B: 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time

Eventually Yours

November 16, 2003

Mark 13:24-32

There was a very successful funeral director who developed his own personal style of letter writing.  Before he would sign his name at the end of the letter, he would always close with “eventually yours.”  There is no doubt about it.  We all will be eventually his, as we will be eventually God’s.  The reality of death is certain.  The older we get, the more clear the certainty of death becomes.  Such realizations can lead to fear and discouragement.  That is why the image that Jesus uses in today’s gospel is so important.  Jesus is describing the end of the world and there are many fearful signs: the sun will be darkened, stars will fall from the heavens.  But in the midst of this description of gloom and fear, he gives us the example of the fig tree.  It is a positive image.  It is an image of new life.  In the midst of the old world dying,  the fig tree buds and puts forth new leaves.  I think what Jesus is saying is that as the end draws closer, whether it is the end of the world or the end of our individual lives, there is hope.  There are signs of new life.  It is a hopeful description, isn’t it?  It also leads to a question.  What are the advantages of growing older?  What are the new buds, the new life that come with advancing years?

I would suggest two blessings: wisdom and miracles.  The older we get, the wiser we can become.  Now, of course, it is true that you can find some dense and stubborn old people.  But most of us learn from our experiences.  Most of us realize that we have the opportunity to become wiser.  A famous Islamic Sufi teacher describes his development this way: “When I was a young man, I used to pray daily and fervently that I would have the courage to change the world.  By the time I became middle-aged, I realized that I had not changed one single person, and so I changed my prayer.  I began to pray for the grace to change the people around me, to influence my family or friends. Now that I am old, I have changed my prayer again.  Now I pray for the grace to change myself.  Had I had the wisdom to pray that prayer from the start, I would have so much more to show for my life.” Wisdom can grow as we grow older.  We can learn to think before we speak. We can learn to consult before we act.  We can recognize the ebb and flow of life and determine when we need to push forward and when we need to hold back.  In the famous prayer of Alcoholics Anonymous:  “Lord grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things that I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

Wisdom grows with age.  So do miracles.  Now when I talk of miracles, I am not talking about the sun standing still or the appearance of some heavenly being.  I am referring to the ordinary miracles that shape and direct our lives.  Those miracles become clear in retrospect.  It is only when we look back over many years of living that we begin to discern the powerful ways that God has been loving us. It is here that those who are older have a distinct advantage.  It is when you are celebrating your fortieth wedding anniversary and you look back, that you realize the miracle of that day long ago, when you overcame your hesitation and accepted that blind date and therefore met the person that you now have loved for almost a half a century.  It is when you retire after a successful career and look back, that you recognize the miracle of meeting that person who by example was the one who showed you the value of the career which has now blessed you for a lifetime.  It is when you have been friends with someone for many years that you understand the miracle of the relationship—that despite all the ups and downs of life and the many friendships that came to an end, this one continues. Here is someone you can still talk to, you can still laugh with, you still care for.  Most important dimensions of life seem like “business as usual” when you’re living them.  It is only when you look back, that you are shocked by the power they have had to shape your life.  It is only in retrospect that they emerge as true miracles. And the older you are, the more miracles you see.

Wisdom and Miracles are the gifts of growing older.  They are meant to be shared.  So if you have been around for a half a century or more and you are beginning to feel the limitations of growing older, would it not be a good idea to claim its benefits, as well?  You have a wisdom.  Spread it around.  There are miracles that have happened in your life.  Tell them to others, to your family, to the people you know, even to strangers that you meet.  If you are a young person, this homily is for you, as well.  If you are fortunate to know elderly people who you respect, why not choose to ask their advice, to seek their wisdom?  Why not invite them to tell you what are the miracles that they have seen in their lives?  Think of all that we are losing by not asking our grandparents, our parents and others: What do you know?  What are the miracles that have shaped your life?

I am serious about this!  Think of the power that would be released if you provide an opportunity to others to tell you of the wisdom and miracles which they have accumulated over a life-time.  Please make a decision to do it.  Ask them today.  Call them up this week.  If you are embarrassed, tell them you went to church and the priest told you, you had to do it.  Do not let the opportunity slip by. Time, after all, is growing short.

What are the advantages of growing older? They are certainly not increased flexibility or greater energy. But there is more wisdom and more miracles to share.  So share them. Claim them as your own, as part of the gift of growing older.  So that when, in time, you become eventually God’s, you might be able to say, “Lord, I thank you for all the blessings of my life.  But the ones that you gave me at the end—they were the best of all!”

