Most Reverend Vincent Long Van Nguyen OFM Conv DD STL, Bishop of Parramatta
Homily for the 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B 2018 at St Patrick’s Cathedral, Parramatta
23 September 2018
I came across a book, which has a curious title Shrinking the Megachurch. It is actually an autobiography of an evangelical pastor who was so successful, he could have built himself a church bigger than Hillsong. But he asked himself at the crucial time whether he should be an empire builder or the Kingdom builder.
The empire builder – according to the author – is preoccupied with success, influence and expansion. He is driven by ambition, power and self-image.
The Kingdom builder on the other hand is concerned with mending and strengthening relationships. He is guided by the self-sacrifice, vulnerability and powerlessness of the Humble Servant. The pastor opted for the latter, hence the title of his book. He purposely chose to be the Kingdom builder and focused on building communities and relationships.
Looking at our history as a Church, I wonder if at times we have not been more of empire builders than Kingdom builders.
It wasn’t just the Crusaders or the Conquistadors who sought to defend and expand Christendom by violent means.
In my childhood, it was not unusual to hear of village priests who sought to outdo one another as to who would have a bigger congregation, a bigger church and even a higher steeple. They had plenty of lay supporters because it was so easy for everyone to buy into the empire building mentality.
The Word of God this Sunday provides a kind of antidote to this mentality. The first reading gives us a reflection on vulnerability as a virtue. It is not the usual theology of reward and punishment that we find in many places in the Old Testament. This theology basically says that the good are rewarded and the wicked are punished even in this life.
Here the book of Wisdom gives a deeper and more mature reflection on vulnerability, for which the book of Job is a masterpiece. Here, faith in God is pursued for its own sake rather than for the sense of closure and vindication. The true believer or the virtuous man entrusts himself to God rather than relying on the judgments and estimations of others. He is made vulnerable and powerless in the face of trouble. In that total vulnerability and powerlessness, he is the forerunner to the Servant Jesus.
The Gospel tells us the story of how Jesus gives his disciples a sobering lesson on authentic discipleship. This is the second time he brings them down to earth after a high adrenaline event. The first time he spoke about his death was after the feeding of the multitudes.
Then it was Peter who did not get it. He earned a sharp rebuke by Jesus for trying to talk him out of the cross. This time, after the transfiguration, they were all excited about the prospects that lied ahead in Jerusalem. They still did not get it when Jesus spoke to them about his own arrest and crucifixion. They were hopelessly set in their empire building mentality. Jesus had to use a child in order to drive home to them a crucial lesson. “Anyone who welcomes a little child like this in my name welcomes me.” This is a graphic and powerful message about vulnerability and powerlessness.
The way of the empire is all about conquest, subjugation and control. The way of Jesus’ Kingdom flies in the face of ambition, upward mobility, power and glory. In effect, he teaches us that Christian discipleship is about the willingness to suffer with others, to be vulnerable with the vulnerable, to be last with the least, to be powerless with those without power.
This downward journey is not one that we can easily accept and live by. Yet that is the true test of our discipleship. St Francis understood this when he rejected all forms of power, entitlement and privilege. He made himself a servant of the poor, the marginalised and despised. He forbade the friars to have honorific titles, to hold positions of power or to have any resemblance of wealth such as wearing fine clothes and riding horses. This should make any Franciscan bishop uncomfortable. The truth is St Francis simply applied the radical message of Jesus to the culture in which he lived. We need to find concrete expressions of the downward journey of Christian discipleship.
We are living in a time of diminishment as far as the Church’s size and influence are concerned. Perhaps we should learn to shrink the megachurch mentality and grow the Kingdom mentality instead. Perhaps we should learn the art of vitality in smallness, we should learn to increase the quality of our faith and relationship in this fallow time.
But then again, the shrinking is being done for us whether we like it or not anyway. We are being shrunk to become a smaller church and hopefully a more humble and authentic sacrament of the Kingdom.
It is in this time, this Kairos moment that we have an opportunity to focus on building the Kingdom in our witness of faith, hope, love, goodness and vulnerability.
Let us pray that we as disciples and community of faith have the courage to walk the downward journey of Jesus the Humble Suffering Servant in solidarity with our brothers and sisters.