Archive for November, 1996

Sunday Week 33 Year A

Imagine something with me … What if the world were to end this afternoon, let’s say at 2:38? What if these next few hours the only ones left to you? Can you entertain the thought for a while, can you let it slap you in the face, can you believe it for a moment, can you wonder? What would you do? What would you do with these suddenly precious, suddenly precarious, moments?

Who would you turn to? Who would you touch? What last minute phone calls would you make for last minute good-byes? What unlikely things suggest themselves, things you’ve always wanted to do but haven’t had the courage? What risks might you take in these last few hours now that safety and reputation have become meaningless?

What would you do? … An orgy of mad, passionate, and unsafe sex? … A trip to the bakery for all those now empty calories? … Or maybe there’s something to be said that can no longer remain silent. Maybe a hurt to be healed before it’s too late, or a hand to be held? What would you want to be doing when the end comes?

One thing is sure: when the bright light of eternity shines into our dozing lives we wake up to our priorities. We discover what we really desire, what’s worth the risk—what we really want.

Like a slap in the face, like a splash of cold water, like an unwanted alarm in the morning, the imagination of impending death shakes us to life; jolts us out of the fearful, frantic, mechanical routines we have fallen into.

Of course some of us would rather not know, would rather let the end creep up on us quietly. Some of us would rather our dreams remained buried lest we act upon them. So which are you? Is this knowledge of your impending end Good News or Bad? Is it Gospel to your ears or not?

The urgent light of eternity is shining in today’s story from Matthew’s Gospel. After a long absence the Lord and Master is back to settle accounts. It’s not an easy story to find Good News in! There is disturbing injustice and harsh treatment. Is this the kind of God we have to look forward to? Some harsh capitalist in the sky? Can you hear Good News in the voice of the Master—”You worthless lazy lout! Throw him out into the darkness outside!”?

If there is good news here, it can only be the same shocking good news as the slap in the face that wakes you from a blazing fire, or the rough hand that rouses you as you fall asleep at the wheel of your car.

In Jesus’ own story, as Matthew is telling it, we are nearing the end. Jesus has been stirring up trouble for himself, attacking the establishment, courting disaster, and in the next few pages of the story he gets the reward for the risk he’s taken: he is arrested, tried, humiliated, executed as a criminal.

And here, in between the risk and the reward, as a last violent attempt to convince us of what is at stake, Matthew’s tone turns nasty. His Jesus loses the familiar, pleasant smile and begins to talk like a madman about the end of the world and the returning Lord who is going to settle accounts. And through it all the urgently repeated message: “Be ready! For you know neither the day nor the hour.”

The very earliest Christians weren’t dreading the end-times—they believed they lived in them! They were longing for their promised vindication. Jesus had promised it would be soon, within the generation, within the next few years, within the next few months, or days. But the days pass, months pass, years … decades …. and no end.

That’s what Paul is dealing with in our second reading—trying to be encouraging, trying to be comforting, in the face of this delay—telling them whatever happens to be children of the light—but here in the gospel Matthew takes a very different tack. His community, with the delay of the Master, was forgetting the promise, losing the edge, refusing to risk all for their dreams. And Matthew wastes no words of comfort on them—he hits them hard with the words: ” You worthless, lazy lout! Throw this worthless servant into the darkness outside, where he can wail and grind his teeth.’ Matthew tries to frighten the life into them!

When the light of eternity shines into our lives it throws certain realities into sharp relief. It makes the present important. As the three servants stand there waiting to see there Master, who has come again after so long away, do they regret how they have spent their time? Would they do it differently with hindsight? Would they have taken bigger risks? Would they have lived differently to be ready for this moment?

Two of them seem proud of how they have lived, in between, while the Master is away—they’ve been entrusted with riches that have given their life an extra focus, an intensity of purpose. They’ve risked everything and enjoyed it. The thought of the return of their absent Master has kept them alive. They know their priorities. But the third servant is afraid, afraid to hope, afraid to live with purpose and buries his dreams in the dirt, where at least they won’t go away. And anyway there’s plenty of time. I can invest tomorrow, live tomorrow, dream tomorrow.

What about us? Are we excited by the rich purpose of our own lives? Or have we buried our hopes in the ground. How are we going to live out these, our last, hours?

Imagine with me a little more…. What if the end doesn’t come at 2:38? Nor 2:40. Nor at midnight, nor this week, nor even this year? Can’t you feel your priorities slipping? Can’t you feel your focus fading? Can’t you feel the old mechanical patterns clicking in? And aren’t you just a little disappointed.

So please God, disturb us! Shock some life into us! Blind us with the bright light of eternity so that we might see.

November 17th, 1996

Sunday Week 31 Year A

I don’t know if you saw in the San Francisco Chronicle yesterday, amidst the murders and the political pundits, a little headline for a review of a new film about Cesar Chavez. It ran “Not a saint but human.” Not a saint but human.

Where do we get the idea that holiness is not for real people? That sanctity reduces humanity? That being close to God means being far away from ordinary life?

I think part of the reason is the stories we have told each other down the ages about saints — strange, troubling stories about heroic lives of renunciation, of martyrs’ awful pains and hermits living on nothing but air and the host.

But were do we get the idea that holiness is about divesting ourselves of good things to live a thin life, unattached to human glory? It can’t help that we as a Church have chosen all those celibate men and virginal women to represent ourselves in heaven. Where are all the married, the lovers, the passionately attached; the tillers of fields, the makers of things, the parents of children? Where are you?

The tail-end of today’s gospel doesn’t help either with it exaltation of humility and threat of humiliation. With its attack on titles and esteem and its general tone of setting aside of worldly things. But there’s a paradox in the gospel that undermines this implicit picture of sainthood. Listen to the tone of Jesus’ words: he is annoyed, he is scandalised by what he sees, and he is speaking his mind — loudly and forthrightly. He is throwing down a gauntlet that will get him killed. He is taking on the authorities, daring them to notice him and do something.

Wherever we get our pale picture of sainthood it’s not from Jesus. The picture of Jesus we get here and throughout the gospels is not of a saint as we have attenuated them but of a passionate human being. He was all out against the people of his time who tried to live a holy life by living a life less human. He battered them unmercifully. But those he loved— and loved to spend time with— were the prostitutes and the traitors; those dying of unmentionable illnesses and those living in destitution from moment to moment who could not afford the luxury of holiness.

In Jesus we see someone who is so in touch with life and all its living that it can get to him; someone who has plunged into life and lived it to the full; someone who loves life so much he will even risk it for life’s sake. It is not sanctity—as it was defined— that got him killed, it is passion that brings him to the Passion. And even then his hold on life is so great that death cannot hold him. He rises to new life.

There are some wonderful icons of the Harrowing of Hell that depict a passionate Jesus striding forth from the gates of hell where he has routed evil and death and brought back with him all the dead, freed from death’s chains.

Sanctity, holiness, sainthood is something we are baptized into. By that little death we become people of life, people of passion, people called to take up life and be its champions. No more can we choose death, because we have Jesus for our model. He is our only teacher, but —thank God—there are many of him — many other Christs, who like him have lived passionate lives and still do so. The people who make our lives worth living. The ones who inspire us to be alive. They are all around us now— living and dead — and their prayer for us is simple — be alive, be filled with a passion and an untamed energy.

November 3rd, 1996


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