Thursday, September 01, 2011

Being duped by God for humility

My Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ
           May grace and peace be yours in abundance through Christ our Lord as we gather to worship and praise God’s name. As I meditated on the readings for today, I couldn’t help but think of a situation that happened to me in my seminary days. The second year of St. Paul Seminary was known to be a very difficult one. In fact, they referred to it as the washout year, a year in which the professors made a deliberate effort to so pack your schedule that the “undesirable” seminarians would leave. As I looked over my schedule at the beginning of the year, I realized that the reading for the classes alone could take up all my time. Yet, on top of the reading, I was expected to participate in daily common prayer and go out to a local parish to observe and learn from the pastor. The crazy thing was that, during the first semester, I really felt like I was succeeding and this was supposed to be the more difficult semester of the two. In several classes, I had read material that my fellow classmates simply hadn’t. I would get back papers with the best grades I had gotten in my post-secondary education, which was good since any grade below a C would mean that you automatically were asked to leave the program. I even had thoughts that I could become a bishop some day if I did well. I made it to finals and was looking forward to going home for break. All I had to do was take three oral finals in a row on Thursday morning and then I would be free to leave. The first one, on Original Sin and Grace, went okay. The second one, on the Eucharist, started off rough but quickly was amazing. I even used the Greek term for the sacristy, skeuophylakion, at one point, which made the professor’s eyes light up with joy. I walked into my last final and sat down ready to be done with a difficult year. The professor told me I could choose the question I wanted to answer. I looked at the paper with the questions and chose the last one I had been working on, one of the harder questions. As I started saying the answer, I remember thinking about a minute into it that I had started answering incorrectly but I didn’t know how to gracefully get around to the right answer. I felt like a semi truck driver going downhill with no brakes. After ten minutes, I finally gave up. I asked if I could try another question, and the professor kindly but firmly told me that I could not. I had a choice. I could come back the next day and take a written form of the test or I could take the F on the test and probably fail the course. I was devastated. I went back to my room and started to cry. I was convinced that I would fail the course and would, therefore, not be ordained. I felt like I had been duped by God into believing that I was intelligent when, clearly, I was not.
          In some ways, both Peter and Jeremiah feel duped by God in today’s readings. You might remember that last week Peter was called the rock on which the church is built by Our Lord and was given the Keys to the Kingdom, which is why we honor him as the first Pope. But, when Peter tries to exercise leadership this week, Jesus calls him Satan and says that, instead of building up the church, the rock is acting more like a stumbling block. And, while Jeremiah has been doing exactly what the Lord has asked him to do, prophesying about the ramifications of the Judeans sinful actions by the hands of the Babylonians, by all appearances Jeremiah is the one who is going to be punished instead of the Judeans. The word that Jeremiah uses today is translated as duped but it would be better to use the word seduced. For both Peter and Jeremiah, God made their leadership positions so attractive that they felt like they couldn’t turn him down. But, it quickly becomes clear that God seduced them by only presenting the best parts. Now that they’ve accepted, he tells them about the crosses that are also involved.
          I imagine the same is true in your life. Didn’t we all dream of having a job that we loved, the kind of job where we feel like we make a good amount of money and make a real contribution to society? You probably didn’t think about becoming dissatisfied with job conditions or having your position eliminated and being forced to work in a job for little pay with long hours. Or, if you are married, you were undoubtedly seduced by the best parts of family life. You probably thought of having a loving spouse to be your companion throughout your life. You probably thought of having children you would raise to be responsible citizens. You probably didn’t think about having disagreements that seem to go on and on with a spouse who is sometimes very hard to love or children that come home one day with body piercings or tattoos. Haven’t you ever wanted to turn to God and say, “You seduced me with all the good stuff and now you expect me to put up with the crosses of all the bad as well? Where’s the justice in this?!##$@#”
          I am convinced that, part of the reason we have these experiences is to teach us humility. Ultimately, we may feel like we are in charge of our own fate but we are not. A disagreeable spouse reminds us that we are in a relationship of equals and that compromise is essential in such a relationship. A rebellious daughter or son reminds us of the things we did to our parents and all the hardship we caused them. Even a failing grade in seminary can seem like an opportunity to learn resilience and a lesson in why I will never, ever, ever, ever become a Bishop. It is what St. Paul was talking about in offering our lives as a living sacrifice. We offer up all the disappointments, all the sufferings and hardships, to the one true God as part of the cross that he invites us to carry knowing that he carried it for us first in forgiveness of our sins.