The question our Scripture readings pose to us today is, How do we realize the greatness we seem to desire? How do we satisfy our human longing for fulfillment? In our first reading we heard about the Tower of Babel. The idea was to build a tower so high that the people who built it would be known over all the earth for their very high tower and remarkable city. They also felt that building this tower would unify them and keep them from being scattered. But their plan did not please God. The result of God’s displeasure was he confounded their language. As a result, this people went from speaking a common language to speaking many languages. So, they could no longer communicate well enough to continue building their great city or finish great tower, which was to be the city's focal point.
It is from the word “Babel” that we derive our word babble. Babbling is what a person who speaks a language unfamiliar to you sounds like and what you sound like to people who do not understand English. If you were dropped into a rural Chinese village and started speaking English to the people of the village, while they would know that you were speaking a human language and trying to communicate with them, they likely would not understand a word you said. To them, you would be babbling. Once the villagers understood you were stranded in their village and, recognizing your human needs, which are the same as theirs, and they began to offer you food, water, and shelter, you would understand what their gestures of taking care of you meant. This giving and receiving would mark the beginning of communication.
In our Gospel today, Jesus answers the questions I posed- How do we realize the greatness we feel called to? How do we satisfy our human longing for fulfillment?- very directly:
Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and that of the Gospel will save it (Mark 8:34-36)I think, if we're honest, Jesus' answer isn't really what we want to hear. His answer is counter-intuitive, a paradox, meaning his answer doesn’t seem to make sense. It's like saying you become rich by giving all of your money away. Jesus’ answer is that you achieve greatness, you are fulfilled and satisfied, not by seeking the things you want, not by putting yourself first, seeking your own interests before all else, but by sacrificing your wants and desires in order to serve others, helping to meet their needs. This is certainly not the message we receive most of the time from those around us. The Lord went on to ask: "What profit is there for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his life? What could one give in exchange for his life?" (Mark 8:37) What he implies by asking this question is that living your life so as gain the whole world is the way to lose your soul.
It's also important to point out that we don’t sacrificially serve others in order to make ourselves feel good. In fact, the more we serve others the more aware we become of how many people there are in need of help. As followers of Jesus, we’re called to seek out the lowly, those in need, and to help them. Like most things, this is easier said than done. Last night during our Parish Council meeting Mrs. Jacobs was sharing with the council many of the things all of you are doing to serve those in need. I was particularly impressed by the fund-raising efforts St Olaf school is making in order to help Syrian refugees. These are outstanding efforts that are in harmony with what Jesus teaches us to do in today's Gospel.
Taking up your cross means becoming a compassionate person. To show compassion for another person means to suffer with that person. I don’t know about you, but I never feel more alone than when I suffer. It helps when another person comes alongside me and is present to me. Maybe there isn’t anything that person can do to alleviate my suffering except to be with me. But the gift of yourself, your presence, your friendship, your solidarity with someone who suffers should not be underestimated. All of these things begin with, are sustained by, and helped immensely by praying for those in need, praying for them by name, and bringing their specific needs to God in prayer. In other words, it is not enough to give money. You must be willing to give yourself, to give the gift of your time. It is almost never convenient to give time to someone in need. It's good for us to remember something we've all heard: actions speak louder than words.
We will enter Lent in less than two weeks. Every year on Ash Wednesday the Lord calls on us to renew our practice of prayer, fasting, and alms-giving. These are the practices Jesus taught his followers to do. Just as faith and hope lead us to act charitably, prayer and fasting should lead us to alms-giving, which, in addition to giving money, requires us to engage in selfless service to others. In the Mass Jesus is not content to tell us, but shows us what it means not only to give of one's self, but to give ourselves whole and entire. Just as in the Eucharist Jesus gives himself to you, body, blood, soul, and divinity, he asks you to give yourself body, blood, soul, and humanity. At the end of Mass, you will be sent out in peace to glorify the Lord by your life. How you do this is by sacrificing yourself for the good of others in imitation of Jesus.
When you give yourself selflessly you speak God's language. Love is the language of God's kingdom.