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Don’t let faith be whittled out of public sphere

By Bishop Terry R. LaValley

February 6, 2019

The following is Bishop Terry R. LaValley’s homily for last Sunday, the Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time.

As you know, whittling usually requires a small knife and some type of material that can be cut and reshaped. As we go around the North Country, we see artisans using even chainsaws to do some creative chiseling with impressive results. Wood, ivory and some types of stone have all been the medium for creative artistic expression. People can also whittle with words, using other people as their medium, seeking to “cut them down to size.” Checkout counter tabloids often wildly praise a celebrity one month and the next month trash the same person.

In today’s Gospel, the people of Nazareth say, in effect, “This Jesus may be all well and good, but we aren’t in awe of him because we know his relatives. He’s interesting but no big deal. We’re not impressed.” In the same breath they acknowledge and neutralize Him!

Jesus encountered many people who thought they had Him all figured out, who refused to budge from their judgments. Although Jesus’ mission in life is not to upset people, the Good News eventually challenges our assumptions about God, ourselves and other people. In time, the Good News must confront every kind of idolatry, every attempt to cut God down to our size – even if that attempt to play God is made by people who claim that they are proud of their religion. Claiming to be a Catholic school graduate or even a former altar server doesn’t inoculate one from catching the deadly Cafeteria Catholic virus. Our Catholic political leaders need to understand this. The recent death-dealing decision to expand abortions in New York and the arrogant attack on the Catholic Church is a good example.

When we try to live out the Good News we have heard, people sometimes try to whittle us down to size, to neutralize the power of the Gospel. Many people will easily admit to being fanatical about a sports team, a TV show or some food but are absolutely terrified of being called fanatical about their religion. True religious fanaticism, of course, does exist. It can create its own comfort zone. Unconscionable terror and violence are often its rotten fruit.

But sometimes people apply the word “fanaticism” to others who simply allow religion to influence their entire life instead of a well-defined sliver of it. Somehow being religious has become a negative term in the mouths of many, a way of trying to neutralize people who question the status quo, who ask questions that threaten the comfort zone of those who play God. If we try to live a virtuous life or speak about the difference between right and wrong, like defending the life of the unborn, we are labeled as bigots or meddling in someone’s right to do what they want.

Martin Luther King, Jr., whose national holiday we celebrated a couple of weeks ago, was often accused of “meddling” when he defended civil rights. Many Christians felt their comfort zone threatened by his work. Since the dreadful day in 1973 when the nation’s highest court ruled that it was legal to kill unborn babies, Pro-Lifers have prayed, marched, and voted for Life. They challenge the comfort zones of so many who would prefer to allow abortions to become a given fact of life. Today, tragically too many seem to believe that such “religious fanatics” as Pro-Lifers should be whittled down to size and neutralized.

We come to this Eucharist to be challenged by the Word of God, to be strengthened for a journey during which we may meet opposition precisely because we seek to follow Jesus who is the Way, the Truth and the Life. In this sacred space, we grow strong roots, nurtured with God’s Word and the Bread from Heaven. We can and will weather any storm as we try to follow our Lord. We cannot, we simply will not go away. Through it all – May God be praised…forever may God be praised!

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