Homily 12th Sunday C – 96
Because I lived in Washington, DC for 15 years, I would often go to those mass demonstrations on the national mall. Pro-life marches annually from 1990 – 2001, marches for housing and employment in 1996, the Million Man March in 1995, even the Promise Keepers in 1997. I was something of an equal-opportunity marcher, although truth be told I was usually just watching everyone else march. I somehow missed the Million Mom March against Gun Violence, the Over 9000 Anonymous March protesting the Church of Scientology, the Million Puppet March, which drew only 1500 people not counting the puppets, and the famous 2010 March to restore Sanity and/or Fear, sponsored by John Stewart and Stephen Colbert. Since the year 2000 there have been more than 100 mass gatherings on the national mall. Every one of these marches complained that the National Park Service underestimated their attendance (something they haven’t actually done since 1995), and the media– obviously in the pocket of whoever seems to be running things in Washington– didn’t give them enough coverage. Another thing that all these crowds had in common was that they were so pleased with themselves for being there, that they were completely uncritical of who was marching with them, and of what their speakers were saying. There wasn’t any information being exchanged. Each of these gatherings was a more-or-less well-ordered mob, having a good time, feeling important and empowered, with utterly no critical thinking going on. That’s the way crowds work.
Today’s Gospel isn’t so much about who Jesus really is, as it is a warning about following the crowd. Jesus asks the disciples who the crowd says he is. And the crowd gets it wrong. When Jesus asks who the disciples themselves say that he is, he’s reinforcing the idea that their own experience and knowledge of him is more important, and more to be trusted, than the crowd’s changing—and incorrect—opinions. These two questions are immediately followed by a prediction of his own suffering and death. Why? Because Jesus knows that the same crowd that doesn’t really know who he is, will be the crowd that screams for his execution. They are going to get it wrong again.
And then Jesus tells the disciples that to be his follower means following him to the cross, and being willing to lose one’s life. He knows this will be true, because the crowd that doesn’t really know him is still going to be out there.
And they are still out there. If you are depending on the crowd to tell you who Jesus is, you’re going to get a wrong answer. If your knowledge of him comes from the media, or from our cultural appropriation of Christ, then you’ll have the wrong answer.
If you look at what passes for our national religious leaders, what kind of Jesus would you know? The preachers on television, the ones with the big, national ministries, gathering all the political power they can, will show you a Jesus who judges and divides people. They’ll show you a Jesus who sends special blessings to big financial contributors. They’re selling a Jesus who’s love is conditional. And they’re wrong.
We need to count on our religious leaders—even our own bishops—to bring us together, and not to divide us. In Christ these divisions should be irrelevant. In Christ there is no Jew of Greek, no slave or free, no man or woman. There is no black or white, no rich or poor, no gay or straight. In Christ there is no Democrat or Republican, nothing that divides us from each other. All are one in Christ Jesus.
But somehow, the most prominent religious voices in our country seem to be the ones that pander to the crowd, sowing division and intolerance. Where is the spirit of grace and petition that Zechariah talks about in the first reading? Where is the Christ that draws us together, that Paul writes about?
I think one of the reasons that Pope Francis is so popular, and is having such an effect on so many people, is that he has emphasized the mission of the Church to reach out to the marginalized, to draw people together, and to bring to the Church a deeper sense of discipleship.
The question still hangs in the air: Who do you say that Jesus is? If the answer you give leads people to the Jesus of the Gospel, you’re on the right track. If your answer compels you to lead a life of compassion, reconciliation, and service, then you’re headed in the right direction. If your answer to this question leads you to the cross—your cross– then you know you are a disciple. If your answer to who Jesus is leads you to power, or to division, then you are still hearing the voice of the crowd.
The world still needs to hear who Jesus is, and what he has done for us. Like Peter and the disciples, we have to answer based on our own experience of Jesus. The healing, grace, and compassion we have received, are what the crowd out there needs. If we are fearful, and constantly worried about self-preservation “saving our lives,” then we’ll lose them. But if we can let go of our fears and our need for power, being willing to lose our lives for the sake of Christ, then we’ll find salvation and live in peace. It’s a hard message to hear over the din of the crowd.
Homily 10th Sunday C – Miracles!
Our readings today are about healing, but not just the regular, run-of-the-mill, standard-course-of-antibiotics healing. We’re talking about miracles. Dead-one-minute, walking-around-the next miracles. Even the epistle is about miracles, as St. Paul explains that his deep understanding of the faith came directly from God by a miraculous revelation. It’s as if he’s standing there saying, “I didn’t need to go to a seminary for six years, and I wasn’t taught by Jesus’ apostles– although I’ve met them. No, God told me all this personally.” Well, excuse me!
