Sunday, September 26, 2010

26th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Bridging Gaps or Digging Graves
Picture: cc  The Infamous Gdub
Dear sisters and brothers, when we say that someone has dug his own grave we are usually referring to a person who has been seeking his own benefit but ends up causing himself greater suffering instead. I came across a good example of this on the BBC website yesterday. A man in Akron, Ohio, had been shoplifting in a Walmart. Then, to keep from getting caught, he jumped into a dumpster at the back of the store. Unfortunately for him, a garbage truck happened by just at that moment. Finding himself trapped in the truck, our shoplifter used his cellphone to contact a friend, who then called 911. Eventually, the police managed to get him out, but not before he had undergone considerable suffering. A police spokesperson had this to say about our dumpster diver: (When he was found) he was in a lot of pain. He had been compacted several times. He was just begging us to empty the truck...

The news report does not tell us what the shoplifter’s exact intentions were. But it’s likely that he stole from the store because he was looking for a more comfortable life. He then jumped into the dumpster in search of safety and security. He was trying to escape the police. He did all these things for his own benefit. But he ended up causing himself greater pain and suffering instead. What we have here is a classic case of someone who dug his own grave. Thankfully for him, people heard his cries for help and were able to come to his rescue before it was too late.

The rich man in our gospel parable is not so lucky. After his death, he finds himself trapped and undergoing great suffering. We’re told that he’s tormented by the flames in the netherworld. And, like our shoplifter, he cries out for help. Unfortunately, it’s too late for him. Abraham tells him that a great chasm has been established preventing anyone from rescuing or comforting him even if they wanted to.

And it may be helpful for us to wonder for a moment how this great chasm came to be established. Who put it there? The parable itself doesn’t tell us. And some of us might think that it is God who has done this. It is God who has dug this deep canyon in order to imprison the rich man, in order to punish him for his sins. Perhaps. But could it not also be the case that the rich man is the one responsible? Could it be that, like our shoplifter from Ohio, it is the rich man himself who has somehow dug his own grave?

In order to see this possibility, we need first to consider what the deep chasm does. Notice how it separates people into two groups. On one side, we have Lazarus and those who are comforted. On the other, we have the rich man and those who are tormented. Notice also how this separation that takes place after death corresponds to an earlier division in life -- between the rich and comfortable on one side, and the poor and afflicted on the other. The separation after death is a continuation of an earlier division in life, but with two crucial differences. First there is a reversal of experiences. After death, the one who was comfortable in life -- the rich man -- is now tormented, and the one who was suffering in life -- Lazarus -- is now comforted.

Second, there is also a change in the thing that separates them. It is only after death that their separation becomes final and irreversible. It is only after death that we find the deep chasm, which makes it impossible to cross from one side to the other. In contrast, while in life, although divided, the poor and the rich were actually very close. We’re told that Lazarus used to lie at the door of the rich man’s house. How easy it must have been for the rich man to bridge the distance between him and Lazarus while they were still alive. All the rich man had to do was to open his door to the poor. All he had to do was to show compassion. But he did not do it. Even though he could easily have done so while still alive, the rich man failed to bridge the distance between the rich and the poor. And, after death, it was too late. The rich man had already dug his own grave.

Furthermore, our readings also suggest to us a reason for the rich man’s failure. The rich man neglects to open the door of his house, because he has first closed the doors of his heart. We find an indication of this in the first reading. Here, the prophet Amos pronounces a judgment upon the rich people of his time. Woe to the complacent in Zion! he proclaims. Their only concern is with their own comfort. So focused are they on indulging their own selfish desires, and perhaps in safeguarding their own wealth, that they remain unaffected by the suffering of the masses of poor people who surround them. In the words of the prophet, these rich people are not made ill by the collapse of Joseph. Not unlike our shoplifter from Ohio, in seeking only their own comfort and security, they end up diving into the disgusting dumpster of their own complacency. And isn’t this the same complacency that then results in the great chasm imprisoning the rich man in the netherworld? Notice, for example, how complacent, how arrogant, the rich man remains even after death. Even as he is tormented by hellfire, he continues to order people about. He wants Abraham to send Lazarus first to cool his tongue and then to warn his brothers. As in life, so too in death. The rich man continues to treat the poor person -- if he notices him at all -- as nothing more than a slave. Isn’t it clear then who is the one responsible for the chasm separating him from the joys of heaven. By his own complacency, the rich man has dug his own grave.

