Sunday, February 9, 2020

Being the Light of the World

February 9, 2020 –– 5th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Isaiah 58:7–10 / Psalm 112 / 1 Corinthian 2:1–5 / Matthew 5:13–16
Being the Light of the World

There’s something both glorious and intimidating in this Gospel: Jesus says, “You (referring to those who follow him) are the light of the world.”

Almost instinctively we know that Christians should be exemplary. Yet, if we’re honest, we cry out, “How can I possibly live up to such an expectation?!”

Isaiah tells us some of what it means: share, shelter, clothe….and do not turn your back on the hungry, the oppressed, the homeless, the naked. That comes with a promise: then light shall rise for you in the darkness…. But again, if we’re honest, we say, “How can I possibly live up to such a challenge?!”

Information technology makes us aware of needs that go beyond our comprehension. There  is heartbreaking human pain which almost forces us to turn away because it is too overwhelming; answers seem hopelessly complex and immense.

Mother Teresa was exemplary in so many ways, and one notable observation particularly applies here. She said, “I never look at the masses as my responsibility; I look at the individual. I can only love one person at a time––just one, one, one. So you begin. I began––I picked up one person. Maybe if I didn't pick up that one person, I wouldn't have picked up forty-two thousand…. The same thing goes for you, the same thing in your family, the same thing in your church, your community. Just begin––one, one, one.”

Everyone who follows Jesus is to make a difference. There are many ways to do that, and not all of us will have the same focus. That is good. That is what gives breadth to Christian witness. What matters is making a difference for Jesus’s sake. It’s a big world with many issues and even more needy people.

Yet even as I say this, it’s not that easy. We live in a world that entices us to be selfish. Of course, it’s not expressed that way. We are inundated with advertising that constantly offers us more, bigger, and better. We are offered innumerable rationalizations of why we deserve to focus on ourselves and excuse ourselves from getting too involved with others’ needs.

It helps to understand that even as Jesus calls us to be the light of the world, he has also provided the way for us to do it. It’s not merely up to us. Even more, it doesn’t make sense unless we embrace the gift of faith.

Giving and doing for others in a way that is inconvenient and even costly to us doesn’t make sense in a world of self-indulgence. St Paul wants the Corinthians (and us) to know that faith [does] not rest on human wisdom but on the power of God. It is when we see and believe that God has loved the world through Jesus Christ and him crucified that we understand that God wants to do the same thing in and through us. When we “die” to what is easiest and most profitable for ourselves in order to give and serve––to love––others, we are joined with Jesus. It is then we can be the light of the world, or at least contribute our individual one-candle-power.

What if each of you hearing this would reach out in the coming days and weeks to look for one way each day to serve or express a kindness to someone as you go about your routines? And if that someone notices, simply say, “The Lord bless you.” That connects the action explicitly to our faith. Just though our parish we could be touching over a thousand people ever week!

Every day we have opportunities to love in the name of Jesus and be, as Paul expressed it, a demonstration of Spirit and power. Sometimes a few of us may do something that looks “big” as the world looks at things, but usually the ways we show selfless love will be very common (and often personally inconvenient or costly).

There is a story from a generation ago about an incident that changed a man’s life. A group of salesmen who went to a week-long sales convention had assured their wives they would be home in time for Friday dinner. Running behind on Friday afternoon, and in a rush at the airport, one of the men hit a table which held a display of apples, which flew everywhere. Without stopping or looking back, they all charged ahead to reach their plane which was already boarding. That is, all charged ahead but one. He paused and looked back, then exhaled a deep breath of compassion for a girl whose apple stand had been overturned. He yelled for his buddies to go on, telling one of them to give his wife the message that he was taking a later flight (this was before cell phones, and when airports were considerably more inviting). Then he fully turned to see apples all over the terminal aisle.

Looking more closely, he saw a girl in her teens who was blind. She was crying tears of frustration and at the same time helplessly groping for the spilled apples as the crowd passed by with no one stopping. The salesman knelt on the floor with her, gathered up the apples, put them back on the table and helped reorganize her display. As he did this, he noticed that some of the apples had become bruised. He pulled out his wallet and said to the girl, "Here, please take this $40 for the damage. Are you okay?” She nodded through her tears as the salesman started to walk away. Suddenly the girl, still in semi-shock, called out to him, "Mister...." He paused, turned and said, “Yes?” She asked, “Mister, are you Jesus?” That moment became a milestone in his life.

