Sunday, June 27, 2010

11th Week Ordinary Time: Detachment, Doggedness, and Determination

As I began writing this homily in Detroit, our city was preparing to welcome over 10,000 people for the US Social Forum. According to a newspaper report, organizers described the gathering as a “movement building process…the next most important step in our struggle to build a powerful multiracial, multi-sectoral, inter-generational, diverse, inclusive, internationalist movement that transforms this country and changes history.” The more that I reflected on this description, the more uncomfortable I became.

After a few moments, the source of my discomfort seized me: “Isn’t this what the Church is supposed to be?” I asked myself. Perhaps not totally, and certainly not in the same way, but the Church itself is called to be a diverse-and-united (i.e., Catholic) agent of transforming not merely our own nation and society but the entire world. As the Second Vatican Council proclaimed in Gaudium et Spes, the Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the Modern World (40):
Pursuing the saving purpose which is proper to her, the Church does not only communicate divine life to men but in some way casts the reflected light of that life over the entire earth, most of all by its healing and elevating impact on the dignity of the person, by the way in which it strengthens the seams of human society and imbues the everyday activity of men with a deeper meaning and importance. Thus through her individual matters and her whole community, the Church believes she can contribute greatly toward making the family of man and its history more human.
Our scripture readings on this Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time call us to be disciples who, by our own personal witness and growth in holiness as well as our diverse gifts and ministries, fulfill this mission of transformation—not according to any particular secular or political agenda but instead according to the gospel. It is not a mission that we should assume lightly, for it requires detachment, doggedness, and dedication.

In our first reading, we read of Elisha’s radical detachment in response to receiving the call to succeed Elijah in his prophetic ministry. This call was symbolized by Elijah throwing his cloak over Elisha and is the origin of the phrase, “passing the mantle,” which refers to the transfer of power or office from one person to another.

Elisha’s initial response was conditional, asking at least the opportunity to say good-bye to his parents. But Elijah’s rhetorical response—“Go back! Have I done anything to you?”—dared Elisha to make a radical choice for the ministry that had been handed on to him, and he did. He not only left his business behind, he destroyed it! It is harder to turn back when there is nothing left to which one can return.

St. Paul called a young church in Galatia to doggedness in sustaining their commitment to the gospel that he preached and the freedom that they had been given through the grace of God. He found them resubmitting themselves to “the yoke of slavery,” that is the Law of Moses and more specifically circumcision.

For Paul, this was a trap. “Once again,” he wrote to them, “I declare to every man who has himself circumcised that he is bound to observe the entire law. You are separated from Christ, you who are trying to be justified by the law; you have fallen from grace” (Galatians 5:3-4). Because it was impossible to fulfill all the stipulations of the law, Paul reasoned, anyone who placed themselves under it was simultaneously yoking themselves to a lifetime of futility and a future with no salvation. They could not save themselves. Only God could save them; but paradoxically in that dependence there was true freedom.

This is the freedom that we have all been given through baptism. With this freedom, however, there is also responsibility. Paul warns us, as he warned the Galatians, to “not use this freedom as an opportunity for the flesh [the Greek, sarx, i.e., our human tendency toward self-indulgence, self-aggrandizement, and selfishness]; rather, serve one another through love.” Love and service are both the means and the manifestations of the holiness to which we are all called as individual believers and as a Church.

It is this loving service that Jesus embodied in his own dedication to the mission that the Father had given him. Today’s gospel passage from Luke 9 follows his first two predictions of his death (vv. 22, 43-45); his explanation of the conditions of discipleship (vv. 23-27); his Transfiguration (vv. 28-36); a manifestation of his power over the forces of evil (vv. 37-43); and his redefinition of greatness (vv. 46-48).

Near the peak of his own power and popularity, Jesus nonetheless “resolutely determined to journey to Jerusalem,” where his mission would be fulfilled not on a throne but on a cross. He wouldn’t allow himself to be distracted, not even by the slights of some Samaritans, and he prepared his disciples to do the same, refusing their calls for vengeance on their religious and ethnic rivals and calling them to be ready for a life of discomfort and to cut even family ties to follow him, if those proved to be an obstacle.

That is a “hard word” for us to hear, but it is no less real. The life of a disciple of Christ is filled with graces and blessings; but we fool ourselves if we think it will not be without trials. Once we put our hands to the plow, Jesus admonishes us, we had better be ready to heed the words of the old Spiritual and civil rights anthem: “Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on, hold on!” +

Sunday, June 20, 2010

12th Sunday (Father's Day): Losing to Win

I’m not much of a fan of NBA basketball. It seems to involve too much money, too much hype, and to distract too many young people with unfulfilled dreams of superstardom and super wealth. I must admit, however, that I have been following this year’s playoffs a little more closely than in the past.

