Sunday, September 25, 2016

A Man in Hell

September 25, 2016: 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Amos 6:1a,4–7 / 1 Timothy 6:11–16 / Luke 16:19–31
A Man in Hell

I grew up in a church where “fire and brimstone sermons” were not unusual. As a boy I would always shudder when a visiting evangelist would say, "My text for this evening is found in Luke chapter sixteen." I knew what would come next. He would continue by quoting the line around which his whole sermon would revolve. The old King James language is still clear in my mind, "And in hell he lift up his eyes..."

It may not be popular, but the Church does believe in hell. Preaching about hell is not inappropriate, but it’s always secondary at best. Hell is an eternal antithesis to embracing the glory of God. We take hell seriously because the salvation given to us in Jesus Christ offers us a glorious alternative. The purpose of this story given by our Lord is not just to tell us there is a hell; it tells us why one man found himself in hell. It is a story that warns others not to make the choice this man made.

Why would anyone “choose” hell? It is one's own choice. Of course most people do not make the choice of hell explicitly; people choose hell passively by choosing other things above God. What kinds of choices lead people into hell? There is a stereotypical list of mortal sins, but nothing is said about the rich man in this story being sexually immoral or running an abortion clinic. This is a story of a man who chooses hell when he chooses to do nothing.

In that day and culture it was common to wipe greasy hands on chunks of bread and then toss the bread to the dogs. It was that bread which Lazarus waited for at the gate. It seems the rich man was well-aware of Lazarus (he knows the beggar’s name). Maybe he thought himself quite merciful in not calling the authorities to have the vagrant put away (Lazarus did not help beautify his gateway). No, the rich man was not cruel; he merely lived his own life and let Lazarus live his.

That is how the rich man chose hell. Mortal sin is not limited to acts of violence or illegitimate sex. Sin is not limited to crude and repugnant people. One way to understand the essence of sin is selfishness. Selfishness is merely putting one's self first. Selfishness is living as though other people do not matter as much as “me”. It seemed not to matter one way or the other to the rich man that Lazarus lay at his gate. The rich man was too comfortable to care. He did not have to worry about Lazarus' hunger; he went to bed full of wonderful foods every night. He gave no thought to the rags with which Lazarus tried to cover himself; he was handsomely dressed in the best clothing available. He was not concerned about Lazarus' sores; he was comfortable.

But this warning is not limited to people who can qualify for television's Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous (if that program isn’t current, it seems there are many more which exalt the same values). In Jesus' day a “rich” person was someone who lived very comfortably, had not only enough to eat but a wide variety of foods, someone who lived in a relatively carefree environment with nice possessions, had the luxury of different clothes for different occasions, and enjoyed a social life with the people of his choice. So not only are we rich compared with most of the world's present population, we are “rich” as Jesus would have used the term.

Maybe this word "rich" is a mental block for us. Let's not say "rich"; let's say we are "comfortable." Comfortable people have discretionary income. What do we do with our discretionary income? If we spend it all on ourselves we are like this man in Jesus' story. What story does our homes and wardrobes and tables and vehicles and vacations tell when placed beside our giving? This is exactly what Amos was prophesying as he warned of God’s judgment on people given to self-obsessed pleasures. With a bit of imagination we might bring his words into our world:

This is what the Lord, the Almighty God says: There is bad news for everyone who is living in the delusion of comfort and convenience. You have your Craftmatic and Sleep Number beds; you recline in your La-Z-Boy recliners; you carefully buy from Whole Foods, Fresh Market, and Omaha steaks. You entertain yourselves with your favorite music. You get wine and beer as if there is no limit. You pamper yourselves with the delicacies from Bath and Bodyworks. Yet you pay no attention to the things that break God’s heart; others can be miserable, but as long as you are healthy and happy, you think all is well. It’s about to be turned upside-down. Your comfort is going to evaporate.

We are bombarded with the temptation to be self-indulgent. We want to be comfortable. The rich man wanted this, and who doesn't? We sleep on beds instead of on the floor. And choosing comfort is not all wrong––unless it becomes our top priority. Is our desire for comfort greater than a willingness to love? Are we most concerned with pleasing ourselves or following Jesus? The rich man chose himself, probably without even thinking about it, and in doing so, he chose hell.

It seems the rich man did not know this. That should not be surprising; many people today do not understand it either. Somehow we've gotten sidetracked by limiting sin to a few visible “nasty” sins. As long as we avoid those we think we are good people. In fact, using that standard, it's very hard to discern any difference between "good" people in the church from "good" people who have nothing to do with church at all. Christian Faith––following Jesus––is more than that. God calls his people to love as he loves. Yes, we find it much easier to seek our own happiness and our own comfort; that is our natural tendency because of the Fall. Apart from the grace of God, it is also what causes us to choose hell.

It was in the clutches of hell that the rich man finally understood. He asked if Lazarus could go back from the dead to warn the living. He hoped his own brothers who were caught up in their comforts would be shocked into listening if someone came from the dead. The Gospel is that this rich man's request has been granted. Someone has come back from the dead. Jesus Christ died for our sins and came back from the dead to show us that God’s ways are above human reasonings and hopes. And believing that, we are called to follow Jesus in the way he loves––not putting our own comfort and convenience above a commitment to be like our Lord.

