Rev. Dr. Shanon M. Sterringer, ARCWP
September 15, 2019 Homily for the Dedication of the
Community of St. Hildegard in Fairport Harbor, OH
In the Gospel we just heard, Jesus tells his disciples, they will expel you from the synagogues. I have told you these things so that when the time comes, you’ll remember that I told you ahead of time.
While preparing for this liturgy, my husband asked me if I was going to start the homily with a joke. I thought about it and here goes: “They will expel you from the synagogues” – and then they will send you letters of excommunication and post your name in the parish bulletin… History has shown us time and time again, no individual or institution, regardless of its perceived power, can stop the work of the Holy Spirit.
On May 10th of this year, when criticized for again dragging their feet on making a decision regarding the reinstatement of the female diaconate – for which solid evidence supports existed in the Roman Catholic Church for centuries, Pope Francis responded that the Catholic Church is not going to ordain women – but, and this is a direct quote, “If someone wants to make another church, they are free to do so." And here we are! On September 10th just a few days ago, when criticized for the fact that the Catholic Church is breaking off into a number of different factions today – conservative and liberal, Pope Francis replied that while he does not like it, he is not afraid of break-away groups. The pope stated, “There has always been a schismatic option in the church, always.” I fully agree with Pope Francis in that the whole history of the Church has been the result of very diverse factions struggling to find common ground, battling with one another over who has the truth. The Roman Catholic Church was built as the result of a schism. Jesus and his disciples, initially known as “The Way”, broke off from traditional Judaism. Jesus was a Jew, he died a Jew, and he loved his Jewish faith, but by Jewish standards he was not a very good Jew – he dissented and as we know, Holy Week resulted. So much of Jesus’ vision and ministry has been lost and distorted over the last two thousand years, shaped into nationalism, clericalism, sexism, and many other “isms” that were not a part of his message.
Let’s jump ahead to the Protestant Reformation – Martin Luther was an Augustian monk and a Catholic priest. He loved his faith, but he reacted and resisted the injustices of the institution. The prophetic act of hammering his 95 Theses was intended to reform the Church from within. But, instead, he was expelled, and had he not had the proper protection, he would have been killed. Martin Luther did not set out to create a new denomination – he set out initially to reform the Church that he loved. He was not well received by the hierarchy and as we know from history, his expulsion did not stop the Protestant Reformation, but rather it planted the seeds for a new generation of Christianity. A new way of being Church.
What we are experiencing today, in this liturgy, is an historical event. Historical not only in the sense that we are creating something new - though it feels new - but historical in the sense that we are reclaiming our divinely ordered place – a place given to women, by Jesus himself. Contrary to popular belief, Jesus did not select and ordain twelve men at the Last Supper. Jesus did not ordain anyone. Throughout his ministry he called many women and men to follow him. To lead others to God by modeling what he himself witnessed – humility, understanding, compassion, forgiveness, radical acceptance, and selfless love. Jesus did not sit down with Peter and compose the Code of Canon Law – Canon Law developed in the middle ages. From the scriptures we know that during his life, Jesus himself repeatedly broke the religious laws of his day by the way he loved those the institution had deemed unlovable and he charged his disciples to do the same. Love God and love one another – this is the only law Jesus established – the ten commandments, Jesus said, are encompassed in this one command - LOVE. Sounds simple enough. Yet, here we are, two thousand years later, with a Code of 1,752 Canons to enforce unjust, unloving, man-made laws, several of which unfairly expel faithful Catholics from their parishes and diocese.
Like many of you here today, I am a cradle Catholic. Catholicism is in my blood. I have been a Roman Catholic minister – seminary trained – for two decades. Like you, I have always been taught that Catholics do not build or open our own Churches – that is what the other Christians do. Rather, we go to Church and we follow the rules and we do what the priest or bishop tells us to do. The problem with this, is not only that the rules are often unjust, but the institution is not even following its own rules. Certainly, there are good priests, we are blessed to have one here in Fairport Harbor. However, we are all well aware that our parishes and dioceses are inundated with scandals, dysfunction, and toxic leadership – this is evident simply from turning on the news. In the last 15 years, dozens of dioceses here in the U.S. have filed bankruptcy, a diocese filing bankruptcy – it’s astounding - as a result of paying out compensation for criminal acts. Like so many other moments in history, as Pope Francis himself acknowledged just a few days ago, sometimes we are left with no other option but to be expelled and create something new.
