September 28, 2018
The passage that follows is a part of the Gospel reading for Sunday, the Twenty-Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time. It is the same reading I preached on back in 2014. That homily is below:
If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter into life maimed than with two hands to go into Gehenna, into the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to sin, cut if off. It is better for you to enter into life crippled than with two feet to be thrown into Gehenna. And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. Better for you to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into Gehenna, (Mark 9:47-48)
The Gospels are full of warnings to be aware, vigilant, awake and alert, prepared, and watchful. We have another example in Matthew’s Gospel today. We are told that we need to be aware of what is taking our focus off of God, off of what is important, and eliminate it.
Those who lived during the several generations following the death of Jesus knew what it meant to be vigilant. They thought that the “second coming” would soon be upon them and they wanted to be ready. They believed, so they were watchful and alert and vigilant.
To many of us living today, people who practice that type of vigilance would be considered paranoid. Society’s lack of faith has made us less vigilant. And because we are not vigilant, because we are not alert and prepared, we leave the door open to temptation and sin.
If we truly believed what we say in the Creed, that “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,” wouldn’t we be better prepared? Wouldn’t we be doing the right thing all the time, just in case today was the day? What state would Christ find us in if His return in glory happened to be today? How prepared are we to be judged?
I began reflecting on how much time we spend preparing for unimportant things. Our favorite musical group is coming to town for a concert. We buy tickets six months in advance. We call friends, plan, and make arrangements. When the event is a week away, we touch base with everyone to confirm plans. The day of the event comes. We only work half day so we can get home, change our clothes and go out to dinner with enough time to get in line and be in our seats when the concert starts. We show incredible vigilance in our pursuit of musical entertainment.
What planning and preparation have we done to welcome Jesus into our lives? What is distracting us?
Every Spring, young men plan elaborate ways to ask young ladies to go to the Prom with them. They parachute into backyards or spell out the word Prom in rose petals or hide in lockers wearing gorilla suits. They spend (or their parents spend) hundreds of dollars on tux rental and Prom dresses. Young ladies spend hours fixing their hair and putting on their make-up. The couple has their picture taken before climbing into limousines. They spend Saturday night dancing and looking good. They show incredible vigilance in their pursuit of the perfect date. We spend a great deal of time planning and preparing and fussing over things of this world.
My point is not that we should not go to concerts or Proms, but that we should show at least the same degree of care in preparing for the coming of Jesus Christ. Even Advent itself has been relegated to a number of shopping days till Christmas.
I had an opportunity to go to Haiti two years ago. It was just over a year after the major earthquake that devastated what was already a third world country. We landed in Port-au-Prince and drove through the city. Thousands upon thousands of Haitians still lived in rubble. Tent cities with 1 or 2 port-o-lets per hundred people.
The destruction, and the smell, and the poverty, and the absolute desolation was like nothing I had, or have, ever experienced.
We drove the winding dirt road up into the mountains to the Catholic Church we would be serving. We stayed in a square concrete block structure with a sheet of metal serving as the roof. We slept in sleeping bags on the floor. This was the church rectory.
Each day we would go out and visit with one of the nine satellite chapels up in the mountains. We brought medicine, rosaries, and human contact to the Haitians living in the areas surrounding each chapel.
One day, Fr. Calique was able to go with us. He was the one priest who served the main Church and all nine chapels. That day we were going to Our Lady of Mount Carmel chapel, the most remote chapel, way up into the mountains.
It was not possible to drive there as the path was too narrow and dangerous. So this must be the day they warned me about. I had been told that on one of the days we would be taking a hike that might be “a bit of a challenge.” I learned that it was three hours away on foot, and I swear it was uphill both ways. It was the most physically demanding thing I have ever done. I was humbled at one point when I needed to sit down on a rock at the side of the mountainous path to catch my breath. While gasping for air, an elderly Haitian man with a cane walked past me and smiled and waved.
When we arrived at the chapel, Fr. Calique asked someone to start ringing the chapel bell. We were told that the bell was the signal to the people in the area that Mass would begin in two hours. It was not possible for a priest to have a regular Mass schedule, so they used the bell to let folks know a priest was present and Mass would be celebrated in the chapel. Why ring the bell two hours ahead of time? Because some would need to travel on foot nearly two hours to get there in time.
The chapel itself had been crippled by the earthquake. One wall was completely gone. Parts of the other three walls were missing and large cracks were everywhere. The building looked like it could collapse any minute. Boards supported by concrete blocks served as pews.
But in the sweltering heat on this Tuesday afternoon at 1:00, the chapel was standing room only. Men in buttoned up shirts and hats, women and girls in their nicest dresses. Big smiles on every face. And they sang and they prayed with true joy in their hearts.
We sat in back and watched when the collection basket was passed. I saw work-worn fingers pull small coins from tattered change purses. I had tears in my eyes when the basket arrived at our seats and I saw what amounted to around 75 cents laying in the basket.
When the chapel bell rang, these people dropped whatever they were doing and answered the call. They were not distracted by other things. Nothing was more important than time with God.
What is distracting us from God? Whatever it is, “cut it off and throw it away.”