18th Sunday Ordinary Time – Fr. Gribowich Homily

Podcast transcript:
Good morning, everyone! Hope that you all had a really fine week, and that you are able to enjoy the blessings of another Sunday, of course, on the heels of some tragic news that we’ve heard of more shootings in our country – in Texas and Ohio – knowing that in this world that’s always filled with brokenness, and suffering, and pain. And when we hear news of that, it reminds us that we’re clearly not in heaven.

Yet, today’s Gospel gives us the hope for us to focus on what is really important: that which is of Heaven. That the challenge is how to be able to be focused on that, in the midst of a very, very broken world. How to focus on that in the midst of our own personal brokenness is, as I was looking at the Gospel for today – and really all the readings – I would, I could not help but think about the situation I am in my own life right now.

As you all know, I’m here in Berkeley because I’m going to school here at the university, and when you’re in graduate school, you share the classroom with lots of other people who were there for lots of different reasons. Some are there because they’ve been almost assigned to do it – their work is kind of paying for them to go to grad school, and this is the next step that they have to do in order to advance within their career. But for many people, a return to school usually indicates a type of wrestling with your own personal identity. What type of name am I trying to present? Who am I really? What’s of a mark or impact can I make in the world.

For many people, when you get to that early midlife, you start to see an uptick on people going and getting degrees – advanced degrees – trying to figure out how they could restart their career, try to figure out a way to somehow bring more satisfaction to their life. And clearly being with my cohort here at Berkeley, I see a lot of that going on. But yeah, it’s not just something I think graduate students wrestle with, trying to see your own personal identity, what you’re about, trying to figure out what is the meaning of life and your role in it.

We all fall into that all of us at some point start to question what is it all about. What is life all about? If we’re honest with ourselves, we know that, as the First Reading says, that you know all is really just vanity. Think about just this deal we’re given life, right? We didn’t choose to be born, yet here we are. And the way it ends is that we end up dying.

Naturally, all of us at some point have to ask yourself the question: what is this all about? And not only are we here not by choice, not only does the whole process end with us dying, there’s a considerable amount of pain between birth and death. So once again, what is it all about? What does it mean to go through this whole process? Why bother?

I think the reason why we continue to wake up every day is because we really understand that, in the midst of a world that we did not choose to be born in, that we do not choose to die in, and in which we participate with much suffering, we see so much goodness, we see so much goodness. What keeps us moving and clinging to the hope that tomorrow will be a better day is because around us, especially in moments of tragedy and suffering and brokenness, we see perhaps the greatest acts of kindness, charity, selflessness.

I often say that there’s nothing more unjust than going to a hospital for children and seeing children suffer so innocently. If there’s ever a moment to question God’s existence, it’s in that very moment to see a child suffer. Yet, the very same moment we see the heroic actions of doctors, nurses, parents, and other support, for people show that in this moment they bring their best selves to the table. We see God’s presence in the selfless actions of others.

And this is exactly what the Lord wants us to focus on in the Gospel today. There’s a conversation I had this week with a friend of mine – actually a member of the class here at Berkeley, and he considers himself to be an atheist – and he asked me, “Like John, how do you identify yourself?”

And of course I think he was expecting something lofty, in relationship to knowing that I am a priest, so maybe he thought I was going to identify myself as being a Catholic, a Christian, a priest. I said, you know, my identity is not wrapped up in the things that I essentially participate in this world. My identity exists in only one thing, and that is I am my beloved son of God, a beloved child of God. That is the identity that all of us have, because it’s the one thing we do not elect to be part of. We don’t actively choose to be part of.

Yes, it’s through God’s grace them have been called to be Christians, Catholics, called to our vocations, and we respond to that grace. But the one thing that does not even demand a response on our part is the fact that we are simply beloved by God for being. And Jesus gives us this parable showing how this rich farmer was trying his darnest to bring about things into his life that would give him security, comfort, knowledge that he is somehow taken care of. But what a burden it is to have to bring your own identity to you. What a burden it is to work to create an identity for yourself – trying to prove to yourself, trying to prove to us, trying to prove to God that you’re doing life right, which is why we work so hard at having a good job, having material things, being successful, because we’re all under this illusion that we have to form our own identity. And of course it extends to our participation and other things. How many of us identify with different groups we are part of, political parties, even religion?

When our identity is caught up in something other than the very fact that we are loved by God simply because we are, we are destined to be let down, because we seek something that is ultimately part of our own doing, that is not solely the doing of God.

Today, we come to Mass, and we participate once again in receiving the Eucharist. And what is this really do for us? It brings us in communion with Jesus, the son of God. Who are we? Sons and daughters of God. We share in the same relationship that God the Father has with Jesus the Son. When we’re in communion with the Son – Jesus – we are reaffirming our identity as sons and daughters of God.

And once we know who we really are, there’s nothing to fear. There’s no need to make sure that all of our ducks are in order, that we have enough money for retirement. There’s no need for us to make sure that we have the exact perfect job, and that we’re making an impact the way that we think we need to make an impact. There’s no need.

Yet, we have to ask ourselves why is it that we have to toil. Why is it that we work? Why is it that we need things and stuff? Why is it that we have to be careful and mindful of what we have so that tomorrow we had at least enough security to get by. And once again is the same Eucharist which brings it all back to the place of Thanksgiving for the job that we have, the material things that we have, the success that we may have, is all opportunity to give thanks to God for allowing us to participate in a very small way in his goodness. And it’s that goodness which makes us get up each day to face the day, face the world, and give us the hope that tomorrow will be a better day.

God bless you all.

18th Sunday Ordinary Time – Living Beyond This Life

View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm—The Oxbow,
Thomas Cole, 1836, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City (Wikipedia).

