Homily for the 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time
October 19, 2003
St. Martin de Porres, Cincinnati
(Based on Is 53:10-11; Psalm 33:4-5.18-22; Hebrews 4:14-16; Mark 10:35-45)
"The Son of Man has not come to be served but to serve, and give his life for the many."
The readings in today's liturgy are all about serving. About living one's life for others and not for oneself.
The brief passage we read from Isaiah is part of a song within the prophetic book. The song is one of four songs called "The Suffering Servant Songs." When the Israelite people were in exile, slaves in a foreign land, Isaiah foresaw that a leader would come who would save the people through his own suffering.
And in Mark the story we heard about James and John follows immediately after the account of how Jesus for the third time had foretold his own Passion: "The Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes. They will condemn him to death and hand him over to the Gentiles, who will mock him and spit at him, flog him, and finally kill him. But three days later he will rise."
James and John don't get it, but that's understandable. Jesus the Messiah is indeed a great high-priest -- but one who turns upside down the Israelite people's expectations of a messiah. It is through his suffering that he will reveal the glory and love of God and bring salvation to the many.
It's a powerful -- but disturbing and challenging --- message. Left by itself it could lead to a lot of misunderstanding. And has, down through the centuries. Jesus' suffering on the cross is so dramatic, so shattering, that some people have tried to imitate them by seeking out suffering for itself, becoming masochists. (At times church leadership has had to step in and ban crucifixes that put all the emphasis on gory representations.)
We need to listen to the author of the Letter to the Hebrews in order to hold it all in balance: Jesus can sympathize with our suffering and weakness because he was tried in every way that we are, except for sin. He was just like us. Although he was on fire to do the will of the Father, he shrunk from suffering as you and I do: "take this cup from me"; "why have you abandoned me?"
Suffering, yes -- but in order to serve.
This morning in Rome Pope John Paul II is just completing the beatification of Mother Teresa. It's a high profile event, with world-wide TV and press coverage and every sort of panoply. It's a good thing, a cause for rejoicing.
But it's also risky. It could be dangerous to our faith. How can that be?
Teresa was surely a holy woman, of that there is no doubt. But she has also been made into a celebrity, and that's something else again.
Saints inspire us. They encourage and elevate us. They make us believe in ourselves, that we too can live up to our Baptism and be holy men and women. Making someone into a celebrity belittles us and demeans and disempowers us. As a celebrity Mother Teresa is used; instead of becoming a model and help for our journey, she becomes a way of avoiding our responsibility. "Oh, I could never do what she did! I could never sit at the bedside of dying outcasts." "I couldn't leave my country." I couldn't! I couldn't! Not me!
People focus on the extraordinary, on all the Hollywood glitz and glamor. It removes them from themselves and the Lord present in their world.
Let me tell you a story of what celebrityhood can produces. It's a painful story, a sad one. But it happened.
The cardinal of New York was very anxious to have Mother Teresa's sisters come to the archdiocese, so he invited them to the South Bronx, where he gave them a convent that some other sisters had moved out of. They fixed it up to suit their simple needs and then there was to be a blessing of the chapel and house. In a gesture of hospitality Mother Teresa's sisters invited all the women religious who serve in the area to participate in the liturgy. These were women who toiled on the streets of the South Bronx, teaching, counseling, running food banks and social agencies in very difficult conditions. When the women were all assembled around the wall of the small chapel the cardinal began the ceremony by saying, "Isn't it wonderful to finally have some real sisters in the South Bronx!" A devastating attack on these sisters who were giving their lives for the people -- so much for celebrities.
Mother Teresa herself tried to reject being used like that. And the church, when it beatifies or canonizes someone, always writes in the official decree that this person is not being beatified because of the circumstances of her service but because, as far as we can see, she served out of love. Mother Teresa is not singled out because she worked in the black hole of Calcutta; Francis is not a saint because he kissed the leper; Damien is not a saint because he lived among lepers. They are saints because they served out of love.
You and I could not have endured Jesus' crucifixion; we could probably not kiss a leper; we are not called to go to some exotic foreign land. But that's not the point.
We don't have to go looking for suffering, to create it. Simply trying to live the life of charity, of service, for others, will bring us pain enough. People will not understand us. They will positively mis-understand us. We will fail others, fail to live up to what we committed ourselves to. Many of you are spouses, many are parents. Trying to live out that vocation will bring you suffering enough.
My oldest brother was someone who rarely spoke of great issues of spirituality. He was an accountant, a hands-on practical guy. He never spoke much of what was going on inside him. It made it all the more striking for me to hear him say one day very simply and directly, "If you bring kids into this world you're gonna get hurt."
Work at trying to be a faithful spouse and you will be hurt. Try to be a friend and you will be hurt. Try to be an active participant in this faith community, or in the diocese, or in our world-church, and you will be hurt. Pain and suffering are simply part of life. And they are not of themselves saving, they are not salvific. What matters is the spirit we bring to them, the love we show forth in them, the way we accept them out of care for our neighbor.
As we receive the one who showed himself the perfect servant, who became a slave for us, let's ask for the gift to keep our focus clear as he did. You have not come to be served but to serve. I have not come to be served but to serve. We were called the same way as Jesus was, to serve and to give our lives for many.