December 5, 2004
Second Sunday of Advent
Above my computer at home, where I write my homilies, I have a quote from Oscar Romero. It’s very important to me: "We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something and do it very well. It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest. We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs. "
This means a lot coming from a man who was martyred for his faith, who fought so bravely for justice as a Bishop in El Salvador, and it sounds a lot like John the Baptist in the reading today from Matthew. John the Baptist is doing the one thing and doing it well--he’s crying out, he’s calling us to repent--and he’s doing it in the faith that he’s the servant, not the master, that one greater than he will soon be coming.
At the Newman Bible Study the other night Sue Seitz asked a really profound question. If Jesus is taking the ax to her, what is he cutting away? What sinful and unfruitful parts of our lives is God trying to burn in the fire? That’s such a great question, and it gives the idea of winnowing the chaff a whole different meaning. It makes it sound necessary and good, which it is. Our greed, our pride, our ambition, our doubt--we have to get rid of them. Our attachments--to our jobs, our plans, our professional identities--we have to get rid of them. And when we do, we’re free, we’re purged, like Dante in the Divine Comedy when he’s climbed the mountain of Purgatory and gotten rid of all his sins. He’s so light at the end he can fly. Us, too. God isn’t trying to obliterate us. He’s trying to free us. What’s underneath the grime of the world is the beauty of our skin. Less is more, and of course that’s completely contrary to what the culture is saying. All this getting and spending at Christmas is completely contrary to the darkness and silence and emptiness of Advent the way it’s supposed to be. It’s nauseating. I swear to you, if I see one more Old Navy commercial I’m going to throw up. We’re not cutting away branches, we’re piling them on. We’re not giving things away, we’re grabbing as much as we can.
But it’s not just sinful things we have to get rid of, Romero says. It’s good things. We’re all too busy, we’re all too frantic and crazy with responsibility, and often the problem is that we’re trying to be the Messiah, not the Baptist. We think we have to make the sun rise. But we don’t and we can’t. Above my computer at school I’ve pinned another quote about vocation, this one from Thomas Merton: “The fulfillment of every individual vocation demands not only the relinquishment of what is evil in itself but also of all the precise goods that are not willed for us by God.” Romero and Merton. Home and work. You can see the issue that I’m struggling with.
I’m so impressed by all the good things people do in this parish: the Knights cooking pancakes and raising money, the huge volume of food and clothes that St. Vincent De Paul distributes--the hundreds of people it serves and the many people who do that serving, quietly, routinely, without asking for attention or thanks. Or I think of the people who bring communion to the sick and the shut-in. Or the people who do Eucharistic Adoration or Centering Prayer or the Caritas prayer group that prays for all of us and the many Bible Studies--all these faithful people, praying. And the countless acts of private charity and kindness. I know a woman who has had 130 foster children. 130 foster children!
People at OSU are always talking about how corrupt the church is, how terrible its history. We’re all hypocrites. And that’s true, of course, but only partly. “Produce good fruit as evidence of your repentance,” John the Baptist thunders at the Pharisees and Sadducces, but I think there’s good fruit all over this parish and I think we don’t look at it enough. We’re all too preoccupied with abstract ideas and matters of doctrine, both the defenders of Christianity and the detractors. Terms like “liberal” and “conservative” don’t really matter. A Republican can be compassionate or indifferent, a Democrat can be a Christian or a jerk, and we’re supposed to be compassionate, we’re supposed to be kind, as so many people in this parish are, and I want to commend that and honor that and I want to be more like that. We should all be more like these quiet and selfless people who are Christ for others, and we should start this Advent, right now.
But. We can’t do it all and we don’t have to do it all and John the Baptist and Oscar Romero are saying stop trying to do it all. They’re saying humble yourself and free yourself. They’re saying: specialize.
Drop, drop, and keep on dropping, Von Hugel says, and I think he’s joyous as he says this, deeply happy. I think John the Baptist is deeply happy. I think he loves climbing around those rocks and loves shouting from the hills and I think he feels this deep and powerful joy whenever he preaches or baptizes. Mother Teresa didn’t do everything. She did the one thing, she nursed the poor and the dying, and I think she did it because she loved doing it, because it was what she knew how to do and most wanted to do. Let someone else flip the pancakes or be the foster parent, unless you love flipping pancakes or changing diapers, because where God calls us is in our joy. I’ve been using a lot of quotes in this homily but here’s another one, from Frederick Buechner, that vocation begins when our own “deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.”
And when we’re all doing what we love--some of us at St. Vincent, some of us in the garden, some of us in the study--when we’re all engaged in our individual work, the whole work of the church gets done. It adds up. We make up and supplement each other. And we make up for each other confident that God will do the real work anyway, that God will make up for us all in ways we can’t even imagine.
So this Advent make a list and check it twice. Then throw it away. Let it go. Don’t do anything on it. You don’t have to. Throw the list in the unquenchable fire and be free, free to do the one true thing, the one true thing that God is calling you to do.
And then you won’t be crazy the rest of the time either, you won’t be stressed out of your mind, too tired and overloaded to pray or even to think. You’ll be able to sit for a minute and listen. Just sit.
You’ll hear the rain fall. You’ll hear your heart beat.
And then you will hear your name. Just wait. You will hear the sound of your own name, spoken in the darkness.