Miracles are difficult, slippery things. We believe that miracles happen, but also believe that it’s not appropriate to presume upon them. Faith shouldn’t rely on proof, or it’s not faith, exactly. At the same time, God does give us inexplicable experiences that at least subjectively appear to be miraculous. So, just for fun, and without having to explain anything, how many of you believe that you, or someone close to you, has experienced a miracle? [show of hands] OK. I wish I could listen to your conversations in the car on the way home!
Science can demonstrate our tendency to see miracles where they aren’t. All those reports like the face of the Virgin Mary on a grilled cheese sandwich, or the image of Jesus in a rust stain on a highway over-pass? These are examples of paraidiola and apophenia: our brains are hard-wired to see faces in random visual data, and we appear to be similarly hard-wired to ascribe meaning– some times deep, religious meaning, to such perceptions. That doesn’t disprove the existence of miracles, nor does it mean people are easily duped. It just means we’re interesting.
Jesus himself seems to have been suspicious of miracles, even as he was performing them. He often asked, to no avail, for people to keep their healing quiet, knowing that when the word got out, the situation would rapidly become unmanageable. Which is exactly what happened.
So, just to be thorough, what does the Catechism say about miracles?
- “What moves us to believe is not the fact that revealed truths appear as true and intelligible in the light of our natural reason: we believe ‘because of the authority of God himself who reveals them, who can neither deceive nor be deceived’. So ‘that the submission of our faith might nevertheless be in accordance with reason, God willed that external proofs of his Revelation should be joined to the internal helps of the Holy Spirit.’Thus the miracles of Christ and the saints, prophecies, the Church’s growth and holiness, and her fruitfulness and stability ‘are the most certain signs of divine Revelation, adapted to the intelligence of all’; they are ‘motives of credibility’ motiva credibilitatis), which show that the assent of faith is ‘by no means a blind impulse of the mind’.”
Isn’t that surprising? The Catechism says that miracles– which appear counter to physical laws– rather than being irrational, are actually a gift from God that allows us to use our reason and intellect to perceive the credibility of God’s truth. The difficulty here is that this introduces a potential counter-argument. Specifically: the absence of a miracle, with the presumption of a God who loves us, might lead one to conclude that God does not exist. What might the widows of Zarephath and Nain have concluded if these holy men had not managed to resurrect their sons? Suddenly we’re out in the deep end of the pool, theologically speaking.
One way of backing away from this potential problem is to fall back on subjectivity, and say that miracles are in the eye of the beholder. It might seem pretty miraculous that the car speeding through the red light just missed you by this much. It may seem considerably less miraculous to the person in the car behind you that just got t-boned.
Or, we can broaden our categories to say that miracles happen all the time, and we just take them for granted, or don’t pay enough attention. A baby born three months prematurely who grows up to become an olympic athlete is a miracle. Antibiotics are a miracle. Those little snickerdoodles filled with caramel you can get at Whole Foods? Totally miraculous! The very existence of life itself is miraculous. Of course, if everything is miraculous, then ultimately nothing is.
Many of us, much of the time, pray for miracles. When we pray of world peace, or even a sane, functional political system of government, we are praying for miracles. If we’re approaching prayer with any level of maturity, we know that such hoped-for miracles don’t diminish our responsibility to work for these things. “Trust in God but tie up your camels” is still a wise aphorism.
Miracles are also part of how the Church discerns sainthood. To be declared “blessed” and “saintly” require miracles– usually documented, medically inexplicable healings, as proof that the saint is present in God’s kingdom, interceding for us. As the Paulist Fathers pray for the canonization of our founder, Fr. Isaac Hecker, we are asking people to pray for his intercession, so that his holiness can be recognized by the universal church. And we have had some reported: one was the healing of an infant that while joyous, didn’t rise to the level of proof. Another might have, but was reported anonymously, forestalling any investigation. Please, if you’re reporting a miracle, sign your name!
Miracles do happen. Some times it may be a private little reminder of God’s care for you. Some times it may be an occurrence that supercedes natural laws, something literally supernatural. But our faith tells us that these are all glimpses of God. Not just God’s power, but God’s compassion and love.
