Homily for the 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time

September 9, 2001

St. Agnes Church

(Wisdom 9:13-18; Luke 14:25-33)

Have you ever wondered if there were really two different Jesuses? Or at least that Jesus must have undergone some great mood swings?

Just think of it. About three weeks ago we listened as Jesus, whom we rightly call the Prince of Peace, tell us, "Do you think I have come to bring peace? No, I have come to bring division: father against son, mother against daughter." Then a week later the same Jesus who proclaims "Come to me, all you who labor and are heavy burdened, and I will refresh you" says the door is narrow and many will not be strong enough to enter. And he utters the most painful words in all of Scripture: "You will stand outside knocking, and the Lord will answer, "I do not know you."

It's the same thing with today's Gospel. We all love it when Jesus says, "Why worry about tomorrow? Just think of the birds of the air and the lilies of the field; your Father watches over you." And all of a sudden in today's Gospel he says, "Have you sat down and counted the cost? Hey, you're building a tower, you're going into battle. You'd better plan; consider whether you have the resources, the stuff to finish what you're starting when you decide to follow me and become my disciple." And do it before you begin.

It's all about testing our commitment, determining whether we will take our spiritual life as Jesus' disciples seriously.

And of course it can't be done. Jesus is laying on us an impossible task. No one can really anticipate ahead of time what is going to happen on life's journey. Who can predict what will happen when two people enter into a marriage? Or when you decide to have a child, or take up a new job, or enter a seminary or a convent?

How do you plan in the face of life's contingencies? We can't really know how we will face the eventual challenges.

Jesus gives us only one sure answer: if we want to be his disciples, if we want to love, it will cost us our death. It probably won't involve a physical cross -- but it will involve dying to ourselves.

Maybe it will be the death of a couple who have discovered they can no longer communicate with one another, they have become strangers and every word they offer is twisted into something they don't intend. Or maybe it's the death of seeing a child you have loved for 12, 14, 16, years heading down a path which you can easily see is going to lead to a dead end and much pain and destruction -- and you the parents can't do anything to keep it from happening. Or the death which is involved in having to tell a parent that they can no longer live in the home where they raised their family, and they have to go into a nursing home. The death involved in looking back and discovering how little we were able to accomplish of our high young dreams. Or maybe it's the death of rejection by your fellow workers because you dared to speak up and say the truth they don't want to hear. Maybe the truth about race in our city. Or the death of a crippling disease or sudden accident.

How do you plan for that?

I want to introduce you today to two people.

One is a Jesuit friend of mine. Jack is 60 years old. As a young priests he was a terrific counselor of young men and women. He gave himself unstintingly all day and long into the night. And then one day he just burned out. He crashed and went into deep depressions. Long therapy. He hasn't been able to hold a job for several years. And now he has cancer.

The other person is a black fellow. It's hard to tell how old he really is. He could be 40 or 70. The one thing you can tell from the lines on his face is that he has lived a hard life. He has a grizzled salt-and-pepper face and only two teeth in his mouth. He runs one of those card-table operations for passersby on the street at 97th and Broadway, selling used paperbacks and magazines that people give him. You know the kind of thing.

Jack lives only a block away and he became fascinated with the man and the kind way he had with the people stopping at his stand. So one day Jack stopped near the end of the day and offered to help him pack up his books. That was OK. Jack began to go every day and help him to set up and arrange the books and be his helper. He learned that the fellow's name was Peter and he lived in a single-room occupancy 'hotel'.

After a while Jack said to Peter, "I'd like to change our relationship. I don't want this to be just a matter of kindness, I'd like it to be a business deal." Peter eyed him warily, wondering what kind of scam Jack might have in mind; he said, "Keep talking." Jack said, "I'd like to work for you as an employee." "Yeah, go on." "I'd like to contract to work for you for one dollar a week. That would make our arrangement more businesslike." That was OK with Peter.

Well, Jack is a bright fellow and he had ideas about how they could lay out the books to make them more interesting to customers. Put the mystery books together and then the romances, that sort of thing. Peter had no objections. But gradually Jack began to be uneasy. He wondered if he was kind of taking over inappropriately. So he told Peter he didn't want to call the shots, that he might have suggestions but Peter should make the decisions.

At that Peter looked Jack in the eye and said, "Look, Jack, let's be clear. I don't have any ego. I let go of ego a long time ago."

I gave up my ego a long time ago! What a wonderful motto for a disciple of Jesus.... (I have a sneaking hunch that Jack never heard a phrase like that from one of his fellow Jesuits....)

Jack pondered that for a while and one day he asked Peter when he gave up his ego. Peter said, "Hey, Jack, it might be hard for you to believe it when you look at me now, but I was once on the top of the heap! I had it all -- a record business that made a lot of money, rings on every finger, the gold neck chains, a big car. The whole nine yards. Then my partners robbed me of everything, I got into drugs, hit bottom. But I'm OK. You do what you need to do, I'm OK."

One day last week Jack wasn't at the stand. There was a sudden unexpected cloudburst and before Peter could cover the books a lot of his inventory got wet and ruined. The next day Jack said he was sorry about what happened. Peter just said, "Jack, you get wind, you get rain...."

Jack showed me a picture he has of Peter. It's a close-up of just his face. It's winter and he on a leather cap and a jacket with the collar pulled up. And he looks through you with piercing eyes. Jack said to me, "I look at that picture a lot. A lot."

Jack is learning wisdom from this man. Peter is his teacher. Neither of them would use the language of 'the cross', of course, because they're not given to high-flying rhetoric. But really, they've both died, each in his own way. And they are both very alive.

I gave up my ego a long time ago. . . .

And so there they are each day, the old white Jesuit with his Crocodile Dundee hat and old clothes and the grungy black fellow, peddling used books. And every day thousands of people walk past them on their way to or from the subway and wherever they are going. And they haven't the foggiest idea of the mystery that is being lived out before their eyes.

The author of the Book of Wisdom whom we heard speaking to us in the first reading wrote his work about 50-100 years before the coming of Jesus. Scripture scholars tell us that the writer had a rich knowledge of all the Old Testament, because, without us realizing it, he is citing all sorts of passages from things like the Psalms and many of the books of the Old Testament. And after poring over all that treasure house trying to understand what God might be all about, in today's reading he tells us the result of all his search: Why, we can scarcely comprehend what's going on in our world, among us humans. How can we hope to grasp what God is about?

In a few minutes we will once again share in the life of the Jesus who did not think equality with God something to be grasped, but rather stripped himself and became a slave and gave himself over into death -- whereupon God raised him and made him the Christ of the universe.

As we do, let's ask for the gift of genuine wisdom: just to be able to let go of a little more ego each day.