Peter Pan or the Kingdom of God?
September 24, 2006
All of us have heard of Peter Pan and the magical place where he lived, called Never Never Land. It was a place where children never had to grow up or assume any responsibility, where they could do what they wanted to do whenever they chose to do it. Occasionally you’d have to deal with a pesky pirate, but all the needs and pleasures of life were magically available.
What would Never Never Land look like if we tried to update it to our own times? It might be a place where we could watch any TV program or movie we wanted twenty four hours a day; a place where, if we decided, we could fly to the other side of the world or move across town in a few minutes; a place where every kind of food was available, from steaks to pizza, from capers to cantaloupe, and we could eat as much as we wanted, even if it made us sick; a place where if we wanted to play golf, we would not have just one beautiful golf course to choose from, but maybe ten or twenty; a place where we could watch it football games from all parts of the country; a place that had malls full of merchandise, more than we could ever buy or need, and where we could shop until we became bored with doing so.
Could it be that our lifestyle has much in common with Peter Pan’s magic place? Could it be that America is in some sense a Never Never Land? It certainly seems so when we compare the way we live to the way that most of the people on this planet live. If you were living in Zambia, in Africa, you would wake up each morning and 86% of your friends and neighbors in that same country would be living under the poverty line. 86 %! Many without electricity or clean water or sewage, not to mention education or health care. In 1970, people who lived in the United States and in the first world had a standard of life that was 30 times better than those who were in the lowest 20% of the world’s population. Today, three decades later, that gap has doubled. Now we have a standard of living 60 times greater than the poorest people on the planet.
When you look at the size of that gap, do not the things which often concern us seem a bit childish, a bit self-indulgent: whether we should buy a new blouse or a pair of pants, when we have 30 pairs of pants or blouses in our closet and we have not worn many of them for years; whether we need a third car or a second home. If Jesus were suddenly to appear and ask us, “What are you talking about, what are you discussing with your broker or with your employer or with your spouse?” wouldn’t we be embarrassed to admit what was filling up our lives?
The disciples in today’s gospel were embarrassed when Jesus asked them such a question, for they were discussing which one among them was the greatest. Even as Jesus talked about his own necessary suffering and death, they were concerned about their own issues, their own indulgence. They were living in their own Never Never Land.
To the extent that we can identify with the disciples, what can be done? How can you and I live in our society as disciples of Christ in a culture that seeks to pamper us and indulge us? It is not an easy question. But I am not sure that our answer to it should be taken to the extreme. I am not sure that Jesus would ask most or any of us to give away all that we have and live in a hut in Africa. I certainly know I do not have the will or the courage to live the way most people in the world are forced to live. The issue, after all, is not that the comforts that we have are evil or bad, but that they become so problematic when compared to how little the rest of the world has.
So what can we do? Is there any realistic or practical way that we can hear the gospel and deal with these hard realities? Jesus shows a way. When the disciples are lost in their other worldly, self-indulgent thoughts, he takes a little child and places her in their midst and says, “Whoever welcomes one such child as this in my name, welcomes me.” Jesus is asking us to do one small thing this week that brings our thinking and our lifestyle more in conformity with reality? Can we take a few minutes just to realize how much we have and be thankful? Can we spend 30 minutes on the internet learning some of the hard facts about the distribution of wealth in our world and the many organizations that are trying to bridge the gap that separates us? Can we identify one vulnerable and hurting person in our family, in our neighborhood, at our workplace and give something to that person? What we might give need not be financial. We could give of our time and our compassion. Could we think of one small thing that would simplify our lifestyle, make one decision that would go against the American mantra of more and better and bigger?
I think this is what the gospel challenges us to do. Just as Jesus welcomed one small child, we are asked to take one small step that could lessen the gap between the life that we live and the life most of the world lives? I realize that even taking one step can be challenging. Having to face some of the real gaps, some of the real injustices in our world is uncomfortable, disconcerting to the way we would like to think the world is. But facing such hard realities is, after all, the difference between a child and an adult, between those who are worried only about their own life and needs and those who can serve the needs of others. It is the difference between someone who wants to play in Never Never Land and someone who is committed to build the Kingdom of God.
