Posts tagged homily
Why is it so hard for us to do the right thing? Sure, there are occasionally situations where we’re faced with some moral ambiguity, but most of the time, we make it harder than it is. If you ever listen to those founts of all modern wisdom, Dr. Laura Schlesinger on the radio or Judge Judy on TV, you know what I mean. Dr. Laura and Judge Judy take no prisoners. People will call up Dr. Laura, or appear befor Judge Judy, and explain their problems, and Dr. Laura of Judge Judy will say, “This is your mess, clean it up.” Or, “you promised to do this, now do it.” These people are complicating their own lives, because they either don’t take responsibility for their own lives and choices, or they’re not honest with themselves or their partners. It’s not moral complexity that trips people up most of the time, it’s our own sinfulness and weakness.
This is what Moses is trying to explain to his people in our first reading from Deuteronomy. He has told them in plain terms what God wants them to do, and not to do. There are no secrets. There’s no mystery. God himself has revealed the Law, and it’s as plain as can be. It’s easy. Of course, we know the history. The Israelites found that they couldn’t keep the Law. They followed other gods. They murdered the prophets. They build idols. Was there some nuanced moral argument that let them believe that these things were OK? I don’t think so. They knew it was wrong. And they did it anyway.
St. Paul wrote about this. He said, “the good that I intend to do, I don’t do, and the evil that I don’t intend, I do.” It’s human sinfulness, and we all suffer from it. We all suffer because of it. So, it’s not really surprising that Jesus had to confront it when he was teaching.
It starts with this lawyer. Insert lawyer joke here. He asks Jesus what he has to do to inherit eternal life. Jesus responds by saying, “You know what’s in the Law. Do that.” It’s perfectly clear. Love God with your whole heart, soul, strength, and mind. And love your neighbor as yourself. It’s that simple. But wait! The lawyer wants to make it more complicated. Let’s narrow down who’s a neighbor.
And look at the response Jesus makes! It’s the parable of the Good Samaritan. Does this literary form sound at all familiar? Take off the pious glasses for a moment, and what is the parable of the Good Samaritan? It’s a joke! It’s one of the oldest joke forms in the world. You know: A priest, a minister, and a rabbi are out playing golf. An American, a Frenchman, and a Polish guy are up in an airplane with only one parachute. A priest, a Levite, and a Samaritan are walking down the road. You know how the joke’s gonna end, even before the punch line. And all of Jesus’ listeners know how it’s going to end, too. The point of the joke is to make the Samaritan look foolish. The Jews of that time hated the Samaritans. They wanted nothing to do with them. And you can bet that they used ethnic jokes to poke at them, just as people do today.
But what happens? The same thing that happens in all the parables. Jesus turns their expectations upside down. Remember, this began with the question, “Who is my neighbor.” Everybody seems to think that the poor guy by the side of the road is the “neighbor.” So when Jesus asks, “who was the neighbor to him,” and the answer came back, “the one who showed compassion.” There’s the real answer: The Samaritan is your neighbor. It’s not about the guy who was robbed. It’s about the hatred between the Jews and the Samaritans.
This is the point that Jesus is making. “My neighbor” cannot any longer be limited to my family, my ethnic group, my country, my sexual orientation, or my anything. If there’s anyone we’re still feuding with, or excluding, or reserving just a little hatred for, then we haven’t heard the message of the Gospel, and brought it into our hearts. As St. Paul writes to the Colossians, “It pleased God [by means of Christ] to reconcile everything in his person—everything, I say, both on earth and in heaven.” If there is anyone we’re willing to leave unreconciled, then we are still not loving God with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind.
The difficulty, of course, is that we want to make this complicated. We have very good reasons for hating, or excluding, or avoiding the people that we do. We can construct elaborate rationalizations, and find arguments for extending God’s reconciling love to less than everyone. Most of those reasons and rationalizations have to do with our own perceived victimization, our fears, or our need for revenge. But where does that get us? Ask the good Christians of Kosovo, or Northern Ireland, or Rwanda. or Sudan. No, it’s really simple. God’s love is unbounded. God’s desire for reconciliation isn’t limited. And our responsibility as followers of Christ is to love in the same way. Do this and you shall live.
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.
Novelist and Theologian Dorothy Sayers once wrote an interesting essay entitled “The other six deadly sins.” She was complaining, nearly 50 years ago, that we’ve essentially reduced all of the deadly sins to just one: lust. When someone’s accused of “immorality,” what does that mean? For most people today, that means sexual immorality. And, given the state of sexual morality today, that doesn’t mean all that much anymore. But those other six deadly sins—they’re still out there, and they’re still deadly. We have lots of flavors of immorality to deal with. The problem is we want to make most of them into minor character flaws. Pride becomes ego. Sloth becomes a lack of motivation. Envy becomes a lack of self-esteem. Gluttony becomes a reason to go on a fad diet, or maybe look into bariatric by-pass surgery. None of them are really regarded by most people as deadly.
And deadly in this sense means more than physical death. It means eternal death—sin serious enough to endanger our salvation. Although it’s hard for us to hear it, this is serious stuff. And the one deadly sin that may be the hardest for us to look at is the one addressed by this week’s scriptures: Greed. Greed values things more than people, sees all human interactions as essentially economic. Greed is a sin that knows no moderation; there’s never enough.
Most people don’t set out to be greedy. It’s something that accumulates on the soul, like the stuff that accumulates in our homes, our financial institutions, and our waistlines. The gospel opens with someone in the crowd demanding that Jesus intervene in the division of an inheritance. On the surface, this might seem like a reasonable request. It’s a matter of justice, after all. Isn’t it? When justice isn’t balanced by charity, it easily becomes a tool for greed. Is there anyone here who doesn’t know of a family that’s been torn apart by the division of an inheritance? If you want to see greed played out as a deadly sin, spend some time in a probate court. Wisely, Jesus refused to play the game, and instead tells the parable of the rich fool.
That seems like an odd title for a parable: The Rich Fool. We usually assume that wealth comes as a result of smart decisions in investing or business. After all, a fool and his money are soon parted, right? The point of the parable is that eventually, EVERYONE and their money are parted. What makes this man foolish is that he devoted all his resources to the gathering and storing of his wealth. What was it all for? Maybe so his children would have something to fight over when he was gone.
But the question, “What’s It All For?” is one that all of us have to answer. What sort of treasure are you accumulating? What are we all accumulating? It has been said that the U.S. has less than 5 percent of the world’s population, yet we use 25 to 35 percent of the world’s resources and produce 25 percent of the world’s pollution and waste. A few years ago, the Medicare program declared that obesity is a disease, and one that’s become epidemic. This is not a problem that most of the world has. While there are people with medical conditions that affect their weight, most of us are heavy because we’re storing up treasure on earth. With some regret, I have to include myself in this category. I don’t want to sound accusatory of people who are overweight because they have enough to contend with. But as a country, having a disproportionate share of the world’s resources doesn’t appear to be making us collectively healthier.
It’s a cliché that money doesn’t buy happiness. Having lots of money, or lots of stuff, seems oddly comforting in the short term. We want to feel secure, and a big 401-K certainly feels safe. But to really be secure, to really be happy, requires all the things that can’t be bought: loving relationships, a sense of belonging, the satisfaction of saying, “I have enough,” the peace that comes from an honest, adult relationship with God. Poverty is not a good thing, and clearly poor people can be just a greedy as the rich. In the same fashion, it’s possible to someone who’s well-off to be generous and giving. But today’s Gospel is a reminder to all of us that wealth is not our god, and that what we most want and need in life transcends our economics.