You are light of the world. When we understand that we become light as we embrace the cross, this identify can be quite intimidating. So we pray for grace and strength.

One way the grace and strength come to us is when we open our eyes to see not just the intimidation but the glory––you are the light of world. It’s not because of who we are in ourselves; it is because God has invited us to be partakers of his grace. Think of this: the life of Jesus Christ can live in you and be expressed through you. Imagine someone seeing Jesus in you! That is why Jesus tells those who follow him: You are the light of the world.

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Fullness of Faith

January 19, 2020 –– 2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time
Isaiah 49:3, 5–6 / Psalm 40 / 1 Corinthians 1:1–3 /  John 1:29–34
Fullness of Faith

Properly understood, every facet of Christian faith interfaces with the others. I became more aware of this in my journey into the Catholic Church; one of the authors who influenced me referred to Catholicism as “a seamless garment.” I became persuaded that the Catholic Church is the “fullness of the Faith” in a tangible form.

What does this have to do with today’s readings? Consider St John’s account of the Baptism of Jesus. It is significant that all four Gospels give an account of the Baptism of Jesus. There is no way to unpack the Baptism of Jesus in one homily (or even a reasonable-length book!). Jesus’ Baptism is the gateway into all that God’s salvation means––one of those “seamless garment” threads.

One facet of God’s salvation (and again, everything interfaces) comes into focus through the second reading in St Paul’s opening words of his first Corinthian letter. There is a key word (usually translated one of two ways from the Greek, hagios): holy or saints. We are called to be holy (or saints). One way to understand the reason for Jesus’ Baptism and one key point that Paul is making in this letter is that God’s intention for us is to be holy––to be saints.

This is not easily assimilated by many people and is one way to see why the fulness of the Church is so important. The default popular understanding of saint in the Catholic tradition is a person who has been canonically sanctioned as having fully completed the transformation of being made holy. This, in turn, affects the way many Catholics often respond (or react) to the word holy––they think it is unapproachable. But being a saint is broader than the declaration of canonical perfection; there is an application of being holy that it is for every one of us.

As Paul begins his letter to the Corinthians he reinforces their identity and formation. Something has happened to them to make them who they are: the gathered people of God. Paul says he is writing to the church of God that is in Corinth. He is not writing to all the people in Corinth. There is a distinctive demarcation. It is rooted in Christian identity. How do we see ourselves? Is our connection with God the most significant part of our self-understanding? Beyond anything else, we are Christians. This is where Paul begins his letter.

How is it that these people were part of God's church? The remainder of the letter shows they are far from having arrived at holiness in their present setting. But…. they have been sanctified. This essentially means they have been “set apart”––they now belong to God.

Paul, speaking through the Holy Spirit, also tells the Corinthians (and us!) they were called to be holy (or to be saints). Here it is good to see that holy means "different." One way to be holy is to be distinctive––different for Jesus’ sake.

How is such a thing possible? There is another thing about the Christians Paul addresses: they have a foundation. They have been sanctified in Christ Jesus. They are among others from all over who call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. God's grace has been given to them in Christ Jesus. Christianity is Jesus Christ.

Jesus always has the priority. We did not choose him; he chose us. That is always the starting point for the way we understand ourselves and the Church. No individual person nor single congregation stands alone before God. There is a wonderful prayer in the Liturgy that draws us into this mystery of holiness as we prepare to receive the Eucharist. After we pray the Our Father the priest intercedes with these words: look not on our sins, but on the faith of your Church…. The Church is a people who are called of God and in Jesus Christ into the great work of salvation that God is doing through his people. Jesus’ Baptism was the initiating expression of that.

We are being called into identity with Jesus. What he did––his Baptism, Passion, Death, and Resurrection––he did for us. And when we follow him into those things we are sanctified––set apart, belonging to God. That, in turn, makes us holy.

Some years ago the Army had a commercial that was so good I wish they had not used it. It should belong to the Church. You may remember it: Be all that you can be. In the Church, whether it was in Corinth so long ago or whether it’s here in our own parish, being all we can be is a lot because it is not all up to us. It is up to the one who calls us.... who sets us apart.... who helps us to be different.... who gives us his gifts.... who promises us his kingdom. 

Remember who you are. You who have followed Jesus in Baptism have been sanctified in Christ Jesus. You are called to be holy––a saint. Believe it, and invite the power of the Holy Spirit to make you be all that you can be.

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