Not long ago, I read a short essay by a Protestant minister named Lillian Daniel. She described an experience that a lot of us in the clergy have had at one time or another: being on an airplane, striking up a conversation with a stranger, and then hearing that person explain, for the rest of the flight, how they are “spiritual, but not religious.”
In this theology, it’s all about finding God on the beach, or in a sunset. We’ve all heard variations of this. “I don’t need to go to church to pray” or “God is everywhere, I don’t need to be at Mass.”
Rev. Daniels finds those arguments unconvincing. And she concludes:
“Thank you for sharing, ‘spiritual but not religious’ person. You are now comfortably in the norm for self-centered American culture, right smack in the bland majority of people who find ancient religions dull but find themselves uniquely fascinating. Can I switch seats now and sit next to someone who has been shaped by a mighty cloud of witnesses instead? Can I spend my time talking to someone brave enough to encounter God in a real human community?”
What she taps into here is something that the scriptures underscore this weekend, as well: the beautiful, infuriating, comforting fact that we are all in this together. We are called to witness to one another, to support one another, to pray for and with one another. To be in the best sense, in the words of scripture, “neighbors” to one another.
“The commandments are summed up in this saying,” St. Paul wrote. “‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”
One of the most visible and influential clergymen in the world used to appear on television regularly and made that a part of his message. I’m not talking about Billy Graham or Fulton Sheen. I’m talking about Mr. Rogers. Before he was a TV star, Fred Rogers was a Presbyterian minister. And every day, he asked his young viewers, “Won’t you be my neighbor?” It sounds simple and simple-minded – but in many ways, that is what St. Paul was asking the early Christians to do: to form communities of faith, of neighbors bound together by love.
What so many of us forget is this: Christianity is not singular. It is plural.
Paul wrote this letter to the Romans, not a Roman. Just as he didn’t write to a Thessalonian or a Corinthian. These were communities, and much of his work was devoted to teaching them, reminding them, how to live together as this new community called “Christians.”
He assured them then, and he assures us now: it all comes down to just one thing.
Love. But what St. Paul has in mind may be different than we think.
Very often at weddings, couples choose for one of their readings Paul’s beautiful letter to the Corinthians: “Love is patient, love is kind, love bears all things…” In my wedding homily, I usually remind people that this wasn’t written about marriage, or romantic love. Paul was writing about the love of the community, and how to live together as a community built on love. I like to tell couples that not only will they be husband and wife, but they will also be neighbors. Very close neighbors. So, yes: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” I then ask the congregation, their neighbors in the wider world, to heed Paul’s words and give to this couple something that wasn’t listed in the bridal registry. Give them love. Patient, kind, supportive love, that kind that bears all things and hopes all things.
That’s something every newly married couple needs more than fancy china or expensive silverware.
They need — we all need — the love and support of others. We are part of something larger than ourselves.
That is something Jesus makes clear in today’s gospel.
“Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”
Because Christianity isn’t singular. It’s plural.
Being part of a community of faith – a church — isn’t always easy. It means, yes, getting up and going to mass and being a part of this Holy Sacrifice. It means being in community and in communion, with all the obligations and sacrifices and practices that entails.
We’re practicing that this morning. And it means that for one hour, on one day, we are united in prayer. It means there’s someone beside us, to share a missal. But it also means there’s someone behind us, to sing off key. Someone in front of us to block the view. Someone in the parking lot after Mass to cause that bottleneck or sit on his horn.
But there is someone – someone close to us, to reassure us that we really aren’t alone. And, whether we like it or not, we are called to love that other person. To love them as we love ourselves.
It may be a message we especially need to hear right now.
You probably know that the scriptures we hear at Mass are on a three-year rotation. Every three years, the reading for the 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, today, is the same. But by sheer coincidence, or maybe the hand of God, the gospel readings both this Sunday, and next Sunday, September the 11th, offer profound messages for us as we mark the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. This Sunday, the message is about community and love of neighbor, and settling differences with one another; next week, on the actual anniversary of the attacks, it goes even deeper, and the recurring theme is something even more challenging: forgiveness.
As we remember those who were lost, the tragic events that touched all our lives, the gospel calls us to do something truly countercultural. Something counterintuitive. Something radical.
We are called to love. And we are called to forgive.
Not just as a community of believers, but also as a community of mankind.
As we approach the Lord’s table this Sunday, let us pray for a deepening of love — love for the Lord, love for His gifts to us, including those neighbors He has put into our lives.
Let us pray to be not just spiritual, but also religious – bound to one another, to a church, to a realization that faith makes demands on us. But love makes us want to meet those demands. Being here, belonging here, is key to what it means to be Catholic – a word whose very definition means “universal.”
Because our faith is greater than we can possibly imagine.
It isn’t singular. It’s plural.