All of which should lead us to reflect upon our own situations. Perhaps some of us might consider ourselves rich. Others might consider ourselves poor. But whether rich or poor, by virtue of our baptism, all of us here are called to be what the second reading tells us that Timothy was called to be: men and women of God, called to keep Christ’s great commandment of love, committed to rejecting complacency, so as to show compassion, determined to do what we can in this life to bridge the gap between the rich and the poor.

And it is important to keep this calling of ours constantly in mind, especially as we approach this country’s midterm elections in November. During this time, when the citizens among us are being called to make crucial decisions as to who we want to represent us in government, when various candidates are campaigning for our vote, perhaps our readings today suggest to us a crucial question that we need to consider before casting our ballots: Is this candidate doing something to bridge the gap between the rich and the poor? Or is s/he only continuing to help us dig our own graves?

And what about each of us, sisters and brothers? In our daily lives, are we bridging gaps or digging graves? How might each of us answer this question today?

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Sacrament of Holy Matrimony
Patrick Moyer and Rachel McCarthy
The Secret of Setting Up Shop
Picture: cc ralph and jenny

My dear friends, have you ever been to the opening of a new store? What was it like? I remember when the Apple Store opened some months ago on State Street in Downtown Santa Barbara. It was such a grand and joyous affair. The line of people waiting to get in stretched almost halfway around the block. But beneath all the fun and excitement, I imagine that much serious thought was also put into ensuring the store’s success. Which is important especially in the current economic climate where, as you probably know, at least on State Street, the turnover rate is particularly high. Many stores don’t survive beyond a few months. But then, there are also others that seem to thrive. I know of a sushi restaurant, for example, that opens only for dinner, but is always filled to the rafters. So what is the secret? What are some of the things that help to ensure a store’s success?

I’m not a business person. But I imagine that at least three things are crucial. The first is, of course, location. As far as possible, you want to situate your store at a place that’s conducive for the particular kind of business that you’re operating, a location that’s convenient for both your suppliers and your customers. But that’s not all. A store’s success will also depend upon the product or service that it provides. It’s got to be something that people need or want. For example, there are no less than six coffeeshops on Downtown State Street. And, as far as I can tell, all of them are doing well. Why? I guess, everyone gets thirsty. Finally, of course, in addition to location and service, one must also have access to the necessary capital to get the store set up and to keep it running. A successful business doesn’t usually flourish without continuous careful attention. It requires a considerable investment of resources, both financial and otherwise.

Dear friends, today we are, of course, not gathered here for a store opening. But we are celebrating the union of Pat and Rachel in Holy Matrimony. We’re here to support Pat and Rachel in their new undertaking. We’re here to share their joy as they set up shop as husband and wife. And, as with any store opening, together with Pat and Rachel, we do well to consider some of the crucial ingredients for success. Especially at a time when the turnover rate for marriages seems particularly high, we need to give serious thought to location, service and investment.

Consider first the location to which Pat and Rachel have invited us. In choosing to be married in church, Pat and Rachel are doing more than simply giving us an excuse to gather in this beautiful building. In choosing a church wedding, they signal to us their determination to situate their life together in a very particular spiritual location. We find the shape of this spiritual location described in the scripture readings that Pat and Rachel have chosen for this joyous occasion.

In the gospel, Jesus speaks about the nature of the union between a husband and a wife by referring to what God intended at the beginning of creation. Jesus alludes to the creation story in the book of Genesis, where God’s plan was not just to bring a man and a woman together, but also to give them a happy and harmonious life in the Garden of Eden, a place in which every created thing exists in right relationship -- the man with the woman, humanity with the environment, all of creation with its Creator.