Jesus and Health Care
September 20, 2009
The homily that you are about to hear is not a political homily. It does however; address a pressing social issue. It will not advocate any political party or any specific piece of legislation. But it will identify, within the gospel, a core teaching of Jesus and then apply that teaching to a debate that is raging in Washington and indeed throughout our country.
So let’s begin with the gospel. At the end of today’s gospel, Jesus performs a dramatic gesture. He takes a little child, places it in the midst of the disciples, embraces the child, and says, “Whoever welcomes one such child as this in my name, welcomes me.” Now what does this gesture of Jesus mean? Because we love our children and often place them on a pedestal, we might imagine that Jesus refers to the child as an example to imitate—an example of innocence or simplicity. But the society at the time of Jesus had no such romanticized notions of children. In the ancient world a child was a non-person. Without legal standing or personal power, the child was dependent on others. The child was one of the most vulnerable members of society. Outside the scope of the family, the child had no way to secure or protect his or her life. So when Jesus embraces the child, he is embracing the marginalized, the powerless, the most vulnerable in society. His action is similar to the famous last judgment scene in Matthew’s gospel, where he says, “Whatever you do for the least of my brothers or sisters, you do to me.”
Now this teaching on the part of Jesus was not unique to him. Jesus taught in this way because he was Jewish. He knew the Jewish tradition. Centuries before Jesus the great Jewish prophets insisted that every member of Israel must have access to the essentials of life. It was the responsibility of every Jew to see that the most vulnerable members of society were protected and cared for. This is why throughout the Hebrew Scriptures God is the guardian of the poor, of the widow, of the orphan, of the child. They were the members of society who were dependent on others. Every Jew understood that were they to ignore or dismiss the least among them, they would have to answer to the God of Israel. Jesus adopts this stance with his disciples. He embraces the child, the powerless member of society and says, “If you welcome or refuse to welcome one such person as this, you welcome or refuse to welcome me.”
So it’s very clear from today’s gospel (and from many other places in the New Testament), that as disciples of Jesus, we must have concern for the weakest members of our society. But the vulnerable members change in the course of history. In Jesus’ time, as in our own, people are vulnerable because they do not have adequate access to food or shelter, or because their lives are threatened by the violence of war or abortion. These marginalized members of our society should be our concern. But in our time a new category of the vulnerable has emerged. These are those who are uninsured, those who do not have adequate access to health care. In past centuries, when health care amounted to little more than chicken soup or leeches, most people in society had access to the limited health care which was available. But in the twentieth century, medical progress exploded. Today medicine is able to do what was once unthinkable: transplant vital organs, sustain life through new procedures and drugs. All of this progress is amazing and good. It is also expensive. And because of that expense, our country is becoming divided between those who have resources and can pay for health care and those who are without resources and are unable to protect their lives.
Now this division in our society is real. Today there are 46.6 million Americans who do not have adequate access to health care. The American Journal of Public Health has documented that 45,000 Americans die each year because they lack access to health care. This situation is not acceptable to followers of Jesus. We cannot accept a situation where vulnerable members of our society are not able to sustain their lives. This is why the present health-care debate in our country concerns us.
The gospel does not give us any mandate or direction of how we are to solve this problem. It does not tell us that we should be for or against a public option. It does not advocate any particular piece of legislation that is presently in congress. It does not adopt a specific stance toward any financing plan. These are means to an end. As followers of Jesus we can debate and disagree over the best way to address the problem. But what we cannot do is to conclude that those who are uninsured are of no concern to us. We cannot say, “I will support health care for others as long as it doesn’t cost me anything.” It might have to cost us something. Our concern for the marginal and the vulnerable in society is not an incidental aspect of our relationship with Christ. It is an essential part of our discipleship. We have a commitment to the poor, to the child, to the uninsured. Jesus has embraced them and said, “However you welcome one of these, you welcome me.”
Stopping for the Least
September 20, 2015
I was running late, very late. I had an appointment to anoint a parishioner who was in the last days of his life. His family was already gathered around his bedside. I was stuck in traffic. When I finally arrived at the nursing home, I parked my car and began to make my way quickly through the lobby. About halfway across, I saw an elderly woman on the other side of the lobby standing with a walker. She was waving at me. I did not know this woman, but she had seen my collar and she was obviously anxious to talk with me. “Father, Father!” she cried. “What parish are you from? What parish are you from?” I could see that she was dealing with some dementia, and although she was anxious to talk with me, I had parishioners waiting. So I waved back, “St. Noel. God bless you. God bless you.” And I quickly ran down the hallway to my appointment.
