Sunday, November 13, 2016

Awaiting "the Sun of Justice" in a Dark World

We’ve all seen him – if not in real life, then certainly in the movies. The man standing on a busy street corner proclaiming that the end is near. For the last few summers, when I’ve been in Washington DC to study to canon law, I’ve seen one particular guy who stands outside of Nationals Stadium with a sign, a megaphone, and plenty to stay to anyone who will listen. People have been proclaiming the end of civilization since before the word “civilization” was coined. And yet, despite many terrible events of our past, things have continued on – the world has not ended. 

Here’s the thing though – some day, it will. In the Gospel today, the role of Doomsday Predictor is played by someone perhaps surprising: Jesus himself. While in Jerusalem, near the Holy Temple, Jesus shocks those listening to him by foretelling the destruction of the most sacred place in the world. For Jews, the Temple was not only the dwelling place of God – it was representative of the world itself. It was a symbol of God’s authority, God’s power, and God’s covenant with humanity – and so for it to be destroyed, as it was only some 30 years after Jesus’s death and resurrection – would have been a shocking and disorienting occurrence for every Jew.

From there, Jesus doesn’t get any more cheerful. He goes on to speak about the End Times, the day coming, “blazing like an oven,” in the words of the prophet Malachi, when God’s judgment and justice will finally be delivered upon the world and upon those who do evil. Before that happens, Jesus promises that those who are faithful to him will be persecuted severely – betrayed by family and friends, thrown into prison, even put to death. Yes, this week’s Gospel is surely not for the faint of heart.

The Destruction and Sack of the Temple in Jerusalem (1637), Nicolas Poussin

However, I would maintain that the fundamental message of this Gospel is not one of fear but rather one of hope. Because while Jesus assures us that these terrible things are in the future, he also encourages us to not be “terrified” by them – instead we are to trust that He Himself will be there to give us the strength to persevere.

As Christians, fear should be alien to us – it should never be our default reaction. Indeed, the only fear we should have is fear of the Lord. Why? Because we recognize that, in the end, only God remains. No worldly reality – good or bad, beautiful or terrible – truly lasts. Thus the only thing we have to fear is being separated from the one who himself is Love, Goodness, Beauty, Truth, Peace. And for the one who draws his or her strength from God, no suffering or persecution is too great to endure. The Cross is the reality for every follower of Jesus, but the Resurrection is so much greater than the Cross.

One of the important jobs of a preacher and pastor is to take the temperature, so to speak, of his flock. In other words, I try to anticipate how you’re doing – what the realities of your life are from week to week and to try to find something in God’s Word that speaks to those realities. This week though, I confess to being a little bit at a loss. I can’t presume to know how the events of this momentous week have affected you – with the important election and its result and some of the aftermath we’ve seen around the country. The truth is we probably have not all responded in the same way. Our reactions will vary depending on our backgrounds, our ages, our political views, and the like. Nonetheless, we see that our society is deeply divided on issues of real importance and on what kind of future we envision for our country.

If you agree with that, then I think the words of Jesus today should hit home for us in a special way. Notice how he describes what will pass away: “All that you see here.” That is, not just the Temple of Jerusalem, but everything of this world – the stones of all that we see around us will be cast down. If this life is running out, then, we don’t really have time for division and discord. We must instead be about building unity, about becoming reconciled, not just with each other but with God and with what he has commanded. That’s the key to awaiting the day of judgment not with fear but with hope and expectation, when God himself will finally right all wrongs.

None of this means that we become disengaged or disinterested or discouraged by the events that affect our daily lives. Jesus would never want us to be complacent about the issues facing us, to not work at bettering our society and assuring peace and justice and prosperity. But he does warn us to never place our hopes in anything – or anyone – that is merely confined to this world. What we must adjust is not our efforts but our attitudes. Politics and parties and candidates and elected officials – and in a broader way, countries and cities and civilizations – all of them are necessary in the present moment. But make no mistake: our lasting, eternal hopes must be placed in something – Someone – who will outlast them. And it is that Someone who remains our true hope, the One who helps bear well the persecutions that we will necessarily encounter because of Him.

Regardless of how the elections had turned out, the past week has shown us that much work remains to be done – not just for our newly elected leaders, but for each of us. I know you’ve heard calls from various leaders and individuals to encourage unity. I would particularly draw your attention to the letter of our bishop, Anthony Taylor, which you can find on the diocesan website and which will also be up on our parish website later this week. Perhaps each of us can consider how we can begin the work of healing division in our own lives – seeking to understand those who differ from us, laboring to forgive those who have maligned us, promoting what is best not just for some of us but for all of us, what we call “the common good.” As those who claim to be disciples of Jesus, indeed baptized into His Body, this work is all the more important – it takes on an urgency because it stretches beyond merely righting wrongs in this world. It’s about preparing us for the next. As good as our intentions may be, our efforts will be fruitless if we do not seek first to see with the eyes of Christ, to labor with His hands, to speak with His voice – to be at every moment an instrument of peace and justice not as the world understands them but as God does.

Friends, someday the Lord will return and this world will pass away, and we do not know the day or the hour. But rather than cause us to stand on a street corner predicting doom, or worse, to be filled with fear and worry, this knowledge should instead inspire us to action, indeed even lead us to hope. In the end, nothing will remain except “the Sun of Justice with its healing rays” and those who have placed their hopes not in the world but in Him. Let us learn anew to shine with His warmth, that we might bring His light into the darkness of a world that is passing away.

