Malankara World

Sermons Based on the Lectionary of the Syrian Orthodox Church

1st Sunday after Shunoyo - the Festival of the Assumption

Power, Pleasure & Wealth

by Fr. Patrick Brennan

Gospel: St. Mark 10: 35-45

A very kind man from the business world asked me a question recently that momentarily caused me to pause. I have been the pastor of a large northwest suburban parish for three years now. Focusing on my role as pastor, the man asked me: "Are you happy with where you are at career-wise?" I had not thought of my role as pastor in those terms; so, I paused for a moment.

My immediate answer was one of frustration. "I wrote twelve books before I was named pastor," I said. "Now I do not have the time to write a few pages of a chapter...and I have been trying to complete a doctorate in psychology for some time. I have all the course work done. What remains are final exams, part-time internship, and dissertation. Because of the time demands with being a pastor, I am stalled in completing my doctorate."

I continued more positively: "But Holy Family Parish fascinates me. It is a progressive parish, which is none the less respectful of Catholic tradition. It is a parish dedicated to Evangelization, small Christian communities, and the re-imagining of parish systems. I spent a good part of my priesthood directing such efforts for the Archdiocese, as well as teaching in these areas. So, the parish and I seem to be in a good marriage."

I say to all of you today, being pastor is contributing toward my growth, conversion and healing. And I hope, believe that my presence at the parish is helping the parish and parishioners also. I hope, believe that there is some mutuality of benefit happening.

For followers of Jesus, the gentleman’s question needs some expanding and deepening. Some expanded, deepened questions would sound like this: as a pastor, am I a servant? Am I a servant leader? Do I lead by serving? Do I seek to serve God’s people? Do I seek to serve God? Is service my motivation in living out my role?

Let me expand the field of focus. Jesus does not just call male, celibate priests to service. Jesus calls all of us to service, to be servants—whether we teach or drive a truck, whether we pick up garbage or do brain surgery—in all that we do, we are to be servants. The goal of our lives can not be to just pick up a pay check.

A doctor friend of mine was telling me recently that he has become concerned about a peer of his, another doctor. This other doctor’s number of patients has risen exponentially. But as patients have increased in number, the doctor’s bedside manner, and style of inter-acting with patients have deteriorated. My doctor friend’s concern about his colleague is this: something seems to have become more important to him that the purity of the Hippocratic oath, and his original commitment to service. That "something else" seems to be money or profit.

Archbishop Rembart Weakland of Milwaukee once said that the most important role of the laity is not to spend a lot of time doing Church work, but rather, in whatever role they play in the work would to, give witness to Christ alive in them. The real challenge of being a disciple of Jesus is to be a servant, as Jesus was, in whatever work that we do.

Servant leadership, leading by serving—as Robert Greenleaf has described it—is the essence of life in the Reign on Kingdom of God.

My dad, who is deceased, was a wonderful example of service to me. He did not make a lot of money. He did not have a lot of education. He worked for the city for many years at a water pumping station. He monitored the working of pumps making sure that people had water in their homes on the southwest side of the city of Chicago. The job would seem to be meager, not all that important to many people. But my dad had a great sense of service and responsibility about his job. He was serving the people of Chicago as he monitored those pumps. Similarly, I had an uncle, John, who several times as a fireman had to be hospitalized for injuries incurred trying to rescue people from burning buildings. He also was a model of service to me.

But I also saw another side in my family. A couple of relatives started out in service professions, but then something went wrong. Their lives ended in public scrutiny regarding possible misuse of office or position. Some things became more important to them than service, things like money, homes, cars.

Service as motivation for our lives brings us into close personal contact with brothers and sisters in the human family. Its antithesis, power, on the other hand distances us from one another; it causes disconnection. A life of power often also disconnects us from God.

In the 10th Chapter of Mark, verse 35 and following, James and John ask Jesus for power places in His future, coming Kingdom. This sets off some arguing with the other apostles. Here and elsewhere in the gospels, the apostles, while good people, are portrayed as ambitious, concerned about power. The encounter gives Jesus the opportunity to teach to us how true greatness is found in service, how one ranks first in the Reign of God by serving the needs of all. He explains that He has come, not to be served, but to serve, to actually give His life as a ransom for all of us.

Ambition, grabbing for power, can manifest itself in the Church also. Some men begin as fine priests, but as they progress upwardly, on a hierarchical-career track, it becomes difficult to discern what they believe in—God? or their role? or power? Similarly, in this age of lay ministry, the laity need to beware that they do not take on the errors of clericalism, namely using what should be a role of "servant" for one’s own needs for importance and power.

Relative to those of us who are clergy, the venerable Msgr. Jack Egan used to tell us as younger priests: "you have to make a decision—do you want to be a bishop or a priest?—and that decision will influence the rest of your life." He was not criticizing all bishops, for obviously there are many fine ones—historically and in our midst today. I do think Msgr. Egan was saying, in your priesthood, you need to decide whether you are going to be a careerist or a servant and that decision will influence the rest of a clergyman’s life, like the rest of anyone’s life.

Jesus’ warning against power needs to be connected to another warning He gives in Mark 10, verse 17 and following—a warning against stockpiling wealth. This is the exchange He has with a rich man, challenging him to sell all that he has, give to the poor, and come follow Him. Stockpiled money and things, like power, can disconnect us from brothers and sisters in the human family. Because of wealth and possessions, people can develop a pretense that somehow they are better than, ahead of, different from others—when, in fact, we are all pretty much the same, and we will all leave this world the same way—through the passage way of death. Elsewhere in Scripture, Jesus, Paul and others warn us about another spiritual landmine—self-focused pleasure. Take, for example, the gift of human sexuality. It has been given to us for connection, commitment, communication. If used in an immature, irresponsible, or immoral way, sexuality—or any pleasure—can disconnect us, cause alienation among and between us. So often in marriage counseling people will report feeling great "loneliness" after moments of so called "intimacy". In such cases, people or a person have been self-focused in using a gift that should bring people into greater unity or communion with each other.

Power, wealth, pleasure—they are goods in themselves, given to us to bring us into closer connection with God and each other. Misused, they cause distance and divisiveness.

I was thinking about hell recently. What might the experience of hell be like. I think at root, hell must be isolation from brothers and sisters and God, an isolation that begins during this life through a self-deceiving misuse of power, wealth, or pleasure, and then continued after death for eternity. Isolated eternally: that must be what hell is like.

If someone asks you if you are happy with your career, answer honestly. But then, ask yourself more important questions:

Am I serving?
Am I connecting with brothers and sisters, my fellow human beings?
Am I, more and more, trying to place God at the center of my life?

See Also:

Sermons and Bible Commentary/Analysis for the 1st sunday after Shunoyo

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