(Sermon by Lori Erickson at New Song Episcopal Church in Coralville, Iowa, on September 16, 2018)
For much of my life, I’ve been fascinated by the Catholic Church. Part of it was growing up Lutheran in a small town where Catholicism was considered exotic and forbidden, at least in my family. Later, as an adult, I found much to admire in the Catholic Church—especially its saints, its rich iconography, and its liturgies steeped in ancient tradition. For a long time, there’s been a part of me that wishes I’d been born Catholic.
During this past month, I’ve been glad not to be a Catholic.
The reason, of course, is the scandals sweeping through the Catholic Church. You’re probably familiar with at least the outlines of these controversies, which are a toxic brew indeed. What the Catholic Church is experiencing may well turn out to be the greatest threat to its existence since the Protestant Reformation.
It’s been sobering to read the accounts of faithful Catholics, both lay people and clergy, who are by turns furious, sorrowful, and despairing. Many good people have been hurt. They wonder how they can stay. They wonder how far up in the church hierarchy the cover-up goes. And they wonder what will be the future of their beloved church.
Goodness knows that our own Episcopal Church has had its abuses of power and scandal. But in this case, we’re watching the scandals unfold from a distance. Nevertheless, is our brothers and sisters who are hurting, our fellow Christians. And what happens to them, and to their churches, is connected to our own wellbeing.
To many secular people, the scandals engulfing the Catholic world are just another example of why all religion is both ridiculous and harmful. In their eyes, Christians tend to get lumped together as either misguided dupes, shrill moralizers, or predatory creeps.
But I think the reasons for our communal sorrow go deeper than that. We live in a time when many institutions are floundering. In the political realm, in academia, in religion, and in the media, to name just a few, it seems as if the center isn’t holding. Things are spinning out of control, wobbling on their axis, making us wonder where things will land. Many of us have a profound sense of unease, shaken to our core by the breaches of trust on so many fronts.
There are no easy answers to these dilemmas. But it can help, I think, to remember that this is not an unusual state to be in during human history. Good institutions in any era are an anomaly. And almost all of us, given the right circumstances, can be led into an abuse of power, which is paradoxically often done under the guise of trying to do the right thing.
Look at the Gospel reading for today. “Get behind me, Satan,” Jesus says to Peter, “for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” It’s a shocking thing to hear Jesus equate one of his disciples with Satan. It may help a little to remember that in the Jewish thought of the day, Satan didn’t have quite the same connotation of evil that he later acquired in Christianity. Instead he was the Great Tempter, the one who entices humans into sin. But still, it’s a dramatic, shocking statement.
In the Gospel story, Jesus’ words are prompted by Peter rebuking Jesus for saying that he will undergo great suffering, be killed, and then will rise again. “This is crazy talk,” Peter likely said. It makes no sense. But Jesus reprimands him, because he knows that this is the path he must walk.
In our own lives, temptations come in many forms. And they come to institutions, too, which after all are made up of people. Small ethical breaches can cascade and multiply. It’s easy to rail against this corruption—in fact, we have a duty, a religious obligation, to protest against injustice. But at the same time, some humility is required, because the high moral ground is often slippery indeed.
I remember having an uncomfortable confirmation of this truth several years ago when I toured a Stasi Museum in Leipzig, Germany. Back before the fall of the Soviet Union, when Leipzig was part of East Germany, the secret police, known as the Stasi, were the most feared force in German life. The Stasi had tentacles in virtually all segments of society, with informants keeping them up-to-date on everything that was going on. They were constantly on the alert for any sign of lack of faith in the Soviet regime or any hint of threat to the government.
The museum was located in the former precinct headquarters for the secret police in Leipzig. From the outside, there was nothing to set it apart from other office buildings in the downtown. But inside, it had been kept as a time capsule of life before the Berlin Wall fell. People knew that they needed to remember what it was like to live in a totalitarian state.
It was a chilling experience to tour this museum. Its guides were older people who’d lived through the Soviet era. They showed us the many types of technology used to maintain control of citizens. There were devices for secretly recording conversations, and a mailroom where letters were opened. There was a room full of disguises for secret agents, and a set of cells for prisoners.
The part that was most unsettling to me was learning how the Stasi recruited their informants. It wasn’t hard, according to the guides. Let’s say the Stasi was interested in your neighbors across the street. They wanted you to keep an eye on them. All you needed to do was write down the license plate numbers of visitors they had. That’s all. You didn’t need to do much, just come in once a month to headquarters and give a brief report.
And in return, the Stasi would do things for you, as a thank you. Your mother could go to a good nursing facility, not the one where you had to bribe the staff to take care of her. Your children could attend university, where they could get training to become professionals. And all you had to do was look out the window and jot down a few license plate numbers.
It was sobering to realize how tempting it would have been to say yes. How would I have responded? To be honest, I don’t know.
When I think back on my visit to the Stasi Museum, there’s a line that keeps coming back to me. It’s from the writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who wrote the Gulag Archipelago about Soviet oppression, including his own experiences as a prisoner. He wrote, “The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties—but right through every human heart.”
Jesus knew firsthand about temptations. Even he, remarkable as he was, struggled with them. In the desert, Satan tempted him, offering him an array of enticements if he would just bend his principles a little. Make these stones into bread—how wicked could that be? The equivalent, really, of writing down a few license plate numbers.
I think because of this, Jesus had sympathy for those who give into temptation. His words to Peter seem to have been said as much in sorrow as in anger. To be human is to be tempted. To be human is to fail. To be human is to make the wrong choices, again and again, despite our best efforts.
And so when I look at institutions that have failed us, I try to remember that they’re made up of fallible people, who made a choice, and then another choice, that set them on a path that led to darkness, and not to light.
So what is the solution? Is it to take the moral high ground, to denounce the sinners, and head off into our own little protected enclaves? Many in history have done just that. Others have taken a different road. They’ve tried to root out the evildoers, but in the process have themselves become twisted and full of hate. In the quest for moral purity, too often those who judge become worse than those they seek to reprimand. Think of the terrors of the French Revolution, for example, or the Cultural Revolution in China.
An alternative, a better way, is given in the Gospel reading for today. Jesus says, “Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” It’s one of his most powerful statements, a paradox that invites deep reflection. I think part of what he means is that in dealing with the difficulties of life, we need to give up our desire to be right, to be in control, to be powerful. Instead, we need to work for good with humility, trusting in the will of God and the flow of the Spirit.
Let me end with a story from Greg Kandra, who’s a writer as well as a deacon in the Catholic Church. In a homily he delivered the week after the release of the grand jury report in Pennsylvania, the one that ignited the current scandal engulfing the Catholic Church, he spoke with raw emotion about his own feelings of betrayal and sadness.
But he drew comfort, he said, in thinking of a picture he had seen from Syria. It was a First Communion picture, showing dozens of boys and girls dressed in white dresses and suits. But they weren’t standing in an ordinary church. Instead they were standing inside a church in ruins. It had shattered windows and the walls were pockmarked by bullets. And there was scaffolding all around them, used by workers trying to repair the damage to the church brought about by a long and brutal civil war.
The local bishop, he said, wanted the confirmation service to take place there. He wanted the children to have their first communion in that damaged church, to let them know that there is hope to be found even in the midst of brokenness. He told them, “You will help rebuild this church, and this society. You are our hope. And we will do this together.”
Because that is what Christians are called to do. We are called to hope, and we are called to rebuild.