I’ve been wrestling all week with what it is I’m about to say. From the moment I first read the scriptures last Monday or so, I feel like the Lord immediately gave me a word that he wanted me to reflect on and what he wanted me to share with all of us to reflect on but I’ve been doing everything that I can to avoid that word and to push it away. If I can steal the words from Jeremiah from our first reading, the most reluctant prophet, I said to myself, “I will not speak of that.” But every time I’ve sat down to pray, I felt that the Lord, despite my efforts to avoid the word, has brought me back to the word. And I think partly the desire to avoid it comes from a conversation or really conversations I’ve had with parishioners over the past several years, ever since Covid began, about how much they miss mass. Many times now people have expressed to me a view that I think is fairly common to Christians in general and perhaps Catholics in particular. They say they miss mass because they miss the feeling of getting uplifted and to feel good. And they weren’t filling particularly uplifted since the pandemic began, even when watching the mass via live-stream. I wonder then what they would make of Jesus’ words in the gospel.
In these days when our ears and our minds are being deluged by men and women running for public office, Jesus gives a kind of campaign speech, if you will. Only his speech doesn’t sound all that uplifting. At least not at first hearing.
“Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. What would it profit a man or a woman to gain everything and lose their soul?
Or what can a man or a woman give in exchange for his or her soul? For the Son of Man will return with all his angels in his Father’s glory, and then he will repay everyone according to their conduct.”
If we can continue with the presidential campaign image, with the analogy between Jesus’ words and the words that we have heard last week and what we will continue to hear over the next several weeks, at what point in the middle of Jesus’ speech would the crowd erupt into thunderous applause? When would the flags begin to wave? When would Jesus have to stop speaking so that the frenzied crowd would finally die down? I can’t for the life of me picture that happening and I’m sure you can’t either.
Jesus’ words to me and to you this morning are direct and sobering. Very, very sobering. They speak to us, he, the Eternal Son of God, who alone can teach us how to live an authentic human life, who alone can show me the way to happiness, who alone can lead me in the way that leads to lasting peace, he speaks to me and to you about ultimate things. And here’s the ultimate thing, the word, if you will, that I think the Lord is asking me to reflect on and I think is asking us all to reflect on, regardless of whether it is uplifting and makes me feel good. Although hopefully it inspires me to want to be good which is infinitely more important than feeling good.
The word is judgment. Judgment. The simple reality, the unavoidable reality, the very sobering reality, is that when I die, I’m going to stand in front of God and he is, according to Jesus’ words in the gospel, going to repay me according to my conduct. And so it will be with every single one of us here.
As I was reflecting on this gospel and this word, for me, it occurred to me that preaching on judgment is a lot like preaching on money in a parish. As a pastor, I have a responsibility to lay out in front of us where we stand financially and while I won’t and will I never consider preaching on money all the time, I better preach on it at least once a year. And so it is with judgment. Can’t preach on it all the time but I want to be faithful to what the Lord is asking me to do as a priest and if I’m going to faithful to the words that he speaks, whether I find them to convenient or inconvenient, I better speak on it. In the words of someone, years ago, who very succinctly put it, it is incredibly important to keep always before my eyes the reality that life is short, death is certain, and eternity is long. So Jesus is inviting you and me today to reflect upon the end, the end of my life on earth, the end of your life on earth which will be the beginning of our eternal lives, either in heaven, where, please God, by his mercy, we will all dwell or in hell, frightening and terrifying as the thought may be, which is a reality and a very real possibility.
When we die, we are going to stand face to face with the God who made us and loves us and who became man and suffered and died for us and offered his mercy to us, and it will be just me and the Lord, you and the Lord. And what I’ve done and what I didn’t do.
But I think it’s important to remember that judgment doesn’t necessarily have to be something negative. You get an A in class, that’s a judgment. To receive a gold medal in the Olympics is a judgment. To win a national championship in football is a judgment. Maybe not for OSU.
And so, too, ultimately or infinitely more so are the words we are going to hear when we die. “Well done, good and faithful servant.” It’s just as important to remember those words aren’t guaranteed any more than the A in class, the gold medal, or the national championship.
St. John of the Cross, one of the great saints, heroes, and mystics of the Church, once wrote that when we die we will be judged according to one question. Only one. The question: did you love? That is, did you, did I, love the Lord with all my heart, with all my mind, with all my soul, with all my strength? And did you, did I, love my neighbor as myself?
As we reflect today on the reality of our judgment, a day which will surely come, let’s beg the Lord for the desire to love the way we should so as to hear what we all long to hear on that day.
Sunday Mass begins at 11 a.m. with the sacrament of reconciliation at 10:15 a.m. Come pray with us at St. Michael Catholic Church, located at 1004 W. Gentry in Henryetta.