I have to say, just between you and me, that I sometimes have a problem with the people that
get all up in arms about the secularization and commercialization of Christmas. You know the ones I’m talking about: the folks who get all worked up over “Xmas”, despite the fact that it’s been
used for centuries because the Greek letter chi is the initial for Christ, and looks like an X. Or the
folks who think they’re being radical and countercultural with campaigns that say, “Keep Christ in
Christmas.” The problem I have with these things isn’t that they go to far, but that they don’t go
Keeping Christ is Christmas is a fine idea as far as it goes, but it just doesn’t say enough.
What about Christ are we keeping in Christmas? The fact of his birth? That’s not enough. I want
to keep his compassion and sacrifice in Christmas. I want all of us to keep in Christmas the
humility of his birth, and the willingness of everyone around him: his parents, shepherds, angels,
wise men and all– to seek God’s will in the extraordinary circumstances of his Incarnation.
That is the central message of Christmas, after all. It’s all about the incarnation: God choosing
to become human like us, re-directing the course of human history by his birth, his teaching, and
eventually by his death and resurrection. Peace on Earth is the hoped-for and still not-quite realized by-product of his coming. “Joy to the world” is the consequence, several steps down the line, of “away in a manger.” Christ became human, to mend the rift between God and humanity caused by sin.
Christmas is the feast of the Incarnation. And every time that starts to sound overly theological, and disconnected from people’s real lives, I spend a few moments looking behind the
Holy Family in the nativity scene, and focus on the shepherds. They, together with the angels, are
the real stars of tonight’s Gospel reading, and they are the ones who make the Incarnation real and important, and connected to people’s real lives and real struggles.
Shepherds work 24 hours a day, guarding the sheep– sheep that probably belong to someone else. At night they keep watch for predators. A shepherd’s life is simple, dirty, smelly, and hard. Although their work provided the lambs for sacrifice in the temple, it’s unlikely they’d be allowed in for worship.
How strange is it, then, that when it was time to announce the Incarnation, to proclaim to the
world that the cosmic balance between good and evil has just shifted forever, and that God himself has become human– how strange is it that God sent his angels not to the Temple, not to the priests, and not to the king, but to the Shepherds. Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero, Father-Forever, Prince of Peace, has been born and is waiting for you, not in a palace or a temple, but in a barn, and is sleeping in the animal’s food trough. It’s no wonder the shepherds were afraid. They probably thought they’d lost their minds.
But this is how Christ came to us. This is how our salvation was accomplished. And this is
why Christmas is, generally speaking, the feast day we love the most. Because it’s a foretaste of
God’s Kingdom. It’s a peek in the door of heaven, when there will be peace, and when injustice is
overturned, and mercy becomes the new law of the land. Christmas is when we’re the most
generous, the most gracious, the most reconciling. It’s when all the world is decorated with lights
that banish darkness, and we endulge in the richest bad-for-us foods. It’s all a peek into the door
of heaven, when shepherds are the first to know the good news, because in his Kingdom, they will
inherit the earth.
Limited, sinful creatures that we are, it’s too hard for us to keep Christmas all year. Still, this
is the time to celebrate and strive for the ideals that are the best of who God calls us to be. By
tomorrow, or maybe next week, we’ll be back to tending the flocks and mucking out the barns.
But we’ll return to that everyday life with the knowledge that Jesus Christ has become one of us,
we are his sisters and brothers, and we’ve had a brief glimpse of his Kingdom.
2nd Advent “B” / 5
I’ve always been fascinated by the character of John the Baptist. In the Gospels he’s depicted as a sort of primitive: coming out of the desert, wearing camel hair and leather, eating what he can scavenge. These are all the marks of a prophet, and John is very much cut from the mold of the ancient Hebrews, like the author of this section of Isaiah.
The function of the prophets is not to lay down a trail of cryptic textual bread crumbs for us to follow 2500 years later. Their function was to speak to their own people about immediate events. The author of this section of Isaiah, (who was not actually Isaiah, by the way) is writing about his hope for the restoration of Israel after their exile in Babylon. His hope is for a gentle land where God reigns, and the people are at peace. When he talks about a voice crying out in the desert, “Prepare the way of the Lord,” he’s talking about himself.
Of course, we read that passage knowing about the life and accomplishments of Jesus, so we see a foreshadowing of those later events. Through the centuries, Isaiah continues to speak to us of events he himself never saw. In Mark’s Gospel, John’s cries to prepare the way of the Lord pick up Isaiah’s message. If you read a little further in the Gospels, it becomes clear that Jesus, when he arrived, was not at all what John expected. John expected the Messiah to come with judgment, not with salvation. Later in life, John, from prison, sends his own disciples to ask Jesus if he is the one. Jesus answers that the lame walk, the blind see, and the poor have the Good News preached to them. Again, salvation, and not judgment.
