Sunday Reflection: Humility

A pastor decided it was high time to give his people a serious talking to.  His sermon hit fever pitch when he roared, “Every member of this parish is going to die....every member!”  As he scanned the congregation in a somewhat self satisfied way to gauge the impact of his dramatic and sobering words, he was pleased to see that his people looked duly sober, except for one middle-aged woman who had a big smile on her face.  “What are you smiling at?” growled the pastor.  “Well, said the smiling lady, “I’m not a member of this parish - I never registered!” 

My brothers and sisters, we can certainly give that lady a “A-plus for denial!” as well as an “A-Plus for Hubris- that marvelous word that means foolish pride that has a way of persuading us to think that we’re not like the rest of folks. In our more honest moments, of course, we know that’s a lie, but isn’t it amazing how much energy so many of us can waste trying to prove it’s true. 

Unwholesome pride can take many different forms in many different people.  For some, it can be slavery to a lifestyle that’s supposed to prove we’re different and better.  For some, it can be a fierce competitiveness in even the silliest things...the need to win at all costs...to prove we’re different and better.  For some, it can be an intellectual arrogance, taking pride in gathering up knowledge about arcane subjects again to prove we’re different, smarter, and better than the rest.  

Whatever it’s shape, pride is always ugly.  And it always cuts us off from others and deprives us of the one thing we really desire: solidarity and communion with one another.  What an irony that is: To work so hard to prove we’re special and then to end up scorned and alone because people can’t stand being around us. “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled.” 

So what about the alternative, humility?  Unfortunately, the word itself has been so caricatured in recent times that I suspect the first thing that pops into most our minds on hearing it is the image of some groveling, spineless individual, who lacks self determination and direction in life.  Or the image of the self-effacing individual who shudders at the thought of praise or recognition.   

Where in the world did we get such images?  Where in the world did we get the idea that humility means brushing off all praise and minimizing our gifts?  My brothers and sisters, that’s not humility  - that’s ingratitude to God, who gave us good gifts to be developed, enjoyed, and shared.   

So what does real humility look like?  Real humility is truth.  And the essential truth about us is that under the skin we’re all the same, made from the same earth, short-lived, in need of one another’s help, rejoicing in the compassion of others, equally hungering for spiritual depth, all destined to grow old and die. 

That’s the truth about us.  And once we face it, face our own pains and fears and our own need for help, we begin to see and understand the same needs in others.  We begin to recognize one another as sisters and brothers.  And the thought of trying to prove we’re different or better is exposed as bizarre, irrelevant, and a lie.  Suddenly, we’re not alone.  We’re surrounded by fellow pilgrims, all walking the same road to the Lord.  Jesus was indeed right: If we humble ourselves - if we are vulnerable enough to speak the truth and live the truth about ourselves - we will be exalted and transformed. And we won’t have to wait for heaven for that to begin.

My brothers and sisters, the Lord invites us to relax in Him; to relish his good gifts to us and to share them with others.  The Lord invites us to walk in the truth - a truth that will truly make us free and faithful in Christ.

 

Sunday Reflection - Nothing lasts forever

As many of you know, I have a great fascination for books.  It is not uncommon for me to wander through a used bookstore looking for interesting titles as well as bargains.  In fact, some years ago as I was browsing through one of these bookstores I came across an interesting book by Frank Kendig and Richard Hutton entitled Life Spans, or How Long Things Last.  In it, I discovered some interesting facts.  For example, I discovered that the average life of baseball shoes worn by your favorite major league star is only two months.  Even more surprising, you discover that the average life of the stick used by one's favorite hockey player is only two games.  You also discover that the average life of a soldier's boots in peacetime is fifteen months, while in wartime it drops to only three months. 

While the lifespans of certain things are shorter than we might think, the lifespans of other things are quite long.  For example, a beer can left behind by someone camping on a mountain will still be there 80 years from now.  And a leather shoe left behind at the same site will be there 50 years from now.  Finally, the average rock that protrudes from the ground will still be there a thousand years from now.   

But whatever it is, a hockey stick, a beer can, or a rock - the authors assure us that it will eventually disappear.  For nothing lasts forever.  What is true of these material objects is also true of human beings.  We too will eventually disappear.  None of us will last forever in the life we know now.  And that's precisely the point that Jesus makes in today's gospel. Isn't that the reason why we hear the sobering warning from his lips this day:  Light your lamps...You also must be prepared, for at an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come.

