Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Minding the Business of Others

Homily for the 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, 2013

“We hear, St. Paul says in our second reading, “that some are conducting themselves among you in a disorderly way, by not keeping busy but minding the business of others.”

When you think about life 50 years ago (I have to do this hypothetically) – it was so much more difficult to know what was going on in the lives of other people.  If you wanted to know about another place in the world maybe you could find a picture or two in a book, some stories from someone who had been there, perhaps some black and white footage from a news crew aired during daily news hour.

How different our world is today!  We have up to the second news channels and sports channels by the dozen.  You can get on google and in a matter of seconds find a detailed aerial view of anywhere in the world.  You want to know about Batswana’s president?  Wikipedia can give you a full article with his personal and professional biography with two clicks of a button.  Want to hire someone from another state for a new position in your company?  Just Skype them and you can see and speak to them almost as if they were in the room.  And then there is facebook, which places at your fingertips the personal information, photos, and life patterns of hundreds of family and friends.  All accessible at any hour: where they have been, who they’ve seen, what they are thinking about, videos and photos of various life events or just random things they want to share.

“We hear, St. Paul says in our second reading, “that some are conducting themselves among you in a disorderly way, by not keeping busy but minding the business of others.”

Could we not say that we live in an era that has made minding the business of others into a way of life?  Minding the business of others is the new American past time, it has become our obsession.  We live in a voyeur culture, a spectator culture.  We are obsessed with watching others.

But is this an entirely bad thing?  What is wrong with knowing more about the world around us?  What is wrong with knowing what is going on in the lives of our family and friends?  Shouldn’t we care?  Why would we choose not be aware of the tragic loss of life in the wake of the typhoon that hit the Philippines?  If we can, why shouldn’t we have been able to watch as Pope Francis was elected and walked out onto the loggia?  Isn’t it edifying to be able to read the uplifting stories of human compassion, to follow sports teams as they work together and achieve their goals on the field, to listen to news reports of new technologies and other developments so that we can more easily navigate this constantly changing world?

And furthermore, we might ask, what is the alternative?  Social isolation?  Going off into the woods and starting a commune somewhere?

No… Pope Francis has a twitter account and Pope Benedict before him spoke about how important it is for the Church to have a presence in the new media of our time.  Being faithful to St. Paul’s example, his teaching, does not mean that we have to entirely reject these new forms of communication.

Yet we do need to be careful and discerning in our use of technology.  There are weaknesses and sinful tendencies that are a part of our human nature and that can easily be exploited by new communications technology if we are not careful.  What are they?  I want to identify a three:

1. Passivity.  This is one that St. Paul addresses in our second reading.  We have to be careful that we don’t settle into a kind of lax and lukewarm lifestyle.  Many times it is easier to amuse ourselves in front of a screen than to go out and be with real people.  Especially when we are tired or in pain or grouchy, it is easy to plop down and plug in.  And we might try to justify this time, saying that we need to "relax."  But is it really relaxing?  Most of the time spent in front of screens is not true leisure, like a hobby or other kinds of activity that are healthy and refreshing: it is an escape that many times leaves us feeling more drained.  Because modern technology requires so little of us it is easy to stay up and compromise our sleep because we are plugged in to one thing or another too late.
Recent studies show us the addictive nature of technology: it is easy to fall into habits that are not healthy and that compromise our relationships with spouses, children, or parents.  And so sometimes we have to seriously limit our access in order to fight these tendencies.  There is work to be done, St. Paul tells us.  It is beneath our dignity and our calling as followers of Christ to sit around and just pass the time watching life go by around us.  Love requires us to be active, not passive.  If we get used to being passively entertained for hours each day, we tend to bring this mentality and passivity into other areas of life.  We aren't just couch potatoes, but we also become pew potatoes and desk potatoes and other kinds of potatoes.

2. Another thing that tends to happen when we are overly fixated on the business of others is that we find ourselves becoming more fearful and more anxious.  Why?  Well one reason is that by nature we tend to notice the things that go wrong.  You don’t notice the 100 times that someone is kind to you, but the one time they are rude.  You don’t notice the 1000s of families that are doing well and working hard, but the few that are completely dysfunctional. The 24 Hour news cycle obsesses on the failures and the sins of humanity - and bloggers decry every injustice on the planet.  Minding the business of others always tends toward drawing attention to their faults.