It was only after the anointing, as I got back into my car, that I thought of this woman again. I was disturbed by my interaction with her. At first I could not figure out why. I had the right to push on, didn’t I? I was late. There were people waiting. Then I realized why I was upset. Here is what I thought: Pope Francis would have stopped.
The hallmark of Francis’ ministry as pope is that he not only speaks to kings and presidents, but he stops to speak to the poor, to the imprisoned, and to those who are dealing with dementia. In doing this he is following the example of Jesus in today’s gospel. When Jesus tells us that if we wish to be first we must become last, he is not saying that a homeless person is of more value that a billionaire. But he is telling us that a homeless person deserves our time and attention just as much as someone whom society admires. When Jesus takes a vulnerable child and embraces it in the midst of his disciples, he is not saying that the most vulnerable among us are worth more than we are, but he is saying that our standing in his eyes is tied to the way we treat the least among us.
Who is the least in your family? Who is the person others dismiss or ignore? Jesus is telling us that if we wish to be his disciples, we must somehow appreciate the value and worth of that person. Who is the least in your relationships, the person who has hurt you or spoken against you? Jesus is telling us that he measures our relationship to him in light of our willingness to be reconciled to that person. Who is the most vulnerable in our society—the malnourished, the unborn, the immigrant, the imprisoned? Jesus is telling us that our nation will be judged by its willingness to serve the most vulnerable, the least among us.
When Pope Francis visits the United States this week, you can be sure that there will be impressive speeches and beautiful liturgies. But also be prepared for him to stop and speak to those who many think are unimportant and some would judge as the least. I believe that Francis does this not because he wishes to generate media coverage. He believes in the value of every person, and he knows that when he stops for the least among us, he is doing what Jesus would do.
The Lord Upholds My Life
September 23, 2018
Some of you might be fans of the Netflix series “Atypical.” The central character is Sam, a high school student, who registers on the autism scale. What this means is that a loud noise or a sudden shift in Sam’s routine can throw him into a panic. But when this happens, Sam has a way of calming himself down. He finds a corner, covers his ears, and repeats over and over the four species of Antarctic penguins: Adélie, Chinstrap, Emperor, Gentoo; Adélie, Chinstrap, Emperor, Gentoo. Sam loves penguins, and simply repeating these four names over and over allows him to gain control again and return to his scheduled activities.
We can call these four names used by Sam a mantra. World religions, such as Hinduism and Buddhism, have long appreciated the spiritual value of repeating a word or a sound over and over again. In our own Catholic tradition, the rosary uses this same technique. We recite 53 Hail Marys, and, in so doing, we release tension and focus our minds on God. Our responsorial psalm today provides us with five words that we can use as a mantra: “The Lord upholds my life.” We should be able to rest peacefully in these words, “The Lord upholds my life.” These words are true. They tell us that God is in charge, that God cares for us, and that God knows what we need and intends to provide it. Whenever we find the circumstances of our life swirling us out of control, here are five words we can use to ground ourselves in peace and in hope.
When we are in despair over the death of someone we love, or when we find ourselves in a panic after receiving a medical diagnosis of a serious disease, it is important for us to repeat what is true: “The Lord upholds my life.” When we become frustrated because a fault keeps tripping us up or paralyzed because we cannot forgive someone who has hurt us, it is important for us to recall why there is still reason for hope: “The Lord upholds my life.” When we become afraid because of the increasing violence of our society or angry because of the dysfunctional partisanship in Washington or the mishandling of the sexual abuse crisis by our bishops, we need to keep telling ourselves who is in control and who will give us strength: “The Lord upholds my life.”
Religious mantras do not answer questions nor do they make anger, depression, or discouragement disappear. But they can inject into circumstances that lead to panic a truth which can ground us and calm our hearts. “The Lord upholds my life.” These words are not only soothing. They are true. Repeating them over and over can lead us to peace in an often dangerous and discouraging world.