November 17, 2019
Second Thessalonians 3:7-12; Luke 21:5-19
Last week a friend of mine from the parish was working at the men’s homeless shelter, serving dinner, and a woman from another church was working beside her.
At one point the other woman turned to my friend and said, “why doesn’t St. Mary’s do . . . such and such?” And a little later: “why doesn’t the Catholic church get involved in . . . such and such?” And a little later: “why do Catholics always say . . . such and such?” And the men kept coming up, in their tattered clothes, and the bread was served, and the lasagna, and the oranges.
My friend was a little upset by this woman, and I don’t blame her, but I really admire both of them, for being there, for serving—as so many, many of you in the parish do, quietly, tirelessly, behind the scenes. In fact, I’d say that St. Mary’s is involved in everything in this community, through you.
But what I’d also say, to the woman from the other church, is what St. Paul says today in his second letter to the Thessalonians: we hear that some among you are disrupting things, “minding the business of others.” Such people “we instruct and urge in the Lord Jesus Christ to work quietly and to eat their own food.”
The Christians of Paul’s time expected the Second Coming, the literal, the actual end of the world, and soon. They thought the fire would come and they would be tortured and killed, any minute. And yet Paul is constantly telling them and Jesus is constantly telling them, be not afraid. Don’t worry about exactly when and how. Stay in the present. Be in the moment. Sweep the garage. Rake the leaves.
It’s very important for us as followers of Jesus to be informed, to get our news from multiple sources, to try to understand the facts, and to be upset about the facts when we do find them. Nations are rising against nations. Injustice is everywhere. The whole planet is dying. If we’re not outraged we’re not paying attention.
But there’s a danger here, too, a real spiritual danger.
It’s very important for us as followers of Jesus to work for systemic change, to try to make our institutions better—by voting as our conscience dictates, in light of the teaching of the Church, by giving money as our conscience dictates, by protesting as our conscience dictates—even by joining committees or running for office, if that’s our particular call.
But there’s a danger here, too, a real spiritual danger, and the danger is this. It’s a lot easier to be outraged by the wretchedness of the world than to be outraged by our own wretchedness. It’s a lot easier to rail against what’s wrong with other people than to face what’s wrong with ourselves. It’s a lot easier to be caught up in the abstract than to engage in the real, concrete work. And it’s a lot more exciting. Ordinary life is no fun at all. It’s much better to imagine ourselves as heroes in some drama, to enter into some epic fantasy, at least in our own minds.
We complain about tyrants but are tyrants at home. We argue for changes in governments and systems but don’t adjust our own schedules to spend time with our kids. We call out others for their racism or sexism and then judge everyone around us, for how they look or what they wear.
The challenge is always to balance our inner and our outer lives—and always to start with the inner, to always start with prayer. A friend of mine was a community organizer in the sixties, and he told me that in the beginning the group always prayed before they went out and knocked on doors. But then things got so busy they skipped praying and just went out and knocked on doors. Finally, after a while, they stopped knocking on doors. They stopped doing anything.
Jesus is the source. Without him, everything else collapses.
The challenge is to accept with humility the small work we each have been given to do. “If we would aim at perfection,” our new saint St. John Henry Newman wrote, “we must perform well the duties of the day.” This, he says, is the hardest work of all. “I don’t know anything more difficult, more sobering, so strengthening,” he says, “than the constant aim to go through the ordinary day’s work well.” It’s difficult work because it’s obscure work. No one sees us. It’s difficult work because it’s tedious work. We’re just spooning out lasagna, half the time to people who don’t seem to care or don’t even thank us, and meanwhile the woman we’re standing next to is attacking our faith and assuming to know both who we are and who we should become.
It’s difficult work because when we’re standing next to someone like that, or encountering the poor, really encountering them, face-to-face, we have to confront our own anger, our own pride, our own poverty.
But this is what we need to do, first and most of all, because to work quietly and mind our own business requires us to trust in God’s judgment, not our own—to realize that we don’t have the power. We don’t have the answers.
This is what we need to do, first and most of all, because to stop and live in the moment, to first be ourselves, where we are, is to find our hope, too. Our joy. It’s to realize that the end of the world is already here, in every minute, and that not a hair on our head has been harmed, even if we don’t have any hair, even if we’re homeless and haven’t washed our hair in weeks—that no matter how bad things get and how many empires fall, there lives a freshness and a goodness and a love deep down things, a love and a goodness we can’t understand and don’t need to, a love and a goodness we can’t explain and don’t need to. It’s not up to us to account for all the grief and contradictions in the world. It’s up to us to surrender to the One Who Can, the One who holds us in his arms and gives us our home, our true shelter, who loves us everywhere and always. “The Christian has a deep, silent, hidden peace which the world sees not,” St. John Henry Newman says, “like some well in a retired and shady place, difficult of access,” and no matter what happens, no matter what world ends and what world begins, we know this peace and we have this peace.
And the stars shine down through the gaps in the clouds, even in South Corvallis, above the homeless shelter, and the homeless men finish their meals and lie down in their beds, and later we lie down in our beds, too, and we rest, we rest, we all rest in God. We are not afraid.
“Go to bed in good time,” St. Newman says, “and you are already perfect.”
Protect us O Lord, as we stay awake, and watch over us as we sleep, that awake we may keep watch with Christ, and asleep, rest in his peace.