The Ego Has Landed
Fr. Dale Matson
My homily today is based on our Epistle reading from St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians.
“If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.”
St. Paul lists many qualities of the mature Christian in this paragraph. The qualities include, Encouragement, Consolation, Love, Sharing, Unity, Humility, Respect and Selflessness. I want to discuss some of these qualities.
When the Apollo 11 astronauts landed on the moon in 1969, astronaut Neil Armstrong said, “The Eagle has landed.” When the great but conceited Irish dancer Michael Flatley came to England, the review headline stated, “The Ego has landed.” And that was a favorable review.
And that is our main difficulty also. How much suffering must it take to move our ego down a peg or two? What does it take for us to become humble and regard others as better than ourselves?
I am not saying that all suffering is to make us humble. I’m also not saying like the Pharisees that suffering is only related to sin. Sometimes suffering is a good work of holiness. Our suffering, like the suffering of St. Paul, could also be for the sake of the church. We suffer in our physical bodies for the mystical body of the church. We are not completing the suffering of the competed atoning work of Christ on the cross. Sometimes men and women suffer because they are righteous. It may be through our suffering and how we suffer that others come to faith. Paul and Silas suffered with joy, and because of this, the Philippian jailer and his household were saved.
St. Paul states in chapter one of Philippians, “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” (verse 21). I believe this verse sets the tone for the entire epistle and it can set the tone for how we, with God’s help, may live out our lives.
St. Teresa of Calcutta once said that she wanted to drink to the last drop from the cup of Christ’s suffering. Her wish was granted. This is what she wrote to her confessor and it was made known after her death. “In the darkness . . . Lord, my God, who am I that you should forsake me? The child of your love — and now become as the most hated one. The one — you have thrown away as unwanted — unloved. I call, I cling, I want, and there is no one to answer . . . Where I try to raise my thoughts to heaven, there is such convicting emptiness that those very thoughts return like sharp knives and hurt my very soul. Love — the word — it brings nothing. I am told God lives in me — and yet the reality of darkness and coldness and emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul.” This was the reality of her long dark night beneath her smile and her long life of miraculous works for the Lord.
Recently Sharon and I were in the middle of a difficult hike in the Eastern Sierra Nevada. Two friends who were also interested in why I would take on such a difficult hike accompanied us. I was there to get photographs of Split Mountain reflected in the pond below it. Split Mountain is one of the 14 thousand foot mountains in the Sierra Nevada. For me, it was another quest to capture God’s beauty in photographs. We were laboring on tired legs as we hiked back down the steep trail back to my truck. At one point, we sat down to rest when Sharon got a text message from her sister in law that Sharon’s brother Jim would not last much longer. He was losing his yearlong struggle with cancer. He had been discharged from the hospital to his home. His wife Melinda had a hospital bed put in their bedroom and hired a visiting hospice nurse. Our daughters of the Holy Cross prayed for Jim also during his illness. Thank you.
We completed our hike and spent the night in Mammoth. The following morning, rather than returning to Fresno, Sharon insisted on seeing her brother before he passed on to the greater life. We drove to Laverne near Los Angeles and spent the last half of Saturday till Sunday afternoon with Jim. There were many relatives who were also spending time with Jim. He had suffered so much over the past year with hope repeatedly dashed by setbacks.
Jim was in and out of consciousness with his wife Melinda giving him oral doses of morphine for pain management. As I looked at Jim my first thought was how much better it would be for Jim, “To be absent from the body and present with the Lord.” (2 Corinthians 5:8).
When you are my age, you cannot help but take someone in Jim’s situation personally. He was 68 and I was nearly 73. It is easy to see yourself in his place. Besides, he was a better man than me. It is easy to experience “survivor guilt” when someone younger than you dies. Jim was a member of the Laverne Church of the Brethren. They don’t have the sacrament of Extreme Unction also called “The last rites” and I believe this is why God had put me there. I asked Melinda for permission to pray with Jim. As things turned out Jim and I were alone together and I prayed the prayer for the dying. I anointed him with oil and said my final goodbye.