Furthermore, there is a constant comparison that begins to happen.  We subconsciously compare how we are doing to what we see.  "Well, my family is not as bad as this family."  Or "I don't have what they have, I'm not as successful as they are."  A recent study showed that time on facebook causes envy and depression for this reason.  As we compare we begin to think that we need to be like those around us or that we need to have what they have in order to be happy.  It is hard not to be influenced by consumerism or careerism.  Hard not to become increasingly image conscious and to be constantly thinking about what others must think of us, how we stack up, where we fit in, whether we are being successful.

3. And this leads to the 3rd and most problematic tendency with all of this social media-induced awareness.  And that is that we can easily loose a sense of the transcendent.  We become preoccupied with this world, with who is doing what, who has what, instead of looking to Christ and to our faith.  Jesus does not host a 24hr news channel with the 12 apostles.  The saints do not compete on the Price is Right or Jeapordy.  The cherubim and serphim do not tweet.  There is no Pintrest in purgatory.  We cannot see status updates from our guardian angels: “Saved Jonny from killing himself for the 300th time.  Lol.”  “Helped Tricia to finally get to confession today. Yolo.”

And this is what our Gospel asks us to consider today: Christ tells us that most of what is visible in this world is deceptive.  It is so easy to be distracted by the beautiful temples and the big personalities, to think that the visible and tangible, what we can describe and predict – that this is the real world.  But how small a world!  The horizons of so many today seem to have shrunk to the trivial and small and very passing mess of superficial data that we manage to pick up on video cameras and project onto screens.  The irony is that our technology-enabled awareness of others may actually be shrinking our understanding and appreciation of the complexity and beauty of life.  Caught up with looking at one another we forget to look up, forget to look inside, forget to be aware of the ‘now’ where Christ comes to meet us with the whole heavenly host.

There is nothing wrong with being aware of this world.  But, my dear brothers and sisters, Christ tells us to be careful that we are not deceived by superficial distractions and false prophets.    Our spiritual health requires that we limit how much time and attention we give to the trivia of this world, not because it’s bad, but because being spiritually aware is a much greater good.  Our lives must testify to the primacy of Christ and his kingdom.  That is hard to do in our world.

Our efforts to keep our eyes fixed on Christ can cause conflict in our families, as he tells us in the Gospel today.  Sometimes the remote control or the mouse can seem chained to us or to a loved one.  But we cannot allow ourselves to be distracted, to be lulled into a false reality that is ignorant of God.  You and I are called to testify to Christ.  And that must begin by our simple efforts to stay grounded in him throughout the day as we go about our work.  “By your perseverance you will secure your lives.”

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Seven Brothers and a Spouse or a Mother

Homily for the 32nd Sunday of Ordinary Time, 2013

This weekend we hear two stories about 7 brothers who are seeking an inheritance, who are looking to secure their future.

In our Gospel, Christ is presented with the story of the first set of brothers.  Their eyes are fixed on this world, on securing a legacy, an earthly future for their family.  The first marries, but tragedy strikes: he dies before bearing a child.  And so the next attempts to rescue the family’s fortunes: to no avail – he also dies before a child is born, and so on with all 7 brothers.  And then the widow also dies.  It is a portrait of futility, a tragic story of brothers who seem to have been cursed by God, deprived of a future.

Our first reading from the 2nd Book of Maccabees also tells the story of 7 brothers.  And it is not an easy story either.  But for a different reason.  These 7 could have had an earthly future, the king offered them a legacy of riches and honor: in exchange for one thing: eating pork in violation of their faith.  A trivial thing, right?  A small price to pay for future security.  But unlike the first 7 brothers, the eyes of these 7 are not fixed on this world, on securing an earthly future.  When it is free for the taking, they refuse the security, the future prosperity offered by the earthly king.
And one by one, as their mother is forced to watch, each of these brothers is tortured with the most horrendous cruelties imaginable before being slaughtered before her eyes.  Then she is killed.  The family wiped out.

7 brothers and a spouse or a mother – they all meet the same fate.
What are we to make of all of this?

