Homily for the 22nd Sunday in ordinary time
I remember attending a party a few years ago with some friends working with me in the mediation department at the Financial Services Commission. I had taken a leave from the priesthood and worked in Toronto. My colleagues in the department knew that I was a priest, so at this party, one of my colleagues asked me about her daughter's upcoming wedding - she was asking about the requirement to do the marriage preparation course. Before I could answer, someone beside me said, "Oh, those Catholics..." But then I asked her if doing a marriage preparation course might be a good idea, and she admitted that, statistically, marriages do better with a marriage preparation course. And a lively discussion ensued; I think everyone was listening, too.
"You seem to know quite a bit about this; what kind of work do you do?"
Imagine her surprise... "I'm a catholic priest. What kind of work do you do?"
"I'm a divorce lawyer." :0
Key question: What does it mean to follow Jesus today? What does it mean to take up your cross and follow him? Here are a few reflections on what it doesn't mean:
It doesn't mean giving up your happiness. "I came that you may have joy and that your joy may be complete." Just think of how happy the disciples of Jesus must have been when they were with him in Galilee.
It doesn't mean believing in shallow superstition. Superstition is the belief in magic, the false hope that some visible object from the world can influence causality when it can't.
It doesn't mean blindly following an institution because of guilt or power.
On this last point, let me share a quotation from a popular blogger named Steve Pavlina, who also happens to be an atheist. He wrote a blog a few years back about how to "Graduate from Christianity." It refers to a few mistaken notions about what it means to be a follower of Christ:
Within the belief system of Christianity, many controls are set up to discourage you from leaving. [the opposite is true! We're doign everyone we can to discourage people from attending!] Rewards and threats are employed liberally. Stick with it and you’ll gain eternal life. Abandon it and you’re doomed to hell. Once enough people are integrated into such a system, the social conditioning becomes self-reinforcing. Members help to keep each other in line. Recognize that you’re dealing with a control structure. When you see enforcement based on the promise of rewards and punishments, you’re not witnessing real truth. You’re witnessing marketing masquerading as truth.
So... to those who know me, in your experience within catholicism in the past year, with me as your pastor, have deacon Gunther or I or our leadership team or anyone else here for that matter, ever tried to use the threat of punishment to encourage you to stay or stop anyone from leaving? Are you kidding? Not here, but sometimes I think the Catholic church is doing everything it can to keep you from coming in! Or have we ever tried to manipulate you into following Jesus based on an appeal to power, guilt, or consequences of sin?
But maybe this has been your experience in the past. Maybe you are here because of guilt or fear of punishment. But then, isn't it time to let that fear go? Or perhaps you have been hurt by someone in the church. If you can't let the fear go or the anger you feel because you've been hurt, I'm still glad you're here, and I hope we can journey together toward healing. Or maybe not. Honestly, you are welcome here, no matter what. No, I want to invite you to a deeper relationship with Jesus Christ, who can set you free.
What does following Jesus mean? Or, more specifically, what does it mean to take up your cross with him?
It means to believe in something wonderful, something positive, something beautiful. It means to believe in God as lord of your life and to accept the validation that comes from a God who knows you personally and loves you no matter what.
It means to accept that validation no matter what other people think. It is to refuse to let other people drag you down because they don't share that same joy. It means to live your life according to that validation.
Sometimes, this means to change your life. Christians describe this as accepting the healing grace of God's forgiveness, even when it feels uncomfortable.
It means to be good to others, to make good decisions and sometimes, when called to, to fight for justice and the safety and well-being of others. There is no greater love than to lay down one's life for another.
These last points could change your life, and they could change the world. Like an app, I would ask you to try it for 30 days. Every morning for 30 days, say, with all sincerity (or use your own words), "Lord Jesus, I offer you my whole life. I love you always, and then use me as you will to make the world a better, kinder and safer place." And see what happens. As GK Chesterton once said, It's not that Christianity has been tried and found wanting; it's been found difficult and never tried.
I conclude with something very ironic. This same author, Steve Pavlina, tries to provide an alternative to Christianity that he calls "living consciously." It's ironic because this is exactly what our faith requires of us, too. So here's a quotation from this author who was deeply critical of Christianity. I believe he speaks the truth here:
The first step is to consciously acknowledge what you’ve been feeling. Don’t be afraid to face up to your inner truths. If you want to live consciously, you must learn to accept truth in whatever form it comes to you. Sometimes you’ll discover inner truths that challenge you tremendously.
Jesus asks us to do this when he invites us to take up his cross and follow him.