At a time like this, it seems like all the deaths of those who have gone before come to our remembrance and rush in to multiply our current sorrow. Jim Passed on Tuesday morning. The family has planned a memorial service for the end of the month. His obituary was a paragraph that did not begin to describe the dash. The dash is the time between a person’s birth and death.
It is people like Jim and Danny Farenbacher who remind me of my own pettiness. I have spent most of my life being the older brother in the story of the prodigal. For him, there was not righteousness but self-righteousness. For him there was not love for his younger brother or joy when he returned. There was only jealousy that his younger brother did not deserve his father’s love or the celebration of his return.
God reminded me last December that I was merely living under the illusion of good health. I really thought that I was ‘bullet proof’. After all wasn’t I an Ironman? As it turned out, I was no longer an Iron Man. I was just an old man with Coronary Artery Disease (CAD). The realization that my health was fragile bridged the compassion gap between me and many brothers and sisters around me. One person in our congregation and I spent a lot of time talking about our new stents placed in the artery to our hearts and the medications to prevent a clot in the stents. We formed a two-person support group. So many of us are wounded and broken. Sometimes the wounds are not visible to others. Sometimes our wounds are visible to others and not to ourselves. The resurrected Jesus was able to connect with Thomas by asking him to touch the wound in His side made by the soldier’s lance. Our suffering makes us more compassionate and more available to others who suffer. Our suffering for the sake of the Gospel is righteous.
St. Paul mentions compassion and sympathy. I believe sympathy flows from a compassionate heart. God is a God of compassion. Years ago I was returning from a failed job interview and had stopped at a gas station somewhere between Lacrosse and Milwaukee. As I was filling my tank, a young woman pulled up in a jalopy of a car on the other side of the pump. She had two small children in the car with her. I still remember the plastic sheeting covering a rear window, which was broken out. When she got out of the car, I could see that she was heading to the attendant with only a dollar in her hand. At that moment, I was overwhelmed with compassion for her. Although I didn’t have a lot of spare cash myself, I had enough to offer her a five-dollar bill toward her gas. Her smile was her silent “Thanks”. I believe this was a compassion imparted by God. While I have had similar experiences since then, I don’t believe any have had the same impact on me.
While God is partial to the poor and the needy, “He will have compassion on the poor and needy, and the lives of the needy he will save.” (Psalm 72:13). However, God is also sovereign in his compassion. And He said, "I Myself will make all My goodness pass before you, and will proclaim the name of the LORD before you; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show compassion on whom I will show compassion." (Exodus 33:1).
In this 24/7 world of need we find ourselves a part of, it is necessary that we don’t turn the grace of compassion into a law of service. We are finite and the needs of our world are infinite. Our compassion for others is given by God to us and directed by God for us. It is Him whom we serve and it is Him in whom we serve others. If our prime directive is to love, worship and serve God then it is to Him we must listen. He will direct our paths in serving Him. Jesus also allowed others to minister to him as demonstrated by the woman breaking the spices over his head. Now when Jesus was in Bethany, at the home of Simon the leper, a woman came to Him with an alabaster vial of very costly perfume, and she poured it on His head as He reclined at the table. But the disciples were indignant when they saw this, and said, "Why this waste? “For this perfume might have been sold for a high price and the money given to the poor. “But Jesus, aware of this, said to them, "Why do you bother the woman? For she has done a good deed to Me.” (Matt. 26:6-10).
As we live out the dash between birth and death, it is easier to be compassionate, consoling and encouraging when God has allowed suffering as a kind of refiners fire, burning off the dross of an inflated ego. Our lives are like candles. God trims the ego like a wick on a candle. When a wick is properly trimmed, the flame burns efficiently and the flame absorbs the carbon particles. There is no smoke and no soot left behind. May your life be a candle of hope to others lost in darkness. Amen.
Click On Photograph To Enlarge
The Beauty Of Split Mountain (14,065') In The Eastern Sierra Nevada