The character of John the Baptist fascinates me, because his purpose in life was to foretell the coming of Christ. The baptism of repentance he preached was to prepare people for Christ’s coming. It’s hard for me to imagine spending your whole life just preparing for someone else to step in and do the real work. Maybe that’s just my ego. Everything John did pointed away from himself, and toward Christ.
But that’s really how we should still be preparing for Christ’s coming. When every valley is filled in, and every mountain is leveled, there’s no room for ego. In these days, we’re preparing for the coming of the Savior that we celebrate at Christmas, and more importantly, for the return of Christ at the end of time. That preparation isn’t just about us. John the Baptist wasn’t concerned about preparing just himself, his mission was to prepare his people for Christ. Our mission ought to be to prepare our people for Christ as well. And to do that we have to give our own egos a rest, and simply serve. Take care of each other. Take care of the poor. Take care of the sick and the lonely. People need to be able to look at our lives and see that we point to Christ, Christ in the poor and the broken.
Someone pointed out to me recently that all this raising the valleys and leveling the hills and straightening the roads is what we’d call infrastructure work. This preparation isn’t about color schemes and window treatments. It’s infrastructure– changing lives and changing our culture.
And the hard workof changing lives and changing culture is still before us. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what it means to be prophetic today. For Isaiah and John the Baptist, their culture was mostly unified, and uniformly in need of reform. Today, it seems to me that our culture is characterized by division, partisanship, and a simplistic desire to divide every question and ever issue into two camps. The destructive consequences of these divisions are all around us, especially in our inability to accomplish anything for the common good, or even agree on what that might be. Where once the prophetic position was to stand on the margins and speak to the mass of people in the middle, I think that today the prophetic position is to stand in the center, and refuse the cultural and ideological pull that wants everyone to choose sides. I believe that the prophetic call to prepare the way of the Lord, today, asks us to make level the valleys and hills, to resist the extremes, and work toward the peace of God’s kingdom that can only begin in the center, not the fringes.
In the midst of the mad dash to Christmas, don’t forget to prepare the way of the Lord. While you’re preparing your cards, shopping for gifts, taking your exams, and preparing to travel, make sure your heart’s prepared as well. Give yourself some quiet time and space for prayer and reflection. Do something for someone in need of assistance or company. Level some hills, and fill in some valleys. And find your prophetic voice not by choosing sides, but by insisting that truth and peace will be found in the middle.
A quick show of hands: How many of you work for a company or organization that has a Mission Statement? OK, now, how many of you could tell me what it says? Not many!
The Mission Statement is the greatest invention of the management consulting industry of the 1980’s. Great fortunes were made by consultants who hired themselves out to help organizations generate Mission Statements, and along the way they got us to think outside the box, maximize our value proposition, and understand the difference between a goal and an objective.
These Mission Statements are supposed to help us understand what’s at our core: what’s most important about who we are, and what we do. The problem with most of them, unfortunately, is that they tend to be too long, too filled with jargon, and too vague to help us accomplish anything. It’s not a surprise that most people can’t tell you what their organization’s Mission Statement says.
My religious community, the Paulists, has a Mission Statement that works, because we can reduce it to four things that tell us what we’re all about. Our mission is Evangelization (the spread of the Gospel to those who haven’t heard it), Reconciliation (reaching out to those alienated from the Church or society), Ecumenism (working toward the unity of Christians), and Interfaith dialogue (building bridges between different faiths). It’s four things, easy to remember, and an accurate representation of what we Paulists are and do. Its not descriptive of everything that we do, but it describes what underlies all our work.
This week, we have a Gospel reading that very neatly presents a Mission Statement for Christian believers. Jesus is confronted by this Pharisee Lawyer– there’s a great combination– who wants to trap him, make him look bad in front of the crowd. So this lawyer asks a trick question, “which commandment of the law is the greatest.” What he means by this is, “give me a quick summary– pick one law that all the others could be derived from.” This is a mostly impossible task, because whatever law Jesus picks, he’s going to be criticized for leaving something out. It’s an old rhetorical trick. If you can’t attack what someone says, attack what they didn’t say.
Jesus answers, not with one law, but with two, taken from different parts of the Hebrew Scriptures. Both parts would have been familiar to his audience. By putting them together, he avoids the rhetorical trap.
