31st Sunday in Ordinary Time – November 4, 2018
Good Shepherd – Chicago, IL (La Villita)
Deuteronomy 6:2-6; Psalm 18:2-4, 47, 51; Hebrews 7:23-28; Mark 12:28b-34
As I was flying to Chicago yesterday, I was listening to the album called “Ghost Stories” by the band Coldplay. This album came into my life at a very crucial time, and every time I listen to it, it stirs-up within me the memory of that time. It is strange how much certain things can take us back to the event to which they are tied, whether it is a song, or a story, or a smell—there are those things which viscerally transport us back to that time, to that event, to that memory. For me, this album takes me back to one of the most difficult times in my life, but what turned out to be one of the most crucial events in my life.
Now, for the people of Israel, they all shared a common thing which stirred-up a very specific memory, which transported them back to a crucial event in their life. That thing is the prayer we hear repeated several times in our readings today, the “Shema”: “Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD alone! Therefore, you shall love the LORD, your God, with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength. Take to heart these words which I enjoin on you today” (Deuteronomy 6:4-6).
What this prayer viscerally calls to mind is the time right before the people entered the promised land; after the Exodus, after their wandering in the desert. This prayer took them back to a time when they were experiencing incredible joy and peace due to the fulfillment of the promise the Lord had made to them. Against all odds, after so much time doubting whether the Lord was truly taking care of them, they finally saw that the Lord had indeed been faithful to His people. This prayer was their daily reminder to love and trust the Lord with their entire being because He proved himself faithful to the promises He made, because He alone is the true Lord, and had proved that He was loving and caring for them even during a time when they had felt abandoned. The real issue, though, is the last part of the prayer: taking these words to heart, truly taking them into our heart, into our being, into our thoughts and feelings, our entire life; allowing these words and that memory to affect us, to truly change our lives.
This is exactly what the young scribe in our Gospel today is struggling with. As a scribe, he is used to sitting with others debating and discussing the Law, but not as familiar with allowing the Law to truly take root in his heart.
But on this day, on this day this scribe brings one of these questions to Jesus: “Which is the first of all the commandments?” (Mark 12:28). And this seems to be the easiest question; every Jew knew the answer: the Shema. And that’s what Jesus says, he recites the Shema. But for some reason, on this day…on this day the words of that prayer finally reach the scribe’s heart. As a good Jew, he had probably prayed that prayer every day for his entire life. But on this day, for the first time, it all made sense, it finally touched his heart. And because it had finally reached his heart, that prayer finally had the life changing effect on him that it is meant to have on everyone. In something as normal as a prayer he prayed every day, he was able to to allow the Lord to change his life, and, as Jesus points out, to draw near to the Kingdom of God.
This is the issue: the Lord is either not active in the circumstance of your daily life, not taking care of you, or the Lord is alive, risen, and present, and he has been with you and taking care of you even in the moments when you thought he had abandoned you. He has either abandoned you or he has been taking care of you.
As I was listening to that album by Coldplay yesterday, the memory that arose, the event I was drawn back to was the time when I felt abandoned and incredibly alone and forgotten by the Lord. Now, quick background: when I made the decision to enter seminary, I did so out of a sense of duty; I knew God was calling me to be a priest, I knew I had to do this, it was undeniable, and so I went. I told the beautiful, and smart, and holy, and beautiful girl I was with at the time that I had to go. And so I went. And throughout my first two years of seminary, even though there were tough times, this call only grew stronger: I couldn’t deny it, no matter what.
But then the event that album calls to mind happened. One summer while I was home from school I met and worked at a job with this woman who was everything I had ever wanted: the perfect, beautiful, and smart woman that I had dreamed about, the woman I had envisioned as the one who could make me happy…I was forced to work with her. But the whole time, the call to be a priest was as strong as ever; I knew God was calling me to be a priest. And so, I was angry and upset. I thought God was punishing me, that he was being cruel to me! Why would he put this woman in my life, break my heart, rip me to pieces inside? Why would the Lord, who promised to take care of me and be with me, why would he allow this, why would He abandon me to a situation like this? And for the next year and a half—a year and a half—this event tore at my heart.
It wasn’t until almost three years later that it all changed. Three years! Like I said, my heart was being torn apart by this event, but at the same time, I was discovering my heart, I was discovering my humanity, my need for Another, my need for someone to fulfill me, my need for happiness. And more importantly, I was realizing that, for my entire life, I had decided what was going to make me happy, I had decided that I could only be happy if I got married and had a family. And being a priest? Well, that was just what I had to do because God said so, and we have to do what God says even if it makes us miserable. That’s what I thought!
But after three years—three years!—I finally began to see. I saw the Lord’s presence, even in this event in which I had felt abandoned. I recognized that Lord was working in and through this event, even though I was unaware of it for so long. And the whole time, the problem was me, it had always been me. I had put such a limit on God, on how God could work and act in my life, that I had missed his presence altogether.
In this event, my heart was sufficiently torn apart for the the first and the greatest commandment to enter in: “The Lord is God, the Lord alone.” Not me. And I finally realized that I had never taken these words to heart, I had never trusted that the Lord was taking care of me. The Lord’s ways are not our ways, and He works in ways that are unforeseen and unexpected; He works in and through the events we least expect. If scripture makes anything clear, it is that! In fact, in the most unforeseen, unforeseeable and inconceivable event, God became man, God died, and God rose from the dead. And it was through that event, through his incarnation, death and resurrection that the Lord proved his faithfulness to us, he proved that he is taking care of us.
As soon as we try to decide what is going to give us the happiness for which our hearts long, as soon as we do this we miss what the first and the greatest commandment: “The Lord is God, the Lord alone.” As soon as we decide what is going to satisfy the infinite longing in our heart which was placed there by God, as soon as we make ourselves God, it all falls apart. But when we allow the Lord to break into our heart, when we stop limiting how the Lord can be at work in our lives, even when we least expect it—when we do this, we discover that we can trust the Lord to satisfy that desire within each of us.
I’ve been a priest for five months and nine days. And though there are still many challenges and difficulties, I can say with complete honesty that they have been the happiest, most fulfilling five months and nine days of my life. I would gladly go through the heartbreak of that summer again if it meant being given the opportunity to be with the people the Lord has sent me to serve. I wouldn’t trade it for anything. But I only experience that because I allowed the first and greatest commandment of the Lord to break into my heart, and because that original event continues to keep my heart open to that.
Here in this mass, we celebrate and consume that most unforeseeable and unexpected event: Christ’s incarnation, death, and resurrection; Christ’s heart being pierced, ripped open in love of us. We take this event into our very being, praying that through it Christ may finally break into our hearts, that he may break into our hearts anew, and that we may never waver in our faith and trust in the fact that he has never abandoned us, that he has always been faithful to us—that he is the Lord, and he alone.