29th Sunday OT
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
St. Dominic Church/O.L.R., NOLA
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
St. Dominic Church/O.L.R., NOLA
We spend a lot of time and money avoiding discomfort, suffering, and death. To avoid discomfort we have invented air conditioning (thank God!), recliners, elastic waistbands, and arch support inserts. To avoid suffering we invented political philosophies that guarantee us that no one will be rich or poor, and religions that teach that suffering is as an effect of desire and so we must work to destroy desire. To avoid death we have invented surgeries, drugs, diets and exercises, and genetic therapies. To avoid death we have also invented ways of creating and re-creating ourselves beyond death – the beautiful artifacts of literature, monuments, memory, music, and art. As rational animals destined for immortality, we can waste our mortal lives avoiding the inevitable discomforts and sufferings of living in this world. So, our Lord wants to know, “Can you drink the cup that I drink or be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” Can you suffer and die like I will suffer and die?
How much of your daily life is about avoiding discomfort, suffering, and death? Better question: as members of the Body of Christ, heirs to the Father’s Kingdom, are we called to avoid discomfort, suffering, and death? Is this part of our ministry as disciples, as apostles? Well, when is sacrificial service NOT about discomfort, suffering, and death?
Isaiah teaches us exactly how suffering is essential to sacrificial service: “If he gives his life as an offering for sin…the will of the Lord shall be accomplished through him. Because of his affliction he shall see the light in fullness of days; through his suffering, my servant shall justify many, and their guilt he shall bear.” Note these three: “if he gives his life,” “because of his affliction,” and “through his suffering.” And note the progression: the Lord’s servant freely offers himself for the sin of others…he sees the light in fullness b/c of this sacrificial service…and through his suffering – his willing acceptance of our sin for a higher purpose – the servant brings many to righteousness. He justifies us before the Lord. In other words, because he was discomforted, b/c he suffered, b/c he died, we do not have to. We are instead comforted, free of anxious worry, and we may live eternally.
So, if this is true why then do we still work so hard to avoid discomfort, run so fast from suffering, and dodge around death strenuously? We do not want to be last. We are creatures of Firsts – first across the line, at the top of our game, highest score, fastest time, strongest lift, best grade, first prize, deepest soul, hardest body…all to weaken, all to weaken and fade, all of it weakening, fading, dying. And for what?
Who wants to be a servant? Who wants the work of serving others? There is no glamour there, no applause, no dramatic ovation or a big bouquet of roses. It’s humble work that makes someone’s life better, but all it does for me is leave me with sweaty armpits, dirty hands, a sore back, and a logjam on my own housework or my DVD watching. Surely, it is better to be served; better to be first and not last; a Master and not a slave. It is!
If you will be in this world and of it, then you are morally obligated to pursue the best, the first, the highest. To be in and of the world is to be in and of the virtues the world holds up as Good. To be otherwise is suicide. You must honor the bottom-line. Praise efficiency. Worship at the altar of productivity. Practice winner-take-all competition. Lose the losers. Appeal to no power mightier than civil law. Here’s your bumper sticker: “If you have yours, I can’t have mine.” You must celebrate my needs as my rights, otherwise you are oppressing me. You must also celebrate my wants as my rights, otherwise you are hating me. Requiring me to serve others is just you trying to control me with guilt. I don’t do guilt. My adult spirituality is an eclectic weaving together of the best elements of a variety of religious traditions – none of which requires anything of me, especially not sacrificial service! If you will be of this world and in it, you must conform to its virtues: work-pride, self-avarice, power-lust, gift-envy, success-gluttony, failure-wrath, and soul-sloth. Play with these worldly virtues or risk their opposing vices: ignored in modesty, disrespected for generosity, mocked for purity, taken for granted in kindness, ostracized for abstinence, laughed at for any mercy shown, and hated for one’s holy industry.
If you will be great among the Lord’s disciples, however, you will serve. If you will be first among the apostles, you will be a slave to all.
The pain that Jesus endures on the cross does not save us. The beatings by the Roman soldiers, the betrayal of his disciples, the political backstabbing wheeling-dealing of Pilate – all of these cause Jesus pain. This pain does not save us. Pain itself is not redemptive. Isaiah hears the Lord say, “If he gives his life as an offering for sin…the will of the Lord shall be accomplished through him.” If he gives. James and John ask Jesus to be honored in his kingdom. Jesus says to his honor-seeking disciples: “You do not know what you are asking. Can you drink the cup that I drink…?” They say, “We can.” We can drink the cup that you, Lord, drink – the same cup that Jesus later prays will pass him by! For the Servant’s pain to be redemptive, for Jesus’ pain on the cross to be redemptive, it must be suffered, that is, “allowed.” It must be taken on with a will and directed to the benefit of others. To wallow in pain is just to wallow in pain. Nothing more. To take up pain in the service of others, to designate pain as a sacrifice, to make it holy by giving it away for a holy end – that is suffering! And this suffering mocks the Devil, rotating the unholy virtues of pride and greed and converts them into humility and generosity.
Discomfort is eased. Suffering is avoided. Death is delayed. We will invent and re-invent human civilization after human civilization in order to ease our discomfort, to avoid our suffering, and to delay our deaths. And we will lift up and parade the secular virtues to justify our refusal to take on service for others. But is this what we as Christians are called to do? Are we called to avoid discomfort, suffering, and death? No. We are called to transform discomfort, suffering, and death; to make each into the good habit of being Christs for others. We are called to turn discomfort into the virtue of humility; to turn pain into the art of redemptive suffering; to turn death into a witness to everlasting Life!
Our Lord did not die on the cross so that we might be blue ribbon winners or gold medalists. He died on the cross to show us how to be the friends of God. How to be servants to one another. He gave his life as a ransom for many so that we will know how to give our lives as a ransom for many more.
What does your life stand for? What do you represent in the world? Whom do you serve? Here’s a question for you: will you die for me? For that guy behind you? For your next door neighbor? If you will give your life as an offering for sin, the will of the Lord will be accomplished through you. And because of your affliction you will see the light in fullness of day. Will you be small in the kingdom of God by dying to pride and greed in the service of others? Or will you insist on being great among the Great of the World and in the end find yourself among the Great who proudly rule the smoking trash heaps of Gehenna?
Can you drink the cup our Lord's drinks? Can you suffer and die for name's sake?
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