The choice that the rich man made still confronts each of us today.  All we have to do to choose hell is choose to live only for ourselves. I close with a question I ask myself: How am I learning to be different than this man who was so comfortable that he could ignore Lazarus and end up in hell? Only in following Jesus…. Every day, we ask for the grace to follow Jesus. We pray each day, forgive us our trespasses…. We feed on the Living Word. And as we give ourselves to Jesus  he frees us from slavery of our selfish desires. That is the Gospel. That is our hope that our own story will not be like this one about a man in hell.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Look at the Cross

Wednesday: September 14, 2016 –– Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross
Look at the Cross

To know God…. look at the cross.

To see the effect of disobedience, of selfishness, of sin…. look at the cross.

To see how God responds to hate…. look at the cross.

To chase the nagging accusations of guilt…. look at the cross.

To have true hope for salvation…. look at the cross.

To stay close to Jesus…. look at the cross.

To know how to respond to others…. look at the cross.

To know how to LIVE…. look at the cross.

“No other god, no other power, no other being in all the world loves like this, gives like this, dies like this. All others win victories by fighting; this one, by suffering. All other gods exercise power by killing; this one by dying.”  (N.T. Wright)

Let us, every day, say with St Paul: May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world (Galatians 6:14).

Sunday, September 4, 2016

The Struggle of Discipleship

September 4, 2016: 23rd Sunday of Ordinary Time
Wisdom 9:13–18a / Philemon 9–10,12–17 / Luke 14:25–33
The Struggle of Discipleship

Understood on a surface level Paul’s letter to Philemon is a conundrum. Critics of Holy Scripture––indeed, those who see themselves antagonistic to Christian Faith––love to use this letter as an example how out of touch, or even oppressive, the Bible and Christianity are.

Paul wrote this letter to Philemon, a slave-holder, asking him graciously to take back Onesimus, a slave who had run away. Philemon was a fellow Christian believer. Onesimus had met Paul during one of Paul’s imprisonments and evidently come to faith. In spite of loving Onesimus as a spiritual child and wanting Onesimus to stay with him, Paul is conforming to the law of the land (at the time) and sending Onesimus back to his “owner”, Philemon.

What is going on here? Does the Bible support slavery? Is Paul putting immoral social convention above the law of Christian love? Where is the line between obeying God and the laws of Man? How does this letter fit into Catholic Social Justice or Christian involvement in socio-political issues?

Okay… I’ve asked more questions than I can answer––but, I hope this homily can be an agent for the Holy Spirit to help us think in the context of Christian commitment. Single issues and simple answers are far short of God’s truth. So if we can learn to be thinking always out of an attitude of total allegiance to Jesus and his Kingdom (and God help us to do so), then we will be growing into the kind of disciples that honor Jesus.

It helps to understand that Paul was writing a letter to Philemon as a fellow Christian and not an essay on social justice. The intent of this letter is not primarily Christian social ethics (it’s just that modern sensitivities want to make it go that way). In the context of the day in which it was written, Paul is writing to ask (to sensitize) Philemon to look at Onesimus as a new Christian brother and not as a run-away slave. That in itself, at the time, was revolutionary. Given the social order of the day, the best way to undermine the immorality of slavery was for slave-owners to begin to see their slaves as people who are in the image of God and not as property. That did happen through the expanse of the Chuch, and the change (when it followed that pattern) was transformative rather than insurrection and violent revolution.

So this letter to Philemon is about Christian discipleship. Discipleship always takes place within a given socio-political climate, and Christian discipleship is not primarily a temporal political endeavor. Discipleship will always be subversive when it is properly understood and practiced. This is because no earthly socio-political structure is ever conformed totally to the Kingdom of God. When a nation-state is relatively “good” it is still not worthy of ultimate allegiance. When a nation-state is oppressive (and many Christians have suffered under such in the Church’s history), God’s people still obey the government to the extent they can––but all the more give ultimate allegiance to the King whose Kingdom goes beyond anything we can yet fully imagine.

In Paul’s day, regardless of slavery being legal and normal, Christians were to treat others with Jesus-love. If Philemon honored Paul’s request and treated Onesimus as a Christian brother it would change his status even if Onesimus was technically still a “slave”. The “system” would then have a crack.

This is a real-life example (from Paul’s day) of the Wisdom reading and what Jesus is saying in the Gospel. When our hearts are fully given to the Lord and his ways, there is a different way of seeing the various relationships in the world around us regardless of the circumstances. Under the Lordship of Christ, even family relationships are different. Under the Lordship of Christ, political issues and tactics are different. We need to remember this as we are inundated right now with election hype.

Christian discipleship is always misunderstood by the world-spirit. That is why Jesus says: Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple. Anyone who chooses to follow Jesus will have a cross. Onesimus had the cross of being a Christian slave; Philemon had the cross of being a Christian slave-owner. Each had to face the implications of his own discipleship. We all do. It may be the discouragement of something hard (such as the slavery that touched Onesimus and Philemon). It may be the tempting distraction of something that is inherently good (such as the family relationships which Jesus mentions). 

We live in a socio-political environment that has largely bought into the idea that the purpose of government and social mores is to make everyone as comfortable as possible. Paul’s words to Philemon––and Jesus’ words about carrying a cross––make no sense to the so-called “wisdom” of our world. The world-spirit is about convenience and comfort in the here-and-now; Jesus is calling people to be disciples.

If we do not understand that, we cannot understand Scripture and we will not be able to make peace with the true nature of the Church. We are here to follow Jesus. Understanding what that means is not always easy. When we do understand what it means, it is often harder still to practice. But if we open our hearts to the grace that is always saying Follow Me, we will be disciples in the midst of our questions and struggles. Right now you can tell Jesus all over again, Lord, I want to follow…. give me the grace to follow…. I want to be a true disciple above everything else.

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