Monday, September 29, 2003

We Tend to Think of Hell As a Sort of "Cosmic Booby Prize"

Homily for the 26th Sunday of Ordinary Time


James 5:1-6
Mark 9:38-43, 45, 47-48



Bishop Murray once told the story of how, while he was still Rector of the Cathedral in Lansing, he had made all of his funeral arrangements: he bought a cemetery plot, made arrangements with the funeral home, and bought a gravestone. Well, then he was made bishop of Kalamazoo, and that made all of his plans useless, since bishops are buried at the Cathedral. So he had this gravestone he didn't need, and he didn't know what to do with it. He decided to set it up in his backyard: I've seen it; there it sits, with his name inscribed on it, and his date of birth. All it needs is to have that final date put on it. Bishop Murray told us how sobering, and edifying, having his tombstone there can be. How meditating on death can put things in the right perspective: it's a reminder that we're not going to be here forever; that sooner or later, we're going to shuffle off this mortal coil.

That might sound morbid to you. We don't like to think about death, we don't like to talk about death. We invest a lot of energy into trying to pretend death doesn't happen, into sanitizing it. But death is real, it's inevitable. The unavoidable fact is this: one day, me, you , everyone we know, indeed, even this very building, one day will pass out of existence. Our life as we know it will end.

And, if that weren't uncomfortable enough, I've got some even more difficult news for you: The fact is, that left to our own devices, you, me, and everyone you've ever known, is going to Hell. If we had to escape hell on our own steam, not one of us would make it. That's how dire our predicament is. "None is righteous, no, not one," St. Paul tells us in his letter to the Romans, and also "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God."

Now, it's even less popular to talk about Hell than it is to talk about death. It's not Politically Correct to talk about hell. We certainly can't talk as though anyone might actually end up there! We're not supposed to talk as though the things we might do, or not do, could actually put us in danger of going there. But danger there is: St. Paul tells us in his 1st Letter to the Corinthians "Do you not know that the unjust will not inherit the Kingdom of God?" And he warns us: " Do not be deceived." Unfortunately, we are all too good at deceiving ourselves. We might take the attitude, as someone once said to me: "I'm a pretty nice person. I try to be nice to people. I haven't done anything too bad. God will understand." Well, Our Lord didn't say, "Be nice to people." He said, "Be Holy, as I am Holy. Do not be deceived.

The problem is, we tend to think of Hell as sort of a cosmic booby-prize: something we get only if we're really spectacularly evil, like a Hitler or Stalin. But we can get ourselves to hell just as easily by negligence, laziness, and self-satisfaction as we can by being a mass murderer. And the fact is, Satan would much rather do it the slow, gradual, way: lull us to sleep; make us smug and stupid. A priest I know recently had a parishioner complain to him about one of his homilies: she said that she felt bad afterwards, and he shouldn't make people feel bad. In fact, she even went so far as to say "if you're not going to feel good after Mass, then why bother coming?" I'm not going to tell you what my friend said, but I'll tell you how I'd reply. I'd say that perhaps, if you are in need of conviction of sin , perhaps, if you are need of repentance, perhaps, if you are in need of making reparation for you sins, then perhaps you NEED to "not feel good" for a while. This woman's need to always "feel good", it seems to me, puts her in grave danger. Awareness of our own sins doesn't feel good. Repentance doesn't feel good. Penance doesn't feel good. But all of these things are indispensable if we are to heed Christ's call to be holy. Do not be deceived!

And Our Lord's words to us in our gospel today don't have much of "feel good" about them. For He tells us that we must be willing to amputate sin from our lives. If your hand causes you to sin, CUT IT OFF. If your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out! The point is clear: we cannot compromise with sin. We must get rid of it, destroy it. To compromise with sin is to compromise with death. Better to enter into the Kingdom of God maimed, than to go to hell with your limbs intact. Better to enter eternal life as someone your coworkers thought "weird" than go to hell as someone who "went along". Better to enter eternal life as someone people called a "nerd" or "lame" than to go to hell with the "cool" people.

Our Lord is quite clear that there really is a hell, and that we could really be in danger of it. And there are all kinds of ways to make yourself a candidate for hell: In 1st Timothy, and in 1st Corinthians, St. Paul tells us that murderers, sodomites, kidnapers, perjurers, adulterers, and thieves cannot inherit the Kingdom of God. But before you breathe a sigh of relief and say "well, I never kidnapped anyone," wait, there's more: St. Paul also tells us that fornicators, drunkards and the greedy are in danger, as well as liars and slanderers. Have you ever spread gossip? Have you passed on a juicy story about someone?

And just in case some of us still feel left out of the list, Saint James tell those of us who are rich, to "weep and wail over your impending miseries." And before you think "well, I'm not rich," I ask you, Have you stored up your treasure on earth? Have you put more faith in your 401k than in God? Have you lived to serve not your neighbor, but your portfolio? Have you failed to pay the worker a just wage? Have you rationalized paying only the minimum wage (or even less) because that's "where the labor market is at?" If you have lived in comfort and pleasure, without taking thought for the homeless, the orphan, and the stranger, then you too are in mortal danger.

Do not be deceived! There is nowhere for any of us to turn to justify ourselves. There are none of us who can say "I am innocent." Not one of us can say "I have not murdered the righteous one". And there is only one way to escape the corruption that will overtake us just as surely as that which will consume our earthly possessions.

That escape is Christ. That escape is to place our faith and trust in Him. Our escape from sin and death and hell is His death and resurrection. Our way out is to desire Christ and nothing more. Our way out is to long for Christ and be satisfied with nothing less. If we take Him at His word, and desire to be holy, as He is, then He will be true to His word, and make us holy: and even more: He shall make us glorious, immortal, wondrous to behold. As dire as our situation is without Christ, with Him we have what the Church calls the sure and certain hope of eternal life. Sure and Certain. Sure and Certain Hope that, as grievous as our sins may be, as shameful as our failing may be, all can be overcome by His power, and washed away by His most Precious Blood. As dead as we might be apart from Him, we shall Have life abundant if we but feast upon Him who is the Bread of Life. If you hold fast to Him He will not let you go. If you belong to Christ, then truly I say to you, you will surely not lose your reward.