Sunday, July 15, 2007

Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time - Cycle C


In the 1970’s, two Princeton University psychologists performed a study to determine what factors would impact an individual’s impulse to help someone in need. They met with a group of students from the Princeton Theological Seminary, and asked each to prepare a brief talk on a given topic and then walk across campus to present it to a group of students.

On the way to present the talk, the psychologists had arranged for each subject to come across a man who was lying down in an alley, coughing and groaning. Obviously, they were interested in observing how many of the students would stop to help.

As with any good study, the psychologists introduced some variables into the scenario. Before the experiment started, each student was asked why they chose to study theology. Were they seeking personal and spiritual fulfillment, or were they looking for a tool that would help them find meaning in life? The psychologists also varied the topic that the students were to talk about. Some were asked to talk about how the relevance of the clergy to religious vocation. Others were asked to speak about the parable of the Good Samaritan. Finally, as each student was sent across campus to give their talk, some were told they were running late, and others were ahead of schedule.

The results were stunning. It did not matter why the students were studying theology. It did not even matter if they student had just finished preparing a talk on the Prodigal Son! The only thing that had an impact on whether a given student would stop to render aid was whether or not they thought they were late! Of the group that was told they were running ahead of schedule, 63% stopped to help. Only 10% of those who thought they were late stopped!

I am pretty sure that the priest and the Levite were not bad people. Like most of use, they most likely were caring and compassionate. However, they were focused on something else when the time came to put their faith into action. They most certainly saw the need, but were able to rationalize reasons not to act.

It is easy to take away the message of this week’s Gospel. We should view everyone as our neighbor. Just as God loves all of creation, we should show love, mercy and compassion to all those we meet. Acting on that message is the tricky part. We have all heard the phrase “What would Jesus Do?” In most cases, we can come up with the answer pretty easily. It is not so easy to take the next step.

It isn’t safe. Someone else is expecting me. Someone else will help. How often have you found yourself in the position of those seminary students? The priest? The Levite? I know I have more often than I care to admit.

Those who need our help may not exhibit the need in the same dramatic ways depicted in today’s Gospel or the Princeton experiment. They may be family members, close friends, co-workers, mere acquaintances or even perfect strangers. However, in each and every one of them, we sense that something is not right. We are faced with an opportunity to reach out and help. It may be as simple as providing a sympathetic ear or a shoulder to lean on. A smile or kind word will do just as much for someone who is having a bad day as the Good Samaritan’s generous care for the injured traveler.

Living the Gospel can be a challenge for many reasons. However, we often make it harder than it has to be. We often identify the Christian life with dramatic, grand gestures. It does not have to be that way. We do not need to change water into wine, or cure blindness, or raise someone from the dead in order to be Christ’s presence on earth.

Growing up, I had a pastor who always used to refer to the ‘salami approach’. He advised that we should take on a challenge “one thin slice at a time” Living the Gospel is a challenge that is best lived using the salami approach. We don’t all have to start out acting like the Good Samaritan. However, if we don’t start somewhere, we will find ourselves stepping over opportunities to be Christ for one and other.

We will always be running late to something. But so often, in that rush, opportunities to be on time for God abound! We just need to keep the eyes of our heart open.

Sunday, July 8, 2007

Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time - Cycle C


Last Easter, the A&E Channel aired a series called “God or the Girl”. It was a reality mini-series that followed four young men as they discerned whether or not they were called to pursue a vocation to the priesthood. One of the young men, named Joe, had been discerning for over ten years. He was having an exceedingly difficult time determining whether or not God was calling him to the celibate life of a priest.

So, in order to clear his mind, Joe set off on a pilgrimage. With no money, no vehicle, and only the clothes on his back, he started walking on a 200 mile trek to a retreat center near Niagara Falls. He had no idea what the journey would entail, but he was confidant that God would be with him every step of the way.

The seventy-two commissioned by Christ in today’s Gospel were sent on the same kind of journey. They were told to rely on the hospitality of those along the way to survive. It was a frightening then as it is now, but there is part of me that thinks that it might be a bit liberating as well. After all, consider all of the ‘stuff’ that we surround ourselves with in today’s world. Do we really need it? If we believe that God will provide, shouldn’t we be able to set it all aside?

Isn’t it true that the stuff can get in the way in so many ways? Whether it is acquiring it, safeguarding it, or using it, material possessions can distract us from what is important in life. Young Joe discovered that as he went on his journey. By having nothing, he made himself vulnerable. But he also opened his life up to the charity of others. He was able to allow others to give of themselves in order to help him. And give they did. They provided him with meals, money, food, companionship, and prayers.

When Jesus sent the seventy-two out to spread the good news of his message, he understood that it was not simply enough to teach with words. By making sure that his messengers would require the support of the communities they visited, he set up a situation where those who received the news would have an immediate opportunity to put that lesson into action!

Those who were sent were not the apostles. They were part of the larger community of followers, and the way of life that he was teaching obviously made an impact on how they lived their lives. They became the leaven in the communities they visited.

We are called to do the same. Whether as a messenger of the gospel with nothing but the clothes on our backs, or as part of a community that receives and provides for such a messenger, today’s Gospel calls us to act. We are called to act charitably, but also to receive the charity of others.

In the end, Joe made it to his destination. His pilgrimage gave him the time and space to decide what God was calling him to do with his life. Although he had nothing, those along the way gave him what he needed. The message was clear: God will always provide what we need.

Joe did not decide to enter the seminary. However, the title of this program was a misnomer. It presupposes that the only way to love and serve God is as a member of the ordained clergy. We all know that that is far from true. Although several of the young men did not enter the priesthood, all four are still actively living out their baptismal call to serve. For example, Joe accepted a position as a lay campus minister, using his gifts and talents to help other young men and women discern God’s call in their lives. He is at peace with his decision, and can see that every step of the way, God continues to be with him.