Ecclesiastes 1:2; 2:21-23
August 4, 2019

We read today from the Book of Ecclesiastes. It is also called the book of Qoheleth after its author. Interestingly, they can both be translated as Assembly or Church. It is somewhat hard to date, but the best estimate would be about 400 BC in Persian-controlled Jerusalem. It is a time of peace and prosperity and allows Qoheleth time to think and reflect; one might expect a sense of satisfaction, yet the first words of his book are “Vanity of Vanity.”

Qoheleth is a public intellectual. He had students and seems to have edited his thoughts at the end of his life, so that they could be published. He wished to influence the wider society and his message was certainly distinctive, but on first reading somewhat shocking and disappointing.

The Bible we use at Mass translates the Hebrew word hebel as vanity. This emphasizes the pride that we often take in our own successes which are ephemeral and fleeting. Another translation would be futile, and I think we need to keep both in mind as we read today’s text: what we do is futile, and we are vain to think otherwise.

Immediately after the opening verse:

Vanity of vanities, says Qoheleth,
vanity of vanities! All things are vanity.

He continues in verses we do not read at Mass:

What profit has man from all the labor
which he toils at under the sun?
One generation passes and another comes,
but the world forever stays.
The sun rises and the sun goes down;
then it presses on to the place where it rises.
Blowing now toward the south, then toward the north,
the wind turns again and again, resuming its rounds.
All rivers go to the sea,
yet never does the sea become full.
To the place where they go,
the rivers keep on going.
All speech is labored;
there is nothing man can say.
The eye is not satisfied with seeing
nor is the ear filled with hearing.

(Ecc. 1:3–8)

He is very concerned with time. Both time as a cycle, days and seasons and the operations of nature, but also the time we place in our own efforts at both work, “profit from labor,” and thought, “labored speech,” and even the most intent observation. Time crushes accomplishments.

Our passage then provides a most specific instance: why be prosperous and/or wise?

And I saw that wisdom has the advantage over folly
as much as light has the advantage over darkness.
The wise man has eyes in his head, but the fool walks in darkness.
Yet I knew that one lot befalls both of them.
(Ecc. 2:13–14)

Qoheleth does not believe in an afterlife. He sees death as the end of everything:

So I said to myself, if the fool’s lot is to befall me also,
why then should I be wise? Where is the profit for me?
And I concluded in my heart that this too is vanity.
Neither of the wise man nor of the fool will there be an abiding remembrance,
for in days to come both will have been forgotten.
How is it that the wise man dies as well as the fool!
(Ecc. 2:15–16)

In the passage that we read today he draws the obvious conclusion:

For here is a man who has labored with wisdom and knowledge and skill,
and to another, who has not labored over it, he must leave his property.
This also is vanity and a great misfortune.
(Ecc. 2:21)

He observes as well that often the most responsible people have the most futile lives:

For what profit comes to a man from all the toil and anxiety of heart
with which he has labored under the sun?
All his days sorrow and grief are his occupation;
even at night his mind is not at rest. This also is vanity.
(Ecc. 2:22–23)

Qoheleth may be a skeptic but he is not an atheist. He is as much a beneficiary of the Lord’s power and mercy in returning the Jewish people to Jerusalem after the exile as Isaiah, but he is asking a radical question: “What does this mean for me as an individual? Yes, the Jewish people will live forever but what does this mean for me, here and now?”

His answer comes in the next verses:

There is nothing better for man than to eat and drink
and provide himself with good things by his labors.
Even this, I realized, is from the hand of God.
For who can eat or drink apart from him?
For to whatever man he sees fit he gives wisdom and knowledge and joy;
but to the sinner he gives the task of gathering possessions
to be given to whatever man God sees fit.
This also is vanity and a chase after wind.
(Ecc. 2: 24–26)

This is a very profound statement and we need to pause over it. He knows God is powerful and just and sees that he is present in the now. He is not counseling laziness or hedonism by teaching that we need to look for God and the good things he brings in the present moment. He is an acute observer of people and sees how our attempts to outsmart time are pure futility and vanity. The only God we will know we will find in the here and now.

However necessary this lesson, Qoheleth is still the prophet and poet of frustration. But it is a healthy frustration and if we share it, we can see the great insight of the resurrection of the dead. This is great achievement of the Jews immediately before Jesus. They experienced a powerful God of miracles, they had been, as a people, dead and now they had risen. Yet what of God’s justice?

We will read Psalm 90 at Mass this Sunday. Speaking of evildoers, the Psalmist writes:

You make an end of them in their sleep;
the next morning they are like the changing grass,
Which at dawn springs up anew,
but by evening wilts and fades.

And of those who obey God:

Fill us at daybreak with your kindness,
that we may shout for joy and gladness all our days.
And may the gracious care of the LORD our God be ours;
prosper the work of our hands for us!
Prosper the work of our hands!

Is that your experience? Do you see the work of those who are most devout and loving prosper and those who act unjustly wilt and fade? Or do we see at best a mixed bag?

A powerful spiritual exercise is to stand with Qoheleth and the Psalmist and ask, does this reveal the fullness of the God who has shown himself in their Jewish history, who lead them out of slavery in Egypt, and then again rescued them from Babylon? As important, does this reveal the God who sent them the prophets who exhorted them to act justly as a religious act?

We have inherited the belief in an afterlife and, without understanding how it emerged in Jewish history, it may seem like a quid-pro-quo: we avoid mortal sin and God will give us eternal life. By looking at the world with Qoheleth and the Psalmist, we can literally feel the conflict and then understand the gift of knowing the justice of God demands that we live beyond this life. As is always the case, putting God first, clears our minds, opens our hearts, and gives us joy.