Preparing for the End

November 19, 2006

Mark  13:24-32

The Jewish comedian Henny Youngman was particularly known for his doctor jokes.  This is one of his best.  “A doctor told a man he had six months to live; but the man couldn’t pay his bill.  So the doctor gave him another six months.”

How long do you have to live?  The truth is, none of us know.  But when your final day comes it is unlikely that you can negotiate an extension.  That is why each year as Advent draws near the church puts before us images of the end of the world.  They are frightening images:  the sun will be darkened, the stars will fall from the heavens.  Although these images are not comforting, it is important for us to consider them. They remind us that an end will come, an end of the world and more immediately and end to our own lives.  Why is it important for us to consider this?  Not to frighten us, but to motivate us.  Not to tell us how we should die, but rather to show us how to live.  Life looks very different when you view it from the end.  From that perspective it is much easier to recognize what is really important.

The truth is this:  most of us spend an immense amount of time and energy on things that are truly insignificant.  We worry and fret about things that will not make a difference one way or the other.  We give hours and sometimes days of our lives to matters that really do not amount to a hill of beans.  This last week, thousands of Americans camped out on sidewalks sleeping overnight so that they could be the first to buy Playstation3.  Now was that important?  As they lie on their deathbeds will they say, “I’m so glad I did that!”

Millions of people in the world spend energy and time licking their wounds, nurturing their grudges against people who hurt them or ignored them last month or even twenty years ago.  When they stand before the King on the last day, will they look at that amount of time and the energy they spent with it with pride?  Will they say, “I’m so glad I invested so much of my time in that resentment and anger.”  All of us get wrapped up in our agendas, in our schedules, in the things that we want to accomplish:  making money, shopping at the mall, shaping our resumes.  When we take our last breath, will those things be significant?  Will we say, “I’m so grateful that I spent all that time in the office.”  Or, “I’m so happy that I was able to buy that coat at Macy’s.”  Or, “I’m so lucky that I made more money than other people did.”  Or, “What a wise decision it was for me to spend most of my free time in front of a television or computer screen.”  Are those the things that are going to give us satisfaction and peace when we take our last breath?  I’ don’t think so.

This is what today’s gospel is about.  It calls us to consider what questions are the important questions?  Not what questions seem important today, but what questions will be important on the last day?  I believe that there are only three questions that will matter as we face eternity. All three questions are about love:  Did I let love in?  Did I give love away?  Did I choose love even when it was difficult?

Did I let love in?  Was I able to see the beauty of the world around me and the goodness of the people in it?  Was I able to appreciate and respond to the people who loved me?  For all that is wrong in the world, was I able to find that ‘sweet spot’, that place where I knew that things were good; that place that allowed me to laugh, to be thankful, and to know that I was blessed.  And when I found that joy, did I savor it and celebrate it?  Did I let love in? Did I give love away?  Did I use the time and talents that were given to me to pass love on?  Can I find some piece of goodness in my child, in my spouse, in my friend, that I know I was able to nurture?  Can I identify a member of my family or even a stranger, who is better because of me?  Is the world somehow wiser or healthier or more just because I was in it?  Did I give love away? Did I choose love even when it was difficult?  Was I able to forgive someone who hurt me?  Did I speak the truth even when I knew I probably no one would listen?  Did I honor the commitments which I made at work and at home?  Did I choose to side with the good, taking the risk to do something even though I knew it might not be successful?  Did I choose to respect other people even when they didn’t deserve it?  Did I work for peace even when revenge and violence were more tempting?  These questions perhaps more than the others will be the ones which will give us peace and satisfaction on the last day.  Did I choose love even when it was difficult?

We all spend so much of our time on things that are insignificant.  But in the end there are only three questions we need to be able to answer positively:  Did I let love in?  Did I give love away?  Did I choose love even when it was difficult?  If we can answer to these three questions positively, we can close our eyes in peace and satisfaction. We can also have the confidence that we have found the door to eternity.  That is why it is a foolish thing to postpone dealing with these questions until we reach our deathbed.  That is why it is essential to begin answering and living these questions today.

The End of the Story

November 15, 2009

Mark 13:24-32

When I was growing up I had a close friend who loved to read novels.  She would read about one a week. But she always did it in a particular way.  She would first turn to the end and read the last five pages, and then she would turn to page one and begin.  This drove me crazy.  I said to her, “Why do you ruin the surprise of the novel by reading the ending?”  But she said, “I don’t read novels to be surprised, I read novels to enter into the story. I find that when I know the ending, I follow the story more deeply. I notice more things when I know where the novel is heading.”

