02 October 2016

Homily - 2 October 2016 - How could we have fallen so low?

The Twenty-seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

Dear brothers and sisters,

People with whom I have spoken in recent days and weeks about the current political situation in these United States of America all seem to say something similar to the cry of the Prophet Habakkuk: “How long, O Lord, must I cry for help and you do not listen” (Habakkuk 1:1)? Many ask how we came to arrive at this moment in our nation’s history. How could we have fallen so low, they ask.

Commentators, pundits, and retirees around their coffee tables all have offered many different, varied, and sometimes contradictory explanations, but most of these conveniently overlook the fundamental reason we see near ruin all about us (cf. Habakkuk 1:3). We have arrived at this moment in our shared history for the simple and tragic reason that we have not kept Saint Paul’s words to Saint Timothy. “So do not be ashamed of your testimony to our Lord, nor of me,” he wrote, “but bear your share of hardship for the gospel with the strength that comes from God” (II Timothy 1:8). As one simple test of this, you might ask yourself, “Am I willing to bear my share of the hardship for the gospel by joining in the Life Chain today, or am I ashamed to defend the dignity of the unborn child?”

We have focused our aspirations not on the Lord Jesus and on the spread of his saving Gospel but on ourselves these past ten, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty, or more years. As those joined to Christ in the waters of Baptism, our lives should be motivated by the love of God and of neighbor, always and everywhere, but too many of our lives are instead motivated by the love of self. We have heard the voice of the Lord and hardened our hearts to him. I daresay we have come to this moment in history for no other reason than the fact that we have sinned against God and against our neighbor by not living our faith in the public square, by not realizing that we are but “unprofitable servants” of Jesus; rather than doing “what we were obliged to do,” we have done our wills (Luke 17:10).

Here we do well to remember what Pope Francis reminded us of this past Thursday, namely, “the answer to the drama of evil lies in the mystery of Christ.”[1] Saint Paul, of course, knew this, which is why he urged Saint Timothy not to be ashamed of witnessing to Jesus Christ before the world. Indeed, his admonition to the young bishop focused on three things: power, love, and self-control. “When we look at the triad [of] ‘power, love, self-control’ as a whole, it is remarkable that the most important, love, occupies the center… The gift of the Spirit is one of power, but it is also the spirit of order, and it is both because it is the power of love.”[2]

When Saint Paul encouraged Saint Timothy to “stir into flame the gift of God that you have through the imposition of my hands,” he referred to the grace Timothy received when Paul ordained him a Bishop. In doing so, Paul acknowledged Timothy’s faith, but at the same time he expressed his concern that the difficulties Timothy would experience in the exercise of his ministry might make him hesitant to use the gift he received to its fullest extent. Is this not a common temptation for each of us?

In the waters of Baptism and in the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in Confirmation, each us has received a certain gift, a particular grace, for our work in giving witness to Jesus and in proclaiming his gospel. Despite this gift, however, we grow cautious – or even afraid – in exercising this gift in the public square, or even in our homes among our family and friends. We become ashamed of Jesus and worry what others will think of us. Saint Paul urged Saint Timothy not to have such thoughts, but to be instead a loyal servant of Christ and a bold herald of his salvation.

We sometimes grow quiet because we think our faith is not strong enough, not big enough, to speak up more courageously or that we are somehow incapable of giving a good witness to Jesus. But we heard in the Gospel today that “Jesus, when asked by his disciples to increase their faith, told them that the little faith they had, though it be as small as a mustard seed could move mountains, if they would just use it (Luke 17:6). It is not a question of Timothy’s acquiring something he does not already have, but rather of activating what he already has.”[3] So it is with us. It is not a question of our acquiring something we do not already have, but rather of activating what we already have.

