24th Sunday in Ordinary Time

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

Look upon us, oh God, creator and ruler of all things, and that we may feel the working of your mercy, grant that we may serve you with all our heart.  Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God forever and ever, amen.

The scriptures promise something very interesting. They promise that, if you enter into the stories, if you let them penetrate into your imagination, into your heart, you’ll find yourself on a journey, and the journey is one of discovery, self-discovery, discovering who God is. One of the great blessings of my priesthood, I feel, has been that it began after Vatican Council, and then I was invited into some very different ways of seeing things. One of the things that I was exposed to was the tradition of always turning to the Old Testament every Sunday and reading those stories of my ancestors, and what’s so clear in that beautiful Old Testament is the way in which God enters into humans’ lives at a moment when they are ready to receive him, to understand him, as we evolve from a lower form of life, and we began to be able to understand things and see things. What he was beginning was a revelation, first and foremost, that he would call these people into a relationship with him, and then he would slowly, slowly reveal to them who he is — who he is.

He began that revelation by being like any other god, because he wanted them, first and foremost, to know that he was a God, and there was something unique about him. He was different than the other gods, and rather than presenting that to them instantly at the beginning, he took time to show them that the image of God that they had could slowly be changed. God didn’t change during the Old Testament times, but he certainly revealed himself in stages. First, he was the only God. He said there was only one, and then he started to explain to them that the gods that they knew were not necessarily what they needed, and they needed a God to be more to them than the other gods. And what that more was that he would begin to reveal his weakness, some might call it, to giving into us and pursuing us and loving us and wanting a relationship with us and then wanting us to become all that he intended us to be. That was not the goal of the other gods.

So we have this God who is extraordinarily attractive, if you really pay attention to who he is and how he moves from a contract relationship to something that was more of a covenant relationship where he said, “No matter what you do, no matter who you are, I’m there for you. I love you. I want you to know me, know who I am and fall in love with me.” And then comes the New Testament and then the radical shift from an Old Testament, where we’re asked to know God as someone who exists outside of ourselves to now someone who lives inside of us. The Old Testament is a God who is. The New Testament is a God who is someone in me — in me. His incredible promise is he said, “I will come and enter into you.” Nothing is clearer in the ministry of Jesus than he is opening this extraordinary possibility that we could actually have God living inside of us just as he did, and if you know much about him — and you do — his presence was so potentially filled with a gift of healing. It’s impossible to think of Jesus’ ministry without understanding that particular part of him. He was amazing, and he keeps saying to you and to me, “When you allow God to dwell within you, there is this presence in you that can accomplish things that you could never dream of accomplishing.” Then you have this responsibility to live in the world as Jesus did and to learn from his life what it means to live in this world with God inside of you.

So if you go to the first reading, you’ll see very clearly that what this is talking about is that there is this God who is in our lives, and he’s in our lives for one major purpose. He’s there so that we can stand up against anything that tries to rob us of who we are or what we’re here for. Those who spit at us, those who make fun of us, those who laugh at us, those who try to change our mind away from truth into lies, all of that pressure on every human being that’s ever been born, God is there to help us, to help us, to help us. The gods of the Old Testament demanded that we perform a certain way, and sometimes we think our God now is demanding we perform a certain way. It’s not about performance. It’s about being who God created us to be, being ourselves. It sounds selfish in a sense, but it means being the person that God has created you to be as a member of a body, called the church, called Christ, and each and every one of us has a particular function, a particular role in this world that we live in. And it’s up to us to live that out, and there are voices, there are pressures, there are negative energies that say, “No, no, no. Don’t do that. Don’t do that. Don’t try to discover who you are, determine who you are. We’ll determine who you are.” That’s a better image. “We’ll tell you what you’re supposed to be, someone who serves the images that we give you, that you will then function in a way that we’ve created a world that isn’t really real, but you will be a part of something that looks and feels like it is real. But it’s never going to be satisfying.” That’s the seduction.

The promise of God’s help is, if we believe in him, we really believe in him, and he is in us — if you have that going, if you know that’s really what’s operating, if that’s your faith, that belief is going to show up in something. It’s going to show up in your works. How you see yourself, how you see God, how you see your role in the world is going to determine how you act. That’s the point in the letter of St. James. He’s saying it so clearly. “Don’t talk about faith being one thing and your works being something else. No, they’re connected.” In fact, it’s proven that, if you have a misconception, if you’re living in a lie, your works are not going to be — most likely not going to be as authentic, as real, as potent as God intends them to be, because you’re not believing in what is, most especially not who you are and who God is in you. That’s what faith is. Faith is so much more than a list of things you believe. It’s a way of seeing yourself and the world. It’s called spirituality.