I’d like to follow the lead of venerable Bede.  In his commentary on this chapter of the Gospel he said that we could consider these bands of brothers as metaphors for a group of 7 that each of us in much more familiar with.  The days of each week.  These 7 days are, for each of us, also in a sense a story of 7 brothers:  Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.  And, like the brothers in the passages we hear today, the story always ends the same way: they all die – after 24 hours each day comes to an end, whether we want it to or not.  There is no going back.  There is a finality to each day.

Yet, we can see in our readings, and as we know from life, the way that brothers choose to carry out their lives, the way that each day unfolds, can vary greatly.

What, or who, leads and guides our days, guides our brothers?  The women in these two stories show us two very different portraits:

In the first case, in the story related to Christ in the Gospel, we hear of the wife of the first seven brothers.  She represents the thinking of this age, of this world: she gives herself to the arms of one man and then the next, one day to the next, a slave to the vain hope of finding a future in them.  When they fail her, she becomes more despondent, more anxious, more restless and discouraged.  Yet she cannot break the trap of thinking that one day one of these men will give her the new life in her womb that she desires and yet cannot find.  She is like Eve, in the garden of Eden, eating from a tree and wanting it to feed her, wanting it to satisfy her, but she remains hungry.

How stark the contrast between her and the mother who we hear of in our first reading.  She stands before each brother, each day, with strength and courage, she patiently guides and encourages them along the right path, urging them on and helping them not to give in but to persevere to the end.  She is no passive woman to be handed from one brother to the next, fearful of the future.  She is a mother who knows that her sons, her days, are made to be children of God, not the children of this age.
This is the mother, this is the wisdom that you and I must pray guides our band of brothers, guides our days.  A mother who will give encouragement even in the midst of suffering, who will call the brothers to greatness, reminding them that each of them, each day, is not given to secure an earthly future, but to be offered back to God.

It is not in our reading today, but I want you to hear the words of a wise Maccabean mother, who in her native tongue quietly encouraged her 7 sons to offer themselves to God.  Even as she watched them being brutally murdered before her, these are the tender words she spoke to her son:

“'I do not know how you appeared in my womb; it was not I who endowed you with breath and life, I had not the shaping of your every part. And hence, the Creator of the world, who made everyone and ordained the origin of all things, will in his mercy give you back breath and life, since for the sake of his laws you have no concern for yourselves.”
 “I implore you, my child, look at the earth and sky and everything in them, and consider how God made them out of what did not exist, and that human beings come into being in the same way.
Do not fear this executioner, but prove yourself worthy of your brothers and accept death, so that I may receive you back with them in the day of mercy.'

Who is the woman who stands with your 7 brothers each week?  Is she weak and swept along by our current age, married to each day one after the other, hoping to find in them the happiness she seeks, unable to be alone or in pain, anxious about the future?  Have you allowed your band of brothers to wander listlessly through life with such a woman for their bride?  To become children of this age, to place their hope in this world?

Brothers and sisters, let us pray for wisdom: pray for a wise and courageous mother to guide our days, our band of brothers!  May she encourage and guide them to be offered courageously with Christ to our Heavenly Father in a sacrifice of love.  May she remind each of us that we are children of God, not children of this age.  May she help us to stay focused on loving God today, and on the eternal life he has promised us.  May she keep us from letting our days be swept away in anxieties and concerns about future pain or trials.  May she help us to keep each brother, each day, fixed on the reality of heaven and on trying to be faithful to the God who has prepared a mansion for us there!

Solomon loved wisdom, he sought after her and prized her above all things.  I would like to close with his prayer for wisdom, and I hope you will make this prayer your own.
“God of our ancestors, Lord of mercy, who by your word have made the universe, and in your wisdom have fitted human beings to rule the creatures that you have made, to govern the world in holiness and saving justice and in honesty of soul to dispense fair judgment,
grant me Wisdom, consort of your throne, and do not reject me from the number of your children.

Dispatch her from the holy heavens, send her forth from your throne of glory to help me and to toil with me and teach me what is pleasing to you; since she knows and understands everything she will guide me prudently in my actions and will protect me with her glory.”

Our Lady, seat of wisdom, pray for us.

Are You Going to Climb the Tree or Not?

Homily for the 31st Sunday in Ordinary Time, 2013

When I was in college I made a tree house with some roommates that was about 45 feet up in an old oak tree.  It was the kind of tree house that every little boy dreams of: something out of Swiss Family Robinson.  We used rock-climbing equipment to rappel down to the ground below.  Rope railings, a deck up in the canopy that was large enough to sleep 3 grown men.