All the law, everything that God commands, is based on love. Not on vengeance, not on punishment, not even on justice. On love. Love of God, and love of our neighbors. That’s not too hard to remember. And it works as a mission statement, because it calls us back to our core values. If we have any motivation for what we do, apart from love, we are in trouble.
Our first reading serves as an illustration of this. This little section of Exodus is designed to delineate social behavior. This is part of the Law that Jesus says is derived from love of God and neighbor. And it’s based on love. Not on an eye-for-an-eye, not on equality, not on justice. It demonstrates a particular concern for the poor, the widowed, and the orphaned. This is love of neighbor; not the neighbors you’d invite over to watch the Superbowl. These are the neighbors that no one invites to anything. God is asking his people to set up a system to make sure that the poor and the powerless are cared for.
We could do with such a system today. Our judicial system is called the Justice System, and we have a Department of Justice in the federal government. What we don’t have is a Mercy System, or a Department of Compassion. Perhaps that’s why the US has 5% of the world’s population, and 25% of the world’s incarcerated population. There has to be something behind that statistic other than just efficient law enforcement.
As the folks involved with Occupy Wall Street, or maybe Occupy Portland will tell you, our laws tend to favor the rich more than the poor. As much as we might want Law to bring us love and compassion, it can’t. Instead, it’s up to us to be God’s compassion in the world. It’s up to us to live out the love of God and love of our neighbors. We will start to do that when we really own our Mission Statement, when we remember these two elements, from which every commandment is derived. “You shall love the Lord your God with your whole heart, and soul, and mind, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Every year on January 25th, the Church commemorates the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul. This is a particularly important day for us Paulists, and we generally treat it as our primary feast day of the year. We see ourselves as successors of St. Paul, bringing the Gospel to those outside the Church, and using the best contemporary tools of communication to do that.
This year, however, my thoughts are more focused on the idea of conversion than St. Paul per se. In todays reading from the Acts of the Apostles (chapter 9), Saul of Tarsus goes from persecutor to preacher. Sent to reign in the follower of the “new way,” and take them back to Jerusalem as his prisoners, he instead finds himself blinded and helpless, and thrown in with the very people he was going to imprison.
As Fr. Charlie Donahue, CSP, pointed out this past weekend, the conversion in this story is also the conversion of Ananias, the Christian sent by God to meet Saul and bring him into the faith through healing and baptism. Ananias even has the temerity to argue with the Lord over the suitability of Saul, and the danger he poses to the Christian community.
Can’t we please just stay enemies?
Life is so much easier and clear-cut when we have an enemy. During the years of the Cold War, we could look to the Soviet Union and China, and understand our place in the world. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the rise of China as a trading partner (or, if you prefer, their rise as the ones who make all our Stuff and hold our debt), we’ve found new enemies: terrorists. Perhaps because “terrorists” is a little too nebulous to really help us understand who the enemy is, some would like an easier target, like Islam.
Perhaps we’re still in need of a little conversion. Is it possible that God is still challenging us to put aside our fears and prejudices, and begin the work of healing?
Tonight President Obama will present his State of the Union message. Already politicians and pundits are squaring off, choosing sides, and ratcheting up the rhetoric of division that will play on our fears and our desire to have an enemy. It seems nearly impossible to have a political discussion– let alone a policy discussion– without ad hominem attacks and demonization of those with whom we disagree. There is very little productive discussion of the common good, compromise, and problem-solving. Instead we’ll likely hear tonight plenty of blaming, and plenty of fear-mongering.
Ananias and Saul both had to change (experience conversion) to enable the spread of the Gospel. This required divine intervention, with Jesus himself appearing to them (separately) to command them to meet and work together. What will be required today, for us to function as a civil society working together for the common good of all?
Will I have to give up an enemy? Will you?
– Posted using BlogPress from my iPad
If, like me, you attended a Catholic elementary school in the 1960’s (or earlier), your memories of the feast of Christ the King probably include lots of marching. We’d line up– boys on one side, girls on the other, and led by our battalion commander, Sister Mary Alma, we would march from the school yard into the Church, singing some sort of martial hymn proclaiming ourselves soldiers of Christ, following the cross, and ready to storm the ramparts of evil. It was pretty rousing stuff.
Back then we knew what a King was, because we were still pretty close to fairy tales and storybooks. But even then, because we didn’t have a King– in fact, since our country was founded in opposition to a king– we knew that this was metaphorical. And as we grew up, the metaphor became more and more of a problem.