Part of it the reason is that my hometown team, the Milwaukee Bucks, actually made the playoffs for the first time in years…even though they lost in the first round.  But the bigger part has been witnessing the gritty effort of individual players like the Suns’ Steve Nash or the Lakers’ center Andrew Bynum, who is suffering from a knee injury that will surely require surgery but continues to play. It has been painful just to watch him hobble up and down the court, trying to contribute but obviously hurting and frustrated that he isn’t playing at full strength or effectiveness.

Andrew Bynum played 36 minutes in Game 5 of the series. Some would question why his coach, Phil Jackson, would play a limping player so much or why Bynum would risk even more serious injury by playing. But anyone who has been an athlete, particularly those who have competed for championships, would readily understand.

Such chances do not come often. When they do, no athlete wants to be left wondering “what could have been.” They’re willing to “leave it all on the court,” course, track, or field. They’re also willing to make the more anonymous and often monotonous sacrifices in the gym, practice field, weight room and training room—the months and sometimes years of effort—in order to have that chance. They’re willing to lose in order to win.

In today’s gospel reading, Jesus invited his disciples to lose in order to win. After asking them what others had to say about him, he then asked them what they thought. Peter, in turn, proclaimed him as “the Christ,” that is the Messiah. In response, Jesus told them something that shocked and scandalized them: the Christ they wanted and expected wasn’t the Christ he was called to be. Instead, he said, “The Son of Man must suffer greatly at the hands of the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed and on the third day be raised.”

This could not have made much sense to the disciples. Not only would the Promised One of Israel not be their warrior-champion against their oppressors, but he would suffer and die at the hands of their religious leaders? Even worse, if they wished to follow him then they would have to take up the cross and be willing to suffer the same fate? It could not be.

The disciples were familiar with crucifixion. According to the ancient historian Josephus, at around the time Jesus was still a child, a Galilean named Judas led a revolt against Roman rule and in particular against the census which underscored the imperial power. The rebellion ended in disaster. After burning down a city where Judas and his fellow revolutionaries tried to storm an armory, the Romans crucified them all. Two thousand crosses lined the roads—an abject lesson to anyone who would dare to challenge the empire.

The cross, then, stood for terror, defeat and shame. Yet in Luke’s gospel Jesus told his disciples that they must be willing to embrace and carry it not just one agonizing time but daily! “For whoever wishes to save his life,” Jesus concluded, “will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.” They had to be willing to lose in order to win.

Our crosses come in many shapes, sizes and weights. Some are chosen. I sometimes experience the vows that I have taken as a religious—the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity and obedience—as forms of the cross. All of them require that I give up things that are significant, especially in our culture: the opportunities for private property and personal wealth, sex and marriage; and the freedom to do what I want, when I want, how I want and with whomever I want. But I also experience in those same vows a profound sense of wealth, intimacy, peace, happiness and freedom in love and service. I have to lose in order to win.

Of course, religious and priests have no corner on the market of crosses, much less on virtue. Spouses and parents also know the cross. People who are experiencing a life-changing illness know it, too. Anyone trying to ethically maintain a business or professional practice in today’s very challenging economic climate knows the cross. The people living and working in the Gulf Coast must contend with a cross that is sticky, dirty, oily and toxic. Those who saw their loved ones swept away by those flash floods in Arkansas were handed a sudden and almost unbearable cross.

For Christians the cross is not an option. Paul reminded the Galatians that regardless of race, ethnicity, social condition or gender “are all one in Christ Jesus” by virtue of our baptism. Jesus similarly reminded his disciples that while he would definitively carry the cross for the salvation of the world, anyone who wished to walk in that salvation must also walk the way of the cross.

We must be willing to lose in order to win. It is as true in life and in eternity as it is in the NBA Finals. +

Sunday, June 13, 2010

11th Week Ordinary Time: Gone Astray, Sent Away, Coming Home

On a winter afternoon in 2005 Diana Ortiz heard the words she never thought she’d never hear: “You’re going home.” Her fellow inmates had gathered outside the room where she was meeting with her parole advisor. When the door opened and she stepped into the hallway with a smile on her face, there were cheers, tears and hugs all around.

It had been a long journey: twenty-two years, over half of her life spent in prison. As an 18 year-old drug addict with a 36 year-old boyfriend, Diana Ortiz had posed as a prostitute in a botched armed robbery that left an off-duty police officer dead. Frightened and with no prior criminal record, she turned herself in to the authorities. She was eventually convicted of second degree murder and sentenced to 17 years to life in prison.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Solemnity of Body and Blood of Christ, June 6, 2010

First Lady Michelle Obama recently announced that several of the largest food companies in the USA have committed to removing 1.5 trillion calories from their products by 2015, particularly those that are marketed to children and teens. Mrs. Obama, who worked for the University of Chicago Hospitals prior to her husband’s election in 2008, has made improving the health and fitness of our children one of her primary causes.

