A homily for Friday offered in the context of a retreat given on St. Clare of Assisi at the Community of St. John Baptist, Mendham, NJ. The appointed Gospel is Mark 3:13-19.
Alasdair MacIntyre is a Scottish professor of moral and political ethics whose 1981 book I mentioned the other morning. The book called After Virtue is often cited as one of the most important ethical works of the 20th century. Though it’s difficult to read, MacIntyre argues that morality has become an individual pursuit, left to the feelings of any particular person—while a real moral framework can only be created and sustained in community. Some see in his work a kind of “politics of self-defense” for local communities and groups who hope to survive the forces of capitalism and the other enormous cultural shifts taking place around us. In a classic section that I keep rereading, MacIntyre says this:
…[F]or some time now we too have reached a turning point. What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us. And if the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last dark ages, we are not entirely without grounds for hope. This time however the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament. We are waiting not for Godot, but for another—doubtless very different—St. Benedict. (After Virtue, p. 286)
While many find MacIntyre’s statement disconcerting and pessimistic, I actually find it hopeful. I find it hopeful because I know St. Benedict and others like him and I know communities—like this one and many others—who have been building and sustaining “local forms of community” for generations. While we sometimes worry that we’re going extinct or can’t see what the next chapter of faith might look like, we at least have the capacity and the tools to go forward, creating a new world, and (in our case) living into the Kingdom of God.
In our first reading, from the Letter to the Hebrews, we’re reminded that our God is a God of covenant relationship. God wants to gather us together in a community that is accountable to God. In our Gospel, we see God in Jesus gathering up a new community.
Jesus calls the twelve apostles. Then he calls gifts out of them. And then he sends them out to spread the message of God’s love, all the while, building new communities so that God’s love in Christ can be “gazed upon, considered, contemplated, and imitated,” as Clare might remind us.
Though it’s natural to question the institutional ways in which we maintain community—whether that is a religious order or a parish—but we, too, have been called just as powerfully as those first disciples.
Jesus calls us by name. We have heard that calling and we have responded. But we should never forget that he continues to call us to new ministries, new perspectives, and new ways of living out that original calling.
Jesus calls particular skills and gifts out of us. But again, with the Spirit’s work within us, Jesus keeps calling new gifts out of us, if we’re open and alert. I could not have told you years ago that I would feel deeply and clearly called to work on my Spanish and really get it conversational when I’m in my 50’s. I also could not have told you that my old construction skills and instincts developed through college summers would help me manage and maintain five church buildings from 1899. Who knows what God is calling each of us to learn and grow and accomplish next?
And finally, just as we have responded to Christ’s call and embraced the gifts for ministry he has given, he has sent us and continues to send us. Sometimes the mission field is across the room and sometimes it’s across the globe. But we have what we need in our initial calling, in the gifts given and grown, and in the abiding power of Christian community.
Especially on this Inauguration Day filled with so much division and rancor, and as we prepare to be faithful people in the days ahead, may we remember that we are called, but we are also called into community, but we are also called as a community to pick up our cross daily. And as we discussed this morning, this means allowing space for those we disagree with. Miroslav Volf reminds us, that in the Cross, “We who have been embraced by the outstretched arms of the crucified God must open our arms even for the enemies—to make space in ourselves for them and invite them in—so that together we may rejoice in the eternal embrace of the triune God.” (Exclusion and Embrace, p. 47, in Ilia Delio’s Clare of Assisi: A Heart Full of Love)
May God deepen our several callings, strengthen our vocations, and fill us with the Holy Spirit to be faithful until we are joined with God.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.