A week or so ago I read an article about a survey concerning religion that was taken by an organization that makes many surveys of religious groups. The results of the survey showed that on forms where people are asked to identify their religion, the number of those who marked "none" had gone up quite a bit, almost alarmingly for those of us who are part of what we call "organized religion." It's true especially of young people.
Second Sunday of Lent
They seem not to feel the need for an attachment to a church or an institutional religious body. At first I felt discouraged by this, but I'm sure we all understand that it's happening. More and more people say, "None," when they're asked what their religious affiliation is. But as I listened in my own heart and spirit to today's readings, I found a lot to be encouraged about because if you think about it, organized religion came kind of late in history.
You go back to Abraham in the book of Genesis and when God called Abraham from Ur of the Chaldees and told him to leave his family, leave his place, and God would establish him as a new nation, Abraham left everything and followed where God led. But then nothing seemed to be happening. When we get to the part in Genesis, which was our lesson today, we find Abraham asking God, "You have given me no children. When will it happen?"
This is many, many years later. Then the word of God was spoken to him. God took him outside and said to him, "Look up at the sky. Count the stars if you can. Your descendants will be like them." Here's the important point: Abraham believed God. Because of this, it helped Abraham to be just. What that means is that he was in a right relationship with God. There was no organized religion. There was no Jewish religion, no Islamic religion, and no Christian religion.
But Abraham, because he trusted God's word, was justified or made righteous. Later on as organized religion began to develop in human history, the Jewish religion, long before the Christian religion, was well established. In the Jewish religion, of course, when Moses came, the covenant was entered into and God gave the commandments and developed what they call the Torah, the law that all Jewish people are expected to follow.
Even then, it was more important to have a relationship with God than simply to follow the rules of the religion. Here's an example of what I mean: A couple of years ago a friend of mine, a priest, invited an Orthodox rabbi to his parish to speak to the people about Judaism. After he had explained the 613 laws of the Torah and how he faithfully kept them, someone asked him about his belief in the afterlife.
The rabbi said, "I believe everyone eventually gets into heaven." Then, like my friend said, a half a dozen hands immediately went up with the same question, "Why do you keep these laws -- 613 -- if you think everyone is going to heaven anyways?" The rabbi smiled and answered, "Because God has asked me to keep them." The rabbi's simple answer is at the heart of Abraham's righteousness, the justice. He wants your inner relationship with God, and then you're ready to listen to God and to do what God asks.
We can do that certainly with the encouragement and the help of others in the church community, but we could also do it otherwise, although I think for most people, it would be quite difficult. The key point is listening to God. That's how we become righteous. You notice in the Gospel lesson when the disciples find Jesus transfigured before them and in conversation with Moses and Elijah, Moses represents the law and Elijah the prophets -- the mainstay of the Jewish religion. Jesus then is transfigured and God speaks.
Jesus is representative of the fulfillment of the law and the prophets. God says, "This is my Son, my Beloved. Listen to him." Of course, those first disciples, that's what they did. They began to listen deeply to Jesus and they began to understand what he was asking of them. They determined that they would indeed follow him and become his disciples and pass on his message to others. During this season of Lent, probably the most important thing we can do as we prepare to celebrate our renewed life in Jesus through the resurrection is to make sure we try to listen to God, especially speaking to us through Jesus.
I don't want to give the impression that I think it's not important to come to church. It is because this is where you're going to listen each week, if you come, and listen deeply, preparing before you come, reading the Scriptures ahead of time, trying to get a sense of what God is saying to me -- each of us at this moment in my life, listening and then following. That's how we become justified or righteous. That's how we have the right relationship with God.
Surely it helps that we become a community. Your example of faith strengthens my faith. That's true for every one of us here. We strengthen the faith of one another by coming together and praying as a community. We can also carry out the work of Jesus more effectively as a community. But again, the clear and important thing, the most important thing is that each one of us listens to Jesus. There are those who decide they don't need an institutional church and sometimes it's so sad, but there have been so many times when the church has failed people.
The whole sex abuse scandal has been a terrible thing in the church. Sometimes Pope Francis speaks about this -- priests who push people away and aren't sensitive and shepherding people. So there are many reasons why people leave the church, but if they do or if they don't, the key thing is to listen to Jesus. A very current example is the thing going on between Donald Trump and Pope Francis. The Pope says, "If you listen to Jesus, you don't build walls to keep people out. When I was hungry you gave me to eat. When I was a stranger you took me in. That's Jesus." You can belong, and Mr. Trump belongs to a church and yet, if he's not listening to Jesus then he's failing.
The same is true of anyone of us. We can come to church every week, but if we don't listen and let Jesus change us, change the way we act, the way we interact with one another, the way we make our decisions in our daily life, if we don't listen, coming to church isn't really going to make us righteous. Listening to Jesus as Abraham listened to God, as the disciples listened to Jesus, and as each one of us tries now to listen to Jesus who is God speaking to us, we will become righteous.
What really will happen, we as a community will be attractive to people and they will come back so that fewer and fewer will mark "none" on a form where they're asked their religion. As Jesus himself said about himself, "When I am lifted up pouring forth my love upon the whole world, I will draw all people to myself." That's what will happen if we listen to Jesus, become a community of his disciples, following his way, we will draw people. We will draw people from the world around us, and we will also bind ourselves being ingraced with God's graces so that we will be as Abraham was declared to be like God, righteous, justified, a friend of God.
[Homily given at St. Philomena Parish, Detroit, Mich. The transcripts of Bishop Gumbleton's homilies are posted weekly to NCRonline.org. Sign up here to receive an email alert when the latest homily is posted.]