The occasional, often ill-considered thoughts of a Roman Catholic permanent deacon who is ever grateful to God for his existence. Despite the strangeness we encounter in this life, all the suffering we witness and endure, being is good, so good I am sometimes unable to contain my joy. Deo gratias!

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Homily: 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time - Year C

Readings: Is 66:18-21; Ps 117; Heb 12:5-7,11-13; Lk 13:22-30

Some years ago, working at a college in New England, I was asked to teach a course for senior marketing majors. I was pleasantly surprised when 25 students, the maximum allowed, registered for the course. Naturally I assumed my reputation preceded me. Only later did I learn that the person who taught this course previously was considered a “Santa Claus” – someone who gave A’s regardless of effort. This put a whole new perspective on things.

I spent about 15 minutes that first day describing my expectations and requirements. As I ran down the list -- weekly quizzes, frequent exams, several papers, a research project – the effect on my students was remarkable. Their earlier smiles and enthusiasm faded as they sank ever lower in their seats. I concluded by telling them that I would give each student an oral final exam. There was a collective gasp. I just ignored it and began to teach.

When I arrived for the 2nd class, only 18 students showed up. And by the end of the 2nd week, I was down to 12, a much more manageable number. As I recall, three students eventually earned A’s. You see, to do well a student was required to submit to the discipline of the course.  Now some rejected that discipline and dropped out at the first opportunity. Others wanted to do well, but resented the required discipline and failed to do what was asked of them. And some became complacent and assumed that the discipline didn’t really apply to them…or believed their winning personalities would carry them through. They inevitably did poorly.

For many Christians, today’s Gospel reading generates the same kind of apprehension and, too often, the same kind of responses.

“Lord, will only a few people be saved?”

Jesus took this simple question – and used it to teach us about salvation. It’s a rather curious question, as if he’s asking, “Hey, Jesus, what are the odds I’ll win the salvation lottery?” Or maybe, as one of God’s Chosen People, he thought he had an inside track on salvation – he knew the Law, obeyed the rules, did everything he was supposed to do as a sign of his justification. When you think of it this way, you can almost hear the complacency in the question, can’t you?

And yet what did Isaiah tell us in today’s first reading? “I come to gather nations of every language; they shall come and see my glory.” Isaiah is preparing God’s people to accept the truth of salvation, that God desires it for all, Jew and Gentile – a desire later fulfilled by Jesus when He instructs the Apostles to announce the Good News: “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations…”

Or maybe our questioner was complacent because he knew Jesus…that as a disciple he really did have an inside track...after all, he had walked by Jesus’ side as He taught in the streets...had shared meals with Him.  Surely this would be enough. Like some of my students, maybe he believed he need only show up to win the prize.

Well, whatever his reasons, I’m sure he was surprised when Jesus, instead of a simple Yes or No, said some disturbing things. You see, it was the wrong question. How many will be saved isn’t the important thing. The important question, the one you and I should really be concerned about is: “How can we be saved?” And this is the question Jesus answers.

Now we all know that salvation is a gift. It’s nothing you or I can earn; rather it’s the result of Christ’s saving sacrifice on the Cross. And while everyone is invited to share in God’s Kingdom, accepting that invitation also means obeying His call to repentance and doing His Will. Or as we heard in today’s 2nd reading from Hebrews: “…do not disdain the discipline of the Lord…for whom He disciplines, He loves.”

And so Jesus begins, telling us that, even though the door is narrow, we must all try to enter. We can’t pin our hopes on the mere fact that we’re paid-up church-going people. The words “depart from me” are a stark and chilling reminder that the stakes are high – a heavenly or hellish eternity – a terrible reality facing everyone. Only a fool would turn a deaf ear to this warning. And yet, fools abound.

Many Christians, many Catholics, apparently believe in God, believe that we each possess an immortal soul, that Heaven and Hell are real… and yet live their lives as if God can be ignored. They believe in God and call themselves Christians, but act as if God’s clear commands are optional, that we can decide which must be obeyed.

A lot of us must be like this, because sociologists say that those who claim to be Catholic are almost statistically indistinguishable from non-believers when it comes to their acceptance of such behaviors as abortion, adultery, divorce, euthanasia, homosexual marriage, cheating on taxes, filing frivolous lawsuits, or even swiping pencils from the company supply room.

No, brothers and sisters, all roads do not lead to the banquet — only one road, one path, through one narrow gate. And if the practice of our faith is confined to Sunday Mass, but has no bearing on our daily lives, we’re guaranteed absolutely nothing. What you and I say for one hour each week means little. It’s what we do every hour of every day that matters.

Salvation comes when we accept Christ and start to follow him…when we accept Him in the Eucharist and in our hearts, when we become, not just hearers, but do-ers of the Word. It comes when we follow him after leaving this church today: how we love and discipline our children; how we decide to use our free time and spend our money; how we make decisions; when we pray; when we work and study; when we go about all the activities that makes up our daily lives.

Everything we do, every word we utter, every thought we hold, every emotion we display, every action – it all proclaims our love of Christ to the world, that we’re following him through the narrow gate, and that we know it’s a struggle. We can’t just sit back and take our salvation for granted, expecting God to do everything for us. We can’t ignore God and the teachings of His Church and expect the door to be opened wide. Like the students who earned that A, we must submit to the discipline of the course. And the instructor in this instance has much higher expectations. And it’s no coincidence that the word discipline has its origins in the word disciple.

And so when the question is asked – “Lord, will only a few people be saved?” – we must be willing to accept the answer.

We don’t fully understand this mystery of salvation, a salvation not limited by law, ritual, or our own expectations of who will or won’t be saved. Salvation is a gift from a God whose love is so expansive that it includes the whole human family.  A God who respects our freedom, takes our decisions seriously, and accepts the consequences of our decisions, even when we choose not to be with Him for eternity. But our loving God, whose heart overflows with mercy and forgiveness, always provides His disciples with the necessary grace. We need only cooperate by doing our part.

We really shouldn’t condemn ourselves. If we know we're not close to God, and our lack of prayer life bothers us, maybe then we can change. If we’re aware of what we’re doing wrong, or not doing right, and if this upsets us…well, that’s good. If we hear and answer the call to repent, then we have a chance. Maybe then we can count ourselves among those in the Gospel who are “the last.” Perhaps then we’ll actually accept help, help from others, and the help and forgiveness of God.

You and I are far from perfect but when the time comes I hope we’ll be pleasantly surprised to find ourselves in God’s presence. We’ll probably also be surprised at some of the others we’ll meet there, just as they’ll be surprised to see us.

The stakes are so very high, brothers and sisters. The last thing we want to hear is God saying to us, “Depart from me.” How much better to hear Him say, “'Well done, my good and faithful servant…Come, share your master’s joy.”

Praised be Jesus Christ!

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