Sunday, January 24, 2010

Christ's Madmen (3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time C, Luke 4:14-21)

Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit,and news of him spread throughout the whole region.He taught in their synagogues and was praised by all. He came to Nazareth, where he had grown up,and went according to his custom into the synagogue on the sabbath day.He stood up to read and was handed a scroll of the prophet Isaiah.He unrolled the scroll and found the passage where it was written:The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor.He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captivesand recovery of sight to the blind,to let the oppressed go free,and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord. Rolling up the scroll, he handed it back to the attendant and sat down,and the eyes of all in the synagogue looked intently at him. He said to them, “Today this Scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing.”
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One of the most talked about sports news item this weekend was about a young and promising baseball player (Grant Desme, a minor league outfielder from Oakland) leaving the possibility of fame and fortune behind for the sake of what he called "a higher calling". He was entering the seminary.

The responses from the blogosphere was quite telling. For every one that praised the young man, there were five or more who called him a “moron” and a “retard” or even worse names for what most judged a crazy or absurd decision.

Most of the reasons for their surprise and dismay could perhaps be summed up by one of the most asked questions by bloggers and twitters yesterday: “How much do priests make anyway?”

For some reason, a lot of folks just couldn’t seem to comprehend how someone who had a lot of promise in terms of making a boatload of money and becoming famous, could just walk away from it all and pursue a calling that as one twitter said: “pays less than what a janitor makes”.

The world will never understand. The theologian Richard Niebuhr once said that while we Christians are called to love the world as God does, there will always be a necessary “againstness” between the world and ourselves—because while we are “in the world”, we are not “of the world”. To the world, much of the things that are important to us will appear absurd, irrational, even insane.

And that’s hardly surprising. In yesterday’s gospel, even Jesus’ relatives and friends who couldn’t believe what he had set out to do, simply declared that he had “gone out of his mind”. It was the same opinion expressed by many about that young baseball player. And I’m pretty sure some of you have heard something similar said about you, even by your friends.

And that is why as Dietrich Bonhoffer, another theologian who wrote the book “The Cost of Discipleship” says, one who chooses to turn to Christ and turn his back on the world will have to prepare himself for death. “When Christ bids you come”, Bonhoffer says, “he bids you come and die”.

For us priests and seminarians, of course, such words take on a deeper meaning. Just as that young baseball player’s sacrifice of money and fame will not be his last, so our sacrifice of entering the seminary and turning our back on the world isn’t a one-shot deal either.

Instead, it involves a daily, hourly, and minute-by-minute dying to ourselves. Without these “little deaths”, the great sacrifice of saying “no” to the world will mean precious little and might even become a cause of regret for us later on. Without dying to ourselves continuously day in and day out, that initial step we took of entering the seminary eventually loses its power and meaning.

In today’s gospel reading, Jesus begins his ministry by reading from the book of Isaiah and declaring with all earnestness, his intention to fulfill the mission God gave him. “Today, this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing”, he declares to everyone present. And they are all amazed at this young man standing before them.
But the story doesn’t end there—a few verses later and we learn that such amazement and wonder at him is extremely short lived. Chapter four of Luke’s gospel ends with these very same people trying to throw Jesus off a cliff.

This was but one of the “little deaths” Jesus experienced. There will be many throughout his life and ministry. The same is true for us. The only way our decision to turn our back on the world—to “die” to it, the only way our decision to follow Jesus by entering the seminary can be truly meaningful and fruitful—is if we learn, day by day, hour by hour, minute by minute, to die to ourselves and choose not the way of the world—the way of ease and comfort, but the way of Christ.

And if this choice of ours is judged by the world to be “insanity”, then so be it. Perhaps we’re called to be “madmen” for Christ.

It’s an edifying thought—but what could it possibly mean for us concretely and practically?

When I was a young seminarian like yourselves, I got this very useful advice from my spiritual director. “You want to learn to die to yourself?” he once asked me. “Think of that one thing you dislike the most in seminary, that one thing you often avoid doing at all cost. Then do it with all your heart”. Believe it or not, for me, it was studying.

Which is it for you?

“If anyone wishes to be my disciple, he must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.”

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