It’s not a moment too soon. It is estimated that one third of our nation’s kids are overweight or obese. The seriousness of this was brought home to me a couple of years ago when the leaders of a high school told me that some of their students were already suffering from high blood pressure and diabetes.

As we gather for church this morning, over one billion people in the world are undernourished; but nearly 1.5 billion are either overweight or obese.

Americans spend over $52 billion per year on weight loss products and programs. At the same time, our country provides only $2.6 billion in global food aid—one-twentieth of what we spend fighting “the battle of the bulge” at home.

Last week, on Trinity Sunday, we recalled that it is part of God’s nature to be in relationship and how God wants to be in relationship with us. Today we celebrate the great gift of the Eucharist, Christ’s Body and Blood, our communion with God and with each other. In doing so we are also called to wrestle with the fact that we are too often overfed and too often also undernourished.

This is as true the intellectual, emotional, and spiritual dimensions of our lives as it is in the physical. Through the internet and other technologies, we have unprecedented access to information; but many lack the skills to sort through it all. Through cable TV we now have hundreds of stations available to us; but too often there is little worth watching.

Through the modern medicine and pharmacology, we can take one drug to get us up, another to bring us down, and still another to keep us “on the beam.” But none of them can really make us happy or bring us peace. Many people now claim to be “spiritual” rather than “religious” but find it a lot easier to tell you what they don’t believe than what they do.

In the midst of these intellectual, emotional, spiritual and even physical “food deserts” Christ share with us a simple meal of bread and wine and invites us to do what he did: take, thank, bless, break, and share.

Take—In our gospel reading, Jesus’ disciples wanted him to send the crowds away to “the surrounding villages and farms to find lodging and provisions” after he had been teaching them all day. St. Luke doesn’t go into detail about what motivated the disciples. They knew that they didn’t have much, and perhaps they wanted to avoid the embarrassment of admitting it. Maybe they didn’t think that feeding the crowds was their responsibility; or perhaps they were just tired and wanted a break.

Whatever the case, Jesus didn’t let them off the hook. To their amazement and dismay, he told his disciples “Give them some food themselves.” With five loaves and two fish for a crowd of thousands, it seemed like a grim joke. But they brought what they had to Jesus.

Thank—“Looking up to heaven,” Jesus “said the blessing” over what they had. Recalling the ancient act of Melchizedek, the king of Salem (the name means “complete or perfect peace” in Hebrew) who offered bread and wine in thanksgiving and blessing after Abram defeated a number of Canaanite kings in his effort to rescue his nephew Lot, Jesus gave thanks. He did it not only for what God his Father had done in providing the loaves and fishes but also for what God was going to do in feeding the multitude.

Break—Jesus broke the fish and bread and “gave them to the disciples to set before the crowd.” This was also an act of faith: Jesus handed over what had formerly belonged to him and his disciples. As St. Paul recalled in our second reading, Jesus deepened the meaning of this gesture even more when on the eve of his suffering and death he broke bread and shared a cup saying, “This is my body that is for you….This cup is the new covenant in my blood.”

Share—In celebrating that final Passover with his disciples, he invited them to follow his example, “Do this in remembrance of me.” Just as the disciples gathered up twelve baskets of leftovers after the miracle of the loaves and fishes, we are called to gather up the overabundant graces we receive in the Eucharist and to share them with others.

This is a primary essence of our celebration: the communion that we celebrate with God and with each other cannot be confined to the time of our liturgy or the walls of the place where we gather. St. Paul’s remembrance of the Last Supper—one that is older than any in the gospels—was motivated by his frustration at witnessing the disconnection between what the church in Corinth was celebrating liturgically and how they were actually treating each other.

They couldn’t celebrate unity and be divided. They couldn’t celebrate God’s justice and treat each other unjustly. They couldn’t give thanks if, as they gathered, some were stuffed and drunk while others were left hungry and thirsty.

(For your Bible homework this week, spend some time reading and reflecting on 1 Corinthians 11:17-24. You’ll get a better sense of Paul’s aggravation!)

As we take, thank, bless, break and share all of the blessings that God has given us; and as we bring ourselves and our gifts before the Lord in the faith that he can do “far more than all we ask or imagine” (Ephesians 3:20), may not only be fed but also nourished and strengthened to serve and feed others as Jesus did. +