I suspect that for most people, the generic King is like the little guy from the comic strip the Wizard of Id. This king is short, impulsive, reactionary, and exercises absolute authority. I don’t think it’s an accident that the kingdom he rules is called Id. This is a dangerous king, because at the least offense, he could order you jailed or thrown on the rack. Not surprisingly, the king of Id is universally disliked and feared. It’s the reason our country has never vested unlimited power in one man, or one office.
For many years, that was the sort of King most people saw on this feast day, I suspect. Christ the King was one of the most triumphalistic feasts of the Church’s year. Lots of talk of thrones and dominion and majesty and power. You can see that even in today’s first reading from 2 Samuel, where David is anointed King of Israel. David wasn’t the first of Israel’s kings, but he was considered the greatest of them. At first, God told the prophets that his people didn’t need a king. But the people insisted. Why? For security. The nations around them had kings, and they wanted to feel secure. The prophets warned them that kings are dangerous, that they would be taxed, oppressed, and drafted into their king’s service.
And all of that did come to pass. For all his strength and military power, David did some terrible things. And Israel’s subsequent kings would be progressively worse, until the nation itself was divided and conquered. Throughout the Scriptures, having a king is generally speaking a disaster for God’s people.
So why do we today celebrate Christ the King? The answer is in the Gospel.
Christ the King isn’t the triumphalistic king, or the king of armies and wars, or the king who rules by capricious commands. He’s the king on the cross. He’s the king who taught that to b the ruler of all is to be the servant of all, and in this Gospel, he’s offering the ultimate service: dying for our sins instead of saving himself.
All three of the Gospels for this feast function this way. In year “A” we get the judgment scene from Matthew 25, where the king separates the sheep from the goats. The ones welcomed into heaven are the ones who recognized their king in the hungry, and the thirsty, and the refugees, and those in prison. In year “B”, Jesus stands before Pilate and declares that his kingdom is not of this world. These Gospels shatter our images of the king who lives in the castle, exercising absolute authority over his subjects. What it leaves us is the King who sacrifices, who lives in the poor and the rejected. Whose highest value is the truth, and who lays down his life for us. That doesn’t leave much room for triumphalism, or imperialism, or even for authority as we understand it.
The feast of Christ the King ought to make us a bit uncomfortable. Not because we’re uncomfortable with the metaphor of a King, but because we’re still too comfortable with our own power, and our own place in the hierarchies of our world. Part of our sinfulness is that as much as we say we dislike the idea of Kingship, there’s always a temptation to think, “Well, it might be OK if I were King (or Queen).” But the Christ the King of these Gospels challenges that temptation. We are asked to follow the King we see in the poor and the rejected, the criminal who stands before Pilate for threatening the status quo, and the king who died on the Cross.
This is the last Sunday of the Church’s year. Next week begins the season of Advent. That time of preparation ask us to get ready for the coming of our King—both the victorious Christ who comes at the end of time, and the helpless infant born into our world 2000 years ago. But we really begin that preparation today, with the realization that power and glory as this world understands them are corrupt and temporary things. We follow the one whose reign begins with service, compassion, and justice: Christ the King.
Persistence isn’t a trait that we seem to value very much. It’s much more our style to expect quick results, and to give up when we don’t get them. Think about it. Most people don’t write letters any more. Not the kind that you write by hand with a paper and pen, an envelope and a stamp. We’re much more likely to communicate by email, text message, twitter, or even phone. It’s so much quicker and easier. Not that I think there’s anything wrong with email and text messages. They’re really my lifeline. But it’s been a long time since I’ve gotten a real letter, written by hand.
We are pretty quick to give up when we don’t get instant results. I remember 100 years ago, when I was a little kid, we were taught that when you called someone on the phone, you waited 10 rings for them to answer, since people often had to run to get to the phone. Today, people have four or five phones in the house. And ten rings? We’re lucky if we get four. If the phone isn’t answered in four rings, what do people expect? They expect voicemail. You’d be lucky if someone actually tried to call you twice. With ubiquitous mobile phones, all-the-time internet access, and instant messaging, we expect immediate access, and immediate answers.
We don’t value persistence all that much. If we don’t get an immediate response, we’re off to something else. Time to change channels. Try something new. And yet, we value the people who stick with it. Remember Cal Ripkin of the Baltimore Orioles? Why was Cal Ripkin such a hero? Was he the greatest baseball player who ever lived? Probably not. But he stuck with it, to a degree that most people find heroic, playing 2162 consecutive games. We have become such an impatient people, that heroism is now defined as regularly showing up, and doing your job. That kind of persistence is something we find very difficult.