And if the gospel reminds us of the harmony that characterized the beginning of creation, the second reading speaks of the how this harmony eventually comes to its fulfillment at the end of time. The image offered to us is that of the marriage between the Lamb and his bride the Church, the union between Christ and God’s chosen people.

It is between these two unions -- one at the beginning of creation, and the other at the end of time -- that Pat and Rachel have chosen to situate their own coming together as husband and wife. And this choice of location also indicates to us the service that they wish to offer to us and to all the world. In a society polarized by various apparently opposing ideologies, in a world torn by conflict and division, through their commitment of love for each other, Pat and Rachel are bearing witness to the possibility of lives lived in harmony and right relationship, in unity and peace.

But this happy state of affairs does not come about without a willingness to make a substantial investment. As we heard in the first reading, a husband is happy when he is blessed with the gift of a good and virtuous wife, a partner willing to invest herself completely in their life together. And what is said of the husband is, of course, equally applicable to that of the wife. Her happiness is linked to the willingness of her husband to invest himself totally in their life together. Still, as those among us who are already married probably know well, this kind of investment is not easy to make. It’s especially difficult once the euphoria of the honeymoon is past. When a couple is faced with the ordinary challenges of daily routine, when one might discover, for example, that one’s partner is determined to squeeze the toothpaste from the middle of the tube instead of from the end, or that the other has an allergy to doing the dishes or taking out the trash, it becomes so much more difficult to remain totally invested.

Which is why the location chosen by Pat and Rachel for their marriage is such a wise and prudent one. For by making this choice, they demonstrate their awareness that their ability and willingness to invest fully in their relationship does not come ultimately from them. As our second reading tells us, the linen dress worn by the bride of the Lamb, which symbolizes the virtuous deeds of God’s saints, is itself a gift from her spouse. The bride’s virtue is a gift that was paid for by the Lamb, when he gave his life for his spouse, when he shed his last drop of blood for her on the Cross. In choosing to celebrate their union in church, in choosing this particular spiritual location for the beginning of their life together, Pat and Rachel are expressing their determination to rely upon the prior investment of Christ in the life of his Church. And we who are witnesses to their commitment, in turn, commit ourselves to giving them our continual support and encouragement.

Dear friends, you have all probably heard that well known phrase that goes: a wedding is for a day, but a marriage is for a lifetime. In the days ahead, together with Pat and Rachel, how might each of us remain attentive to location, service and investment in the shophouse of the Lord?

Sunday, September 05, 2010

23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)
Worth Playing For?

Readings: Wisdom 9:13-18b; Psalm 90:3-4, 5-6, 12-13, 14-17; Philemon 9-10, 12-17; Luke 14:25-33
Picture: cc CBS

Dear sisters and brothers, have you ever watched Survivor? Those who have will know that in this reality TV game show a bunch of people allow themselves to be stranded for more than a month at some remote location. They willingly say goodbye to family and friends, and are left to fend for themselves, with little more than the clothes on their backs. Not only do they have to construct their own shelters, and catch and cook their own food, they also have to compete with one another in physically and mentally demanding challenges in an effort to keep from getting voted off the show. In the words of the show’s tagline, they have to outwit, outplay and outlast one another. It’s not a game for wimps. As the days go by, and more and more of them get voted off, the remaining participants grow visibly thinner and thinner for lack of nourishment. Some get sick or injured. Others break down emotionally. And all of this on national television.

Even so, despite the difficult conditions, there seems to be no shortage of people willing to play. As you know, the show’s 21st season – Survivor: Nicaragua – will begin airing in a couple of weeks. Why do people do it? The reason is obvious enough. Not only do they stand a chance of winning a million dollars, they also attain instant celebrity status. All their suffering is not for nothing. Which is also something that the show’s host, Jeff Probst, continually reminds the participants. At the start of each challenge, after having shown the players what they stand to win, Jeff always asks them the same question in three words: worth playing for? Is this worth renouncing the companionship of family and friends for? Is this worth being exposed to the elements and suffering malnourishment for? Most of the time, the survivors’ answer is yes. Yes, of course it’s worth playing for!

