Sunday, February 27, 2011

An adventure, a homily and some flowers

One of the men wanted to take advantage of the spectacular weather yesterday evening to go out for something to eat.  Because of track work the train was not running from the Pymble station, a fact we did not know until we got there.  However, there was a shuttle bus running to the train station in Gordon, the next town.  So we took it. 

We found a very good Japanese restaurant with reasonable prices and large portions.  We decided to walk home, a journey that should (emphasis on should) have taken about 30 minutes had we stayed on the Pacific Highway.  However, Michael wanted to walk a road with less traffic.  So we made a right and then a left with him working on the assumption that the road would parallel the Pacific Highway and me working on the assumption that he knew what he was doing.  We were both wrong.  One hour and forty minutes later we approached Canisius College from a mile to the west when if fact we should have approached from the east.  As best I can figure we made one enormous circle.  A circle marked by hills.  Lots of them.  Steep hills.  Oh, and we had to ask directions thrice.  The shame.  The anguish.   Asking for directions?  I guess Korean guys don't mind but this American male was not about to ask directions.  I think there is a law against it.  Nonetheless, we got back more or less in one piece and speaking to each other.  However,  I learned two things:  There is a very good Japanese restaurant in Gordon.  The second is, stick to familiar routes.  

After the public Mass in the chapel we had tea so as to afford the tertians a chance to meet the congregation that regularly comes to the chapel for Sunday Mass.  I celebrated and preached.  Because the Gospel included the famous comparison of the lillies of the field with Solomon's raiment it seemed only appropriate to include a few photos of flowers at the end of the homily. 

8th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Public Mass Campion College)
27 February 2011

Is 49:14-15
Ps 62:2-3, 6-7, 8-9
1 Cor 4:1-5
Mt 6:24-34

“Get your priorities straight”
“Her priorities are all mixed up.”
“Just what ARE your priorities?”

Most likely, we’ve all been the target of such a statement—perhaps at school when cricket or football were so much more engrossing than maths and our grades reflected our fascination.

Or we’ve hurled such a critique.  Maybe it was at the neighbor who, despite complaining about her credit card debt, just bought a $700 pair of heels (on sale of course) or went on a cruise. 

Certainly one would level such a criticism at a young father who spends every weekend golfing and pub crawling with his mates while his wife is a de facto single mother, to three children under five. 

We all need the occasional reality check.  Sometimes we have to ask ourselves, “What ARE my priorities?”  We have to ask ourselves that before someone is screaming the same question at us.   What do we need from God?  What must we ask of God in prayer? 

In his letter Paul is expressing his indifference to others’ opinions of him and of his work.  He is confident in his role as a steward of God’s mysteries.  He is also aware that ultimately he will be judged at the appointed time.  Paul was never one to confuse his priorities.  He knew them and held them firmly.  He was unwilling to compromise in the face of criticism.  He did not waver at the threat of prison.  Or worse.  He was indifferent to all things, except one, the saving act of Jesus on the cross. 

There is nothing subtle about the gospel.  Some of the images are wonderfully poetic.  The comparison of Solomon’s raiment to that of a lily is particularly stunning.  But these images make an important point in support of what Jesus is teaching.

This particular passage occurs about two-thirds of the way through the long Sermon on the Mount.  It is taken from a section of the sermon that commentators have named, “Life in the eschatological community,” from a subsection that gives particular instruction on authentic righteousness.

There is an unfortunate edit in the version of the Gospel just proclaimed.  “You cannot serve God and wealth.”  The translation is accurate.  But it does not do justice to the more well known translation, “You cannot serve both God and mammon”—mammon written with a lower case, not upper case, m. 

Contrary to popular belief and art, mammon is not meant to be a personification of the devil, satan, or some independent little g god.  Mammon, however, means much more than simply wealth.  Mammon derives from ancient Chaldean with its root in the word for confidence, or trust. “What do you trust in?” “Where do you place your confidence?” That implies much more than simply money.  It requires little linguistic magic to rephrase the question as, “What are your priorities?” 

There is another translation problem in this Gospel.  The choices of love and hate do not indicate the familiar emotions. Rather, they indicate the biblical idiom for choose and not choose.   We can only give our undivided service or attention to one master.  We cannot split our affection, devotion, and service.  Once more the question is one of priorities.

Jesus’ advice, “do not be anxious” about what you eat or what you wear is not directed only to the wealthy.  The poor can idolize what they do not have.  The poor can serve mammon as enthusiastically as the most corrupt business executive or the most morally bankrupt movie star.  The poor are as capable as the very wealthy of having badly misplaced priorities, of becoming anxious about how they look, how they dress, what they have or don’t have.  They are simply working with a smaller budget.  What is the answer?

In this part of the Sermon on the Mount Jesus is advising his listeners to adopt the very Ignatian characteristic of indifference.  We read in part of the Principle and Foundation of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius the following: “Therefore we must make ourselves indifferent to all created things as far as we are allowed free choice . . . .we should not prefer health to sickness, riches to poverty, honor to dishonor, a long life to a short life.  The same holds for all other things.”  

Can we become indifferent to what we eat?  Can we maintain indifference toward  our bodies—particularly those signs of aging such as wrinkles, gray (or no) hair, age spots?  Can we be indifferent to the model of car we drive even though our neighbor has a brand new Mercedes? 

Shortly after entering the Jesuit novitiate, something that those of us in the current tertian class did at the minimum of 13 ½ years ago, each man learns a prayer attributed to St. Ignatius: The Suscipe.  Ideally it is part of his daily prayer and gives shape to how he lives, works and even how he spends his time for recreation. 

“Take Lord, and receive,
all my liberty, my memory,
my understanding, my entire will;
all I have and call my own.
You have given all to me, to You, Lord, I return it.
Everything is Yours, do with it what You will.
Give me only Your love and Your grace.
That is enough for me. 

The Suscipe in its turn, brings us back to the responsorial psalm.

“Only in God is my soul at rest;

from him comes my salvation.

He only is my rock and my salvation,
my stronghold;
I shall not be disturbed at all.  . .
Trust in him at all times, O my people!

Pour out your hearts before him.”

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