While Biblical scholars tell us that Jesus is referring here to his Second Coming, theologians assure us that the Lord's words may also be understood as referring to the end of our own individual lives - the hour of our death.   And for that moment, Jesus encourages us to be prepared. 

Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, had a favorite story that touches on this point of preparedness.  The story concerns a sailor who was shipwrecked and washed ashore on a South Pacific island.  He was greeted enthusiastically by natives.  They clapped and sang, hoisted him on their shoulders, carried him to their village, and sat him on a golden throne.  

Little by little, the sailor learned what was going on.  The islanders had a custom of occasionally making a man king for a year.  During his kingship he could order his subjects to do anything within reason, and they would obey him without question.  The sailor was delighted that he had been chosen to be the king.  He couldn't believe his good fortune.  Then one day he began to wonder what happened to a king when his year of kingship ended. That's when his excitement and enthusiasm came to an abrupt end.  He discovered that at the end of his kingship, he would be banished to a barren island, called "King's Island".  There he would be left to starve to death as a sacrifice to the gods. After the sailor recovered from his shock, he slowly began to put together a plan.   

As a king, he ordered the carpenters of the island to build a fleet of small boats.  When the boats were ready, he ordered the farmers of the island to dig up fruit trees and plants, put then in the boats, and transplant them on King's Island.  Finally, he ordered the stone masons to build a house on King's Island.  In this way, the sailor prepared carefully for the day when his kingship would end and he would be banished to King's Island.  

And Jesus tells us: ...provide an inexhaustible treasure in heaven that no thief can reach nor moth destroy..." The Lord is inviting us to broaden the moral horizons of our lives to realize that you and I have a future destiny that will depend on how we have lived our lives in the present moment. That future destiny, however, is grasped by faith and not by sight.  A faith, as the author to the Hebrews reminds us, that is more a matter of the heart that trusts in love than the science of cold logic.  For in the end, as St. Paul so eloquently reminds us,  only three things will last - faith, hope and love - and the greatest of these is love.

 

Sunday Reflection - Gifts to be given

A man walked into a bar and saw an old friend nursing a drink and looking very despondent.  “You look terrible,” he said.  “Well, I am,” replied the friend.  “My mother died in April – and left me $ 50,000.  then in May my father died.  He left me $ 100,000.  “Gee, that’s tough, losing both parents in just two months.”  “Well, to top it off, my favorite aunt died last month, and left me $ 50,000.  “How sad!” “Tell me about it,” the friend continued.  “So far thismonth, nothing!” 

My sisters and brothers, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be.” My friends, a lot of folks put their hearts in really stupid places. Where’s our treasure?  Do we even know where we’ve invested our hearts?  That’s what Jesus is asking us in our Gospel today. It’s a crucial question, because our happiness and our very life depend on investing our hearts in the right place. 

Look at the man in the Gospel today.  His favorite words are “mine” and “more”.  He put his faith and all his hopes in piling up more and more for himself. It never occurred to him that it was all just on loan and would slip away before he knew it.  He never saw that the best part of having something is being able to share it and enjoy it with other.  He discovered too late that the real meaning of hell is sitting alone and looking back at a wasted life that left him with empty hands and an empty heart for all eternity. 

My brothers and sisters, God gave us life and talent and all the gifts of this wonderful world – to be enjoyed!  Don’t let anyone tell you differently.  But we only get the joy if we share the gifts – as God shares with us. Gifts given and shared are the only treasure we can carry into eternity, the only sure investments we can ever make. 

That tells us where we have to begin, with name our gifts – all of them. Tragically, many of us don’t even see half of them.  So many gifts of mind and heart in each one of us:  Perhaps the gift to make music, to comfort, to excite; the gift to imagine, to create, to organize, and to make things happen; the gift to laugh, to feed, to heal, to build, to make new; the gift to be strong, to carry heavy things, to endure; the gift to see, to be wise, to speak out, to be silent; and always, the gift to love.  So many good gifts: All needed by others, and all needing to be given.

