Amazing how the Scriptures in these September Sundays speak bluntly into today’s massive refugee crisis, making all comfortable pews suddenly grow painful prickles — the prickles of God’s judgement on us for our inaction and complacency. Here below are a few thoughts on James 2:14–18 & Mark 8:27–35, the Scriptures for this coming Sunday September 13, 2015. I preached these words several years ago, and they are still as relevant today as they were then:
“Here we sit, week after week, singing, ‘Weave, weave, weave the sunshine out of the falling rain,’ or ‘Day by day, day by day, oh dear Lord, three things I pray.’ Each Sunday we walk out of here feeling soooo good, soooo holy, and you know what that adds up to? That adds up to nothing! Nothing, zero, nothing! There’s a poor lady rotting up on Seventh Avenue a couple blocks from our little comfort zone. ‘Oh, Jesus, sweet Jesus, meek and mild.’ Crap, total crap! We’re going to hug and kiss at the sign of peace, and who’s going to climb those stairs to hug and kiss that woman with shit running down her legs?!” (p. 83/84) In Due Season – A Catholic Life, by Paul Wilkes, Jossey-Bass, 2009)
Mark’s Gospel and James’ letter are known for their brevity and bluntness, much like this excerpt from a homily Paul Wilkes heard during a folk mass in the 1970’s in downtown Brooklyn, NY. In fact, those blunt sermon words capture well what we need to take home from the Scripture readings this day.
Faith without works is dead, says James. “Who do people say that I am?” asks Jesus his disciples in Mark’s Gospel. “Who do you say that I am? You … Who exactly am I to you?”” asks Jesus, looking right into each and every heart that professes him as Lord.
Peter, this impulsive, hot-headed first pope, is quick to answer: “You are the Christ.” Well done, Peter. But then, in the blink of an eye, that rock called Peter turned into a stumbling block in the service of Satan. How can the rock of Christ change into a major obstacle at such lightning speed?
Peter is impulsive; the Gospels all agree on that. He’s on fire for God quickly and will do anything for his Lord. With great sincerity and enthusiasm Peter declared that he will follow Jesus wherever he goes. But when Jesus alludes to the least bit of pain on the road ahead, Peter backs away, as if stung. He wants nothing to hurt his Lord, or himself. When Jesus talks of God’s reign, Peter hears earthly victory, political and painless triumph. A Messiah who speaks of suffering and being killed doesn’t compute in Peter’s mind. After Jesus is arrested, and it becomes risky to be associated with this carpenter, Peter covers his tracks and suits himself. He denies that he even knows this man, the very one whom he proclaimed as Messiah.
Two-faced? Yep, just like the rest of us.
Exactly who is this man Jesus anyways? The disciples wondered, the ordinary folk wondered, and the authorities wondered, with some feeling quite on edge: just who in the world is this?? We love Jesus when our prayers are answered. We love Jesus, meek and mild, as we experience his comfort and mercy in times of need. We love Jesus, sweet Jesus, because he gave his life for us – so we don’t have to lose ours. When Peter heard Jesus’ harsh words in Mark’s Gospel today – undergoing great suffering and be rejected – he simply couldn’t grasp that. Jesus the Christ, yes, but no pain. So Peter rebuked Jesus.
But this two-faced first pope gets rebuked in turn by none other than his Lord. Because what Peter suggests – life without pain, salvation without suffering – is in fact for Jesus a real temptation to avoid human pain and suffering, to avoid the humiliation of the cross.
And Jesus rejects it forcefully. And Mark says that Jesus calls the crowd with his disciples, because what he is telling them next is not just for saints and priests and preachers, but for everyone. Choosing to shoulder the cross and deny one’s self, says Jesus, is the vocation of anyone claiming to believe in and follow him. For how can you have faith without works, without its concrete expression? A couple of examples may help:
Emilie had every reason to be angry with the world, to lock herself up in misery, and to bury herself in material comforts. Her mother had died when Emilie was still a child, and she was raised by an aunt. Emilie eventually married and had three sons. Finally, she got to enjoy the family she felt she never had. But over the course of a few years, Emilie lost husband and all three sons to disease.
One by one, the most treasured people in her life were taken from her by untimely, tragic deaths. Her sorrow was immense. Had Emilie lashed out in bitter rebellion, had she curled up in a ball in a dark closet, never to come out, or had she committed suicide, we would have all understood. It would have been very easy for Emilie to be outraged at the injustice of it all, and to turn away from a God who had seemingly abandoned her.
Yet, Emilie’s heart did not shut down and close up with pain. Those who lose their life will find it. As if stoked by the fire of her own intense suffering – like a burning bush in her soul – Emilie’s well of compassion and love just grew and grew. It was the early 1800’s in Montreal: the needs of the people were huge.
Emilie befriended a mentally ill woman, and had her move into her affluent home. Then she cared for those left orphaned by the cholera epidemic in 1832. She cared for elderly people whose families ignored them. She tended to those imprisoned during the Montreal riots of 1837. Emilie’s dedication and compassion never seemed to dry up. Over time, more women joined her, eventually leading Emilie to found the Sisters of Providence.
More recently, Carol Kent‘s life changed forever when her twenty-five year old and only son – model child, honours graduate, lieutenant in the navy, with an impeccable military record – shot and killed his wife’s ex-husband. This devastating set of events taught Carol about God’s transforming power. With her only child now serving a life-sentence in jail, Carol embarked on a ministry of healing with families of inmates. She now shares her story in her book entitled When I Lay My Isaac Down and has become an international speaker.
Even though they lived nearly two centuries apart, these two women’s common thread is their steadfast willingness to embrace the suffering of the cross with love and grace. In thus losing their lives, these women found life in greater abundance. Neither of them bought into the illusion that God’s reign is about physical comforts, political victory, easy prizes, prosperity and privilege. Rather, both took up the cross of the One who saved us by his death – Jesus Christ.
Pope Francis says much the same thing. In a homily on the rich man and Lazarus he pointed out that just going to church does not make you a good person if you remain blind to the plight of sisters and brothers in need. Walking out of church just feeling real good and holy is not the point, as the priest in Paul Wilkes’ book ranted in his homily.
With the swelling refugee crisis at everyone’s doorstep, we have another chance to show that our faith in Jesus does lead to action. As a recent article in The Guardian said, we claim to follow one who himself was a child refugee.
Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith – echoed in Emilie’s and Carol’s witness, echoed in the countless men and women opening their homes and hearts to today’s destitute peoples. Faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. So … who do you say that I am?
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