Sunday, September 13, 2015

24th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Isaiah 50:5-9a; James 2:14-18; Mark 8:27-35

Presumably as part of the media run up
to Pope Francis’s visit to the United States next week,
the Pew Research Center, earlier this month,
released a report on their latest survey of Catholics in the U.S.
and the feelings they have
about various moral teachings of the Church.
In some ways, the findings were no surprise,
simply repeating what earlier surveys had found:
many Catholics in the U.S. disagree with Church teachings
regarding contraception, homosexuality, and premarital sex.

What was new
was that the survey also asked questions
related to matters on which Pope Francis
has placed particular emphasis,
specifically concern for the poor
and the environment.
As it turns out,
while 98% of American Catholics
said that working to help the poor and needy
is either essential or important
to what it meant to be Catholic
(beating out the resurrection of Jesus
by three percentage points),
only 52% said that it is a sin
to spend money on luxuries
without giving to the poor
and a mere 12% thought it is a sin
to live in a house
that is much larger than their family needs.
It might also be worth noting that
as people’s incomes go up,
they are increasingly less likely
to think that these things are sins.

Perhaps this is simply an example
of the discomfort we feel
with calling something a sin.
Many of us may feel
that the language of “sin” is harsh
and should be reserved for big things
like murder,
which is pretty handy,
since most of us don’t commit murder.

Still, while almost all of us Catholics
think it is important to help the poor and needy,
with 62% saying it is essential,
when it comes down to specifics
concerning what this means,
when it comes down to thinking
about our own way of life
and patterns of consumption,
we begin to sound like the people
of whom James speaks in our second reading,
who say to the poor,
“Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well, ”
but are unwilling to sacrifice anything
to give them food or shelter.
In other words,
helping the poor is great,
so long as it doesn’t hurt,
so long as it does not get brought down
to the personal level.
What name do you give to failure to do
something essential to the Christian faith
if not “sin”?

In today’s Gospel,
Jesus conducts his own sort of survey,
asking his disciples,
“Who do people say that I am?”
He manages to record a range of responses—
John the Baptist, Elijah, one of the prophets—
though he lacks the tools
of modern social scientific research
needed to give us actual percentages on these.

He then makes it personal:
“Who do you say that I am?”
And Peter replies on behalf of the disciples:
“You are the Christ.”
This is a perfectly correct answer to his question,
in exactly the same way that “helping the poor and needy”
is a perfectly correct answer to the question
concerning the essentials of Catholicism.
Yet Jesus does not rest content
with Peter’s perfectly correct answer,
telling him and the other disciples
that what it means for him to be the Christ
is to be rejected by the elders,
the chief priests,
and the scribes,
and be killed,
and rise after three days.
And when Peter protests,
Jesus makes it even more personal:
“Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself,
take up his cross, and follow me.”
It is not enough
to give the correct answer with our lips;
that answer must be lived out in our lives,
in our concrete choices.

To say truthfully that Jesus is the Christ
it is not enough to have the right words,
but we must also embody that truth in our lives.
As the letter to James tells us,
“faith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead.”
Or we might say that a true faith in Jesus
is one that is enlivened by the love
for God and neighbor
that impels us into action;
otherwise, our faith is simply fantasy.
As Dosoyevsky wrote,
“love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing
compared with love in dreams.”
Love in action, Jesus tells us,
is the cross;
love in action calls us
to give ourselves over completely;
love in action requires
a sacrifice of ourselves that is so radical
that forgoing luxuries
or living in a smaller house
is pretty small potatoes by comparison.

But who can do this?
Am I ready to respond to Christ's call
to give up everything for him?
Speaking only for myself,
I’ve got to say, “probably not.”

But perhaps my response
to the call of this great love
can begin with something as small
as looking at what I consume
and asking how this affects the poor
and the earth, our common home.
If we are unwilling even to scrutinize
our way of life
and patterns of consumption,
who can possibly make the sacrifice
of denying ourselves
and taking up our cross and following Jesus?

But with love all is possible:
not simply our feeble love
that leads us to feel
that we should help the poor,
that makes us want to follow Jesus,
if only it doesn’t demand too much,
but the great love of Jesus
that calls to us from his cross,
calls us to follow him
through concrete acts of love
that demand our all,
calls us with the promise
that those who lose their lives
for his sake
will find their lives again
in the great mystery of God.