Like the survivors, it would appear that we Christians also need continually to ask ourselves a similar question. For the spiritual life is not any less demanding than the game show. As Jesus, our host in today’s gospel reading, tells us: anyone who does not hate family and friends, and even his own life, anyone who does not carry his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple. The demand is clear and uncompromising. The word hate is used to emphasize that in all situations, the Christian must act in such a way as to place the Lord first, above even family and self. This, of course, is not an easy thing to do. Which is why, Jesus insists that those of us who wish to follow him need to examine our commitment. Like the survivors, we need continually to ask ourselves: Is it worth playing for?

But, in order to answer this question, we need to reflect more deeply upon the game we are playing, upon what exactly it is we are being asked to sacrifice, and for what reason. Notice, for example, how Jesus concludes his speech in today’s gospel with a call to renunciation. Anyone of you who does not renounce all his possessions cannot be my disciple. With this statement, Jesus helps us to understand what it means for a Christian to hate family and friends, and even one’s own life. Could it be that what we are being called to hate, what we are being called to renounce, is our tendency to see and treat everything and everybody in our lives as possessions, as things that we can use purely to further our own selfish interests? When spouses take one another for granted, for example. Or when parents ignore their children’s dreams but pressure them to fulfill the parents’ own desires. Or when siblings fight over their inheritance. In such situations, aren’t people relating to one another purely in terms of possessions?

Also, we may do well to remember that even when we might have a legitimate right of ownership over something, that right does not entitle us to use that thing without regard to the interests of others. Although the Church recognizes the individual’s right to private property, she also tells us that this right does not do away with the original gift of the earth to the whole of humanity. The Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us that in our use of things we should regard the external goods we legitimately own not merely as exclusive to ourselves but common to others also, in the sense that they can benefit others as well as ourselves (CCC 2403-4).

Our readings today invite us to reflect upon what happens when we relate to things and people purely as possessions. When we do this, everything and everyone in our lives become obstacles preventing us from knowing and fulfilling God’s plan for us. As the first reading tells us: the corruptible body burdens the soul and the earthen shelter weighs down the mind that has many concerns, such that we are unable to conceive what the Lord intends. In order to seek and to fulfill God’s will, we must first be willing to renounce our possessions, so that the holy spirit from on high can transform these obstacles into pathways to God.

This is precisely what Paul is asking his friend Philemon to do in the second reading. Writing from prison, Paul asks Philemon to renounce his right of ownership over the slave Onesimus, whom Paul had earlier converted to Christianity. According to Paul, if Philemon is willing to do this, Philemon’s relationship with Onesimus will be transformed. Paul writes: Perhaps that is why he was taken away from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but… a brother... in the Lord. What Paul is asking Philemon to do is to renounce a possession in order to gain a relative. By giving up his claim over Onesimus, Philemon would be fulfilling God’s plan. He would be allowing the Holy Spirit to transform the obstacle of slavery into a pathway of love in the Lord. For this to happen much depends upon whether or not Philemon is free enough to say yes. Much depends upon how he answers the question: Is this new relationship in the Lord worth playing for?

It thus becomes clear, sisters and brothers, that what is at stake, what we Christians are playing for, are the very things that we prayed for earlier in our opening prayer. You will recall that we asked God our Father to give us true freedom and to bring us to the inheritance you promised, the inheritance that is the Kingdom of God that Jesus came to proclaim, the Kingdom in which all bonds of possessiveness and domination will have been transformed into relationships of love in the Lord. In this Kingdom, people will no longer be forced to work as undocumented aliens in a foreign land, under unsafe and unhealthy conditions, for less than a living wage. In this Kingdom, the environment will no longer be polluted for the sake of economic advancement. In this Kingdom, the love and peace of God will prevail over all.

Sisters and brothers, there are many people who are willing to endure considerable suffering just for the sake of winning a million dollars – before taxes – and the title of Sole Survivor. Can we who claim to be followers of Christ do any less, especially when what’s at stake is the very Kingdom of God?

Sisters and brothers, what do you think? Is this worth playing for today?