Christians believe that history is a story and that our lives unfold in a particular direction.  We receive this perspective from the Jews.  In the ancient world most cultures saw time and history as a cycle, an endless repetition.  Time was seen to move from spring to summer to fall to winter to spring again.  Time did not have a direction, it kept repeating endlessly in the same pattern.  The Jews saw things differently. They saw history as a story controlled by God.  The story began with creation and kept unfolding until the last day when God would destroy every evil and bring all things into conformity into God’s will.  Christians adopted this Jewish perspective. With the resurrection of Jesus, we came to see that this end of history would happen through Christ.  That on the last day Jesus would come and conform all things to the love and will of God.

This of course brings us to today’s Gospel. Because the Gospel today presents the end of history and {SPOILER ALERT!} history will end with Jesus coming on the clouds of heaven and destroying all evil.  This is our faith. It is what we believe. Jesus will bring history to and end and establish the kingdom of God.

Now the question then that is before us is do we believe that history is a story?  Do we believe that history has a direction and will end in God’s victory over evil?  This is not simply a theoretical or theological question.  It influences the way we see our lives and the way that we live.  We could follow the ancient cultures and believe that history is treading water, continually cycling in the same patters. Then every blessing in our life, every choice that we make would have a temporary meaning, but not a lasting meaning.  We might be blessed for a moment, but in time things will cycle around again and repeat themselves.  But if we believe that history is a story that is has a direction and that it is aiming towards an ending of God’s victory, it can change the way we think and live.  In that perspective the blessings in our lives and the good choices that we make are not only blessings in this moment, but they help push history forward to that last day when all things will be good.  If we see history as a story that is unfolding, then the pain and tragedy of our life is also influenced.  The evil we must endure is not what the end of history will be. It is instead a twist in the story line, a detour in the narration.  We believe that God will in time make that twist straight, that God will in time will heal and correct all that has gone astray.

My friend who liked to read novels said she wanted to know the ending because it helped her engage in the story.  Today’s Gospel provides that service for us. It makes it clear that the final stage of history will be one in which God is victorious.  One in which all is well.  If we can believe that, then the pain and tragedy of our lives can be placed into a larger perspective as we deal with sickness or divorce, or rejection or pain.  We can carry those crosses aware that they are not where we are heading and not where we will end up.  Yes indeed they are true crosses that we must bear, but we believe that God will find a way to call us out of that evil and make all things good.

Today’s Gospel gives us the end of the story of history.  Let us use that ending to live. Let us use that ending to give ourselves hope to encourage us to do what is right to build God’s kingdom.  Come Lord Jesus.

A Glorious Ending

November 18, 2012

Mark 13:24-32

Mrs. Lipinski was a classically-trained pianist. After she retired, she decided to give piano lessons in her home. Over the years, most all of the children in her neighborhood spent some time at her keyboard. When the time came for each child to give a recital, Mrs. Lipinski would make him or her practice the end of the piece over and over again. When the children protested saying, “Why do we have to keep playing these last few measures so often,” Mrs. Lipinski would answer, “You can make a mistake at the beginning of the piece or in the middle of the piece or anywhere else along the way. But all of that will be forgotten if you can finish with a glorious ending.”

Endings are important. They are the final word. In today’s Gospel, Jesus promises us a glorious ending. He says that on the last day the evil powers of the world will be shaken and the angels of God will gather us into God’s kingdom. The fundamental truth of our faith is that God is not idle. God is active. God is working to direct our lives and our world to a blessed conclusion. We are not promised that reaching that conclusion will be easy or without pain. But we are promised that God is working with us and that God is working now to bring us to happiness. This is what we believe.

It is, however, easy to doubt. When we look at the violence that affects so many places in our world, when we look at the dysfunction and rancor in Washington, when we hear of people who must struggle with sickness and loss, it is easy for us to say, “Does God really intend to save us? Has God forgotten the promise to bring us to life?” It is easy to doubt. That is why we need one another. That is why we need to gather as we do each weekend to be in this place. Here, by our words and presence we assert to one another: Yes, it is true. Yes, God is in charge. Yes, God is for us. And if today is difficult and if tomorrow looks fearful, we still believe that in the end God’s love will be victorious.

So the challenge is to hold to the hope of a glorious ending. If today you are still looking for a job, if today your life is shattered by the upheaval of divorce, if today you say “I cannot spend another day fighting this cancer or grieving the person that I love,” then stand with us and believe that today is not the last day. God has another card to play and God fully intends to win over all the evil that attacks us. Hold on in hope. We know where we are going. We know that in God’s presence there will be happiness and peace. Hold on. It is the ending that counts.

