The Gospel for June 25th, 2017: “Courage Under Persecution”
Reflection: Seeing Jesus in Our Enemies
Last night I saw a regional theater production of Sister Act: A Divine Musical Comedy. The production is inspired by the highly successful, Whoopi Goldberg movie from the nineties, and both tell the story of Deloris Van Cartier, a lounge singer who witnesses her gangster boyfriend commit murder and seeks witness protection by hiding among an order of nuns in a run-down, neighborhood parish. The show is noticeably different from the movie version in many ways. One is that the musical develops the internal conflicts of some of the nuns in greater psychological depth, including that of the Mother Superior (played by Maggie Smith in the movie version), who struggles to accept that the arrival of Deloris, which rejuvenates her sisters and their parish through her musical talents as the new choir director, is a blessing, not a curse. As the choir adopts a more ostentatious, less modest, look and sound, which draws new parishioners and financial support to the sagging church, Mother Superior questions whether the changes are really better for her order. The tension reaches a climax in the second act when she admits to the Lord in prayer she is afraid in the song “I Haven’t Got a Prayer.”
It is this poignant moment, the emotion of which musical theater often captures so well, that comes to mind as I read today’s gospel, which thematically focuses on fear. The reading begins with Jesus preparing the twelve apostles to go forth to preach and heal. In anticipation of them encountering those who will persecute them for their counter-cultural message, He tells them, “Fear no one…do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather, be afraid of the one who can destroy
both soul and body in Gehenna” (26-28). Precisely speaking, Jesus is not referring to the kind of enemy Deloris Van Cartier represents to the Mother Superior in Sister Act. Instead, He was addressing the religious and political authorities who would object to their ministry and have the power to imprison or harm them. And while such enemies still exist to Christians in this day and age, for those of us who live in countries with freedom of religion and reasonably safe conditions, the enemy like Deloris, who threatens Mother Superior’s authority and faith with her secular ideas that are so appealing to the other nuns, is perhaps more likely the kind of enemy to be feared. She threatens the Mother Superior with loss of autonomy and ego-death, two of the five most common fears cited by Karl Albrecht, PhD, in “The (Only) Five Fears We All Share.” This is why Deloris strikes fear in Mother Superior and why she is just as formidable an enemy to the head nun as the men of the Sanhedrin or Pontius Pilate were to Jesus and the early Christians.
One of the remarkably refreshing aspects of the musical Sister Act is that it is rather explicit about the fact that God is at work in the character of Deloris. Mother Superior’s struggle is to see Jesus in this unlikely and unwelcome intrusion into her life. Indeed, the pastor, Monsignor Howard tells her as much when he says, ‘God has answered your prayers. You just don’t like the answer.’ It is so easy to forget that every perceived enemy has been created by God for a specific purpose and worthy of our love and attention. The fear they strike in us is a challenge for us to realign our lives with God’s plan and move away from our own willful understanding of how things should be. If we truly have faith, we will remove the mental label of enemy from over the head of all those people in our life who challenge us to be unselfish and faithful; instead, we will be grateful for their role in helping us grow in humility and to live without fear. To miss Jesus in our enemies, to miss the hand of God in their existence, is to deny Jesus, who said “love your enemies” (Matthew 5: 43-48). We must not give in to fear and go down this path. In faith, we must surrender our fears to God and trust He will provide for and care for us. Eventually His wisdom will make sense to us and show the foolishness of our fear. “Nothing is concealed that will not be revealed, nor secret that will not be known” (Matthew 10: 26).