Monday, August 1, 2022

Is It All in Vain?

 

18th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Cycle C

Ecc 1:2; 2:21-23

Col 3:1-5, 9-11

Lk 12:13-21

 

Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.

 

All you do here on earth is really in vain. All your hard work for nothing. You work and work for success and in the end everything will just go to someone who hadn’t done anything to earn it. That’s a pretty fatalistic attitude old Qoheleth has today. It’s pretty short sighted, and yet, he raises one of the most fundamental questions we all have to ask ourselves eventually. Is it all worth it? What’s truly important and how should we be living our lives? Jesus says to store up the things that matter to God, but what does that mean?

 

I recently had some conversations with a gentleman that really made me think about these questions. Craig, a friend of a friend of mine, was a highly successful lawyer in Salt Lake City who was dying of brain cancer. He had spent his entire life as an active member of another faith, and he was scared. He found himself at the very end of his life questioning every tenant of his faith, even if there is an afterlife and whether or not he would go there. He had been raised to believe that heaven was something a person could earn, and he felt that he had fallen so short in how he had lived up to the Christian ideal. He felt his life – and death – had no real purpose. Everything seemed in vain to him.

 

We sat for several hours and talked about all these things in detail. We landed on the doctrine of grace – that ultimately whatever we do in life our invitation into heaven is up to God alone, that we cannot earn our way there. It is pure gift. And we delved into the concept of mercy. Once he was able to accept that his sense of purpose was established. Nothing in life is in vain if we understand the gift and love the giver.

 

Whenever someone we love is dying, especially if it is a long, slow, painful process, we struggle to retain their, and our, dignity amongst all the medications and equipment and medical personnel and dirty linens and family squabbles and tears of joy and pain. But most of all we are forced to see our loved ones as fragile and weak and helpless. And we feel useless and the whole process seems to be in vain as we wrestle with our conflicting feelings. Like Craig, we may wonder what the purpose of our lives has been, and what is the purpose of the suffering we all go through. We wonder if it is all worth it, and we are humbled by the sight of what our loved ones have been reduced to.

 

But in the middle of the night, when we sit in vigil around the bedside, we are confronted by our thoughts and get ourselves focused on what is truly important in our lives, and it’s not all the things we thought were important before. All the peripheral stuff does seem to be vanity. It is our relationships that last. It is our relationships that give our lives meaning.

 

Not all material things in life are vanity, and all things we possess are not empty and worthless. We all have possessions. The thing is not what we possess, but what possesses us. Jesus didn’t say that possessions are bad, he said we shouldn’t make them the focus of our lives. He was talking about greed. We should avoid things that hurt our relationships and that take our eyes off the Kingdom of God. We can and do use our possessions and success for good, but we shouldn’t let them worry us.

 

I know some very successful people who make a lot of money who wake up in a cold sweat at night worrying about this deal or that, what the market is doing, or some detail they missed at work. They have more than enough money to live comfortably for the rest of their lives, and yet they are never at peace. I think the main reason is that they feel they must be self-reliant, that their success is all their own doing and responsibility. It may not even be greed; it may be the stress they put on themselves to provide a good life for their family. It may be the sense of purpose they get out of success, or the thrill of the win or to be number one. I think all those things are vanity. And they place their reliance in the wrong place. It shouldn’t be on themselves and their own abilities and responsibilities, but on humbly realizing that it is God who is the one who gives them everything they have and who has given them the talents and strengths to achieve so much. And that we are called to do everything in our lives for the glory of God.

 

Remember the gospel from last week? Rabbi, teach us to pray. Jesus said that the Father wants us to ask him for everything we need. Give us each day our daily bread. Just enough for today, Lord. Tomorrow will take care of itself. And if we who are wicked know how to give our children good things, how much more will our Heavenly Father give to those who ask him? Why won’t we ask? Why can’t we trust?

 

It can be so easy to receive the gifts but not the hand that offers them. Once I was visiting one of my little ladies at the nursing home, and we were discussing how much things had changed for her since she had fallen and broken her hip. She no longer could do things for herself but needed help with even the simplest tasks. It was forcing her daughter to spend more and more time with her, and she felt guilty that she was taking her away from her family so much.

 

I asked her to think of when her children were little, of all she and her husband had sacrificed for them. I asked her to remember all the long nights sitting with them when they were scared or sick. I told her to recall all the times it was difficult to be parents, of all the joy and pain her children had given her. Was she ever resentful of those times? Did she love her children less because of them or did her sacrifice actually strengthen her love? Did she ever regret any time she was there to pick them up when they needed help? Of course not. Those times are often the ones she cherished the most. Why should she deny her daughter the same experience now?

