Biblical Love – Fr. Gary Pennings

Fr. Gary Pennings’ Homily September 19, 2021

“The readings today address a common human condition, ambition. Now I don’t mean ambition in the sense of being motivated and not being lazy, that’s a good kind of ambition. I mean ambition that is selfish, ambition that elevates one’s own accomplishments and achievements above all else and that kind of ambition is often jealous when over what someone else has obtained. God’s Word in the letter of St. James says, ‘Where jealousy and selfish ambition exists there is disorder and every foul practice.’ This kind of ambition leads to no good the scriptures tell us. Such selfish ambition is rooted in pride which is the first capital sin and the capital sins are kind of listed in order of priority I think. Now this selfishness, this selfish ambition, you could say it’s somewhat ‘natural’, natural after sin. It’s part of the fallen human condition. You can see it in a little kid about 14 months old. That little kid will be out there, mom puts a blanket out and they’re playing with their toys and the neighbor kid about the same age creeps over to one of their toys and grabs it and the kid says, ‘No mine!’ and rips it out of his hand and then proceeds to beat the kid over the head with it. Where does that come from? Mom and dad didn’t sit down with that 14 month old and say, ‘Pay attention Junior, we’re going to teach you how to be selfish.’ No, it’s part of our fallen human condition. Me, me, mine, mine, it’s part of our brokenness and parents without thinking they are doing anything very theological will bend the child against their nature and bend the child against their nature toward what we might call a super nature because we’re not called to be natural, we’re called to be super-natural. We’re called to be gifted by grace. We’re not called to abide and rest in our wounded human nature and so mom and dad will say, ‘No no no honey, you have to share.’ They’re doing their job of forming their child as a disciple, but it’s part of that brokenness we have. Now we do want our children to succeed in life and sometimes we unintentionally enable selfish ambition by encouraging good things such as hard work and perseverance and a certain level of competitiveness, but pushed too far, these things can lead to a selfish ambition that St. James said, ‘leads to all this disorder and every foul practice.’ It’s gotta be kept in check. We see it in our world, right? Just look around us, we see the corruption in politics, in government. We see gross inequities in business. Now we expect some inequities. We don’t expect the boss to be paid the same as the line worker, but there are some gross inequities. People are being used as a means to achieve an immense wealth for a few. We see it in the Church where careerism becomes more important than being a good shepherd or a teacher. We see it in entertainment and social media. Sometimes they celebrate a victor’s total annihilation of their competition and sadly we see it in Hollywood where so many promising lives are often lost to overdose and suicide because of peer pressure, excesses of wealth, and the succeed or perish environment that pushes so many people over the edge and our own young people sometimes are suffering from those same pressures because they feel pushed toward what we might call selfish ambition. The Gospel account today reveals that some of this is even going on among the disciples themselves. Jesus realizes this and he pulls them aside. He waits to say anything until they get inside the house in Capernaum and then he asked them what they were talking about and then there was silence because they knew what they were talking about and in their heart they knew there was something wrong with it. They were embarrassed. So he sits down which in the bible always indicates a teaching moment and he says, ‘If anyone of you wishes to be first, if you want to be the greatest you should be the last of all and the servant of all.’ True greatness comes through service, through spending your life as a gift for the good of another. And then he takes a child, now we might see that today as kind of a warm and fuzzy gesture, but children in Jesus’ day weren’t seen as children today. Today we kind of hover over our kids and try to protect them. In Jesus’ day kids were much more utilitarian. The more you had, the better because you could put them to work to make money to help support the family and they had absolutely no say, no power. They were the most powerless people in all society and that’s who Jesus takes, the most powerless one and he says, ‘When you receive one like this’, and then he embraces the child, he said, ‘then you receive me and when you receive me you receive the one who sent me.’ So he’s sending a message about just not serving but also serving not only the powerful but the powerless and so this reminding of the disciples that they should not be concerned with their influence or with their wealth or with fame, but in service, service to the most powerless. So, love in the scriptures is really you could probably define it as this, a willingness, a wanting and an effort to bring about the good of others especially maybe those you don’t like because it’s easy to be kind to people you like, that you’re attracted to or are pleasant to be around, but true love in the bible says to will the good of the other to want good outcome for the other even those who aren’t’ always nice to you. That’s biblical love and service is rooted in that kind of love. The opening prayer today talked about all the commandments are rooted in those commandments to love, love God and love your neighbor and service is one of the ways we live out our love. It’s other-focused. It’s not self-focused.

