Monday, September 24, 2012

Service to The Least Teaches a Peace From Above

Homily from the 25th Sunday of Ordinary Time

The readings this weekend couldn’t come at a better time as we enter into the last months of a very contentious election year and come to the end of such a tumultuous week in international relations.

Most every one of us, I’m sure, would say that we are sick of the negativity that seems to dominate the headlines – the rivalry, the constant antagonism.  It is a constant refrain on the street: the frustration with the tenor of social dialogue today.

But we still keep watching, don’t we?  We must, or else politicians wouldn’t keep running the adds, the stories of acrimony and division wouldn’t be picked up by the media outlets.  The next juicy tidbit and our ears perk up, maybe even despite us.  What?  He said what?  They did what?  The outrage!  What a travesty!

And if it’s not politics, then so often something else presents itself as the latest source of drama in our lives:  workplace dynamics, competitive sports, family issues, gossip among friends, and even, parish rumors.  Drama at every turn, and we don’t always do our best to avoid it.

In fact, many times if we’re honest, we don’t try to avoid it at all.  And this speaks to a built in contradiction in each of us:  as much as we all sympathize with the statement, “Can’t we all just get along?,” the minute that someone is not getting along all of our heads turn and we just have to know what’s happening.  How often we place ourselves in situations where we know our passions will be roused, sometimes even under the mistaken impression that being engaged in this constant struggle makes us more fully alive.

St. James was clearly speaking to this dysfunctional contradiction in the human person when he wrote to the community of Christians in the letter we heard today.  They were overcome with rivalries and conflict – their passions were aroused, St. James wrote, making war within their members.

And this same dynamic, the passions at war, had overtaken the disciples on their way to Capernaum.  Jesus had just finished speaking about his coming passion and death.  Instead of talking about that, they were obsessing and fighting about who was the greatest among them.

How easy it is to be swept into this river of passionate discord, at school, in the workplace, with friends and family, on the street, watching tv or browsing the internet!  The social dynamics at work make it very difficult not to be pulled into the fray, to become a part of the bitter drama that is unfolding.

But our Christian tradition is clear on this point.  Christ and those who have followed in his footsteps have insisted that the Church not to allow the good in the world, the love of God that is present among us, to be obscured in our midst by divisions and hatreds.  Christians cannot allow petty earthly rivalries and jealousies to draw their eyes away from Christ and his plan of salvation that is unfolding around us.  Instead, St. James urges us to seek a peace that comes from directing our passions and protecting our hearts so that they are not constantly being jerked around by the latest crisis, whether that be at home or in school or at work, in Washington DC or in north Africa.

Christ was clearly able to do this – to keep his eyes fixed on the will of his heavenly Father and on the needs of those around him, even while all hell was quite literally breaking lose.  And in our Gospel today, Jesus teaches his disciples how to keep from being swept away in worldly turmoil.
He tells them, seek to serve those around you – particularly those who are the least.  Christ showed his disciples and us that we should not fight a divisive culture by fleeing to the hills or monasteries, as tempting as that might be, but instead by seeking to serve the casualties of our culture, seeking to serve the least.

To serve those whose lives have been entirely overlooked and ignored because they don’t arouse the passion of other’s sympathy.  Those who suffer silently or alone and whose stories are like so many other stories that they never make it to the top of the news cycle.  Those who have been scarred when they were carelessly used as scapegoats or for the mere entertainment of others.  Those who have been ostracized and shunned because they have refused to participate in the denigration of others.  And yes, those who have perpetrated harm on others and carry with them the heavy burden of shame and guilty conscience.  To serve the least.

Christ commanded us to serve the least not only out of love for them, but also out of love for us.  He knew that in serving the least we are freed from the distractions of division and discord and find peace.  Our service to the least, in the midst of a society that cultivates and encourages the warring of passions, allows us to live and be rooted in what St. James calls a wisdom from above.  A wisdom that is pure, peaceable, gentle, compliant, full of mercy and good fruits, and without insincerity.  In a beautiful irony, God made our world in such a way that service to the least, to our children and those who are vulnerable in society, teaches us a peace that comes from above.  It is the least, it is our children who teach us to naturally shun what is evil and seek what is good.  To be passionate about learning, about being good, about making beautiful things come to life.  To desire to know not so much the faults of others as to hear stories about their virtues.  To speak the truth, regardless of the consequences.  And to love Christ about all things, simply because of how good and loving he is to us.

In a parish there is always a certain amount of conflict and discord, especially in our day when we are going through so many changes and living in such a crazy world.  I know that for Fr. Nadeau and I, and just about every priest I have ever talked to, it is our ministry to the least that keeps our lives in perspective, that keeps us from being overwhelmed by parish politics and focused on Christ and his work.  When we go to anoint someone who is dying, or when we are baptizing a little baby, or counseling someone who is grieving the loss of a loved one.  Or when I go to visit my nieces and my little nephew, who has just reached a stage in his life when at the sight of a crucifix he runs and points to it with great excitement, yelling at the top of his lungs: “Jesus!  Jesus!”

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