September 23-24, 2000, Twenty-fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time. Cycle B
How many people here are really humble? It almost seems like a trick question, doesnt it? If you really were humble you wouldnt raise your hand because then you would be bragging which most people think is the opposite of being humble. But humility is not about always keeping quiet, or just focusing on your weaknesses or faults. It comes from the same Latin root that gives us humus, earth, and it means to be grounded in the truth. It means recognizing your gifts and strengths as well as the faults and weaknesses. I am sure you all saw wonderful, exciting humility in the interviews with some of the Olympic athletes, like Marion Jones and Ian Thorpe. So many of these young men and women resisted the medias attempt to get them to say something negative about their competition or to brag about their skills but all that I saw quietly acknowledged their gifts and were able to ground them in the reality of their teammates, their competition, their opportunities, their families and home towns.
In the second reading, James, in his usual blunt manner, lays out the negative effects of not being grounded in the truth. No matter how much we gain by stepping on others, or no matter how powerful we are at the expense of others, we cannot find true peace or joy or fulfillment. The little narrative in the reading from wisdom says pretty much the same thing. And one of the things that Marks gospel is known for is highlighting how easy it is to misunderstand who Jesus is, and what he calls his disciples to, unless we follow him all the way to the Cross. Without understanding the Cross, the miracles, the teachings, the compassion are all subject to dangerous misunderstanding. In these few weeks, we hear Mark use a number of characters and settings to highlight this. Last week it was Peter refusing to face the reality of Jesus suffering and death. Today it is the bickering about who is greatest, next week jealousy over someone outside their circle casting out demons, and in a few weeks, John and James, the sons of Zebedee will take Jesus aside to ask for places of honor in his coming kingdom.
What about us? We are trying to work our way out of centuries of the neglect by the Roman Church of who Jesus really is and what we are about as Church. For a lot of historical and political reasons, the Church turned in on itself for a long time, descending into disciples bickering about who gets what favored position; who is the greatest. Whether that is expressed in a focus on who gets to heaven when they die, to a focus on class distinctions within the Church hierarchy, it yields the distasteful fruits James warns us about in that second reading. At Vatican Council II, the Church rediscovered itself as the People of God rather than as a rigid hierarchy of ranks. But we have only begun to unpack that.
What is the mission of the Church? I think most people would say it is to help people get to heaven when they die. Thats like saying a companys mission is to help people retire comfortably. How is that continuing Jesus mission? He was not concerned about getting to heaven when he died. He knew the Father loved him and would never separate himself from Jesus. Jesus mission was to spread the good news that the Father loves all of us that way; that the kingdom of God, with its attendant peace and joy and health, was at hand. It was not something off somewhere or sometime, but here and now. To bring it about more fully, Gods plan is to draw all creation to Himself in Jesus through the Spirit.
If that is Gods plan, starting with Jesus and continuing with the Church, then what is the most important group in the Church? The Pope and bishops? Priests? Religious? Deacons? No, it is the baptized (which includes all those others). By our baptism we are initiated into this community, this family, that strives to be one so that others outside the Church will see a glimpse of the kingdom, will see how wonderful it is to know a God who loves so passionately, who forgives so prodigally. The Pope and other clergy and religious, and ministers such as lectors, eucharistic ministers, religious ed teachers are all support roles for the people of God. Their sole purpose is to build up and strengthen the baptized so they can be instruments in Gods plan.
If we are truly humble we see what gifts we have been given, what a gift we are, parts of which are strengths and parts of which are weaknesses, and we see the reality in which this gift exists: Gods plan to use these gifts we have, this gift we are, to bring the kingdom into fuller reality on earth, as it already is in heaven.
That is why we are about to approach the table of this Eucharist. Not primarily for a private moment with Jesus, not primarily to be fed for our benefit, but primarily to be formed into one, so that this oneness will cut through the darkness around us like a beacon on a dark night, drawing those we meet during the week out of the darkness into the marvelous light of this kingdom.
If we dont stay grounded in that reality, we start getting distracted by all sorts of petty bickering about who wears what, who gets to do what, who gets to stand where. Our focus has to be looking out, out to the world, to the anawim represented by the child in our Gospel story, the marginalized, the hurting, the invisible. By our baptism we are called to empty ourselves, to die to ourselves with Jesus in those waters so that we can be one, aware of Gods love and our dependence on that love as a child is aware of his or her parents love and care. By our baptism, and continued initiation in the Eucharist, we are called to be truly humble, for the sake of the whole world.