And persistence in a relationship is even harder for us. Oh, we have lots of reasons for not hanging in there, and some of them are pretty good reasons. Still, I see lots of people in relationships, even committed ones, who seem to me to be keeping their options open. Not really going in with the idea that this is going to be forever.
So what about our relationship with God? Are we any more persistent there? Can you keep praying when you don’t get the answer you want? Or even worse, when you appear to get no answer at all?
In the Gospel we’ve got this parable of the unjust judge. Remember, this is a parable, not an allegory. Luke isn’t saying that God is an unjust judge who ignores our pleas. He’s saying: if this judge, who is unjust, is finally worn down by persistence, why would you think that God, who IS just, would not answer you? We’ll get an answer to our prayers. But we need to remain faithful.
That’s sometimes hard to do. Have you ever felt like Moses in the first reading today? All you have to do is hold up your arms, and the battle will be won. And for the first ten minutes, it’s no problem. But when the battle stretches on all day, what then? Some times remaining faithful means doing something really simple, but doing it persistently for a long time. It is easier to do something really hard that’s over really quickly. But sometimes the battle isn’t over quickly. If you’re coping with a permanent disability, or an addiction; if you have to care for an chronically ill child, or parent, or spouse; you know the feeling of having to keep those arms up through the long battle. In this Exodus reading, how did Moses cope?
The community came to his aid. They help him sit down, and they help hold up his arms. Seems pretty simple, doesn’t it? Does Moses say, “Oh, no, I’m fine… Don’t need a thing?” Does he think, “God must want me to do this all by myself?” No, of course not!
Being faithful means being persistent. It means showing up, and doing the simple things we know we ought to do, and doing them over the long haul. Not being bored or impatient, or looking for a way out. But it also means doing them together. Supporting each other, and maybe holding someone else’s arms up until the battle is won. God will bring swift justice to those who call out to him day and night. But when the Son of Man returns, will he find any faith on the earth? Or will we have hung up, or changed the channel? Being faithful means being persistent. And most of the time, we persist best, when we?re supporting one another.
Do you know what a Skinner Box is? Psychologist and Behaviorist B.F. Skinner invented this device. It’s a box with a little lever that’s connected to a chute that’s connected to a box of food pellets. You put a rat in the box, and show the rat that pressing the lever makes a food pellet drop down the chute. Press the lever, get a pellet. Press the lever, get a pellet. Before long the rat figures out the connection, and pretty soon you’ve got a big fat lab rat, who’ll sit in the box all day, pounding away on the lever.
And once the rat’s conditioned, even when the food pellets run out, the rat will still keep plugging away on the lever, expecting to get a pellet.
There’s a danger in drawing too close a parallel between rat behavior and human—in most cases. Just ask B. F. Skinner’s daughter, who had a big box all her own. True story! Still, it’s amazing what we will do for some perceived reward.
Rewards of one sort or another are terrific motivators. They encourage us to do something that we might otherwise not do. A reward for the return of a lost wallet might get someone to turn it in, even though we all know they ought to do so anyway. The IRS offers a reward for people who turn in tax cheats. And then there’s frequent flyer miles. How do you choose your airline?
Problems arise when rewards become entitlements. All the airlines would love to end their frequent flyer programs, but they can’t. People expect them now, and won’t fly on a carrier that doesn’t reward them.
Which brings us, in a round-about way, to the parable in today’s Gospel. After herding sheep or plowing fields all day, these servants might think that they deserve a nice relaxing supper, with their employer to wait on them. Unfortunately, that’s not how it works, is it? A servant is a servant.
This parable, in the context of the preceding request, “Increase our faith,” makes it pretty clear that simply getting that increase in faith isn’t going to change the disciples’ status. The faith they receive isn’t a package deal that means they are entitled to heaven. That’s not what their salvation rests on. However much faith they have, they must remain servants.
This is not to condemn them to a life of servitude. That’s not the point. The point is that they can’t be complacent, thinking that since they are people of faith, their work is done. The gift of faith isn’t something that’s given as a status symbol, or as some kind of ornamentation. Faith—even a little faith—is supposed to do something. Even a tiny bit can accomplish the seemingly impossible, like tossing that sycamore into the sea.
The disciples ask Jesus to increase their faith. He responds by saying that they’re not making use of the faith they already have.
That’s pretty challenging! How often in your own life have you prayed for something you thought you needed, instead of digging in and working with what you have? If I only had more faith! If I only had more patience! God give me the strength. If God doesn’t deliver, does that give you an excuse for not doing what you can, with what you have?
