Summary: Saints are counter-cultural; saints are ordinary people doing extraordinary things that most people find crazy.

October 11, 2009

28th Sunday in Course

Perhaps some of you were as puzzled and shocked as I was last week when a prestigious, high-profile international award was announced, and the winner was something of a surprise. Just a short time on the job, doing something entirely new, with the usual glitches associated with innovation. Some said the winner’s direction was not wholesome. Most believe that the lack of truly positive accomplishments meant the award was very premature. “How,” they asked, “can they give such a prize when so little has come from this?”

I refer, of course, to the choice of the software product “Publish 2,” a two-year old startup of collaborative journalism tools, for the 2009 Online Journalism Award. (Why, what did you think I was referring to? That’s an important thing to online journalists.)

Who are our heroes? To whom do we look in admiration? The world has its own set of criteria for heroism, and those criteria are always changing. The gentleman-soldier Robert E. Lee was, at least in the South, admired to as a hero for generations. He reluctantly left the Union to lead Southern armies because of his allegiance to Virginia. He submitted to the authority of civilian leaders who were not his equal in any way. He surrendered when he knew his men–who would do anything for him–could not give any more. But in a day when the virtues of valor, obedience, and loyalty are no longer valued by the culture, he is despised by many as a defender of slavery, even though he despised the institution and practice.

Jesus Christ, too, has had a spotty run over the last two thousand years. When He was healing the cripples and the centurion’s servant, and feeding thousands with a handful of loaves and fishes, He received good press. But when He got crosswise with the rich and powerful, and was led off to a shameful execution, even his closest friends fled; his enemies gloated. The Church He founded was hounded almost to death for over three hundred years, but ultimately conquered the Roman empire and defeated its gods so thoroughly that even the emperors became Christian. Jesus was again almost destroyed, and His Church with Him, by the barbarian hordes, that besieged St. Augustine’s city even as he, the most distinguished theologian of our first thousand years, lay dying. But within two hundred years Jesus had conquered even the barbarians, and their leaders vied to become head of a Holy, Roman Empire that even had to submit to the Pope. Over and over again Jesus and His Church have been pronounced dead or dying by heretics, by apostates like Rousseau and Voltaire, and most recently by professional atheists like Richard Dawkins and hack authors like Dan Brown. But within a few decades, Dawkins’ and Brown’s predecessors have been consigned to the dustbin of history, just as their books will be consigned to the liquidation bins of the bookstores, all in God’s good time.

What is the power of Jesus Christ, the strength of the Church? Jesus gets very direct today. We are powerful not when people are saying we are wonderful. We are powerful not when we have political control, when people who claim to be pro-family and pro-life win control of the legislature and then do nothing to support life or the family. We are powerful when we put off our riches and power and glory and honors and become poor and weak like Jesus, because then we can have the spiritual power that comes from the work of the Holy Spirit in us.

To do this–to sell all that we have, everything that makes us feel secure–and to give to the poor surely seems like the height of folly and madness. It seems like it’s just too much to ask. And so we go away sad. Mark says not just that the lad’s countenance fell. No, the Greek uses the unusual term

stygnazô, which is the same word Matthew uses about the storm on the lake. His face turned into a storm of confusion and resentment and fear because of his attachment to his goods and his resulting response to Jesus.

There is a continual pull in humans, even us who are baptized into Christ, toward selfishness, pride, lust, envy and all the other capital sins. We resist growth. We retreat into a fixed mindset that fears change, fears the risk we need to take to improve our condition. We want to choose lesser goods instead of the greatest good, our God. This is what St. Paul calls the flesh, the tendency of humans to take the easy path, the broad path to perdition.

But Jesus looks on us and loves us. Even as we make wrong, self-destructive and sinful choices he loves us. That love, that presence of the Holy Spirit, is what gives ordinary people the ability and determination to do extraordinary things. That is what we call a saint, whether he or she is canonized or not. Saints witness in extraordinary ways to the ability of an ordinary, sinful person like you and me to do extraordinary things, to live as Jesus and Mary did.

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