The power to which Saint Paul refers is the sacred power Saint Timothy received in ordination that made him a minister of the Sacraments. This power is principally that of absolving sins and of confecting the Eucharist; it is a power that “proceeds from love, leads to love, and is tempered by love. Or better, it is the very power of love itself.”[4] Though we exercise it differently as members of the Body of Christ, each of us has received this power of love that poured forth from the side of the Crucified Savior. “The cross reminds us that there is no true love without suffering, there is no gift of life without pain.”[5] We have almost forgotten this truth today because we spend too much time looking at ourselves, taking selfies wherever we go, and not enough time looking at Christ Jesus.

If we truly considered ourselves as unprofitable servants of the Lord rather than our own masters, we would realize the power of suffering love and its ability to move hearts and transform the world. If we truly considered ourselves as unprofitable servants of the Lord rather than our own masters, the sufferings that would come with giving witness to Jesus in all times and places would not frighten us, but would instead move us to give an even greater testimony so as to share more closely in his cross. Centuries ago, Saint Basil the Great urged us forward, saying, “Therefore, the more have been your trials, look for a more perfect reward from your last judge. Do not take your present trials ill. Do not lose hope. Yet a little while longer and your helper will come to you.”[6]

We frequently hear the Lord’s promise to be with us always and to send the Holy Spirit to give us the words to speak, but we doubt his promise and question his trustworthiness; we think him too much like us and fail to strive to become more like him (cf. Matthew 28:20; Matthew 10:19). This is unfortunate because we have nothing to fear in God; he is only to be loved and trusted with all our hearts.

God is all-powerful, and, since he is all-powerful, he cannot die, he cannot be deceived, he cannot lie, and, as the apostle says, 'he cannot disown himself' (II Timothy 2:13). Very much he cannot do, yet he is all-powerful. It is because he cannot do these things that he is all-powerful. If he could die, if he could deceived, if he could deceive, if it were possible for to do an injustice, he would not be omnipotent. If it were in him to do any of this, such acts would not be worthy of the Almighty. Absolutely omnipotent, our Father cannot sin.[7]

There is nothing false in our Master, only – sadly – in his servants who too often seek to profit themselves instead of serving him in love. This is the self-control to which Saint Paul referred.

If each of us stirs into flame the gift of love we received at Baptism and Confirmation, if each of us uses this power for self-control and lives as unprofitable servants, then will the Lord hear our cries for help and begin to turn back the ruin that seems to be falling upon us in these days. If we turn from our ways of self-absorption and seek to be absorbed into the love of Christ, then will our hardened hearts be softened and we will know the joy and peace that comes from serving God.

In these troubling days, each of us should remember these words of the great Saint Ambrose:

Know that you are a servant overwhelmed by very much obedience. You must not set yourself first, because you are called a son of God. Grace must be acknowledged, but nature not over-looked. Do not boast of yourself if you have served well, as you should have done. The sun obeys, the moon complies, and the angels serve… Let us not require praise from ourselves nor prevent the judgment of God and anticipate the sentence of the Judge but reserve it for its own time and Judge.[8]

Let us, then, not be ashamed of our testimony to our Lord, but let us bear our share of hardships for the gospel, confident that the answer to the drama of evil lies in the mystery of the cross of Christ, in the mystery of suffering love. Amen.

[1] Pope Francis, Address to thePontifical Council Cor Unum, 29 September 2016.
[2] George T. Montague, Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture: First and Second Timothy, Titus (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2008), 144-145.
[3] Ibid., 141.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Pope Benedict XVI, GeneralAudience Address, 17 September 2008.
[6] Saint Basil the Great, Letter 238. In Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, Old Testament Vol. XIV: The Twelve Prophets. Alberto Ferreiro, ed. (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter Varsity Press, 2003), 191.
[7] Saint Augustine of Hippo, On the Creed, 1.2. In Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, New Testament Vol. IX: Colossians, 1-2 Thessalonians, 1-2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon. Peter Gorday, ed. (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter Varsity Press, 2000), 247.
[8] Saint Ambrose of Milan, Exposition of the Gospel of Luke, 8.31-32. In Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, New Testament Vol. III: Luke. Arthur A. Just, Jr., ed. (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter Varsity Press, 2003), 267.

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