Sunday, February 27, 2011

Year A Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Isa. 49:14-15 Ps. 63:2-3.6-9; 1 Cor. 4:1-5; Matt. 6:24-34

On what or whom do you rely? In who, or what, do you place your trust? Where is your hope? These are the questions today’s readings pose to each one of us. We all know the “right” answer, at least the one we’re supposed to give in church: “God,” we are tempted to blithely say; “I trust in God.” What you are urged to do today is turn that question inward by means of an examination of conscience to see if it is really true, to see if, in fact, you place your trust, that is, yourself- body, blood, soul, and humanity- in God, or whether, as Jesus bluntly says, you serve mammon. It is the difference between living in hope, or living in despair, which is ultimately the difference between life and death.

The criteria for arriving at a determination as to where you sit with regard to the question, In what or whom do I place my trust, are simple: How do I react when things go wrong, when things don’t go my way, when I am having what we call "A bad day"? Another measure is in what do I invest my time, talent, and resources in achieving? A follow-up question that helps in this discernment is do I often find myself worried, even anxious and sleepless, about how things will go, especially those things over which I have no control, but are nonetheless important to accomplishing what I am trying to achieve?

I recently read a New Yorker article about a prominent Hollywood Scientologist who very publicly broke with the Church of Scientology. From what I could glean about Scientology from the article, it seems to be mostly about applying certain techniques to life. I have no doubt that some of these techniques, what we now call "life skills," are very useful and perhaps even necessary for living. Many of the other Scientologists the author spoke to about their religion also took a very pragmatic view, meaning that they were not so much into the doctrines and worldview articulated by L. Ron Hubbard, Scientology’s founder, but in applying the methods they learned through their involvement with this church to their everyday lives. When looked at in this way, it is difficult, if not impossible, to see why it matters whether you belong to one religion or another. After all, you can learn much that is beneficial to living a healthier and happier life not only from Scientologists, but also from Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, and certainly, here in Utah, from our LDS friends and neighbors.

Too often we view faith as a self-help program. Hence, if you are successful in all that you aim to achieve, if things are going well with you, it means that God is pleased with you. The reason God is pleased with you can only mean that you are doing things right. Conversely, the opposite holds true, when things are not going well, then God is displeased with you and, so, punishing you. My dear friends, this is not Christianity! It is the anti-thesis of what it means to follow Christ. Following Jesus Christ is not akin to signing up for a self-help program. Christianity is divine help, that is, divine mercy. Simply stated, Christianity, as we will profess in a few minutes, is about nothing else except the Son of God being born of the Virgin Mary "by the power of the Holy Spirit" and becoming man for us and "for our salvation."

It is important to point out that in today’s Gospel Jesus is not telling us to remain passive in the face of reality. He does not teach us to do nothing in the expectation that God will provide. Far less does he judge those whose daily reality is a struggle to survive, who must work hard every day, all day just to provide life’s necessities. So, what is His point? His point seems to be that when your whole attention is centered on bringing about God’s reign in and through everything you do, then those of us who have enough are not obsessed with acquiring more, in the belief that he who dies with the most toys wins. After all, it is a point of fact, quite apart from any theological gloss, that he who dies with the most toys still dies. I have yet to see a U-Haul in a funeral motorcade. Of course, part of what is required in bringing about God’s reign means working towards a more equitable distribution of the earth’s bounteous resources.

In his encyclical Populorum Progresso, which still stands, almost forty-five years after its promulgation, as a prophetic statement, especially in light of the growing inequity of income distribution, both in the United States and throughout the world, Pope Paul VI, quoted St. Ambrose to the effect that by giving from your surplus, "You are not making a gift of what is yours to the poor man, but you are giving him back what is his. You have been appropriating things that are meant to be for the common use of everyone. The earth belongs to everyone, not [only] to the rich" (par. 23). Or, as Fred G. Sanford once explained why he took towels and ashtrays from an expensive hotel he stayed in, "The Bible says, 'the meek shall inherit the earth' and, well, you have start somewhere." In short, Jesus teaches that neither obsessive anxiety about subsistence nor fixating our desires on accumulating more and more material things have a place in God’s kingdom. However, the Lord is not ever content to leave His listeners merely with a neat little moral lesson.

In everything He says, He bids you, "Follow me." From this summons arises our question, Where to? The only honest answer, as His first disciples discovered to their dismay, is "To the Cross." This is especially important to remember as we begin preparing for Lent. He bids each of you to follow Him every day through the circumstances you face. He calls you to live the irreducible paradox that only by dying to yourself will you truly live. Perhaps a more concrete way of posing the question with which I began is to ask, When He summons you to the Cross, do you follow, or hesitate? A moment of hesitation makes all the difference in the world because in many circumstances, given the paradoxical nature of His call, it is easy to justify not following.

It is only by trusting Him, in His promise that even should your own mother forget you, He will not forget you, that you can follow Him when He tells you to "seek first the kingdom of God" in things big and small (Isa. 49:15; Matt. 6:33). He promises you that if you seek first to establish God’s reign in all your endeavors, then "all these things will be given you besides" (Matt. 6:33). It is only by living in this self-emptying way, in the awareness of your destiny, that you will come to see that, indeed, "Sufficient for a day is its own evil," which, in turn, protects you from all anxiety as you wait in joyful hope for His glorious return, through which will mark the realization of God’s reign (Matt. 6:34).

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