 

Now her sacrifice for her children is to accept their help. Maybe the sacrifice we need to make is to submit to the fact that we need God and we need other people. We will all need to rely on our relationships at some time or other, when we are stripped of all the trappings of life and all we have is ourselves and those who love us. And we need to accept their help with humility and grace. Because they also have the need to help us. It’s not payback for all the times we helped them. We all have the deep seated need to sacrifice for those we love. Because we love them. We need to give and we need to receive with the same grace.

 

Someday it will be us in that bed and our families will be gathered around us in vigil. How we react to that situation will determine how well we die. In that way the gift and the reception of the gift are sacrament, and our death bed an altar. That is what I had tried to tell my friend Craig and what he had such a hard time accepting.

 

I once read a book, Evidence of the Afterlife, written by Jeffrey Long, a medical doctor who claims to be an atheist. While in medical school he was struck by the fact that there had been no formal research done on near death experiences, and so he performed a ten year study on over six thousand people of all nations, races, ages and cultures who claimed to have had near death experiences and out-of-body experiences. One of his findings stood out to me. Virtually all the people who had what were considered true dying experiences, you know the white light, the tunnel, etc., also had an experience of a “judgment”. What they all had in common was that they saw their entire lives flash before their eyes in an instant, and what they saw was how all their actions and their inactions had affected other people. Even people who they didn’t really know very well were affected positively or negatively by what they themselves had done. It stunned many of them to see just how important other people were in their lives and how important they were in the lives of others.

 

I shared that story and gave that book to Craig a month before he died, and he said that simple revelation gave him more comfort and peace than 70 years following his religion. He saw his purpose and it allowed him to die in peace.

 

We will be judged on our relationships. How we have treated other people, not on what we have accomplished nor on the legacies we have left behind. Jesus said so.  It is not all in vain. Jesus said so. We all touch other people in ways we never even realize. We are all building storage facilities for the stuff that really matters, whether we are aware of it or not. Those storage facilities are the hearts of those we touch.

 

What is in your storehouses? Are they filled with pretty baubles and toys, thinking that’s what will be your legacy? If so, maybe you need to tear them down every once in a while and start over. Fill them with all those little things that affect others. The gentle smiles, the small hugs, the thoughtful cards, the simple kindnesses we do along with the great sacrifices we make that we may not realize mean the world to others.

 

It would be a shame for us to live our lives without ever storing up the things that  build up relationships. But it would also be a shame for us to never stop and realize that we are doing it. We need to step back and take the time to examine our lives every once in a while to acknowledge the good we have done and see the deficiencies. And see the hope in our lives.

 

It may be easier to give up like the fatalist Qoheleth, to see everything as shallow vanity. To live just for the moment’s pleasure. Or to see no purpose to life or death. I choose not to.

Sunday, May 29, 2022

Lifted Up

 

 

Ascension

Cycle C

 

Lifted Up

 

The apostles didn’t know what to think. One minute their master was dead, then he just shows up every once in awhile when they least expect it. First he’s here, then he’s there, then he’s over there. What an amazing roller coaster of emotions they must have been on. Was he really not dead? Was he really going to stay this time? Why is he being taken from us again? How will we carry on without him?

 

Has that ever been your experience of Jesus? First he’s here, then he’s there, then he’s over there. Have you ever been confused about what you’re supposed to do next? Have you experienced the ups and downs of believing? The apostles didn’t have the whole story, didn’t understand the entire plan they still walked away rejoicing, because they trusted in the promise. They didn’t know how the promise would be fulfilled, but their experience of the risen Lord and their love for him was enough for them to believe. Have you ever had that same experience and felt that same joy in the promise, even in the face of unknowing?

 

Luke says Jesus was lifted up and taken from their sight. He wasn’t gone, they just couldn’t see him. Sometimes we lose him. Other times he seems to be hidden from us. Sometimes he chooses to seem far away to allow us to do things for ourselves. Other times he is right next to us and we cannot recognize him, as he was with the two disciples on the road to Emmaus on Easter evening. But most of the time I think we push him from our sight. He is hidden from us by our own sinfulness and unwillingness to bend our will to his. We hide him away because what he has to say can be offensive to our sensibilities. We’re embarrassed to bring him out into the open because we’re afraid of what others will say about us. And most of all he is hidden by our fear. We’re afraid that maybe he has left us here on our own. Maybe he’s not coming back.  Like the apostles, we’ve been hurt and have felt very alone so many times. It’s hard to trust. It’s easier keep him here, in the church, where we can come to see him every once in awhile. It’s safe in here.

