September 24, 2023
Isaiah 55:6-9; Matthew 20:1-16
A couple of weeks ago I was at a wedding reception, and a nice man sat down across from me at the table. He wanted to talk about religion, and he said the same things people always say when they talk about religion: that he was raised in the Church but grew out of it, that the Church is full of hypocrites, and that there isn’t one way to God.
I’ve heard this hundreds of times, exactly these three things: I was raised in the Church, the Church is full of hypocrites, there isn’t one way. It’s the new kerygma statement. The new dogma.
And I don’t mean to be condescending, because the man at the reception is a good man, someone who is sincerely searching for God. It just feels to me that talking in generalities like this is almost always an evasion. It’s beside the point. “Seek the Lord where he may be found,” Isaiah says, and I don’t think he can be found in abstractions.
So I listened, and I tried not to get sucked into a debate, and finally I asked him: what makes you the happiest? Where do you feel most like yourself?
This is the question, I think. This is what really matters.
And the man stopped, and thought, and then veered away again, back out into the memes, back out into ideas, and I don’t blame him. It’s hard to talk about your deepest hopes and fears, especially with someone you don’t know. It’s hard to face your own emptiness. It’s hard to see the subtle ways God is working in your life.
And even when we want to, it’s hard to put what we feel into words. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts,” says the Lord in Isaiah, “nor are your ways my ways . . . As high as the heavens are above the earth, so high are my ways above your ways, my thoughts above your thoughts.” That’s why dogma is always secondary, why dogma is always limited, because God is beyond all language, including our own—and this is the dogma, this is what the dogma professes, that the God we believe in doesn’t follow good business practices, like the landowner in the Gospel today, that the God we believe in doesn’t reward us according to how long or hard we work but is loving and generous beyond all measure.
Dogma, Flannery O’Connor says, is “the gateway to mystery.”
God, Gerard Manley Hopkins says, is “an incomprehensible certainty.”
But I wasn’t trying to tell this good man what the truth is. I was trying to say that he already knows it. I wasn’t trying to tell him that he needed to get God in his life. I was trying say that He already is in his life. What most deeply concerns me is how lost and lonely we all are, and that unless we have some kind of tradition and some set of spiritual practices and some kind of community to love us and hold us accountable, we’re going to miss entirely the one astounding fact: that God isn’t dead. He’s alive, in us and all around us. “Seek the Lord where he may be found,” Isaiah says, “call him while he is near,” and he is always near.
Didn’t Jesus perform his first miracle at a wedding reception, when he turned the water into wine—and where nobody could see it, nobody knew it was happening but Mary and the servants who served the others?
And this isn’t just a one-way thing. I get lost in the weeds, I get tempted into pointless arguments, all the time, and this man’s doubts were calling me to humility, and to listening, and to a deeper faith.
“Let us abandon our polemics,” Pope Francis says, in his new apostolic letter on Eucharistic renewal, “and listen to what the Spirit is saying to the Church.” Jesus falls in beside us on the road, but we don’t recognize him at first. We sit down at a table, at a wedding reception or coffee shop or in our own kitchen, and at just the moment of the breaking of the bread, we know: it’s him. Then he vanishes.
This is one of the main reasons we go to mass, I think, to train our hearts, to help us recognize the Lord when he falls in beside us—though as the pope keeps stressing, we need more training to begin with, too, before we come to this table and stand at this altar. The pope published his apostolic letter last year as the bishops of the United States began a three-year Eucharistic Renewal. It’s called, in English, I Have Earnestly Desired, and this is one of its most important points. We have to learn to think more imaginatively and creatively, the pope says. We have to learn to move from the head to the heart. The landowner’s wild and unexpected generosity can’t be understood according to our own narrow philosophical categories. The Eucharist is entirely his gift. Not something earned. Not something predictable. Not something we can put under a microscope. A poem, not a formula. An experience, not an object.
A few days after my conversation at the reception, in the same week, I had exactly the same conversation again, at a lovely brunch in a big, beautiful house on a horse farm in the hills outside of Oregon City. The husband and wife who hosted are kind and generous people, and we all had a wonderful time, and at the end, as were sitting at their kitchen table, the wife turned to me and began to talk about religion: that she was raised in the Church but grew out of it, that the Church is full of hypocrites, and that there isn’t one way to God. And I listened, as we need to listen, and after a while I asked her, what makes you most deeply happy? Where do you sense the presence of the God?
And she answered, immediately: with her horses.
This is a lovely, caring woman, and she has two rescue horses, one blind in one eye, one so old all he can do is lean. Early every morning she gets up and pulls on her rubber boots and trudges down to the barn. She shovels out their oats and brushes them down, and sometimes when she feels their warm breath on her face, she is so moved she cries, she said, and when I heard this, I was moved, too.
Earlier she’d told me that she didn’t think “religion should be hard.” But I said: taking care of your horses sounds like a pretty difficult practice to me.
It sounds like a spiritual practice.
Seek the Lord where he can be found. Call him while he is near.
Isn’t this what we believe? That all things were created through Him and in Him? That the Lord himself was born into the world, in a little town in the hills? That once in a stable a tremendous miracle took place—and is still taking place? Is always taking place?