22 September 2009

Thoughts from Last Sunday

A friend of mine emailed me asking for what I would have said last Sunday if I were tasked to give a homily (poor people of God!) ... (9/20) ... this is what I drew from the top of my head ....

Woody Allen once remarked, “Dying is the most embarrassing thing that can happen to a person.” Wry and funny on one hand, but cold and heartless to anyone who recently lost a person they loved. And what does God say about this? Does God the Father who sent His only son to the earth for the purpose of living, loving, dying and rising find death all that embarrassing? Likely not. And yet, we find ourselves in the midst of a culture – a country – in which death is not only embarrassing but also something to be cured. The idea of living forever exists in the heart and mind of our society not for the purpose of good works and true faith, but rather to extend our opportunity to accumulate things. Should we be ashamed of this? Likely. Is such sentiment, the ambition of wealth, power and honor anything new? Absolutely not.

In today’s Gospel, the evangelist Mark describes a scene which is understandable to us. In fact, such a scene might be so familiar as to embarrass us. I can often remember watching Corey Matthews’ travils on the ABC TGIF series “Boy Meets World,” and turning my head away in embarrassment. There was I on the television screen, albeit Corey always got the girl. As for me: well, look at me.
Turning our attention to the travels of the apostles , we find Jesus involved in a “teachable moment.” After a long journey, Jesus asks his followers a loaded question: What was the discussion going on back there?

Picture the scene as Jesus and his band of followers move through the Judean countryside, in an attempt to remain undetected. He teaches them as they go, but whenever a crowd is seen, they must immediately split up into smaller groups. Perhaps they get separated when attempting to eat or when they stop to rest their weary feet. Along the way, there is plenty of time for conversation amongst the apostles not in the presence of Jesus. Possibly Jesus is detected by someone at some point and is pulled away from the route. A quick healing and some kind words ensue. Yet, in an effort to minimize the delay, Jesus sends his followers forward. In any event, the rest of the boys get talkin’. Natural ambition takes over. The disciples don’t yet fully understand exactly with whom they are dealing. Even more likely – and realistically – the disciples are beginning to understand exactly who Jesus is, yet refuse to accept the obvious and inevitable. Surely this man upon whom we have pinned all our hopes can’t be saying what he’s saying. Or, to paraphrase Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride: “Those words you keep saying, they must not mean what we think they mean.” Yes, this is the more probable situation. Jesus has already explained his mission to the disciples and yet they get caught up in the moment. Getting carried away by the thought that the Messiah – the anointed one – is here, the disciples think of their own positions, glory and futures. The fact that we do the same thing almost each day is no consolation. 2,000 years ago the fisherman hoped Jesus free an Israel overrun by Romans. Today, there is little peace in Jerusalem or elsewhere and more “Romans” than we can handle.

Mark’s gospel is one of immediacy. Jesus immediately does this and that. It is also the Gospel of stark choices. You are either in or out. There is no middle ground; there is no room for compromise. Jesus asks us of a radical life-changing choice, one that will ultimately and unavoidably lead to embarrassment. But whose embarrassment? Not His and not ours. No, rather the nature of being a follower of Jesus means that those who do not live with Him forever are the ones embarrassed. The nature of our choosing to welcome the child, the beggar, the immigrant, the sick, the elderly, the accused, the guilty, and the stigmatized will most usually result in two things: first, we’ll be counted along with those same outcasts. Secondly, we’ll be counted along with Jesus.

Tragically, many times when we make the decision to follow the Son of Man to his death in Jerusalem we will find ourselves opposed to those who make the decisions on who comes in first place and who places last. In some cases it will be those with whom we work, in others family and friends. And most tragically, sometimes even our church will tell us that our good works and compassion run against what it teaches. If it happened to the apostles, it can certainly happen to us. Nevertheless, we continue. We strive to place ourselves at the foot of the teacher, Jesus. We strive to make ourselves available for his lessons.

We recall the words of the letter of James, written and spoken to the early Christian community in Jerusalem. “And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace,” the author exclaims. We do not know for sure who wrote which particular parts in this epistle: James the Apostle or a close follower of James’ church. What we do know, however, is that the author directed this letter to a local church community of the first century deeply struggling with what it meant to be a follower of Jesus in a turbulent time. Aimed at Jewish Christians attempting to find their way within the synagogue-based religion of Judaism, this letter focuses on many practical matters of the practice of the fledgling Christian faith. Indeed, they are words which bear particular meaning today for each one of us. They bear this disctint meaning because we too find ourselves in a fledgling church, a church in which both we and those sitting to our right and left are constantly reborn. We too find ourselves mixed into a world that doesn’t necessarily respect or understand our values. However, just as the words of James held meaning for the early Christians, so too do his words and the words of Jesus find meaning for each one of us today.

And so we come back to death: James, ostensible writing of today’s epistle received the crown of martyrdom. We know that the members of James’ church received summary ejection from the Jewish community of Jerusalem. We are all aware of the fate of the carpenter, Jesus of Nazareth. Notice a pattern? Of course. But also notice the pattern of the afterlives of James, the worshippers in his community and Jesus himself.

So today we are called to ask ourselves: what’s more embarrassing? To live as if we will never die, or to be always prepared to die so that we may always live?

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