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. +


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