Sunday, February 06, 2011

5th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Claiming Our Discount
Picture: cc Matt McGee

A few days ago, the local grocery store sent me some discount coupons for being a loyal customer. So, on Friday, I went to claim my discounts. As I walked around the store putting things into my cart, I tried my best not to forget anything, as I sometimes do. And when I finally brought all my items to the cashier, I was careful also to remember to hand her my reusable shopping bags, which I often forget to bring with me. The cashier rang me up, and I happily took my groceries home. It felt good to be getting a discount... Then, it dawned on me. Although I had remembered everything else, there was one crucial thing that I had forgotten... The discount coupons were still in my pocket. 

Sisters and brothers, do you ever have experiences like that? Do you ever find yourself in a room, for example, and forget why you went there in the first place? It’s very embarrassing to say it, but such things happen to me from time to time. I know. It sounds a lot like the early onset of dementia. But I think there’s another reason for my forgetfulness. For me, it’s usually because I’m too preoccupied with other incidental things that I forget the more important ones. For example, my main reason for going to the store was to claim my discount. But I was so preoccupied with other things – like not forgetting my reusable shopping bags – that I forgot the main reason why I was there – to claim my discount. The incidental things crowded out the one essential thing. I remembered the bags, but forgot the coupons. No discount for me. Better luck next time.

Unfortunately, this kind of forgetfulness doesn’t just happen at the grocery store. In the spiritual life too, we can quite easily become so preoccupied with incidental things that we lose sight of the more essential ones. As Christians, we can quite easily forget who we are and why we are here. Which is why it’s important for us to pay attention to what Jesus tells us in the gospel today. According to the Lord, we Christians have a very particular reason for being here. Just as I went to the store for the specific purpose of claiming my discounts, the Lord has called us and sent us out for one reason: to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. Like salt, we Christians are to preserve everything that is good in our world, and to enhance its flavor. Like light, we are to help others see more clearly the way that leads to life. And, as Jesus tells us in the gospel, we do this – we allow our light to shine for others – primarily through our good deeds.

But surely you don’t have to be a Christian to do good deeds, do you? Even an atheist can do them. What’s so special then about the good deeds of a Christian? Our readings today bring out three things that make our good deeds essentially Christian. First, our good deeds have a very specific target. Although we are to love all people, we are called to help especially those most in need. Share your bread with the hungry, the first reading tells us, shelter the oppressed and the homeless; clothe the naked when you see them. We might also add to this list. We might include, for example, those who are hungry not just for bread, but also for companionship. Or those who are oppressed not just by governments, but also by addictions of one kind or another. Or those have lost not just their clothes, but also their sense of right and wrong. Whoever is most in need. These are the targets of our good deeds. And what happens when we do this? The Lord says: then light shall rise for you in the darkness, and the gloom shall become for you like midday. As Christians, we are called to let our light shine especially upon those who are most in the dark.

But that’s not all. Not only do our good deeds have a specific target, in performing them, we Christians are also called to use a special technique. St. Paul talks about this in the second reading. When Paul performs the good deed of preaching the good news to others, what he relies upon most, is not the eloquent words and the worldly wisdom of secular thinkers and speakers. Although he is familiar with all these methods, and although he even uses them whenever circumstances call for it, Paul’s effectiveness as a preacher comes from something else, from something deeper, something more mysterious. I resolved to know nothing while I was with you, he tells the Corinthians, except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. In his preaching, Paul relies not on his own strength as a great speaker. Instead, he preaches in weakness, relying upon the power of the deep love of Christ. As we are told in John’s gospel, Christ loved his own in the world to the end (John 13:1), by washing their feet with his hands, and by cleansing their hearts with his blood. Isn’t this same love the reason why we are gathered here this morning? What Paul teaches us is that we don’t really have to be experts to perform good deeds. What we do need is to have experienced the love of the Crucified and Risen Christ. And to be willing to share it with others.

And, thirdly, because they are rooted in the Cross of Christ, the good deeds of a Christian should lead others onto a particular path, a specific trajectory. Our good deeds are meant not so much to attract people to ourselves, to win their admiration or their praise. Instead, our good deeds are meant to lead people, through the Cross of Christ, to the love of God the Father. As Jesus tells us in the gospel: Just so, your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father.

This then is what is most essential to being a follower of Christ: to be salt of the earth and light of the world by performing good deeds – deeds that target the needy, deeds that are rooted in the love of Christ, deeds that lead others to God. This is the main reason why we are here. This is the discount that we are called to claim as Christians. And yet, speaking for myself, it’s quite easy to forget all this, isn’t it?

I’m reminded of the story that is told of a very pious Catholic, who spent many hours in church and at prayer. Not only did she go to Mass everyday, but she also spent much time before the statue of Our Lady, praying the rosary. All of which should have impressed the other members of her parish, except that this woman wasn’t a very nice person. Not only was she often rude and inconsiderate, she was also a terrible gossip. One day, someone decided to play a trick on her. Coming to church early one morning, she found all the doors locked. And pinned to the front door was a note, on which these four words were written with an exclamation mark at the end: I am out there!

Sisters and brothers, if the main reason why we are here is indeed to be salt of the earth and light of the world, if this is the discount that we are called to claim as Christians, then isn’t it important that we ask ourselves whether this is what we are actually doing?

Are we actually claiming our discount?

Or are the coupons still stuck in our pockets today?

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