Sunday, August 22, 2010

Under Construction: 22nd Sunday

There are a number of phrases that strike terror in the hearts of any driver: the dashboard light that says, “Check Engine;” the newspaper headline that says, “Record Gas Prices;” or the plaintive question, “Are we there yet?” asked for fifteenth time…in the past fifteen minutes!

This time of year, however, perhaps the most feared phrase for anyone behind the wheel is printed on an orange sign: “Road Work Ahead.” It is often accompanied by one of those symbols that indicate that there will be fewer lanes in the construction zone. In many cases, there’s not much to worry about. Traffic may slow down a bit, but at least things don’t grind to a halt.

Then there are experiences like the one I had a couple of Sundays ago. I was on I-94 driving from Chicago to Detroit. It was a Sunday evening, and I had been on the road for several days for meetings, Masses, and provincial celebrations. I was really looking forward to getting home. I had been driving almost five hours when I saw that dreaded orange sign—“Road Work Ahead”—accompanied by the lane closure symbols. I switched on the local AM station that features “traffic every ten minutes” to get an update.

By the time I heard the update, however, I had become part of the news—an interstate parking lot in which four lanes of cars and trucks had been reduced to one. What was normally a drive of five minutes took nearly an hour-and-a-half! Fortunately, I had done two very important things only 30 minutes before I hit this traffic jam: I filled up the gas tank and I (ahem) used the bathroom. As we crawled along the highway, it appeared from the worried and pained faces of some of my fellow drivers that they were not so fortunate.

The memory of those faces returned as I read Jesus’ response to the one who asked him how many would be saved: “Strive to enter through the narrow gate, for many, I tell you, will attempt to enter but will not be strong enough.” Those are not exactly reassuring words! We’ve all seen television footage of concert goers seeking tickets, refugees seeking bread and water, and even Christmas shoppers at Wal-Mart seeking the year’s hot toy pushing, shoving, squeezing and even trampling each other to get through a narrow doorway to get what they want.

The Lord’s admonition, however, was not intended to cause paralyzing fear or panic but rather to spur us to action. He was trying to address a sense of complacency and entitlement that afflicted those who followed him as well as those who opposed him. Many believed that their status as descendants of Abraham guaranteed them the salvation that had been promised to the people of

Israel when the Messiah came. They took comfort in the words of the scriptures that separated them from “the nations,” that is the gentile peoples around them.

In the face of such an attitude, Jesus said, “Not so fast!” It was not enough, he suggested, for them to acknowledge but fail to act on the promise of salvation. They had to live it, that is, to think, speak and work as if they were already living in the reign of God. In addition, they would also need to accept that the invitation to be part of God’s kingdom was not for them alone but was for the whole world.

This wasn’t a totally new teaching. It had been proclaimed centuries before by the prophets like Isaiah. Preaching to a people returning to Jerusalem after the exile to Babylon, Isaiah announced a message of radical inclusion to a nation that had once prided itself on its exclusivity: “I know their works and their thoughts, and I come to gather nations of every language; they shall come and see my glory.”

Echoing the proclamation of Isaiah, Jesus prophesied: “And people will

come from the east and the west and from the north and the south and will recline at table in the kingdom of God. For behold, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.”

So status doesn’t matter. Action in response to the gospel is what counts. The fact that we are Christians, our membership in the “one, holy, catholic and apostolic church,” and even our baptism won’t matter if we don’t live the faith we have professed and fulfill the promises made in our baptism.

As we all know, living our faith is often a challenge. It’s tempting to “drive on the shoulder” and avoid the difficult traffic. It’s easy to lose patience or become discouraged when we feel stuck in the spirit, when our growth as followers of Jesus seems stalled, when the Church itself seems to be barely moving forward.

That’s where the discipline we heard about in our second reading comes in. Unfortunately, most people associate discipline with punishment. But the Latin root of the word suggests something far different: discipulus means “student.” The author of Hebrews was trying to encourage a struggling and disheartened church to accept their trials not as punishment but as “teachable moments,” opportunities to grow in the Lord.

Whether it’s physical, emotional or spiritual, pain can be our tutor. It’s a sign that something is wrong and needs to be changed. If you have a hangover, your body is telling you something. If you feel anguish, anger, or sadness around some one you’re supposed to love, that’s telling you something, too.

As the author of Hebrews reminded us, spiritual growth depends on our being teachable. Unfortunately, too many people get lost in their pain and fail to learn its lessons. But we have other options: “At the time, all discipline seems a cause not for joy but for pain, yet later it brings the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who are trained by it.” Fortunately, God is not through with us. We’re still in training. We’re still under construction. +

Sunday, August 1, 2010

18th Sunday of Ordinary Time: Public Storage or Lasting Legacy?