 

Sunday Reflection - Traveling light

In yet another war of ethnic cleansing, a young mother was murdered, leaving behind only her husband and their little boy.  The man traveled far and wide, looking for work while his little son stayed with friends. After a long absence, the father came home only to find his village destroyed and all his friends gone. 

He searched the rubble and found some small bones, surely the remains of his little son.  So he wrapped them carefully in a cloth and carried them with him everywhere he went.  

Year’s passed, and one night the old man heard a knock at his door. “Who’s there?” he called out. “It’s me, your son!” came the reply. “I was kidnapped and escaped, and I’ve spent years searching for you.”  “You vicious imposter!” yelled the old man.  “My son is dead.  Leave me alone!”  And he refused to open the door.  The pounding continued for a long time, but finally it stopped and the son – for that is who it was – went away.  The old man wept – as he did every night – hugging his bag of dry old bones. 

And all he had to do, my friends, was to put down the bag and open the door!  My brothers and sisters, Jesus is talking to us about this very thing in our Gospel today. As he sends out his disciples to share the Good News, he gives them crucial advice:   Travel light.  Let go of whatever can steal life away from you. 

That’s good advice!  So what can steal life from us?  The “stuff” that we accumulate in life  can so often be a thief that seizes power over us and cuts us off from real life. I believe that deep down inside we all know that.  Far more insidious are the thieves that lurk inside our heads and hearts – whole gangs of them:  Paralyzing fears that freeze us in place; old hates and grievances that we cling to as if they were treasures; dead, shrunken ideas that blind us to the richness of life; stupid ways of responding to life that are as mindless as the two-year-old’s habit of saying “no!”, no matter what the question; poisonous relationships that we cling to despite all that common sense tells us. 

Some of those thieves – or their relatives – are lurking in the heads and hearts of us all, and they’re robbing us of life, every bit as much as that old man’s clinging to his bag of dry bones robbed him of life and kept him a slave to an ancient sorrow. 

My sisters and brothers, Jesus came to set us free.  And he’ll do that, if only we let go of whatever is robbing us of life – let go of our own little bag of dry bones and open the door. Letting go begins with naming the thieves in our life, and then deciding we don’t need them anymore, because the Lord is walking with us, and he’s all that we need in life. 

God wants us to be free.  But only we can do the letting go of the fears, the hates, the sorrows, the sick friendships, the overdose of “things”, or the habitual “no’s” in our lives. Only we can do the letting go.  So my friends, let us pray for the courage to open our clinched fists that can so easily hang on to the false securities in life and open them before the Lord and be free in his love.

Sunday Reflection - Don't look back

A high-powered executive was waiting to board an airplane when suddenly, without warning, his flight was canceled. He was furious, so he shoved his way to the head of the ticket line and demanded a first class seat on the very next flight. The agent explained it courteously that they'd be happy to help, but he'd just have to stand in line and wait his turn. 

"Young man, do you have any idea who I am?" Shouted the man. The agent looked him up and down carefully, then picked up his microphone and said, "Attention, please. There is a gentleman at the ticket counter who doesn't know who he is. If anyone can identify him, please step forward." 

My brothers and sisters, it's so easy to forget who we are, and where we're going. At certain points in our lives, it's all very clear. The young couple standing at the altar, the priest about to be ordained, the bright young woman walking into her first class at law school: they know where they're going: they know there will be a price to pay and they're ready to pay it. It's all very clear and very simple. 

Then time passes, and the price begins to be paid – and paid, and paid! And the payoff isn't as perfect and as consistent as they expected. The beautiful baby turns into a difficult teenager; the handsome groom loses his hair and his waistline; and after 10,000 sermons, the spirited preacher ponders the delights of taking the vow of silence! 

Doubts and painful questions force their way to the surface: I didn't know that it was going to be like this. Did I make the wrong choice back there? Is this going to go on forever? How do I get out of here? 

Jesus understood this part of our human experience very well: this midcourse weariness that tempts us to look backward instead of forward, that blinds us to the new and deeper joys and possibilities that are within our reach here and now, this mid-course weariness the tempts us to give up, abandon our "plough", and walk away.   

My friends, to hold to course and go forward without looking back involves letting go of many things – some of them very fine – but things we no longer need. That letting go can hurt, but it can make room for something more, something better. It can allow us the space to grow into entirely new ways of living and loving, and to do that right here inside our vocations as spouses, parents, friends, and priests, to which we committed ourselves so long ago. 

