Saturday, September 2, 2017

Getting Behind Him: 22nd Sunday OT

If you took a piece of paper and started a list titled “things I offer to God,” what would you write down? Give that a second’s thought, or just mull it over in the background, while we take a look at Jeremiah. We’re in the 20th chapter, and you can tell that Jeremiah is fed up. “You duped me, O Lord.” You might call this venting… it’s one of those prayers that isn’t pretty but it is honest. Well, fine. We should never be afraid to be honest with God. What we’re feeling might not be good, we might need to ask for healing and conversion about it, but there’s no point in pretending. Give God the real you. And right now the real Jeremiah is frustrated and angry and tired.

Read his book and you’ll understand. He’s had a hard time. Working for God has not been a cush job. It’s been brutal. It’s been costly. It’s been big sacrifices for what seem like little or no results. Don’t make the mistake of imagining the Prophet as some kind of superhuman who can handle all this with perfect composure. Imagine how you’d feel if every time you went out in public in these small towns, you could hear people laughing as you went by, making fun of you, scoffing and judging you. Jeremiah says “the Word of the Lord has brought me derision and reproach all the day.” Let’s just assume he enjoys that about as much as we would.

He’s at the limit and he’s thinking, maybe daydreaming a little, about just walking away. There are other ways to live. There’s a path of so much less resistance, and most people are on it. So he’s thinking out loud here: “I say to myself, I will not mention him, I will speak his name no more.”

Michaelangelo, Jeremiah

Why not give up? It doesn’t feel worth it. Why not give up?

“But then it becomes like fire burning in my heart, imprisoned in my bones; I grow weary holding it in, I cannot endure it.”

He can’t give up. It’s who he is, it’s who he has become. To walk away from his relationship with God, and the mission God has given him, is not an option. It’s a fire inside him and he can’t walk away.

All these readings are about the cost, and the glory, of discipleship. Paul, writing to the Church in Rome, urges them to “offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God, your spiritual worship.” This is so incarnational and sacramental! I wonder if we handed out pens and paper and asked everyone to make that list of the things we offer to God… I wonder how many lists would start with the word:  “me.”

My body - this I give to God. My thoughts - I want them to be His. My hopes and dreams - I lay them on the altar. There could be many things on that list of what I offer to God: time, finances, abilities, prayers, penances and fasting, my moral efforts… it could be a long list and I hope it would be. But what it all adds up to, and what belongs at the top of the list, is ‘me.

That’s why Jeremiah can’t walk away. He belongs to the Lord. That’s what Paul is asking of the Romans. To belong to the Lord. “Do not conform yourselves to this present age,” he tells them… in other words, don’t just float with the current. Don’t be formed and shaped by the world. Don’t be conformed to the present age. Belong to God instead.

Would you agree that seems like a pretty damning critique for us today, just as it always has been? Aren’t we far too conformed to the present age? Why don’t Christians stick out more? Maybe we should be thinking hard about that. But we should each be thinking even harder about our own hearts, and how much we’ve been conformed to the world. Do we gauge our behavior and our choices against the prevailing current, the moment, the fashion, or against the word of God and the teaching of the Church He guides? Pick any issue where the Church and the culture are at odds — and there are plenty — and do you see tens of millions of Catholics standing together in witness to the unchanging revelation of Christian doctrine? Not exactly, I’d say. Not exactly. I don’t mean we’re all supposed to be in lockstep about everything; there are lots of things we can disagree about. But even really basic moral teachings of the Church seem to get treated as somehow optional just because breaking them is currently in fashion. We’re conformed to the present age. Not entirely, but way too much.

Last reading, the Gospel: Peter and Jesus. If you remember last Sunday’s Gospel, this follows immediately after where we left off. So remember Peter's just had a great triumph, a glorious moment: “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” And Jesus has just told him “You are rock, and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of Hell will not prevail against it.” Good stuff, yeah? Well, in the very next breath, the same Jesus is telling him, “Get behind me, Satan!”

Woah… that’s a heck of a change. What happened?

What happened is that Jesus told them about the Cross. And Peter, who a moment before had been doing so well, was now standing in front of Jesus telling him that the Way of the Cross was no good. Standing in front of Jesus trying to block the path His Father had called Him to. Standing in front of Jesus where no disciple belongs. Driving the point home, letting Peter know just how serious this is, he calls him “Satan.”

That got his attention. Satan is the way-blocker, the Cross-rejecter, the constant voice urging you to the easier way, the path of least resistance… Satan doesn’t need us to tattoo “666” on our foreheads and start sacrificing goats to worship him; he just needs us to conform ourselves to this age. Poor Peter, meaning well but not understanding, is doing the work of Satan as long as he’s standing in front of Jesus blocking his path and rejecting the Cross. So Jesus tells him with all love and all sternness how to set this right: “Get behind me.” Satan stands in front saying ‘no’ to the Cross; a disciple follows the Lord and takes up His Cross. Gets behind Him.

This is the only way, Jesus teaches them and us… the way of the disciple is the way of the Cross. Give yourself away. Give your life away.

I don’t know if this will help anyone else today but it’s already helped me. God has just given me something new to offer Him. I wouldn’t have it to offer if He hadn’t given it to me in the first place. And it wouldn’t be an offering if it was just exactly what I’d want to do anyway. It’s not a Jeremiah-level thing; I can be calm and rational about it. Don’t we all have lots of things like that in our lives? Thank God for the grace of this lesson: grasping at our own will, grasping at our lives, is not the way. It’s a loser. Even if you gained the whole world, it would still be a loser. Give it to God and watch it be glorified. Take up that Cross; it’s not so heavy with Jesus at your side yoked up with you. Sometimes we can do it calmly and rationally; sometimes maybe it practically breaks us like Jeremiah.

But we have nothing to offer God except that which God has already given us in the first place. We can cling to it and try to grasp it on our own terms, apart from Him, and watch it turn to dust and ashes, or we can offer it back.

Sometimes that will feel amazing, and sometimes it will feel like dying. Offer it either way. Offer it all. Make Jesus your Lord in more than words, in a way that means something and transforms your life from the inside out. We will depart this world keeping only what we have given away, given in love, given to God, and the first and truest offering I have to give Him is me.

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