Manute Bol’s name will never appear on a list of the greatest players in the National Basketball Association. For many people he represented something of an athletic oddity, even a freak. A Sudanese immigrant to the U.S., he stood 7 feet, 7 inches tall and weighed only 225 pounds. His career on the court was rather unremarkable. He played for five teams over his ten years in the NBA, and over that time he averaged fewer points (2.6) than blocked shots (3.3).

If he didn’t exactly grab headlines on the court, Manute Bol didn’t off the court, either, especially in the ways typically and tragically associated with too many professional athletes: drug and/or gun possession; entourages and strip clubs; and multiple children born to multiple women in multiple cities, with no marriage in sight or mind. He wasn’t into “bling” or flings.

Though he made a very good living in the NBA he was virtually broke when he died in June at age 47 from complications of a skin disease. In the final years of his life, he became even more of a side show act when he was hired to be a jockey, a hockey player or even a boxer against William “the Refrigerator” Perry, the massive former defensive lineman for the Chicago Bears.

But it was all for a good cause. It is estimated that Manute Bol, a devout Christian, gave away most of his estimated $6 million fortune to help Sudanese refugees. He once explained his motivation this way: “God guided me to America and gave me a good job. But he also gave me a heart so I would look back.” Because of his heart and ability to look back, Manute Bol left a lasting legacy in the refugees he helped and the hospitals he built. Unlike the rich fool in today’s gospel reading, he tore down his own barns to make larger ones…for others.

When Jesus was invited to arbitrate a dispute between two brothers over their ancestral property, he demurred. Instead he used it as “a teachable moment” in which he used the story of the rich man with the abundant harvest as a cautionary tale to “Take care to guard against all greed, for though one may be rich, one’s life does not consist of possessions.”

Those may be especially tough words for us in the U.S. According to the Self-Storage Association, public storage is now a $22 billion a year industry with over 15,000 facilities nationwide. According to the Pew Research Center, the median size of a new single family home in the U.S. grew from 1570 sq. ft. in 1980 to 2237 sq. ft. by 2005—an increase of 42% during a period when our families were getting smaller and the number of public storage facilities grew exponentially. It seems that, in some respects, our lives do consist of possessions!

During that same period one would also be able to trace an increase in the average work week, an increase in private debt as well as budget deficits at various levels of government, and company and bank balance sheets that were increasingly leveraged. It all came to a screeching halt in 2008. We are still recovering.

The ancient sage Qoheleth opened the Book of Ecclesiastes with the sobering cry, “Vanity of vanities…vanity of vanities! All things are vanity!” The original Hebrew hebel is much more vivid than “vanity,” for it more literally means “breath” or “vapor.” In his very practical wisdom drawn from experience over many years, he observed some things that are also familiar to us and sometimes seem just as unfair. For example, a person can work hard for many years or something but may only get to enjoy it for a moment or perhaps not at all.

Qoheleth could also see that not just things but work itself can be a form of vanity. This is a particular challenge for those of us whose identities can become too closely intertwined with how much we produce or accomplish, particularly when it all comes at the price of “toil and anxiety of heart” and sleepless nights. In the face of such insomnia, Jesus offers a simple over-the-counter prescription: instead of storing up treasures for ourselves grow “rich in what matters to God.”

In other words, as St. Paul might say, we need to recall that by virtue of our baptism (symbolized in part by putting on the white garment) we “have put on the new self, which is being renewed, for knowledge, in the image of its creator.” This necessarily means that we must also “put to death…immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and the greed that is idolatry.” Our idols can take many shapes and forms, some material and others less so. What they all have in common, however, is that they become our gods or what theologian Paul Tillich called our “ultimate concern.”

We can’t live double lives…at least not with integrity. Like the rich man in the gospel we will all have a day of reckoning, if not in this life then certainly in the life to come.

A little over a week ago, Milwaukee was hit with torrential rains that devastated much of the city. In one memorable incident, a Cadillac Escalade and a street light were swallowed up by a sink hole at Oakland and North Ave. The following afternoon I was listening to a talk radio show on which the host invited listeners to call in with their stories from the Great Flood of 2010. One woman who called described how she watched helplessly as her basement filled with water and destroyed much of her family’s property. At the same time, she also gave thanks that no one was hurt and she remembered her husband’s words as they began to clean-up: “It’s just stuff.”

God’s word and the example of a Sudanese basketball player invite us to get our stuff together and to decide whether what we leave behind will be fit only for public storage or will be a lasting legacy for others and a testament to God. +