Like any good parent, God our father, wants us to grow big and strong, especially on the inside. And he wants to see us happy. That will happen if we remember where we're headed and why we made our central commitments in the first place. It will happen if we let the Lord take our hand as we march forward with him and don't look back. 

Don't look back. It will only freeze you in place and embitter your soul. Instead, look forward, and look deep. You'll be amazed at what's waiting there for you!

Sunday Reflection - Freedom in God's Spirit

Fundamentalism of whatever sort usually manifests itself as an obsessive fear of ambiguity or change in life.  Fundamentalists inevitably find security and self assurance in a black and white dogmatism that is more concerned about condemning the views of others rather than listening to learn from others.  Fundamentalists have very little time to spend in discussion with others since they feel that they have all the answers to life questions.  A fundamentalist does not want to be confused with facts.  He or she is far more comfortable with the prejudices that bring security to their lives no matter how dark or controlling they may be. 

Tragically, most of us have some familiarity with fundamentalism as it expresses itself in religion.  Religious fundamentalism has inspired inquisitions, pogroms against Jews, and in our own day the Fall of governments and terrorist attacks throughout the world. 

Though not completely freed from tendencies toward fundamentalism, on the whole the genius of Roman Catholicism has been its sense of openness toward ambiguity and change which is so much a part of human existence.  Jesus did not come to straight-jacket his followers into a new law that would bind the human spirit but rather, as St. Paul reminds the early Christians, the Law of the Spirit is one of freedom, justice and love. 

Our first reading today from the Acts of the Apostles presents us with an important example of how the followers of the new way confronted the rigidity of the old law. The questions which the apostolic Church had to contend with was whether converts from Judaism had to follow both the mosaic law as well as the teaching of Jesus?  More specifically, must gentile converts be circumcised in accord with Mosaic Law?  There were some in the Apostolic Church who said yes, and some who said no.    The question was brought forward for prayerful discernment in Jerusalem.  The answer was that new converts should not be "saddled with any burden beyond the essentials".  In other words, gentiles coming to the faith would no longer be required to follow the exact prescriptions of the Mosaic Law that failed to free one for living the new way in Christ. 

Down through the centuries, the Church has continued to exhibit this kind of dynamic openness to change, transformation and renewal.  In the power of the Holy Spirit, the final gift of guidance and discernment which Jesus has left with Church, the Christian community has striven to respond to avenues and possibilities for growth in holiness that have been opened for her.  Not always responding perfectly, yet the Spirit has continued to bring forth new life and insight in the Church.   Through the witness and prophetic challenge of saints and mystics; through the solemn declarations of belief in twenty-one Ecumenical Councils; through the wisdom of theologians and philosophers; and through the gifted guidance of Pastors entrusted with the care of the flock of Christ, the Church has striven to be that place where peace beyond understanding can be found and celebrated.  A peace that is rooted in the freedom of the children of God. 

As we draw close to the great Feast of Pentecost - the birthday of the Church. Let us rejoice in a Church whose members are called to daily growth, transformation and change in the power of the Spirit.  May we indeed express in our lives the love we celebrate here in Word and Sacrament.

Sunday Reflection - Behold, I make all things new!

Walk down the aisle of any supermarket.  Scan the ads in any popular magazine.  Watch the commercials on TV.  One word recurs in ever fresh combination: “new.”  It if isn’t a new look, it’s a new taste, a new feeling, a new formula.  Everyone with something to sell seems to be promising us something new.  Self-help books offer us a whole new life, or at least renewed physical and mental health, if only we will follow their directions.  And during political campaigns candidates promise us a new society, a new frontier, new ideas, or at least a new approach.         

How many of these promises are fulfilled?  Not many.  Today’s shiny new car becomes tomorrow’s shabby trade-in.  The self-help books turn out to offer not the new life they promise, but at best improvement in the old life we already have.  And we all know what happens to campaign promises after the election.         

Is life a cheat?  Is the universal longing for newness to which all these promises appeal doomed to be forever frustrated?  To these nagging questions our second reading returns a ringing and confident No.  “The One who sat on the throne said to me, ‘Behold, I make all things new.’”          

