Saturday, June 30, 2007

Priorites

(13 Sunday in Ordinary Time, C)

“Lord, let me go first and bury my father,” but Jesus answered him, “Let the dead bury their dead. But you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God

These are strong words that we have from Jesus today. And as I reflected upon how we might understand them, I was reminded of someone I met once. I spent one of my summers when I was in college volunteering down in Appalachian coal country, and one of the things I did was pay visits to the older folks who often lived alone and weren’t able to get out much. I would see how they were doing, and if they needed anything. It was certainly never boring. One day I would be helping with the canning of tomatoes or cabbage and on another I was invited to throw rocks at the wood-pile to “scare away them snakes.”

In the course of my adventures I met a wonderful older woman named Ocie. That’s O-C-I-E. Ocie had recently lost her husband, so I went to see her to see how she was doing. When I asked her how she was doing with her grief, she said to me:

“Young man, it was sad to see him go, but I’m not too troubled.”

“Oh?” I said. She continued,

“’Well, before my husband died I asked him a question. I said, who do you love more, me or the good Lord’? And he said, ‘Well, Ocie, I love you, but I reckon I love the good Lord more.’”

Ocie was delighted with this answer! She said,

“When I knew my husband loved the good Lord more than me, I knew I would be with him again in heaven.”

Now this is an expression of a simple faith, but I think it can help us to understand what God demands of us as disciples of Jesus Christ. It’s not that in order to follow Jesus we have to leave everyone we love behind, but that when we put God first the way we relate to them will be transformed by grace. It can help us understand the Lord’s words that “No one who sets a hand to the plow and looks to what was left behind is fit for the kingdom of God.”

It’s not as if in order to follow Jesus we need to run away to the desert or abandon our families or jobs. Because once we put God first, the way we love and work will be made new by grace. So when we return from prayer to our daily life, we’re not looking back, but looking forward to the kingdom of God, because the way we will do even the plainest things will be lifted by the light of grace.

Look at the prophet Elisha. Yes, his life was radically changed by the call to become a prophet of Israel. He even destroys the plow and oxen that were his livelihood. But what does he do with them? He cooks the animals, using the plow as fuel, and feeds the people he leaves behind. The call of God never leaves anyone abandoned.

Take the Lord’s own words as another example, “let the dead bury their dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Being Christians doesn’t mean that we should ignore the needs of those we love while they are alive, or not bury them with dignity when they leave us. But once we put the kingdom of God first, once we make it our first priority in life to have the love of God reign in our hearts and minds, we will no longer care for those we love or bury those who die in the same way.

In fact, once we put God first, the love with which we love those around us becomes part of God’s love—and thus we touch the caring and gentle Mystery at the heart of all reality. Once we put God first, though we might seem to be burying the dead, we are actually just saying goodbye to those who are being born ahead of us into eternal life. So when we grieve for our loved ones who have passed on, we are not the dead burying the dead, but the living who suffer with a brief separation from the living. The way we remember those who have passed from this world ought to reflect our faith in the eternal life we have in Christ, the eternal life of which this Eucharist is like a sample taste.

And to live this way is freedom from sin and selfishness, as Paul points out in the second reading. Because when we put God first, everything else we do becomes a little part of what God is doing in the world. And in God there is no misery or evil. In the inner life of God there is only peace and gentleness and joy. And this life is ours through the humanity of Christ, through the Body of Christ we receive and we become at this Eucharist. So let us follow receive the Body of Christ and follow the Lord into the peace of his kingdom. Amen.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

I'm currently reading the biography of Joseph P. Machebuef, the first bishop of Denver. As it turns out when he left his home town of Riom, France in 1839, he was so concerned that his father would talk him out of becoming a missionary in America that he dressed in civilian clothes the day he left, and when he had to pass his father's house on the way to the station he got down on the ground and had to sneek below the window so he wouldn't be seen. He thought it would be much easier to ask forgiveness after he left than permission to go.

This was the advice he recived from the fathers who had trained him in the seminary. I expect they had this gospel passage in mind when they gave it to him.

Charles of New Haven said...

Thanks for the comment, Anonymous! It's an ancient principle of religious life that its easier to ask for forgiveness than permission!