The readings for today were selected because they capture St. Hildegard’s charism and her understanding of the integral relationship between the sacred and mundane. Every part of creation – from inanimate stones to angels – all are a part of God’s divinely ordered universe. St. Hildegard of Bingen, as you may know, was a creative genius. She was a visionary (many of her visions are depicted on our walls, including her vision of the fallen stars here in the sanctuary), a mystic, a theologian, an artist, a musician, a preacher, a philosopher, a natural healer, a prophet, a letter-writer, and honestly, she was a pain in the ass to the hierarchy of her day. She challenged the law – religious and secular – when it contradicted the Gospel. She took her faith seriously and when the institution, entrusted with protecting, preserving, and passing on the faith failed in its mission, and we know it often fails, she did not hesitate to challenge it with scathing letters, profound preaching, and prophetic witness. And yet, Pope Benedict XVI, in 2012 not only canonized her, but named her the 4th female Doctor of the Church, putting her on the same level with the male doctors of the Church, including St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Augustine, and St. Anthony of Padua.
I would like to read an excerpt from one of St. Hildegard’s letters to the “Shepherds of the Church” aka the bishops, around the year 1163AD. This letter was a copy of a homily she preached in Cologne:
“The one who was, and is, and is about to come, speaks to the shepherds of the Church… The trumpet of the Lord is the justice of God which you should meditate upon zealously in holiness, and make it known to the people at the proper time with holy discretion, rather than pounding them mercilessly with it. But you are not doing this on account of the waywardness of your own will. Thus, the luminaries are missing from the firmament of God’s justice in your utterances, as when the stars do not shine, for you are the night exhaling darkness, and you are like people who do not work, nor even walk in the light because of your indolence. But just as a snake hides in a cave after it has shed its skin, you walk in filth like disgusting beasts…”
I have to admit, I take great pleasure at times in reading her writings. Hildegard’s courage to stand strong in her convictions did not come without a personal cost and consequences. She spent several months during the last year of her life under an interdict which was only lifted shortly before she died. An interdict is another form of expulsion - she and her entire convent were forbidden from singing the liturgy of hours or participating in the sacramental life of the church, including receiving communion. At the age of 80 years old, she traveled from Bingen to Mainz to hand deliver a lengthy letter to the bishops regarding the interdict. In this letter she wrote:
“And I heard a voice saying thus: Who created the heavens? God. Who opens the heavens to the faithful? God. Who is like God? No one. And so, O men of faith, let none of you resist God or oppose him, lest he fall on you in his might and you have no helper to protect you from his judgment. This is a womanish time because the dispensation of God’s justice is weak. The strength of God’s justice is exerting itself, a female warrior battling against injustice, so that it might fall defeated.”
Eventually the interdict was lifted, thanks to her friend, Philip, the Archbishop of Cologne who advocated on her behalf. What was the reason for the interdict? She broke Church law. She buried an excommunicated soldier who had died in her infirmary in the abbey cemetery and refused to exhume the body when ordered by the bishops to remove it from sacred ground. She showed the soldier love and in return she and her sisters were punished. Hildegard’s faith was stronger than her fear. She fiercely believed in the presence of Living Light, the greening power of viriditas, and the potential for personal, social, and ecclesial transformation in every circumstance.
Something new is unfolding all around us. In the words of St. Hildegard, it is a womanish time. New life – viriditas – is bursting forth through every crack and crevice waking us up to a new way of understanding what it means to be human, to be in relationship with one another, with God, and with all of the created world. As old systems are crumbling, there is a lot of debris, dust, and mess creating chaos and fear. Fear of change. Fear of ambiguity. Fear of letting go of the way we have always done things. Fear causes us to desperately grab on to whatever remnants of the old remain. During times of change, there is always a temptation to fall back on rigid rules and unyielding policies because they provide a false sense of security.
The readings for today paint a beautiful image of a recreated world. Where the walls of the new Jerusalem are shining with gemstones and precious metals. A place where the sun and moon are no longer needed because God’s Living Light is perpetually shining brightly. We are being called to build this place through radical, selfless, unconditional love. It is risky, awkward, uncomfortable, and sometimes dangerous, but it is the only way. Love one another as I have loved you. This is the only mandate Jesus gave to us. No other rules, no Canon Law, no fine print. Jesus did not, and does not, expel anyone from the synagogues or any faith community.
I am only able to stand here in front of you today, as an ordained minister, in spite of an institution that stubbornly refuses to acknowledge the vocation of women to holy orders, because of the love and support of so many, in places I did not even realize existed. The Hildegard Haus simply would not be a reality without the work of so many hands within the community. Every aspect of this space – from the vestments I am wearing to the table we are about to consecrate, came from members here in this congregation and I sincerely thank all of you.
At this time, we will bless the altar. As part of the blessing we would like to invite anyone who would like to participate to come forward and either lay hands on the wood or anoint it with some of the salve here in this bowl. This salve was made only a few days ago with beeswax and honey from our hives and biblical oils. Blessing this altar is not the task of the ordained ministers. It takes many hands, and it will take many more hands to continue to create something new, vibrant, and sustainable here in this sacred space. Bishop Mary Eileen will lead us first in the prayers of dedication and then we invite you up a row at a time to join us in consecrating the Eucharistic table we will share.