The Book of Revelation, from which those words are taken, describes in language of poetic imagery the author’s vision of heaven.  It might seem, therefore, that this promise of One who makes all things new belongs not to this world but to another: “Pie in the sky when we die,” as the old saying has it.  Completefulfillment of this promise does belong to the life beyond death.  But it is part of the gospel or good news of Jesus Christ that God offers us here and now a foretaste of that new and better life which, in its fullness, will be ours hereafter.         

The Lord who makes all things new does this in many ways.  Let me speak about just one.  It is indicated by the words that the author of Revelation heard in his vision: “Behold, God’s dwelling is with the human race.  He will dwell with them and they will be his people and God himself will always be with them as their God.”           

That assurance that God is always with us evokes a ready response.  Deep in every heart there is a longing for a companion, a friend, a lover, who will accept and love us just as we are; who will support us in sorrow, share our joys, help us to rise above failure and injustice; who will be with us always.          

When we were little children our parents did this for us, if they were good parents.  Few things are more devastating for a small child than to be suddenly separated from Mummy or Daddy.  Across the span of seventy years I can still recall my feeling of panic when, on my first day at school, I found that my mother had slipped away without my noticing.  I realize now that she wanted to spare me a wrenching and tearful farewell.  At the time, however, I was crushed.         

We have all had experiences like that.  We carry those childhood hurts into adult life, still secretly afraid that we shall be hurt again; that our efforts at friendship and love will be rebuffed; that we shall be let down, hurt, abandoned, by someone we love and trust.  When we are, the old wound is reopened, and our fear of loneliness is reinforced.         

To those oppressed by loneliness (and which of us is not, at some time or another?) the Lord proclaims: “Behold, I make all things new.”  When no one else understands, there is One who does understand.  When everyone else seems to ignore us, to reject us, to condemn us, there is One who accepts us.  When I cannot find one other person to accept the love I long to give, and to receive, there is One who does accept: who loved me beforeI loved him, who loves me more than I can ever love him, who will go on loving me no matter what.  His name is Jesus Christ.  He is the One who makes all things new.         

Jesus knew greater loneliness than we shall ever experience.  The gospel reading we have just heard opens with the departure of one of Jesus’ closest friends, to betray him.  Yet Jesus’ first words after this devastating blow speak not of defeat, but of victory: “Now is the Son of Man glorified, and God is glorified in him.”         

What gave Jesus that breath-taking ability to view betrayal not as defeat but as victory? It was his faith in a God who does indeed make all things new. God fulfilled that promise for his Son, however, not by delivering Jesus from death, but by raising him on the third day to a new life beyonddeath.  In his resurrection Jesus experienced the fulfillment of the great promises contained in our second reading.  On Easter morning God wiped away all tears from the eyes of his beloved Son.  In his resurrection Jesus was raised to a life in which there is (to quote the words of that second reading again) “no more death or mourning, wailing or pain, for the old order has passed away.”         

For us, as for Jesus on the night when Judas left to betray him, the complete fulfillment of those promises belongs to the future.  As St. Paul tells us in our first reading: “It is necessary for us to undergo many hardships to enter the kingdom of God.”  As long as this life continues, God’s promise to make all things new means not preservation from hardships, but support amidhardships.           

The Lord’s promise to make all things new is not like all those other promises I mentioned at the start.  It is a glorious reality.  But it is a reality which is both present and future.  We live at the intersection of the “already” and the “not yet.”  Already God is with us, supporting us in so many ways: through his holy word; through those personal loving encounters with him called sacraments; through our sisters and brothers.  Already God is fulfilling his promise to make all things new.         

Complete fulfillment of that promise belongs, however, to the “not yet.”  Only in a future life will God wipe away all tears from our eyes.  Only beyond death shall we experience what Jesus experienced in his resurrection: “no more death or mourning, wailing or pain, for the old order has passed away.”         

Life is not a cheat.  There is One who does make all things new.  His name is Jesus Christ.  He can make yourlife new.  He longs to do so.  He will never do this, however, without your consent.  His assurance, “Behold, I make all things new” is certain.  One thing alone is uncertain.  Do you really wantthe new life that God is offering you, even now, through his Son Jesus Christ?