It’s so interesting. After the Vatican Council, we saw ourselves changing and moving away from something that was very divisive, and that is only one religion had the truth, only Catholicism. We were taught only we have the way into heaven, and we are the chosen ones, in a sense, because we are following what God really wants us to be and to do. The Vatican Council said very clearly, “Wait a minute. No, if a person is seeking God, seeking the truth, seeking a relationship with him and they’re not a member of the Roman Catholic Church or the Eastern Orthodox Church, if they’re doing that, they are in a relationship with God. They are church.” So church has come to mean something much broader than it ever was when I was growing up as a Catholic. So everyone who seeks the truth, everyone who longs for the dignity that they have been created for — and we’re all brothers and sisters in this. We’re all working together, and so we have this core teaching that everyone who seeks the truth is engaged in — and it’s founded in this particular subject that the gospel is all about, the cross — the cross, the crucifixion. It all comes down to that.

What is the crucifixion? Well, first of all, it’s a great mystery, so I want to point to things that I believe it’s about so that can help us come to the personal understanding of what this is. First and foremost, it has something to do with it is essential. One must be crucified. One must go through this action that Jesus went through, and we can talk about that thing he went through on so many levels. Let’s take one level, almost the most obvious one, because no matter what Jesus had in his mind and his heart, as to how his life was to go, how he wanted it to go, as a human being — remember, he was 100 percent human. He had to have doubts and questions and wonder. He had to learn like other human beings learn. He didn’t just have everything in his head right away. He grew. He grew like we grow, a little at a time, and so when it came time for the way in which his life was going toward the end of it, whether he knew that ahead of time — it seems to me that the answer to that question is perhaps somewhat, but I don’t think he understood it as fully as he did when the time came for him to embrace it, which is the way we live in this world. And what began to be clear to him is that his role, as he was called to be the one who serves in the name of God to the people around him, he had to live that life as it was written, and what that simply meant is that it had to be what God intended it to be. It meant that he had to come up against the one thing that every human being struggles with, is what do I really believe, what do I trust in, what do I want. Do I want a life that I create? Do I want a life that I plan? Do I want a life that has only the things in it that I want? Do I want to narrow it down to something that’s comfortable, or do I want to open myself wide open, arms open, naked and embrace whatever is?

The cross has this beautiful image of a horizontal line and a vertical line. It’s like when divinity is the vertical line, it pours down into us, and in that image of the cross for me, what’s so powerful is the human being that’s being filled with this power coming down into him. He has his arms wide open and welcoming, not defensive, vulnerable, open, and he has something inside of him that he expressed so powerfully on the cross. It’s such a poignant thing for him to say when he’s being treated as badly and as poorly as he is and disrespected and spit upon and laughed at and flogged, stripped. What’s his only feeling about all this that’s happening to me? “I’ll do it. I give into it, and for all those who have been a part of the way this story unfolds, Father, please forgive them. They don’t know what they’re doing.” What is that?

In the second reading, James says that, if you have faith, one test is do you have compassion and empathy.If you have a brother who you’re telling him, “Have a good life.Enjoy yourself,” and yet you know he doesn’t have any clothes or doesn’t have any food and everything, you don’t feel anything about that, there’s no real faith there.So into this human being is infused this love, this incredible presence of God, this compassionate, loving creator who is revealed over 3,000 years in the Old Testament, a God who loves beyond our imagining.And so he’s asking that we become like that, and one of the things it requires, one of the things that’s absolutely essential is that we surrender to what is.We surrender to who we are.We surrender to the plan, and there’s something about Jesus in the gospel, especially of Mark, when he’s always on this journey moving toward, moving toward something.He’s moving toward Jerusalem, and that’s an incredibly beautiful image where we’re always moving towards something more, something deeper, something richer, something more authentic.As we get more and more engaged in that, we begin to feel more and more the energy, the life that God has called us to possess so that, when we are in the presence of our brothers and sisters, we resonate something that is very different than the way the world thinks.It embraces what is.It’s excited to discover who God is and who we are and how we work together and what life can come from that union.It brings about the deepest, most profound change in the way the world is.

Father, you’ve given all of us an incredible challenge to awaken ourselves to the beauty of who we are and who you are and how this life is intended to be lived.  Deepen our faith, our trust in this process, knowing that you’re there to help us, knowing that, when we find it, we’ll find an enormous amount of joy and peace in the midst of what we so often run from, the suffering, the surrendering, the changing that we have to go through.  Bless us, again, on this journey, and we ask this in Christ’s name, amen.

Madeleine Sis