It happened to be in a woods that was on campus property…  and one day campus security found it, and that evening one of the security guards we were friends with came by to let us know that although for liability reasons he obviously could not ask us to take the tree house down, we would be able to avoid paying the cost of having professional foresters come in to remove it if it “had never existed.”  The next day was a sad one.

Now, certainly there was risk associated with the tree house… especially given that it was on a college campus and who knows who could have tried to climb that some evening when they weren’t in their right mind or something…  

But I had to think that of all the things that we could have been doing on Saturday afternoons – when so many of our classmates were out doing things that are not appropriate to mention from the pulpit – a tree house was a remarkably healthy diversion.  It looked dangerous, and there certainly was risk involved.  But there were so many other “harmless” activities, so many other “innocent” pastimes that I saw ruin the lives of people around me.  The risk of the tree was visible, it was out in the open for all to see.  But the risks that often really hurt people were those that were taken in dark rooms when no one was looking.

I bring this up because of this principle: often the things that seem most benign are the things that hurt us, and the things that sometimes seem most risky are actually quite safe.  Driving is much more dangerous than flying.  We are much more likely to get seriously hurt by tripping and falling down steps than by falling from some great height.  And I could go on.  We are often driven by irrational fears – we don’t have an accurate understanding of what will do us harm.

The Gospel today relates what must have seemed like a serious of risky maneuvers.
Zacchaeus climbs a tree.  Now that was perhaps a slight physical risk to his health.  But certainly it was a much greater risk to his reputation and credibility – there is no doubting that.  How many grown adults climb trees?  I wish more did, but they don’t.  For some reason it is not socially acceptable.  I would go so far as to say that it would be frowned upon.  “What is wrong with that guy – he is 40 years old and still climbing trees!”
So Zacchaeus took more than his life in his hands: he took his reputation in his hands when he climbed that tree.

And then Christ took a risk: he invited himself over for dinner at this guy’s house.  “He has gone to stay in the house of a sinner.” Christ knew they were going to say that.  He had no guarantee that things would work out as well as they did, that Zacchaeus was going to change his ways – maybe he would turn out to be an egotistical eccentric, maybe he just wanted to use Jesus to make a name for himself, maybe his house would be filled with a pack of Herods trying to bribe him into doing some miracle or other for them.

This is one weekend where we know that lawyers did not write the Gospel.  No way.  No one would have climbed any trees or gone into the houses of strangers without hold harmless agreements and legal counsel.  This Gospel has risk written all over it.  But at the end of the passage, what does Christ say?  “Today salvation has come to this house.”

Salvation is risky business.  It is a matter of tree climbing – and not just nice gentle sycamores either.  Sometimes it is a matter of being nailed to rough and unforgiving trees.

Salvation is not something you can figure out with actuarial tables.  The probability that Christ would rise from the dead was 1 in infinity times infinity and then some.  The probability that Zacchaeus would be converted along with his household because of his interaction with Christ?  You can’t plug that in to a set of variables and come up with a cost-benefit analysis.  The outcome cannot be secure or guaranteed because it is a matter of God’s grace and human freedom – and neither can be predicted with any accuracy.

Following Christ is not a matter of trying to figure out what will be safe, what will avoid risk.  We cannot be motivated by fear or a desire for security.  Following Christ is risky.  There are no guarantees.  Why?  Because we are not in control.  We cannot guarantee anyone’s salvation.  Christ alone can save.  Our first reading makes this so clear: “Before the Lord the whole universe is as a grain from a balance or a drop of morning dew come down upon the earth.”  God is in control, not us.  And as much as we might like to be able to describe and predict everything that happens in this world, we cannot.  If we try – if we refuse to believe, to act until we are sure of the results, until all is secure, the irony is that we risk everything.

Like Zacchaeus, we must let a certain humble abandonment characterize our faith.  A willingness to do what is right, to seek after God, to follow Christ, even when the actuarial tables are inconclusive, even when nothing is guaranteed.  All the possible outcomes, all the what ifs, the coulds and shoulds and woulds…  sometimes these are the tools that the evil one uses to keep us stuck.  At a certain point we must act.  Christ is walking by.  Our time here is short.  Are we going to climb the tree or not?