Sunday, March 16, 2014

Homily for 2d Sunday of Lent

Homily for the
2d Sunday of Lent
Gen 12: 1-4
March 16, 2014
St. Vincent’s Hospital, Harrison, N.Y.

“The Lord said to Abram:  ‘Go forth from the land of your kinsfolk and from your father’s house to a land that I will show you” (Gen 12: 1).

Otto Anton Mendl, an 18-year-old German-speaking Hungarian, arrived at Ellis Island on July 3, 1906, after a 10-day voyage from Antwerp, Belgium, aboard the Red Star Line steamship Kroonland.  An uncle who lived in Harlem had paid his fare, but he had only $6 in his pocket. Young Otto listed his occupation as “laborer,” but eventually he found work as a skilled metalworker, settled on the Upper East Side, married, started a family, became a citizen, bought a house in Queens and a summer cottage in Mastic Beach, and lived the American dream.

Otto and Terez Mendl with daughter
Mary and son Otto Jr., ca. early 1920.
Their youngest, Johann (John),
was born in Sept. 1920.
Most of us have grandparents or great-grandparents who came to America at the end of the 19th century or beginning of the 20th, having left behind their homes and their homelands, escaping oppression or poverty or lack of work or some other misfortune, or just having a sense of adventure and hope.  Like many, many others, my grandfather may have been fleeing from being drafted into the arm—in his case, the army of the Austrian Empire.

People like Grandpa at least had an idea where they were going.  They may not have been fully informed, like the Irishman who moaned, “Not only were the streets not paved with gold; they weren’t paved at all, and we were the ones who were going to pave them.”

19th-century immigrants had read in newspapers and letters about the New World and what they might expect there.  They knew they’d have plenty of opportunities to work, to improve their lives, to enjoy freedom.  They’d be able to keep in touch with parents and siblings back in Europe, even able to return if they chose to, as many Italians did for various reasons.

How all that contrasts with what happens to Abram.  God suddenly tells him to pack up his family and his flocks and go “to the land that I will show you.”  Where is that?  He’d not told.  How will he get there?  Obviously he’ll have to walk or riding an ass, but more he’s not told.  What will await him there:  promises of blessings (12:2-3), but more he’s not told.  He does seem to be told, however, that his move will be definitive; there will be no returning to his father’s house.  He goes without roadmap, GPS, AAA assistance, or Motel 6.  There are no telephones, no Skype, no Facebook to guide him forward or re-connect with the folks back in Mesopotamia.

All Abram has to go on is God’s promise of a great future, of family, of blessing.  Great faith is demanded of him.  And “Abram went as the Lord had directed him” (12:4).  He doesn’t know where God will take him or by what route.  He doesn’t know what peoples he’ll find along his route or in this new land or how they’ll receive him.  He doesn’t know how God will carry out the promises he’s made. He knows only that God’s worthy of his trust.

That faith of Abram, whom God renames Abraham in Gen 17, is why in his Letter to the Romans St. Paul holds him up as a model for Christians:  “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness” (4:3).  Our righteousness, our being in a right relationship with God, rests on our faith, specifically our faith in Jesus Christ.

Journey of the Family of Abraham,
by Giovanni Benedetto, 1664
Abram was called to set out on a journey.  We’re on a journey of a different sort, not moving from one physical place to another, but moving from sin to virtue, from death to life, from earth to heaven.  We are pilgrims, the Church often reminds us, on a long, difficult, often dangerous road toward our homeland, toward our Father’s house.

Like Abram, we’ve never seen this land we’re heading for.  But we have faith that Jesus will lead us there; he’s gone before us.  Jesus has left us his holy Word and the sacraments and the teachings of his Church as our guides along our journey.

Many temptations try to lead us off-track or make us quit our journey altogether.  Our consumer society tells us that eternal happiness consists in possessions, in piles of money, big houses, fancy cars.  Our Playboy society tells that eternal happiness consists in sexual satisfaction, fine food, and every other kind of pleasure.  Our celebrity society tells us that eternal happiness consists in being famous.  Our egoistic society tells us that eternal happiness consists in being powerful.

In our hearts we know that’s all baloney!

In our hearts—still, it takes faith for us not to listen to all that baloney and mistake it for filet mignon—instead of journeying along with Jesus.  Jesus shows us the land to which he’s leading us—where we shall be transfigured gloriously and want to stay forever.  Listen to Peter this morning:  “Lord, it’s good that we’re here.  If you wish, I’ll make 3 tents here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” (Matt 17:4)—with the implication that he can stay there and enjoy this sampling of heaven indefinitely.  But the road to heavenly glory includes the cross:  “Don’t speak of the vision to anyone until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead” (17:9).

For the Christian, the cross means putting others ahead of ourselves, making sacrifices, living simply and not extravagantly, speaking honestly and not deceptively, forgiving and not “getting even,” living chastely, being faithful to our spouses, not indulging our sexuality outside marriage, and much more.  St. Paul sums it up in the 1st line of today’s 2d reading:  “Bear your share of hardships for the gospel” (2 Tim 1:8).  Like Abram, we need great faith to walk on the path God has opened for us thru the passion and death of Jesus.  But that path is one with immense blessing at the end:  “Our Savior Christ Jesus, who destroyed death and brought life and immortality” (1 Tim 1:10).

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