 

But the promise is not safe. Jesus had to be lifted up on the cross before he could be lifted up into heaven. Jesus was lifted up, taken higher, exalted, glorified, given his rightful place, because he submitted his will to his father’s. And it is the same for us. St. Paul tells us that Jesus Christ is like us in all things but sin. It’s not just that Jesus can truly relate to and understand our human condition, but that we also share in his divine nature. As he is, we will be. We will die and rise again on the last day. His resurrection and ascension will also be ours. We also will be lifted up and share in his glory.

 

What a wonderful promise of hope for us all.

 

In the ascension Jesus joined heaven and earth together. Just as the resurrection was the conclusion to Jesus’ death, the ascension was the conclusion to the resurrection. He ascended so that he could come again in glory. The ascension was not the end of hope but the beginning of hope. It may have been the end of Jesus’ physical presence and ministry here on earth, but not of his mission. He commissioned his disciples – us – to go and make disciples of all the nations, teaching them everything he has commanded us, and to baptize them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. We are to be his witnesses, even to the ends of the earth. It’s almost as if the angels present at the ascension were saying “Men of Galilee, what are you looking at? Why are you hanging around here? It’s time to get to work! Get busy!”

 

By giving us that commission he has honored and strengthened the thing that makes us truly human, our free will. He has honored us by making us coworkers in the vineyard. He actually said that we would do the same, and even greater things, than he had done. All in his name. He left behind a very small seed that has grown to spread over the entire world. We have gone and made disciples of all the nations. We have and do teach the world everything he had commanded us. We are his hands at work in the world, being the instruments of his promise. That small group of disciples has grown to truly transform the face of the earth.

 

The Holy Spirit allowed the apostles to continue to experience the risen Jesus in one other. After the ascension they did not split up and return to their old ways of life. They did not go off by themselves into the hills or take up their old jobs. They stuck together, as a community. They did and shared all things in common. They worked and prayed and hoped as community. They told stories of Jesus to each other. They broke bread together. They lived and died together. It seemed the natural thing to do.

 

Because it is. And that is why we also follow Jesus in community. Because we are all in this together. It is natural for us to get together each week and share Jesus stories, to break bread together. To pray and to hope together. To live and die together. We live out Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension every time we participate in the holy Mass. We lift our hearts to the Lord, the priest lifts the body and blood of Christ on high, and we witness the great hope of our own glorification into eternal life.

 

No, just like the apostles, we don’t have all the answers, but we have the promise. And that is a cause for great rejoicing for us as well.

Saturday, February 19, 2022

 Topsy Turvy

7th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Cycle C

 

How many of you are familiar with the story in today’s gospel? Show of hands.

 

This is Luke’s Sermon on the Plain, similar to Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount. We’ve heard it our entire lives, and we know it by heart. It’s almost become a cliché. Yeah, yeah, yeah, the Golden Rule again. “Do unto others as you would like others to do unto you.” How many of you sort of tuned out when you first heard it again today? No show of hands this time.

 

It was the same with Jesus’ audience that day, too. Everything Jesus was telling them wasn’t new to them. He was just re-stating what they had heard over and over again in the Jewish law and the prophets. But Jesus gave it the twist that you should do these things for those you don’t like or even to those who hate you. That’s the hard part, isn’t it? That’s the part that goes against all our sense of fairness and justice. That is the part that can get us hurt. It’s not so much the lending and giving without expecting something in return part that’s hard, it’s the opening of our hearts to people who don’t care or who won’t love us in return or who will even outright reject us and attack us.

 

This goes against all the conventional wisdom of the past 50 years. Since the 1960s and especially the past 20 years we have been ruled not by the Golden Rule but by two principles: the personal liberty principle, where we are free to do whatever we like as long as we don’t harm anyone else, and the tolerance principle, where we must tolerate whatever other people do as long as they aren’t harming anyone else, which is basically allowing others to live by their own personal liberty principle.

Both principles are really different sides to the same coin, and they are both really selfish.