I’m not saying that we shouldn’t pray for what we need, and ask God to equip us for the tasks he’s given us. But this Gospel is a reminder that disciples are people with a mission, and people on a journey. We shouldn’t expect that we’re going to reach a point where we can simply rest on our laurels, expecting that God’s going to deliver the big reward. God is calling us to a deeper faith than that.
Because what we’re talking about here is a relationship with the Lord. And a relationship has to be more than a quid pro quo. We’re motivated by love of God, and the desire to share that love with the world. We’re not rodents in a Skinner Box, hitting the lever to get the next pellet. There’s no room for us to be complacent, and no reason to expect that we’re entitled. We’re not entitled, we’re loved, and that’s a whole different thing.
This just in—Jesus is coming back. So look busy. You’ve seen those t-shirts. And the bumper stickers: In case of the rapture, this car will be unmanned. I’d take away that person’s license right now! Just kidding. But you know what I mean.
Jesus is coming back. That’s the promise he made. And today’s Gospel asks us to be ready for his return. “Let your belts be fastened around your waist and your lamps be burning ready. Be like those waiting their master’s return from a wedding, so that when he arrives and knocks, you will open for him without delay.” Does that scene spark any memories for you? It ought to sound a little like our Easter vigil. Gathered outside, candles in hand, we await Christ’s return. “Should he happen to return at midnight or before sunrise, it will go well with them.” That’s a vigil: waiting through the night for Christ to return.
Note that this vigil, both in the Gospel, and in our Easter observance, finds us waiting alert, but without fear. When you hear some people talk about Jesus’ return, you can hear fear in their voices. The fear that the world isn’t ready. That when Christ comes, he will bring harsh judgement. And underlying that, I think, is the fear that in the ensuing battle between Good and Evil, there is the possibility that we will be caught in the middle, and could be squashed like bugs.
But we don’t need to live with any such fears. We can be free of fear both because of what we know, and what we don’t know. What we don’t know is the day or the hour of Christ’s return. Jesus in the Gospels tells is that we won’t know, it’s going to be a surprise, and even he doesn’t know when he’ll return. So, any time you hear someone claiming to know the day of Christ’s return, walk away. They have been deceived. All of the parables of the last days, and the direct questioning of the disciples, make it clear that we cannot know the time of Christ’s return.
What we do know ought to relieve our fears. In today’s Gospel, what does the master do when he returns from this wedding banquet? Does he line the servants up and grill them on how they’ve been wasting their time? Does he demand that they run him a hot bath and prepare his supper? That would seem reasonable. But instead, he sits them down, and proceeds to wait on them. His return doesn’t appear to me to involve much harsh judgement. [In the longer version of today’s Gospel] there is some punishment to be meted out to the servants who were misbehaving in his absence. But that’s God’s justice at work. We expect those who do wrong to face God’s justice. That’s not harsh judgement. And it’s not something we ought to fear. What we have to do is stay alert for his return.
One reason we await his return without fear is that he’s never been entirely gone. We do not believe that God has ever abandoned the world to the power of evil. Christ has never left us alone. It’s not like God has had his back turned, and is going to whip around to see what we’ve been up to. Christ is present to us today, and every day. Christ is present when his disciples gather, present when we break open the Word together, and present when we break the bread. And we have the presence in our world—in our selves!—of the Holy Spirit. God’s Spirit dwells in us, nurtures us, and guides us. With so many ways that God has chosen to remain with us, why should we fear his return?
Our preparation for Christ’s return, is to do what he asked us to do: to live in service of one another, to seek justice, to forgive one another, and to proclaim to the world the salvation that God offers us in Christ. We know what God wants; we hear it proclaimed every week. For those who hear, and understand, and make a choice to do otherwise, there will be consequences at the final judgement. For those who struggle to serve, to seek to forgive, and who share the love of God, there is no need for fear.
There’s also no need of any special preparation. We know that we should be living every day alert and ready for Christ’s return. We don’t have to retreat to a mountainside and wait for the Rapture to come and vacuum us all into heaven. Because, after all, Christ may not return this afternoon, but I could step off a curb and be hit by a bus, right? So, the right thing to do is to live each day, ready for Christ’s return, or for my return to Christ. That shouldn’t make anyone afraid. Today’s Gospel begins, “Do not live in fear.” But it should keep us alert, engaged in the world around us, using the gifts God has given us to carry out the work he has given us. That’s what is means to be a faithful servant, ready for Christ’s return.