October 21, 2018
Twenty Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Isaiah 53:10-11; Psalm 33; Mark 10:35-45
A few weeks ago I was at an all-day English Department meeting at OSU. We were making plans for the new school year and everyone was talking and sharing their news. And I was just besieged with envy and jealousy, like the disciples today, who resent James and John for receiving what they think are special favors. It really surprised me. My colleagues were getting all these grants and winning all these awards, and I was just sitting in the back, green with envy. I wanted to win the awards. I wanted recognition.
I felt this so strongly it confused me. It wasn’t until several days later that I realized my sin wasn’t just the sin of envy but the sin of not wanting to admit it. This the greatest sin of all: to not want to be a sinner. I keep thinking I’m beyond this. I pray and go to mass, and I’m getting older and should be getting wiser, and yet again and again, I find that I’m a sinner after all and it embarrasses and humbles me.
To be a servant, to wantto be a servant, to have the love and the compassion that Jesus calls us to today, we first have to accept the fact that we can’t make ourselves feel that way. Love like that is a gift, and we can only receive it when we realize we need it.
And the funny thing is that as soon as I did admit this to myself, after several days of being confused and depressed, did admit I was envious and lacking in love at that meeting–at the very minute I said yes, that’s true–I was released from that envy. It dropped away, or it lightened at least, and I was able to go back in my mind and think about how talented those people are and how good they are and to rejoice in that.
This last summer I was going through a box of things from my childhood, and I found “A Certificate of Recognition” from a Vacation Bible School class I attended at a Lutheran church in Malta, Montana. It reads: in recognition of faithful attendance and creditable work, signed Velma Sutton and the Reverend James Proffitt, June 30, 1961.
There’s an award, there’s recognition, and we can all receive it. It’s an award for attendance, and we can all attend.
On the left of the certificate there’s a picture of Jesus the Good Shepherd coming towards us with a small flock of sheep. It’s the kind of picture I’m sure you’ve seen before in Sunday School or a children’s Bible. Jesus is soft focus, with long brown hair and soft eyes, and the sheep are fluffy and white, and Jesus just seems so strong and kind—he’s holding a little a lamb in his arms–and looking at it I felt a pang of longing for that feeling I had when I was kid and thought of him, that trust and happiness. And why not? Isn’t that what we’re called to? To humble ourselves, to let ourselves be sheep, so that we can have a shepherd? We have to come to God as little children, the gospel said last week, and isn’t that maybe especially important for those of us who think we’re so sophisticated and mature?
Yes, to follow Jesus means that we have to drink from his cup, and his cup is a cup of suffering, it’s an entering into the suffering and complexity and incompleteness of the world, and ourselves, and that’s terribly hard, that means letting go of all our childish fantasies of glory. But that’s not all there is. That’s not the end. It’s a means to an end and the end is joy. The crucifixion leads to the resurrection–it’s through “affliction,” Isaiah says today, that we “see the light in fullness of days.” The purpose of voluntary poverty isn’t to make ourselves miserable. It’s to create a space in which there is room for everything.
And just last week, in Rome, the Church canonized seven people, including Pope Paul VI and Archbishop Oscar Romero. The Church recognized them, made them saints, but not because they’d published a lot of books or made a lot of money but because they all served God and served others–Paul VI because, as Pope Francis emphasized in his homily, he promoted the “preferential option for the poor,” one of the most important ideas in our tradition–and Archbishop Romeo, of El Salvador, because over time he came to identify with the poor and oppressed people of his country and to resist the tyranny of the Salvadoran government, to the point that finally he was assassinated, at mass, as he finished his homily and was walking towards the altar.
At the canonization mass Pope Francis wore both the vestments of St. Paul VI and the bloody cincture of St. Oscar Romero, the rope he was wearing around his waist when he was gunned down.
I have a special admiration for Oscar Romero, I guess because I don’t think I could ever be like him, have that kind of courage. But then, I don’t think Romero would say that he had that kind of courage either. I think he would say it was given to him. It was grace.
In fact, for years I’ve carried around this Oscar Romero quote. It means a lot to me. I love it for its spirit of humility, for its challenge and yet its feeling of reassurance:
We cannot do everything [Romero says] and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something and do it very well. It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest. We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the workers. We are workers, not master builders; ministers, no messiahs. We are prophets of a future not our own.
If we are called in our joy to serve the homeless, we should serve the homeless. If we are called in our joy to pray, we should pray. If we are called to write or to quilt or to program computers, that’s what we should do. We don’t have to do everything, and we can’t.
We are the workers, not the master builder; the sheep, not the shepherd. We are all known, we are all loved for who we really are, and we have only to recognize this ourselves to be liberated, to be freed, walking with the rest of the flock in that children’s book picture, Jesus before us, young and strong and smiling, the grass beneath our feet and the trees behind us, the sky full of pure white clouds. “Of the kindness of the Lord the earth is full,” the psalmist says today: “See, the eyes of the Lord are upon those who fear him, / upon those who hope for his kindness.”
The eyes of the Lord are upon us—Jesus recognizes us—he turns his loving gaze on us. All of us.