30 Ordinary C – October 27, 2013 – Sacred Strangers in Our Midst
Augustinian monk Martin Luther posted his opinions about the Roman Catholic church in 1517. Soon after large numbers of Christians broke from Catholicism and started their own churches. Lutherans and Protestant religions commemorate that historical transition today — Reformation Sunday. What reformations are going on now?
The Roman Catholic church is still in a time of transition. The Vatican Two Ecumenical Council redefined the church, it reshaped our worship life and opened the doors to dialogues with other religions. We are still growing in our new identity in the world. In the second reading this morning Paul announces he has completed the race. However, the church continues to be a work in progress. We are not yet finished.
Our own diocese is going through a slow reformation. We have closed and merged parishes, we recognize more laywomen and men in leadership positions and soon we will be waiting anxiously for a new bishop. Our parish itself is in a transition. We are growing in membership and outreach ministries and next year we will rearrange our church to reflect our ongoing development as a place where all are welcomed.
But not everyone likes transitions. They take us out of our comfort zones. They turn things upside down. They reverse trends. In 1932 Howard Becker conducted a study on societies undergoing transitions. He compared traditional groups which refused to change with new societies that were more open to transformation. 
Becker wrote that the most creative leadership in times of transition comes from “sacred strangers.” They embrace new possibilities without abandoning the values and principles of their traditions. The sacred stranger participates in creating a new order but is not consumed by it. It is something like a parent learning to text in order to keep valuable lines of communication open with a teenage son or daughter.
How does a church remain relevant without being consumed by a secular society or itself? Was Luther a sacred stranger when he called for reforms in the sixteenth century? Is Pope Francis, who is slowly changing the Vatican establishment, a sacred stranger? How about you and me?
The first reading from the Book of Sirach focusses on religious and ethical questions. Scripture scholars believe that writings from sources like Sirach can help Christians understand “Jesus as a wisdom figure”  who helps us make sense of our lives in terms of our final destiny. Where are we going? How do we get there? How do we tap into the wisdom of Christ?
In the Book of Sirach we read that God has no favorites but does listen to persons who are oppressed, abandoned, brokenhearted, crushed in spirit. These could be the sacred strangers who quietly lead us through transitions in life. They also could be our closest loved ones who help us along. Entering retirement, going through a separation, leaving home to go to school, changing jobs, struggling with a disease, dying … all are transitions we experience in life. Are they total hardships? Are they opportunities for something new?
Not all transitions are bad. This weekend several parishioners are at Coxsackie Correctional Facility ministering to prisoners whose lives are in transition. There are sponsors and catechists helping the young adults whose lives are being transformed in our Christian Initiation process. Ministers in our food pantry are working to help thousands who are hungry. All of these persons are sacred strangers helping one another find new directions in their lives.
In Luke’s gospel today Jesus is presented as the embodiment of divine wisdom, a sacred stranger. He tells a story about two Jews who ignored the 613 laws in the Book of Deuteronomy. The pharisee was in denial boasting about all he did. The public official was more realistic in admitting his shortcomings.  In the story Jesus reverses the two. The pretentious man gets humbled and the self-deprecating man gets the praise. What a transition! Just when you think you are on the top of the world, you all of sudden find yourself at the bottom!
The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy reminds us that our worship of God is intended to be a life changing experience for us. The idea is that if you celebrate the liturgy long enough something begins to change inside you, too. The liturgy is no longer just about someone else. You discover that it has to do with you, too. The radical adaptation of the liturgy (CSL, No. 40) is one way to accommodate diversity in the the church. Some say liturgical changes are good as long as there is continuity with the past. Others see them as opportunities for close scrutiny and true reform of the church and its members, you and me.
This coming year our diocese and our parish will see some changes. We can greet these transitions as opportunities to adapt new and creative ways to worship God, conduct church affairs and serve others. We can become sacred strangers in a time that needs new voices.
1 Becker, Howard. “Processes of Secularization: An Ideal-Typical Analysis with Special Reference to Personality Change as Affected by Population Movement.” Sociological Review 24 (1932): 138-54, 266-86 in Rasmussen, Larry L. Earth-Honoring Faith: Religious Ethics in a New Key. (New York: Oxford) 2013, 364
2 Fuller, Reginald. Preaching the Lectionary:The Word of God for the Church Today (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press. 1984 (Revised Edition), 514-16
3 Fuller. Ibid