Sunday, September 23, 2012

Carried by God

I don’t know about you, but there are times when I really wish the Gospels included a lot more personal information about Jesus’ disciples.  Today [Mark 9:30-37], for example, wouldn’t it be interesting to be able to listen in on the disciples’ conversation en route to Capernaum? I can picture Peter, perhaps still stung by Jesus’ rebuke in last week’s Gospel, reminding the others that he was still in line for the top job! I can almost hear Andrew answer, “OK, brother, but don’t forget that I met him first, and I introduced you to him!” And John chiming in, “but I’m the one he’s closest to!” And, of course, Judas, “I’m the one he trusts with the money, without me where would you all be!”

Of course, the Gospel only hints at all that. It tells us that when Jesus asked what they had been arguing about, they were suddenly (and suspiciously) tongue-tied. And Jesus, ever the teacher, took the opportunity to teach them a lesson.

Actually, this was the second time Jesus had tried to teach them what lay ahead. But they failed to understand.  In a world without power-point presentations and other such gimmicks, Jesus employed a child as his instructional aide.

Children induce all sorts of reactions in people. A baby is a sure attention-grabber in any gathering. In our society, children are considered cute, innocent individuals, to whom we are expected to react positively and benevolently.

Forty-one years ago, as a City College undergrad in New York, I had a work-study job which one day involved my attending a meeting at a Head Start facility on the Lower East Side, in what would then have been a very depressed neighborhood. One of the pre-school kids showed up as usual, not knowing that the place was closed that day, prompting someone to comment. “That’s a smart kid! He knows he’s better off here than at home!” How smart or not he was I can’t say, but what I took away from that was that, smart or not, he was still just a child and so was dependent on adults’ schedules – dependent and hence powerless. His powerlessness was in part the powerlessness of the poor, of course; but being a child made his powerlessness that much more so. Even rich children, after all, are ultimately dependent on someone else to exercise power on their behalf.

Yet when Jesus wanted to teach his disciples what following him is all about, he pointed to a powerless child. Thus he sought to teach his clueless disciples the paradox of the powerless Christ, who, in obedience to his Father, assumed our ordinariness as his own to meet us where we are at our most powerless – in the darkness of death, where all our obsessive human preoccupation with power and status, our aspiration to greatness and accomplishment, all come to nothing.

No wonder they found him hard to understand! It seems being a disciple means more than merely listening to Jesus’ words and possibly preaching them to others. No, it means being led, by him and with him, where he was led. It means leaving behind our perpetual preoccupation with power and status, our aspiration to greatness and accomplishment, our competitiveness with one another and within our own selves - the passions that today’s 2nd reading [James 3:16-4:3] so strongly warns us about, causing us to covet but not possess, to envy but not obtain, to ask but not receive. From middle and high school popularity contests to our national campaigns, it’s all about who’s up and who’s down, who’s in and who’s out.  

In contrast, Jesus challenges us to come to know Christ with the powerless, dependent transparency of a child – a child who knows he or she is better off in here with Jesus than out there on one’s own.

Good teacher that he was, Jesus did not try totally to demolish the ambition of his disciples. Instead he gave them a new definition of greatness to aspire to. “If anyone wishes to be first, he shall be the last of all and the servant of all.”

That can be quite frightening, even threatening. Certainly, it scared the disciples. And it scares most of us most of the time, which is why we tend to pass over it as quickly as possible in search of some more “upbeat” message. But ultimately this is the challenge of a Christian life – of all Christians from first to last.

In a couple of weeks, the Church will observe a Year of Faith, beginning on the 50th anniversary of the opening of the 2nd Vatican Council by Blessed Pope John XXIII. A few years earlier, on the day of his coronation as Pope, as he was being carried aloft for the first time on his portable throne, the sedia gestatoria, Pope John is supposed to have commented, “The secret of everything is to let oneself be carried by God, and so to carry God to others.”

Homily for the 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, September 23, 2012

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