Mountains Beyond Mountains (homily)
Twenty-Ninth Sunday of Ordinary Time
I’ve been reading a really interesting and challenging book lately, Mountains Beyond Mountains, by Tracy Kidder. It’s a nonfiction story about the work of a doctor, Paul Farmer, who has devoted his life to serving the poor in the third world. This is a man who’s on the faculty at Harvard—he could be making a lot of money—but instead he’s living in a hut in Haiti treating tuberculosis and AIDS. Sometimes he walks for hours just to see a single patient, and he does this out of faith.
Farmer wasn’t raised Catholic, but the faith of the poor converted him, and the gospel converted him. For him it’s radically simple: serving the poor is all that matters to Farmer, and it’s all that matters to Jesus, too. The first must be last, Jesus says, and Farmer takes this absolutely literally. “You want crucifixion,” he asks. “I’ll show you crucifixion,” and he’s talking about the world, our own world, where a baby dies every three seconds, where three billion people go to bed hungry every night.
Paul Farmer is a servant in just the way Jesus means it in this passage from Mark, and that’s especially challenging to me as a deacon, especially daunting. That’s the word for servant, in Greek: deacon, diakonia.
Wow. How can anyone measure up to someone like Farmer?
And we’re all supposed to. We’re all supposed to be deacons.
Now, Farmer does what he does because he loves it. He loves being a doctor, loves being with patients, and we, too, are called through our love. We are called through our joy. We are called through our own particular gifts.
And I don’t think that we have to leave the country to be of service. It was the flow of his life that brought Farmer to Haiti, as it’s the flow of our lives that has brought us here.
And I don’t think that to serve means to do nothing but serve, 24 hours a day. We have to make time for ourselves, too, we have to make room for prayer and renewal, or we’ll never have the energy and faith for others.
Farmer uses a phrase I really like, “the hermeneutics of generosity”—hermeneutics just means a way of thinking and seeing—and the key, I think, is to apply this way of thinking to every ordinary situation in our lives. Yes, we should volunteer and yes, we should help in the obvious, corporeal ways, but service is more than that, too. It’s an attitude, an orientation. Every moment presents us with an opportunity to serve, and not just those who are physically, economically poor. There’s emotional poverty, too. Intellectual poverty. Pope Benedict has recently written about spiritual poverty.
Maybe someone doesn’t show up for an appointment and you think, she doesn’t care, she’s blowing me off. To apply the hermeneutics of generosity is to stop and think, no, maybe she’s got a problem, maybe it’s not her fault. Maybe someone you know has a big success and you feel the usual stab of jealousy when you hear about it. To apply the hermeneutics of generosity is to stop and think and very consciously, very deliberately say no, this is good. It’s to actively desire the best for others.
Not that even this is easy, of course. It’s terrifically hard, it’s always hard.
Maybe you have to stand up to someone, maybe you have to speak the truth to power, maybe you have to say something that’s really difficult to say, and it makes people mad and gets you in trouble. But that can be a form of service, too--service to the truth, service to others. The hermeneutics of generosity often leads to tension and conflict and in fact it always does. “We’re not called to be successful,” Mother Teresa said, “we’re called to be faithful,” and we have to be faithful even in the face of the enormity of our problems and the depth of our sins. In this sense any form of service can be a very daunting, a very trying thing. There are mountains beyond mountains. There’s no end to the work that needs to be done, no one can ever really succeed at it, ever really conquer it, and to serve means to accept that and to learn to live with that. To serve is to live with what Farmer calls “the long defeat,” as Jesus did in his suffering, on the cross.
But however hard it is, however trying, however sad, that’s what we’re supposed to do. We’re supposed to serve. Whatever our particular call, whatever our particular situation, Farmer is our model as Mother Teresa is our model as Jesus is our model, and there’s no getting out of it, no explaining it away.
Farmer has another phrase I really like, “Areas of Moral Clarity,” or AMC’s, and this is the main one. Jesus doesn’t say a thing about gay marriage. Jesus doesn’t say a thing about women’s ordination. What he says is: feed my sheep. He says it over and over again, it’s the center of the gospels, it couldn’t be clearer, and Farmer’s life is a direct and unambiguous call to get this straight ourselves and to stop being self righteous and contentious about all the other things we’re self righteous and contentious about.
Or let me put it another way. Let me be more positive. There are lots of deacons in this parish, lots of people who serve the shut-ins and the children and the migrants and the widows, and I really tired of other people attacking the church, of continually criticizing it and complaining about it. What are they talking about? The rhetoric or the soup kitchens? The headlines or the homeless shelters? The pedophiles or the many, many selfless volunteers, all around the world?
But that’s the point: I’m deeply proud to be Catholic, and humbled, but it’s not because of what we say, on television or some website. It’s because of what we do, at our best.
The other day I was talking with a friend outside the Newman Center when this student came up and asked if I’d help settle an argument. Sure, I said. What about? Papal Infallibility. What? Papal Infallibility.
Every three seconds a child dies from hunger and you’re arguing about this? I can imagine a context in which a discussion of Papal Infallibility would be useful and good, and maybe this discussion had one. I don’t know. But often I think we argue about Papal Infallibility because we’re afraid to face our own fallible natures. Often I think we argue about the Pope because we’re afraid of the real work we’re supposed to be doing. We don’t want to admit there are mountains beyond mountains. We want to have climbed them, once and for all.
But we can’t—we can’t—and that’s what Papal Infallibility itself is all about in the end, the infallible intuition that the Gospels concern a mystery we can never understand but only serve, in humility and joy.
What does the Eucharistic prayer call the Pope? Your servant. Your servant, Pope Benedict.
Yes, there are Areas of Moral Clarity, and this is one of them. We don’t hold God, He holds us. Yes, there are Areas of Moral Clarity. A child dies every three seconds.
Yes, there are areas of Moral Clarity. Feed my sheep.