[This is Deacon Pat Hessel’s homily from the weekend of October 17-18, 2015, at Holy Trinity Parish in Spruce Grove.]
The 1982-83 NHL Season was a good one for the Edmonton Oilers. They finished third overall and advanced to the Stanley Cup Finals, losing only once in the process. But in the finals, the New York Islanders swept the Oilers in four straight games.
Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier were walking past the Islanders’ locker room after game four, expecting to see a wild celebration, but they saw something very different. Gretzky described it like this: “We walked by their locker room in the corridor and saw after they won they were too beat up to really enjoy it and savor the victory at that moment. We were able to walk out of there pretty much scot free. We had so much respect for the Islanders players and the Islanders teams that we learned immediately you have to take it to another level in order to win a Stanley Cup. And that’s what we did.” The Oilers won five of the next seven Stanley Cups.
In today’s Gospel, James and John asked Jesus: “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” Jesus was a very popular and powerful teacher, and James and John suspected that he was destined for even greater things – and they wanted to be right there with him – one on the right and one on the left. They wanted a share in the power and prestige.
Well, Jesus was destined for greater things, but those greater things did not involve achieving earthly power. Jesus knew what lay ahead for him and so he responded to James and John: “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” He was trying to make them realize what they would have to do to be considered worthy of such an honour. He wanted them to have that “aha moment” that Gretzky and Messier had outside the Islanders’ locker room: “So THIS is what we have to do!” For Gretzky and Messier, it was trying harder, raising the level of their game, making the sacrifices that would allow them to achieve.
But Jesus wasn’t coaching a hockey team. He was preparing the apostles to spread his Gospel – to build his Church – to be leaders. And so he warned them about the dangers of leadership. He said: “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones (I didn’t make that up, it actually says “great ones”) – their great ones are tyrants over them.” He told them that they had to be leaders of a different kind: “…whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.” To be truly great in the Kingdom meant sacrifice and service – and it was only through sacrifice and service that they could achieve greatness.
I’m sure that after the fifth game of the 1984 Stanley Cup finals, when the Oilers beat the Islanders, there were a lot of bruised and battered and exhausted Oilers in their locker room, but they had risen to the challenge – they had made the necessary sacrifices. In spreading the Gospel, James made the ultimate sacrifice. He is traditionally considered the first of the apostles to be martyred. John wasn’t martyred, but he lived during a time of persecution of the early Christian Church and suffered greatly.
As we listen to the words of Jesus speaking about sacrifice and service, we know that he was not speaking from “the outside.” The Letter to the Hebrews reminded us that: “…we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.” Remember Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane: “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet not my will but yours be done.” He was tested, he could have said no, but he didn’t. As St. Paul wrote to the Philippians about Jesus: “though he was in the form of God, [he] did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. He humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.”
I pray that none of us will have to undergo martyrdom, but each of us is called to live our faith – and living our faith requires sacrifice. We are not called to be served – we are called to serve. Jesus said we must be the slaves of all, and this was especially true for those in positions of leadership. I am reminded of the image of Pope Francis speaking to the United States Congress last month. He was standing in front of the most powerful people in what is considered the most powerful country in the world. If you checked the bank accounts of everyone in that room, the Pope’s would undoubtedly have been the smallest. And yet it was clear who had the power and the authority – the simple priest from Argentina who leads more than a billion Catholics around the world – not lording it over them, but serving them. He spoke to the lawmakers about caring, especially for the poor. He reminded them that the pursuit of the common good is the chief aim of all politics. To quote him: “A political society endures when it seeks, as a vocation, to satisfy common needs by stimulating the growth of all its member, especially those in situations of greater vulnerability or risk. Legislative activity is always based on care for the people. To this you have been invited, called and convened by those who elected you.” I’m not sure if he was giving them a lesson in the democratic process or scolding them for their dysfunctional political nonsense. He spoke of justice, generosity, respect (for people and the environment), the dignity of every human person and the integrity of the traditional family. He talked about many different issues from capitalism to immigration to the death penalty, but the words he used were the same words that we hear so often in the Gospels – love, caring, generosity. To live by these words involves sacrifice – they involve sacrifice because they require us to think and act beyond ourselves and our own self-interest, whether we are an individual or a country.
We know that the Pope rejected the papal mansion and lives in what was a guest quarters. His love for the poor and the vulnerable is a hallmark of his papacy and has its roots in Argentina where he often spent time in the poorest areas of Buenos Aires. One of the CNN reporters covering the Pope’s visit said that a colleague of his actually went to the slums of Buenos Aires to see if any of the people there had actually ever seen the Pope. When they were asked about him, the people welcomed the reporter into their humble shacks and showed them pictures of the Pope taken with their families. One proudly announced that the Pope had baptized their child. Clearly we have a “high priest who is able to sympathize with our weaknesses” – a leader who does not lord it over us, but rather, is the servant of all.
But service to others is not something reserved only for the Pope. It’s for all of us. Winter is coming and there are lots of people in our own back yard who are not prepared and cannot afford to be prepared for winter. Next weekend, we will be collecting winter clothes before and after all of the Masses, so go through your closets and see if you can find some gently used coats, sweaters, tuques, mitts, gloves, boots, long johns, whatever you think will help. We’ll pass them on to the folks at St. Vincent de Paul.
This should be a sacrifice for you, but it should not be a sacrifice rooted in guilt or resentment. It should be a sacrifice that brings you joy. Remember the Apostolic Exhortation of Pope Francis called “The Joy of the Gospel.” He said that living the Gospel should not turn us into sourpusses – it should bring us joy – not just the promise of eternal joy in the next life, but joy in this life. So when you’re taking a look at your closet this week, think about your faith. Remember the 1982-83 Oilers, and take your faith to another level. I wish you that joy!