So the teachings today from our Lord invite us to ask, in fact I need to ask myself, how am I doing in serving others? Because I’m not different than most of you. I like comfort. I like my privacy. I like my time. I like doing my thing. I like being not bothered, but that’s not my life. That’s not anybody’s life. We’re all called especially young parents you’re doing it now all the time. Your whole day is spent caring for others who are pretty helpless, but the day will come when they’ll grow up, but you’re still gonna be called to serve. Others here, their kids are up and grown, how are we called to serve now? Am I other-focused or is my life all about me? How detached am I from my own ego or even when I am serving am I looking for recognition or am I thinking in my heart, I hope they notice that or hope they appreciate that. What’s my motivation for serving? Do I brag about myself with service? Because I kind of undo it all if I do that. Almost all of us do serve others generously at times often abandoning our own needs. As I said, parents are the greatest example. I had a baptism yesterday for some friends of mine who just had their seventh child and I remember right after that I was at the hospital when the baby was born. The next few days their eyes were all bleary. They were up all night caring for that baby and when the baby woke up the other kids woke up and it was a mess, but that’s a life of service, right? But beyond that, how are we called to serve? The Lord reminds us to keep up serving to keep up that practice that so many practice with their children to not let sin turn us in on ourselves. I had a pastor once out northeast and he noticed that all his parishioners once their kids grew up then moved out of the house they became empty-nesters they kind of retired and moved to Florida. He challenged them, ‘No stay here. Stay here and live a life of service. You’ve raised wonderful families. You’re amazing married couples. Don’t just go to some resort down in Florida and drink (whatever you drink in Florida at a resort) but stay here and help young couples, struggling couples. Be a witness and a mentor to them to help them grow and build strong families. At different phases of our life we’re called to serve in different ways. Sometimes when we’re tied up with families our service might be limited outside of the family, but then later in life we’re called to serve in other ways. As our children are gone we have more time. As we retire we have even more time and we can serve in the Church or outside the Church. How can we give our life as gift and serve others? Because that’s one of the ways we love the way the Lord commands us to love. Sometimes as we’re old a crippled and sick and dying we’re still called to serve, but we have to serve now by being a good patient by letting people love us and care for us and help them care for Christ through us and so we have to witness as Christ would and by being a kind appreciative patient we can serve others. Elsewhere in the Gospel Jesus says, ‘I came not to be served but to serve and to give my life as a ransom for many.’ Now few of us here will be called to give our lives in that bloody manor like Jesus did, but we’re all called to die to ourself and to find ways to serve others. I invite you to reflect on the Lord’s words today to his own apostles because if they were tempted to turn in on themselves and to make life all about me you can bet that we are too and the Lord says resist that temptation, live the Gospel of love, turn out of yourselves, bend against that wounded nature and live a life of other centered service. That’s what the Lord invites us to do today.

We have a couple of opportunities to do that in our own parish. One is there’s a lector training so if you have the gifts of oration, you can project your voice and you can speak well and you’re willing to immerse yourself in the Word of God because being a lector isn’t just coming up here and reading the Word. You’re not going to be very convincing if you don’t immerse yourself in the Word and so that’s one way. In a few minutes I’m going to give a blessing to all our catechists, those who share their faith with others either children or youth or other adults or through Catechesis of the Good Shepherd or through all kinds of formation, spiritual mentoring, any of those things. There’s all kinds of ways to serve and there’s tons of ways in the community to serve as well. The Lord invites us to reflect on our gifts, our talents and to love through service.”