We do not all have to take the dramatic steps that Joe took. However, Jesus is calling us to step out of our comfort zone in order to spread the Good News of the Gospel. Try a little experiment this week. Find an opportunity to go out on a limb without any support to do something kind for another person. It does not have to be costly, or dangerous for that matter. But it should be something that makes you a bit nervous or uncomfortable in some way.

I bet you will find that your fears will disappear before you know it. I bet that is what those disciples discovered. Sure, at first they were scared about traveling with no means of support. They could very well die! But after the first couple of villages, I am sure they discovered that God was with them. They were able to see His face in every man, woman and child who helped them along the way.

It makes you wonder, who was Jesus trying to teach with that mission: the folks in the villages, or those he sent?

Sunday, July 1, 2007

Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time - Cycle C


I began my professional career as a staff accountant with a large CPA firm in New York City. While they recruited me, I was wined and dined in the finest restaurants. I was told about all of the prestigious clients in the firm portfolio. I met partners and other senior leadership. The message was clear, “If you work hard enough, all this can be yours.”

And work hard I did. Interestingly enough, one does not see much of the late nights, weekends and other sacrifices during the recruitment period. “You know you are in public accounting when you eat lunch in the finest restaurant in town and dinner out of a vending machine.” Been there, done that. Every day I caught a 5:20 a.m. train into Manhattan, and then took the subway across town in order to be at my desk by 7:00 a.m. Twelve to thirteen hours later, I would reverse direction and head back home. After a quick bite to eat and an occasion phone chat with my fiancĂ©e, Katie, it was off to bed to repeat the cycle.

Katie lived about 400 miles away in Appomattox, Virginia. Fortunately, we each had a lot of friends in the DC area, so we used to meet there for weekends about once a month. If anyone has tried to sustain a long distance relationship, you will appreciate the challenges we faced. Having a job where I did not know whether I would have to work Saturday until Friday afternoon did not help matters!

But, we stuck it out. We had it all planned out. Once we got married, she would move up to New Jersey. We would find an apartment, she would (hopefully) get a teaching job, and we would start a family together. Sure, it would be tough for a while, but I was on the ‘fast track.’ Once I made partner, we would have it made.

Or would we?

You see, as I looked down the conference room table on a lot of those late nights, the partner was right there with us! I cannot tell you how many times I overheard phone conversations that were peppered with apologies for missed recitals, swim meets and little league games. Sure, I might drive a Lexus and live in a mansion, but at what price?

It all became crystal clear for me the week before Valentine’s Day. Katie and I were planning to meet in DC. However, my manager told me that there was a good chance we would have to work that weekend. We would not know until Friday afternoon. Suffice it to say, Katie was not happy, and neither was I!

I had a lot of time to think on the train ride to and from the City every day. Is this any way to start a marriage? If Katie moves up here, she will not know anyone. My entire social life centered on the office. There was a good chance she would not find a teaching job. Regardless she would be left alone in a shoebox of an apartment, while I worked sixty to eighty hour weeks. And so, I came to a very real conclusion. If I was to commit to my marriage, I would have to leave this career, this lifestyle, behind.

Today’s scripture readings talk to us about making some pretty drastic changes. It may be tough for us to reconcile today’s Gospel message with our understanding of God’s love for the Family. How can Jesus, the mercy and compassion of God personified, talk of abandoning one’s family so abruptly?

The message of both reading is not so much that we need to run away from our parents and families. Rather, I believe the lesson is that quite often, we are faced with opportunities that cannot coexist with our current life. We must make a choice to turn away from our current life to pursue the new opportunity. If we do not turn away, if we try to incorporate the new into the old, quite often it just doesn’t work.

Now, not all of these choices are as drastic as choosing between a career and a marriage, or the life of a prophet and the life of a farmer. No. Most are far more subtle. But the more dramatic ones give us pause, and help to put the smaller ones into perspective. I would argue that the smaller choices are the harder ones. Quite often, the big opportunities almost presuppose that we will need to turn away from our old life. Who would think to accept a job in Los Angeles while still living in New York? In those kinds of cases, we know that we must make drastic changes to our lives in order to accommodate the new direction we are heading.

But as Children of God, we are called to lives our lives in a manner to draws us ever closer to Him. Paul tells us today to “live by the Spirit”. To do so, we must die to the flesh. We have moved out of the Easter Season and are well into Ordinary Time. But this time should be far from ordinary! Every day we are called to live out the promises, the commitment that was made at our baptism. We are commissioned to “love our neighbor as ourselves” Are you still willing to accept that challenge?

If so, from what do you need to turn away? Are there people, practices, things that might hold you back in accomplishing that mission? If so, today’s scripture tells you to drop them. And fast! I think the drastic nature of the departure is an acknowledgement that sometimes “cold turkey” is the only way to quite. Otherwise, those negative influences continue to hold us back.

Living a perfectly Christian life is a contradiction. When measured against the standards that we would use, it is actually impossible to do. We are imperfect beings. Story after story in scripture proves that. Throughout the Old and New Testament we find individuals who earnestly search for God and strive to enter into communion with him. None of them do so perfectly. They all have their flaws. As do we. However, they all seek Him earnestly and fervently. That, my friends, is the standard by which God measures us. We must turn away from the standards of this world, and seek to meet those of the next.

My move to Virginia was by no means a safe one. There were plenty of people who thought I was throwing my career away. Perhaps I did. You know what? I didn’t care then, and I don’t care now. I threw it away for all the right reasons. Even before I truly understood marriage, I understood that the commitment I was making would require my entire being. I had to give up the career for the girl. As you sit here today, reflect on your own lives. What do you need to give up in order to grow closer to the loving embrace of God?