Saturday, July 30, 2016

Don't Try This At Home?

Solemnity of St. Ignatius of Loyola (Parish Feast)

Readings: Jeremiah 20:7-9; Psalm 34 (33):2-3, 4-5, 6-7. 8-9, 10-11; 1 Corinthians 10:31-11:1; Luke 14:25-33
Picture: cc C├ęsar Astudillo

My dear friends, have you ever come across TV shows or commercials that include a warning? Typically something that goes like this: The stunts shown here are performed by trained professionals. Please do not try this at home! Why do you think they do this? Why bother to warn people not to imitate what they see on the show? The answer is simple, right? The producers know that the stunts are impressive enough for people to want to copy them. But they are also dangerous enough that, if attempted without the proper training, these same exciting stunts are likely to cause serious injury. Even death. And the producers don’t want to get sued. So they post a warning: To safely pull off these stunts you need to be someone who does this for a living. Someone who has dedicated his or her whole life to perfecting the art. Professionals only. Amateurs risk certain death. Don’t try this at home!

It may sound strange,  sisters and brothers, but don’t we find something similar in our readings today? In the gospel, we’re told that large crowds flock to Jesus. Perhaps hoping to witness miracles. Spectacular stunts. And Jesus issues them a warning. In no uncertain terms, he tells them how incredibly difficult it is to follow him. To try to imitate the kind of life he leads. Not only must his disciples hate even the members of their immediate family. Meaning that they have to give Jesus and the preaching of the gospel the highest priority in their lives. Higher even than the closest of family ties. They are expected also to give up all their possessions. To recognise that their possessions don’t really belong to them, but to God. Entrusted to them for the common good. Then they have to carry the cross and follow him.

In the first reading, the prophet Jeremiah models for us what this teaching looks like. God has sent him to preach a very hard message. And he suffers rejection and persecution as a result. The word of the Lord has become for me a reproach and derision all day long. Not only do people ridicule and mock him. They even plot to have him killed. Such is the danger and difficulty of the prophet’s mission. It demands all of him. Not just all his possessions. But the whole of his life.

Not just some things some of the time. But all things all of the time. This is what it takes to be a disciple of the Lord. Isn’t this what St. Paul is saying too in the second reading? Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God. Not just some things. But everything. All for the glory of God. If this is true then, contrary to popular belief, there really is no such thing as a Sunday-Catholic. Someone who practices Catholicism for only one hour or less a week. People who carefully time their presence at Mass in such a way as to satisfy only the barest of minimum requirements.

To do this is not much different from amateurs trying to perform dangerous stunts without proper training. It’s highly dangerous. In a spiritual sense. It may even cost us our eternal salvation. Not least by lulling us into complacency. On the contrary, to be a true follower of Christ requires true professionalism. The dedication of our every action. Renunciation of all our possessions. Devotion of all of our time. To aspire to anything less is to fall far short of discipleship. To put it more bluntly, a Sunday-Christian is not a true Christian. Christianity is not for amateurs. Only professionals. Those willing to offer all. To expend everything. In the service of the Lord. For the glory of God.

But this is also where our readings depart from those warnings we see on TV. And in a surprising way. The warnings are meant to discourage people from imitating what they see on TV. Our readings, however, aim for the opposite effect. Not discouragement but encouragement. Be imitators of me, St. Paul writes in the second reading, as I am of Christ. It’s as though our readings turn the television warnings on their heads. Not this is difficult. It requires specialised and dedicated training. Don’t try it at home! But, instead, yes, discipleship is indeed difficult. It will take nothing less than your whole life. Very likely you won’t have what it takes. So… what are you waiting for? Come follow me!

This approach will, of course, make no sense to us. Especially not if we consider it only in light of secular marketing strategies. People don’t usually try to encourage others to do something by telling them how dangerous and difficult it’s going to be. Let alone that they will very likely lose their lives in the process. Except that there is another important aspect to our readings that we haven’t explored. Something all-important. In the first reading, after complaining very bitterly about all the terrible things he has had to suffer. And just when we might expect him to throw in the towel. The prophet Jeremiah makes a surprising declaration: Within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones; I am weary of holding it in, and I cannot.

Why does the prophet not simply give up his mission? Difficult and dangerous as it is? The short answer is that he cannot. He finds himself impelled to do what he has been sent to do. Why? Is he being oppressed or blackmailed in some way? An internet scam perhaps? No. Jeremiah speaks not of oppression but enticement. Seduction. Not of blackmail but love. Quite simply, he has fallen head-over-heels in love with God. And, as anyone who has ever been in love might understand, he is unable to refuse his Beloved.

This then is what it takes to be a true follower of Christ. Not just professionalism. But also passion. Not just the willingness to dedicate one’s whole life. But also the experience of being set on fire with the love of the Lord. Professionalism and passion. Two indispensable characteristics of true discipleship. Both of which are closely connected to each other. The professionalism flows from the passion. The deep love is what energises the total dedication. All of which should help us to understand the kind of training we need to become true followers of Christ. Authentic imitators of his life.

We must somehow be guided not just to work ever harder. Not just to give more and more of ourselves. But also, and first of all, to be set on fire. To be moved by passion. To fall deeply in love with the Lord. So that, impelled by love, the same love we are gathered here to celebrate at this Mass, we can make a generous offering of ourselves.

And it is in this process of setting hearts on fire that our patron, Ignatius of Loyola, was an expert. He excelled in helping people to receive and to burn with the love of the Lord. To be overwhelmed with gratitude. So as to serve with generosity. Which is why the church recognises him as a master of spirituality and retreat ministry. This is the Ignatian charism that is our precious heritage. This is what we are supposed to be experiencing regularly, as members of this parish. This is also what we are supposed to be sharing consistently with others. Not just in church. Not just at home. But also, and most of all, out in the world. Wherever we may find ourselves. Wherever our Lord may see fit to send us. To help set others on fire. To enable them to burn with passion. So as to serve with professionalism.

To fall in love with Christ. And to dedicate our lives to the service of his mission. This is what it means to be a member of an Ignatian parish. This is who we are. What we are called to do. This is what we celebrate today.

Sisters and brothers, on this the feast day of our parish, our readings should really come with a warning: These things can only be performed by passionate disciples. Trained professionals…

As individuals and as a parish, what must we do to continue receiving the training that we need today?

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