Friday, November 4, 2016

A Retrospective on Why I'm a Cubs Fan

People ask me why I’m a Chicago Cubs fan. Here’s the story.

When I was a kid, baseball was pretty much life. Though I eventually became a priest, I used to tell people when I was little that I wanted to be a baseball player in the summertime and a priest in the wintertime. I'm still not entirely sure that isn't possible.

Anyway, while I wasn't the most talented player, I loved the chess match of the game: the way in which a variety of skill sets are valued and valuable; how smarts are needed in addition to talent; the fact that a player who wasn't the most naturally gifted could outplay or outwit his opponent; how so much of the game depends upon controlling the little things.

When I wasn’t playing in organized leagues in the summer evenings, I played in the backyard by myself in the afternoons. When it got too hot, I would come inside and what would I want to watch? Baseball, of course. Back then, only a few professional teams were on national broadcast, and the only one that was on every afternoon were the Cubs on WGN. What started as a love for baseball soon blossomed into a passion for the Cubs. The summer ivy, the Friendly Confines, Harry & Steve calling games, the Stretch, and especially the players: Andre "The Hawk" Dawson, Shawn Dunston, Greg "Mad Dog" Maddux, Mark Grace, and especially Ryne Sandberg. I was hooked.

Over the years, I followed them pretty closely, checking the box scores each morning when I couldn’t watch them on TV. Unlike many Cubs fans, I didn't have family from Chicago or friends who supported me in being a Cubs fan. Instead, my devotion grew through faithful following, to the point that my own family became Cubs fans, to greater or lesser degree.

I watched through Ryno’s retirement and un-retirement, the drought of the mid-90s, Sammy’s emergence and the ’98 home run race, "Kid K" (Kerry Wood's) epic 20 strikeout game, and the unexpected playoff push in ’01. That year, I started college in St. Louis, and for the first time, I found a group of baseball fans as passionate as I was – the problem was they rooted for the Cardinals, the Cubs’ chief rival.

I attended a lot of Cardinal games during my years at SLU. I enjoyed the baseball culture of the city and I followed the team closely. But I could never become a fan of the Redbirds. It just felt wrong. In 2003, the Cubs made a late and great push through the playoffs, at one point as close as five outs away from the World Series. The story doesn’t need recounting here, but they didn’t make it. 

I had always known that the Cubs were the "Lovable Losers" of baseball. And while I knew about 1969 and 1984 and 1989, the team had been usually middling during my fandom. It wasn't until 2003 that I think I really realized what the cost of being a fan of the Cubs could be. But rather than be dissuaded or disheartened, I came to value my fandom in a much deeper way. The heartbreak of the end of that season cemented my fandom into something closer to obsession. I began to follow prospects, read blogs, discuss trade rumors, and understand the strategy of how front offices did (or did not) craft a team for success. It was also during this time that I was able to first venture to Wrigley Field and to see the team live for the first time. The Cubs amassed great teams in the mid-2000’s, crowned by a couple of division titles in ’07 and ’08. But again, playoff hopes were dashed.

When the Cubs were sold in 2009 from the Tribune Company to the Ricketts family, hope dawned anew. After a couple years giving the old regime a last chance, they turned to Theo Epstein and his brain trust in 2011, who formulated “The Plan”. Since then, for those of us who followed the logic behind it, it was clear that this methodical approach toward building the system with young talent would be painful in the short term but pay off in the future.

This season has been amazing. The Cubs started the season as the clear World Series favorites, and despite hiccups along the way, they have been the best team in baseball wire to wire. Despite numerous chances to choke throughout the playoffs, they persevered and eventually prevailed. I got the chance to see them a couple of times over the summer, when they came to D.C. to face the Nationals and on a trip to Wrigley with my dad in June.

In the playoffs, I was tempted to count out the Cubs a few different times, especially during the latter part of Game 7 of the World Series. But like many other Cubs fans, I always had a different feeling about this team, even when the chips were down. And after a regrouping during “the greatest rain delay in history”, the Cubs at last came out on top. Following so many years of frustration and failure, it’s great to say the Chicago Cubs are the World Champions.

Today, Cubs fans around the country watch as the team bring the Commissioner’s Trophy to the city of Chicago for the first time in 108 years. If I dare to speak for all Cubs fans, this feels like vindication, redemption, the fulfillment of things hoped for. I have often reflected upon the religious overtones of waiting and hoping for a thing that seems far off, impossible, unlikely to ever come ... and then finally, on one glorious day, seeing that dream fulfilled in a way more glorious than one could imagine. It's trite, certainly, that it takes sports to show it, but truly "hope does not disappoint" (Romans 5:5). In that way, fandom is much like faith – a common belief with others to hope in something greater than ourselves.

I wish I could be along Addison Street or in Grant Park to watch the team go by today, as surely hundreds of thousands, maybe millions gather to greet and cheer the beloved team. I’ll be celebrating, however, in my own way, grateful for all that my fandom has meant for me and so many others over the years. Perhaps the best part of it all is to know how this could be the beginning of a great thing; the team is young, talented, and has much room to grow. You can’t predict baseball, but it’s tremendously exciting to see what the next few years will bring. A new horizon stretches out before us -- for us fans of the baseball Chicago Cubs, and indeed for anyone who dares to hope in a dream bigger than them.

Go Cubs Go!