or churches or denominations. It is the word that reveals the depth of our arrogance and illusion. It distracts us from our mission, dissipates our energy, and divides our commitments. It is a lie because the reality is that things come from God, belong to God, and will return to God. It is a dangerous illusion because the drive to possess creates walls of greed and protection and security between us and God and between people. If possession is our game of choice, then life becomes acquiring, keeping, and protecting instead of living and sharing and relating.
In today’s Gospel, our Lord asks the disciples who the people and they themselves believe he is. Peter’s Confession that Jesus is the Christ becomes an opportunity for the unveiling of Christ’s intent to build Church upon the rock of Peter and to continue to build upon it through each generation until His return. The only pronoun Jesus used to describe the Church is mine - “upon this rock I will build my church”, He says. This is the most important pronoun in the New Testament. The creedal proclamation that we believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church is summed up in this one word. My fallen desire toward possession and control and power may not, cannot include Church. As much as I believe that if it were mine I could fix it, I could get it to more closely match what I believe Christ had in mind, it is not my church. It is not your church or your monastery or your order, - they are Christ’s. The Collect for today reflects this emphasis as it very intentionally begins “Grant, O merciful God, that your Church…”
If we are not the owners, if the community does not belong to us, then what are we? Are we passive observers free from any responsibility, helplessly watching events unfold around us? No. We are in fact something more than owners - we are stewards. Just as we are formed by those who have loved and taught us, our calling is to receive the tradition, the Christian story, tend it, and pass it on to those who come after us. We are better than merely mine. The story is bigger than us. The Gospel reaches before us and through us and beyond us. The building is still in progress. To be a steward is to allow room for the other, for the whole amazing communion we call Church, to receive the gift of generosity and freedom from the prison of possession. As Br. Scott often says, these things, these institutions, are for “our earthly use” - nothing more, but nothing less either. To become stewards we must have both historical and practical aspects in mind.
Historically, the writings that most powerfully remind me that I am a steward, that the church is not mine, are those of the first five centuries of church history. Our own world is not unlike theirs; materialism and skepticism the dominant religions, historic institutions in turmoil, competing truth claims, struggles to understand the nature of God’s justice in a world of war and evil, anxiety about the direction of country and planet. Within a hostile culture and within a community torn about how to understand and define Christian truth, the early saints and prophets speak with bold clarity about how the Church matters precisely because it does not belong to them. They got that their job was to preserve the Gospel from forces within and without that would compromise it and warp it. They see no contradiction between absolute truth and incomprehensible mystery, between doctrine and wonder. Let us heed their words and examples in our own community and time as we strive to preserve a discipline of simplicity, generosity, and faithfulness with all that God has entrusted to us.
On the practice side, the rejection of possessiveness and the work of stewardship happens in the small movements of everyday life. In believing that that pie was mine, in believing that I had a right to it as my possession, I became angry at my brothers and put my own desire ahead of our common commitment to one another. I forgot what I was called to be and do because of something as silly as pie. Church is not some theoretical concept but loving our brothers in the here and now. The here and now is what leads to conversion. We must cooperate with the small invitations and reminders of daily life form and shape us into stewards.
So, we will grow and thrive as individual monks and as a community to the extent that we open our hands to God and each other. Only as we build on today that those who come after will have a place to stand. To what are we clinging - things, thoughts, habits - that we are willing to give to God? Are we looking for ways to serve rather than be served? Are we looking for ways to share rather than demanding our fair share? Let us resolve that as stewards we will create a community where all is in our care but nothing belongs to us, not even cherry pie.