26 January 2014

To whom do you belong?

3rd Sunday OT
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Our Lady of the Rosary, NOLA

Audio File

To whom do you belong? Who owns you? The answer most Americans would give is: “I belong to myself. I own me.” Our disastrously individualistic and narcissistic culture has trained us to think “Me First; Me Always.” If I belong to me then my needs and wants come first. I cannot serve two masters, so I serve myself. To reinforce my preferences, lest anyone threaten my comfortable delusion of self-centered independence, I surround myself with those who make the same choices I do. Who I am becomes the sum total of my race, social class, political views, religious beliefs, and whatever prejudices my fellow-choosers will tolerate. What now? Now I'm an over-educated, professional Catholic white boy from a working-class southern family who leans to the right politically. Do I live for those labels? Is that who I really am? Is that all I am? If so, then the Cross I claim to follow is emptied of its meaning. Paul points to the rivalries among the Corinthians and asks them, “Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?” No. No. And no. I belong to Christ. And if you belong to Christ too, then your first choice is Christ and so is every choice you make after that. We serve CHRIST.
Some 800 yrs before Christ, the prophet Isaiah prophesied Israel's punishment for her disobedience: war, defeat, exile, and slavery. The Assyrian Empire invaded the Northern Kingdom and Israel all but disappeared. God's people had chosen to serve themselves rather than their Maker, and b/c they no longer served God, He allowed them to suffer the consequences of their sin. But like any good preacher, Isaiah preaches the wages of sin, but he doesn't stop there. He also preaches the inevitably victory of hope: “Anguish has taken wing, dispelled is darkness: for there is no gloom where but now there was distress. The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom a light has shone.” Why—after their disobedience—does God return to the land and share His great light? B/c even though we often forget our covenant with Him, He never forgets. Though we might fail to remember His promises; He never forgets. He never forgets b/c He created us so that His love could be given flesh and blood and freely given to one another as a sign of our salvation. However, that sign—His freely given love—cannot be a sign of anything if I belong to myself alone, if I only serve myself. We serve Christ. WE serve Christ.

Jesus couldn't be any clearer. He says to the fishermen, Peter and Andrew, “Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men.” Our Lord doesn't invite these men to begin a journey of spiritual self-discovery, or to take up austere religious practices. He invites them to go out and fish for souls, to trawl for those who long to love God but cannot see or hear the mercy He offers them. Peter and Andrew drop their nets and follow Christ b/c his Word is a word of hope. “Anguish has taken wing, dispelled is darkness. . .The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. . .” Peter and Andrew see in Christ the same great light that the people of Israel see at the end of their exile in Assyria. Not the light of their ascended consciousness. Not a specially designed, customized light shining just for me to see b/c I am especially holy or in-the-know. The light that shines to push back the darkness of sin and the anxiety of disobedience is the glory of God. The same light that shone Israel. That shone on Mary. That shone on Jesus at his baptism. The same light shines on all of us. “Upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom a light has shone.” 
God's great light shines on us all. Now what? Jesus says, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Why do we need to repent of our sins if God's light is shining on us? It is precisely b/c God's light is shining on us that we need to repent. Sin is like a fireman's asbestos suit. It keeps the heat of God's mercy from touching us; it prevents us from seeing and hearing His Word; it blocks the cleansing fire of the Holy Spirit. We are given the freedom and power to remove that suit and rejoice in the conflagration that is God's love for us. And not only can each one of us remove the suit, we are also given the authority by Christ himself to proclaim the same freedom and power to any and everyone who will listen. “Come follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” The first net we must throw is the net of repentance. Repentance, confession, and absolution remove the spirit-blocking power of sin. When you proclaim the Good News of God's mercy to sinners you serve more than just yourself; you belong to more than just you alone: you belong to Christ, you serve Christ, and b/c you belong to him and serve him, you will be like Israel returning from exile and slavery, brimming with “abundant joy and great rejoicing.”

It is no easy task to believe that we belong to another, that we serve another. We are trained to see the world as a series of loosely connected choices made from a nearly infinite numbers of options. We buy personalized cell phones. We select quirky fashions to accentuate our individuality. We have it “our way” in restaurants and grocery stores. We even exercise a degree of entitled choosiness when it comes to where we attend Mass, jumping from parish to parish depending on the priest, the kind of liturgy we want, the music, the liturgical language. No matter how many choices I'm offered by my culture and my Church, it seems that I always want just one more option. Why? Because I've been trained to believe that I belong to me, that I own me. And my wants, my needs must always come first. But this is the path to death, spiritual death. The Cross stands before us as a tool of execution and redemption. We are redeemed by Christ's death on the Cross b/c he chose to die for us. Not me. Not you. But us. All of us. He bought us from the Cross and owns us b/c—like Peter and Andrew—we heard his Word and saw his Light, repented of our sins, and chose to follow him. And in choosing to follow him, we chose to be fishers of men. 
If you will to follow Christ, your life is no longer your own.

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