Sunday, December 7, 2008

Homily for the 2nd Sunday of Advent

Every time a semester ends, every time I celebrate mass and greet people as they leave—I always find myself asking: “Did I make a difference?” “Did my teaching make a difference in the lives of my students?” “Did my preaching make a difference in the lives of those with whom I celebrated mass?”

It’s often hard to tell. Last Friday I was telling Dan that I had completed my 30th semester of teaching, turns out it was only the 29th. But over the weekend, as I did my readings, my prayer, my journal, I decided to go over my old school and student records that are, by the way, still saved in one of my files. I’ve discovered that I’ve taught approximately 122 classes, taught 3400 students, taught at seven seminaries, nine universities, and have celebrated at least 2500 to 2800 masses. That’s a lot of words!

Do my words make a difference? Do I even make a difference? A few years ago I had a student who had shown much promise in school. He was bright, hardworking, was a normal, well-balanced kid. He left in the middle of his college studies, and while he kept in touch for a while, after some time, I no longer heard from him. A couple years later, I learned from one of his friends that he had gotten involved in a gang, did drugs, killed someone, and was now in jail. I didn’t know the details of what had actually happened to him, but to this day, whenever I think of that former student, I couldn’t help but wonder: “Did I make a difference in that kid’s life?”

It’s one of those questions priests, doctors, teachers, counselors, and many others in the helping professions find themselves asking every once in a while. “Did I make a difference?” And I’m sure you have found yourselves asking that question as well. Whether its to your family, your friends, your classmates, or the people you meet or serve in the many things you’re asked to do as seminarians.

When I was newly-ordained and was particularly concerned whether I was being effective in what I was doing, I remember talking to this old Belgian missionary who had been in the missions for more than fifty years. “You plant the seeds”, he said.
“God does the watering. He does the nurturing. He does the harvesting as well. All you can do is plant the seeds”.

John the Baptist is one of the most important characters in the NT, after Jesus. The text we read today, the beginning of the gospel of Mark--scripture scholars tell us--is the actual beginning of each of the four gospels, that is, before the infancy stories were added to Matthew and Luke, and before the prologue was added to the gospel of John. In fact, check it out, Matthew and Luke 1 and 2 contain the "infancy stories", while the next chapter, Matthew 3 and Luke 3 have the same story as the gospel we just read. And in John, after the prologue from John 1:1-18, verse 19 begins with the same story about John the Baptist, we just read. John's preaching "opens" each of the four gospels.

John is such a prominent figure in Scripture. And yet, over and over again, John says he is no more than the messenger. He isn’t "worthy to untie the straps" of Jesus' sandals. He must "decrease" while Jesus must
"increase".

We are, in truth: seminarians, future priests, priests, every Christian, like John. We are but messengers. Our task is to plant the seeds, and leave the rest to God: the watering, the nurturing, the harvesting. We are, like John, but messengers. Christ is the message. We are pointers. Jesus is the point. We are road signs, Jesus is the way as well as the destination.

To realize this does two things to us: First it teaches us humility. It’s God’s work that we do. Not ours. It’s God’s people we minister to, not ours. It’s God’s church, not ours. Like Moses we hear God speaking to us: “Take off your sandals. The ground you walk on is holy ground”. Jesus saved the world two thousand years ago. We aren’t asked to save it again. A poet once said that all we do is “write one verse in the everlasting poem written by God himself”.

Second though, it teaches us confidence and trust in God whose work we do. We don’t have to keep worrying how our words, our preaching, our teaching, our homilies, are ultimately received by people. We simply plant the seeds. God does the watering, nurturing, and harvesting. And so there is nothing for us to worry about. For as the protestant theologian Dietrich Bonhoffer, who was murdered by the Nazis, once said: “Our work is in good hands”. In God’s own time, he will bring to fruition the work he had us do. Or as Blessed John XXIII was said to pray when confronted by big problems in the church:
“It’s your Church O Lord. I’m going to bed. Amen.”

Have I made a difference? Perhaps we can never fully tell. But with humility and trust in our hearts, we know that God has made that “difference”—hopefully through us.

"The Kingdom of Heaven is a condition of the heart." (Friedrich Nietzsche)