07 September 2013

The Cross Given, Not Taken: 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time

“Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.”

Isn’t a natural question, especially after the summer we’ve had in Southie to ask, “Why?  Or, more specifically, what happens, Lord, when the cross finds me?”

Of course, we all know about what I’m speaking: we’ve experienced some serious incidents of tragic and senseless violence in our neighborhood and our city these past few months that have greatly affected all of us – whether we spent the summer here or elsewhere.  The Metro Sections of our local papers saw to that. 

At the same time, our ears have been filled with the drumbeats of war in a far-off place that few, if any of us have ever been: Syria.  I was in kindergarten during the first Gulf War and remember not quite understanding the lead-up to war, but being strangely excited by all of the energy. 

Having lived through that experience, however, along with living just a few miles away in New Jersey from New York on 9/11, and coming of age during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, I’ve learned that no matter how strongly one feels about the rightness of a particular war, there are always unintended deaths, tragedies and mistakes in them. This morning (afternoon) all these thoughts way heavy on me – and, if my conversations with folks who have friends and family in the armed forces in the neighborhood are any indication – they may be weighing heavily on you too.

It may help to put all of these events in the context of today’s second reading – a very strange one indeed.  We hear almost the entire letter from Paul to Philemon today – and it’s unlike other letters of Paul, because he is not writing to a community like the Romans, the Corinthians or the Galatians.  Instead, Paul writes directly to Philemon himself, a well-to-do-young Christian regarding his runaway slave, Onesimus.  What had happened is that Onesimus ran away from his master and found refuge in the city where Paul was living.  Once there, he converted to Christianity. 

Only after his conversion, however, does Paul figure out Onesiumus’ true identity.  Paul now has a problem: he needs to convince Onesimus to return to his rightful home, but at the same time realizes how badly it will look if Philemon punishes Onesimus for his disobedience since they are now both Christians.

Thus, Paul writes a letter to Philemon in which he asks him to receive Onesimus:

[N]o longer as a slave, but more than a slave, a brother, beloved to me, but even more so to you, as a man and in the Lord.  So if you regard me (Paul) as a partner, welcome him as you would me.” 

Paul is attempting to point out that because Onesimus has been baptized, his place in the world has been changed because his relationship to other people has been changed. 

All of us have had the same thing happen to us through our baptisms.  Our call into Christ is not just some type of civic event that brings together family and friends.  No, our baptisms forever change us by molding us into the shape of Christ.  We are formed by our entrance into the Body of Christ to the very shape of Christ: the Christ who feeds, heals, teaches, loves, forgives and yes, even dies on the Cross.  Paul recognizes and explains that when one becomes member of the Body of Christ, all the rules of life are pulled apart, our very presence in the world is changed – or so it is supposed to be.

And so, let us consider again the cross that the Lord asks us to carry today: it is the cross, I think, of the willingness to be different. Christians are not called to be different because we’re better than others, smarter than others or even more holy: rather, we are called to be different because we have met Jesus face to face in our baptisms and continue to meet the Lord in this same way each week when we celebrate the Eucharist together. 

Because we have had this experience, we are now called to act in a way that is different: we are called to form our lives so that they look as Jesus did: healing, caring, forgiving and loving until death do us part from this world.  What’s more, in these times of violence in our world, city and even our own community, we are called, specifically and loudly by the Lord God himself to do as Paul did in today’s second reading: invite others to forgiveness and peace.

When I worked at the Shattuck Hospital, a young man approached me on one of the locked wards.  He was agitated that someone in the lobby had looked at him strangely. The man explained to me that he was planning to “get him before he got me.”  This was, he reasoned, the best way to go about things in the world.  The best way to survive, he explained, was to be violent to others before having violence done to one’s self.

You may have imagined his shock when he heard the Christian alternative to violence: an alternative to the perspective that one needs to get someone before they get you. The alterative of carrying the cross, the alternative, in the words of today’s Gospel of “renouncing all our possessions” – those grudges, hurts, cares and ideas that keep us from a closer relationship with God as well as others.

This week, we are called – loudly and more clearly than ever – to reengage ourselves with the Gospel of Christ in such a way that proclaims peace regardless of the consequences.  Our faith does not provide us with specific answers upon how to solve worldly – or even local problems - yet, it does provide us the manner of going about solving them: picking up not the cross that we want, but the one we are given, and in doing so, proclaim a way of going about in the world that is so desperately needed: with the peace of Christ on our lips, in our hearts and on our hands proclaiming, peace in Syria, peace in Southie and peace in our hearts.


Judy Kallmeyer said...

You say that we should look like Jesus looked. St. Catherine of Siena is quoted as having said, "If you were what you should be, you would set all of Italy afire." And I think that I have seen this quote amended to say," would set the whole world on fire." And there was our Jesus, bruised, battered and bloody hanging on a cross. He said that He had come to light a fire on the earth. We are to be that fire, a fire that grows within us and then spreads to everyone with whom we come into contact. And today's Gospel tells how we catch that fire--we take up our own cross and follow after Him. You are so right that we must look like the Master. That might mean that we too might be bruised, battered and bloody, sometimes physically, sometimes psychologically or even spiritually. That could be scarey! But let us desire to have that fire, that resemblance to the Lord so that we can draw others to Him. Your homily has triggered many thoughts in me. Just sharing a few of them. Thanks for sharing yours with us. Wish I could hear you preach rather than read. But I'll take whatever I can get. You are great!

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