How can we give and serve like Christ?

25th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B: Sept. 19-20, 2009
Wis 2:12, 17-20; Ps 54:3-6, 8; James 3:16–4:3; Mark 9:30-37

One day this week I was talking to the 7th and 8th grades here in our school, as I covered a couple of their religion classes. I was telling them some of my own story—about where I started as a child, and how I got from there to becoming a Catholic priest, here at St. Mary’s. I told them how, when I was about 8, a missionary to Africa came to speak at my family’s church; and how I was inspired by her, and wanted to do something like what she did. Moving on, I then said: “Now, when I was 11, do you think I wanted to be a missionary?” One of the 8th-graders spontaneously responded, “Why would anyone want to be a missionary?” So I turned that question back to the class: “Why would anyone want to be a missionary?” They didn’t have very good answers; it just didn’t make any sense to them that someone, especially someone young, would aspire to this. I thought, aha, we’re going to talk about this again as the year progresses.

Oh, and the answer to my question was No: when I was 11, I had forgotten that earlier idea; and my goal at the time was to become rich and build a big mansion and live all by myself. That is, not in a small house with my three younger brothers, who were driving me crazy. So, although I actually met missionaries regularly in those days, it just wasn’t on my radar screen as a possibility for me.

And something similar seems to have been the case with the disciples. Although they followed Jesus and were with him every day, the possibility of living out his generosity and service doesn’t seem to have been on their radar screen either. In our Gospel reading today, we hear about the second time in the Gospel of Mark that Jesus tells them that he will suffer and die. But we read that they did not understand the saying, and they were afraid to question him. Jesus was telling them about the supreme act of generosity and service that he was going to do, for them and for the whole world. As Jesus said in the Gospel of John [15:13], No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. But this wasn’t clicking for them. They didn’t even ask him any questions about it.

Instead, what were they concerned about? We read that, while walking on their journey, they had been discussing among themselves on the way who was the greatest. The commentaries tell us that, in a hierarchical culture like theirs, this was a very natural topic to discuss. It was very important to know who was higher and who was lower, and so people talked about that often.

And if that was natural in their culture, then what are the topics in our culture that seem natural and important for us to discuss? What would our 8th-graders think that a young person would want to become? Would it sound like some of what St. James describes in our second reading? Ambition? Covetousness, or desire for many more material things? Jealousy and envy, of those who have more than we do? Or, do we desire, as I did when I was 11, to be free from the inconvenience and discomfort of having little brothers?

If this is what we find inside us, then at some point we come face to face with Jesus’ own example of total generosity and service. And we see the great contrast, between us and him. And then what? In the case of the disciples, this difference was strong enough that, when he asked them what they had been arguing about, they remained silent. It may have seemed natural in their culture, but they realized that who was the greatest had nothing to do with what he was all about.

So the disciples were silent. What about other reactions? Some may respond as we heard in the first reading, from the Book of Wisdom: they see the just one as a living accusation against them, and so they want to destroy him, painfully. The interesting thing is that we read in the words of the wicked that they want to show that he is a fraud—that this apparent gentleness and patience doesn’t go all the way down; it’s just an act; no one is really like that. That way, the contrast with them disappears. That’s one response; and, I hope, not one that many of us here today want to make.

A third response to seeing this contrast is to want to be like him. I remember a friend, years ago, who had watched a movie about Dorothy Day, that Catholic woman who founded the Catholic Worker movement in the mid-20th century, and said that she wanted to be like her. And another friend remarked that everyone who learns about Dorothy Day wants to be her! There is an attractiveness to this love, generosity, and service. As St. James writes, there is a wisdom from above that is pure, peaceable, gentle, compliant, full of mercy and good fruits, without inconstancy or insincerity. Even if it contradicts the ambition of our culture, we can’t help seeing the attractiveness of it. And especially if we have seen that our passions and ambition lead toward conflicts and disorder, jealousy and war, do we not long to become like Jesus; like Dorothy Day; like St. Francis; like Mother Teresa; like any number of generous saints?

But how? I want to offer three suggestions that may help, in answer to three questions: Who, what, and how?

First: Who? If we want to be more generous, who should we be generous toward? If we look at all the needs around the world, and especially those we hear about through appeals that arrive in the mail or on television, we can get overwhelmed. There is so much need, and there is no possible way that one of us can meet it. It is easy to feel overwhelmed and just down. But the place to start is with our vocation, the state of life to which Christ has called us. For myself, as a parish priest, the primary people that I am called to serve generously are you, the parishioners of the parish to which I have been assigned. For those who have been called to marriage and family, which is most of you here, the primary people that you are called to serve generously are your spouse and your children. So start there: ask, How can I serve them? What can I give them? What do they need? And then expand it a bit: look to the rest of your family, your neighbors, your co-workers, and all the rest of the people that you encounter along the path that you walk as you live your life—the unique path that only you walk. How can you serve them?

Second: What? If you are to serve them and give to them generously, what are you to give them? My No. 1 answer is not money. It’s not even your best skills or your best personal attributes. No, as we had to learn personally in the seminary, the No. 1 thing that you have to give is simply yourself: your human presence; your human attentiveness. How many people feel alone, ignored, abandoned—even within families? How many people feel that no one really listens and understands what they experience, what they feel, how they try, what they suffer? Before the need for a social service handout; before the need for anyone to their lives; what people really need first from us is for someone to love them by being with them and truly hearing them. And that’s a gift that all of us can give.

Third: How? How is this possible? In the words of singer-songwriter Dar Williams, “When the giving is all that you ever get back / oh, how do you love like that? / Can you tell me how to love?

And here we have a great warning that comes from the life of an Episcopalian minister named Barbara Brown Taylor. She was recognized in the ’90s as one of the great preachers in the English language; and some of her preaching from that time I admired and have tried to imitate. And back in the ’90s, as I read her monthly magazine column, I saw that she had left the parish where she worked and begun to teach full time in a college. And I saw that the tone of her writing changed: it became much more bitter. A few years ago, she published a memoir, and I got to read about what had happened to her back then. You see, she was one of those who call themselves Christian but believe that Jesus isn’t God, but was simply an exemplary human being with some sort of sense of “the divine.” And she admired his utter generosity, and so she tried to live just like him—which she therefore thought she could do in her own strength, with no real belief in a personal God, and no real prayer life. What happened? She burned out—badly.

And so will you, and I, if we try to live this total generosity and service on our own, separate from Christ, in our own strength. We will bleed ourselves dry. Jesus was no mere human do-gooder. He is true man and true God; and the core of his identity, the center of his life, in eternity and on earth, was being the Son of the Father. He received everything from the Father in prayer; and this is the source of strength that enabled him to live that way. We will only live and love this way if, like any of the saints, we cultivate this relationship with the Father through Christ.

And so I would suggest that you spend some time in prayer today, during Mass and after Mass, asking our Lord to help you to receive from him so that you can give to others. And I would encourage you to consider: are there forms of prayer, are there particular devotions, that you have experienced as giving you strength and nourishment? And if there are, then please start with those, and make it a regular practice, even a daily practice, to receive gifts from the Father through those forms of prayer; so that you may have the grace to then give to others.

So, Jesus invites us to live his generosity and service. To whom? Those we are called to serve in our vocation. Giving what? First of all, our human presence and attentiveness. And how is this possible? By cultivating our relationship with God through prayer, so that we can receive what we then give to others. In this way, like Christ and all the saints who have followed him, our lives can shine like light in a dark world.

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Published in: on September 20, 2009 at 7:16 pm  Leave a Comment  
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