Terror in Paris

November 15, 2015

Mark 13:24-32

Terror struck again this weekend in Paris. Enraged zealots mercilessly mowed down innocent people celebrating the end of the work week with their families and friends. Despite the best efforts of responsible governments, it seems like our world is becoming a more and more dangerous place. Things seem to be falling apart. The same may be true for some of us in our personal lives. Family problems, health concerns, the loss of someone we love can turn our world upside down. How do we live in the midst of such chaos? What can we do when our world or our lives become unhinged? The simple answer is this: we continue.

There is a Peanuts comic strip in which Charlie Brown decides to build a birdhouse. Lucy comes over and says, “How’s the birdhouse coming along, Charlie Brown?” He responds, “I’m a lousy carpenter, I can’t pound nails straight, and I can’t saw straight. I keep splitting the wood. I’m nervous, I lack self-confidence, I have bad taste, and I absolutely have no sense of design. But considering all those things, it’s coming along OK.” Despite overwhelming odds, Charlie Brown continues. We are asked to do the same thing in our broken world. In this effort our faith can be of assistance, because our faith can support both hope and commitment.

The scene in today’s gospel is one of chaos. The sun does not shine, and the stars are falling from the heavens. The world is falling apart. But Jesus is not absent. He appears in the clouds as the Son of Man. This is the scripture’s way of saying that even amidst the chaos of this world, Jesus does not abandon us. His power is real. It is not clear how he will use his power, but it will be for our good. When we claim in faith that Jesus stands with us in the midst of the chaos of the world, it can give us hope.

It can also bolster our commitment. The gospel says that the Son of Man dispatches his angels to gather the elect. The elect are those who do God’s will. We are called to be the elect by carrying on Jesus’ work. Even in the midst of upheaval, we are asked to continue as good parents, fair employers, and loyal friends. We must continue to work, to love, and to be thankful, even in the midst of violence and confusion.

I wish that the world were a safe place. I wish that the problems of our lives would disappear. But they press against us in fearful ways. That is why it is important to cling to the hope that Jesus stands with us in the midst of the chaos and to re-commit ourselves to his service. Now is not the time to collapse or to give up. Now is the time to continue.

Only God

November 18, 2018

Mark 13:24-32

Only God has complete knowledge. Only God knows everything. This truth is given dramatic expression in today’s gospel. Jesus is describing to his disciples how things will be at the end of the time. He is telling of the glorious coming of the Son of Man in the clouds. After he finishes his description he says, “But of the day and the hour no one knows, not the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” Jesus is telling us that no one knows when the world will end. We might be surprised to hear that the angels do not know. But we are very surprised to hear that the Son does not know. Jesus is saying that he himself does not know when the end of time will come. Only the Father knows.

Only God has complete knowledge. Only God knows everything. This might seem an abstract reflection, removed from our lives. But it is not, because if only God has complete knowledge, then clearly our knowledge is incomplete. No matter how educated we may be, no matter how wise we are, regardless of how much experience we have, we never see the whole picture. Our knowledge is partial and limited. Accepting this truth about ourselves can change the way that we live. It can make us more patient and humble people.

There might be someone in your family or at work who truly is a frustration for you. That person can be harsh, prejudiced, unreasonable. If we can remember that we will never fully know what is in that person’s heart, that we can never fully see the hurts they have endured or the burdens that they carry, it can make us more patient in dealing with them. Now this does not mean that we must accept everything that they say, forget that they should change, or endure whatever abuse they might throw our way. But if we can remember that we do not know everything, it can give us some space to breathe in their presence.

We might be deeply disappointed by a disastrous decision made by a son, daughter, or friend. If we can remember that we never fully understand the motives of any person, never fully see what they dream or how they love, we can find more flexibility. This may allow us to find a way forward in our relationship. This does not mean that we have to pretend that we agree with their decision. But if we can remember that we do not know everything, it can make us less angry and judgmental.

We might be stunned by the harsh political views of some member of our family or a friend, astonished at the way that anger and hatred pour out when a current issue in our country is mentioned. If we can remember that we will never know the source of that anger, or why the hatred is there, it can make us humble. This does not mean that we agree with the harsh opinions or prejudice. But remembering that our knowledge is limited permits us to defuse our own anger and perhaps find some common ground between us.

Only God knows everything. Our knowledge is incomplete. We are not God. Today’s readings invite us to remember that.

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