 

Letting me do what I want to do is easy to understand. But I really believe that we tolerate other people’s behavior, good or bad, not because we care about them so much as we want them to leave us alone to do what we want to do. It’s sort of like the new Golden Rule is “Let people do whatever they want to do so they will let me do whatever I want to do.” Both are all about me. The big problem lately is who defines what is harmful and what isn’t. There are no more objective moral standards, just my feelings. You do you and I’ll do me. You live your truth and I’ll live mine, as if there is no such thing as objective truth. It doesn’t matter if you do anything wrong, if I think you’ve wronged me than that makes it wrong. And so chaos ensues.

 

We push so hard telling people that they have to love themselves first and foremost. Love your enemies has become “Don’t surround yourself with people who bring you down.” Find your authentic self and then live it. If it feels good do it. These pop culture philosophies are so self-centered. But the only life worth living is one lived for others.

 

Nothing Jesus says today is self-directed, but other directed. The challenging thing is that we are called by Jesus to open our hearts to everyone, not just to those who we can get something back in return. He said “Love one another as I have loved you” not “Love one another as I have loved myself”. The greatest love is the love we give to those who do not love us. Jesus died for those who killed him out of love for them.

 

We are not called to remove ourselves completely from hurtful people. We are called to love and to pray for them, not just for their good but for ours. And that can be the most painful kind of love. Unless we love them we can never let go of the hurt they have caused us. Jesus told his disciples, “Whose sins you forgive are forgiven and whose sins you retain are retained.” We retain other people’s sins all the time, allowing them to fester in us and make us bitter. But as Luke says, “He himself is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.” That’s what love is and that’s what love does.

 

What’s ironic, or perhaps genius, is that the only way to be true to yourself, to live the personal liberty principle, is to actually focus on others, not yourself. It’s the exact opposite of the common wisdom today. Doing unto others as you would have them do unto you is not just going to make life better for them, but better for you too. This will actually make you happy. This will actually bring you peace. This will give your life meaning. It seems counterintuitive because we are called to do these things in the midst of our suffering. Loving those who are hurting us actually stops the hurting. The more you sacrifice the more you will receive. If you want more, give more. And always forgive, forgive, forgive.

 

Forgive and you will be forgiven may seem to be a throwaway line, but just like if you give more you will receive more, the opposite is true also. If you give less you will receive less. You will be forgiven to the extent that you forgive. In Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount Jesus says, “But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.  If you don’t forgive you won’t be forgiven. And you will be judged by the same measure you judge others. If you judge harshly you will be judged harshly.

 

But that’s not fair. We’ve been taught our entire lives that God will forgive us no matter what, right? Isn’t that what unconditional love is? And there is no judgment, really, because there are no standards to judge by anymore. A loving God is not a judge, we’re all going to heaven anyway. But that thinking removes our free will and personal responsibility, and that’s what’s really unfair.

 

A friend of mine posted a meme on Facebook this week that said, “Nope, not going to worry about being judged in the afterlife. God made me this way.” I know he was joking, but many, many people today believe that.

 

Judgment is real and is based upon fairness. My friend says he’s not responsible for his actions, but he is. We all are. We won’t be judged on how much we loved ourselves and found self-fulfillment in all the things here we think will make us happy. We will be judged on what we have done for the least of our brothers and sisters. Did we feed the hungry and clothe the naked? Did we help the poor and visit prisoners? How much did we do beyond ourselves?

 

This is a great gospel to help you prepare for lent in a couple weeks. Just as I have heard this gospel a hundred times and so can seem mundane, as I get older the idea of Lent becomes more and more routine. It gets harder to focus on penance and preparation with all the whirlwind going on in my life and I have run out of ideas of how to make it worthwhile. It has become just another thing I have to do. Maybe I can take today’s gospel and work on some of Jesus’ admonitions this lent.

 

Who can I give to without expecting repayment? Who can I pray for who has hurt me? Who disagrees with me that I can be gracious to? Who has unknowingly hurt me that I can forgive? Whose injury to me is causing bitterness in my heart, and how can I let go of it and be at peace? Who can I be kind to who has been ungrateful to me? What debts can I repay? What grudges can I let go of?

Who have I hurt, and can I have the courage to ask them for forgiveness?

 

It's all topsy turvy and backwards. But then, God sees things differently than we do, thankfully. Jesus taught us the way and then showed us how to live it.

 

Thank God for mercy and for giving me more than I could ever deserve.

 

Give, and gifts will be given to you;
a good measure, packed together, shaken down, and overflowing,
will be poured into your lap.