The cost of discipleship (Homily for 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time)

It’s always smart to plan ahead. If you’re doing an exam, and have five questions to answer in two hours, it’s essential to calculate how long to spend on each question. Otherwise, you may run out of time. If you’re going somewhere by car, make sure you have enough petrol, especially if you’re travelling in the countryside late at night.

History overflows with examples of epic miscalculation. Napoleon and Hitler both invaded Russia without taking the hostile winter weather into account. David Cameron promised a referendum on the European Union thinking he’d never have to hold one. Theresa May called a general election certain she’d win handily. The Americans invaded Afghanistan and Iraq with no plan what to do once the regimes were overthrown. Now, millions of suffering people are paying a terrible price. Last week, Boris Johnson threatened his MPs with deselection if they failed to back his Brexit plan. Now he – and we – are facing a deep dystopian crisis. Think of the ghost housing estates of a decade ago, a symbol of reckless spending and absent prudence that ended up crushing so many ordinary people.

Good planning is essential if we don’t want to miscalculate and mess up. In setting out to do something, it’s critical to weigh up the options and potential outcomes, in order to achieve success.

Good planning is what Jesus advocates in today’s Gospel. He says if we want to follow him, we need to be absolutely clear what we are getting ourselves into. We need to know exactly what it means. We need to calculate the cost because it won’t be easy. If you become a follower of mine, he says, it will involve making tough decisions, hard choices. It will mean taking up your cross every day. It may mean laying down your life.

Jesus uses an extreme example to illustrate his point. Choosing to follow him, he says, means being willing to put him before everyone else, even our own family. It means putting him first in everything, whatever the consequences. Like someone building a tower or a king going into battle, we need to know what we are getting ourselves into; we must make sure we are ready and prepared; we must approach it with eyes wide open.

Last Sunday marked the 80th anniversary of the start of the Second World War. It’s tempting to think of the German people as fully supporting Hitler. But many Germans and Austrians did not. Many opposed him because they knew that Nazism was the opposite of Christianity. People like the great Lutheran martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, knew that Nazim was sinful, grotesque, abhorrent.

One such person was a young Austrian farmer called Franz Jagerstatter. A committed Catholic, Franz was married to Franziska, and had three young daughters. Shortly after the outbreak of war, Franz was enlisted to serve in Hitler’s army. He refused to serve. He knew the war was unjust, that Hitler’s campaign was evil. As a Christian, he could have no part in it.

It was a brave stand to take because the price to pay was stark: the punishment for refusing to wear the Nazi uniform was death. His neighbours and local community thought Franz was crazy, and they tried to get him to change his mind. Even the local bishop pleaded with him, telling him it was his duty to his family and to the nation to be a good soldier.

Franz was taken to the local prison and from there to Berlin to be tried before the Supreme Military Court. Even at that late stage efforts were made to find a solution, but to no avail. On August 9, 1943, Franz Jagerstatter was beheaded in Brandenburg Prison. He had been given just 20 minutes to say goodbye to Franziska. He was 36 years old.

Fast forward to October 2007, and Franz’s beatification in a cathedral in Austria. There at the Mass was his 94-year-old widow Franziska. She had lived to see her husband, who had been excoriated and ignored for so long, finally recognised by the church for his heroic virtue, just one step away from sainthood.

Franz Jagerstatter knew what was going to happen to him and his family for defying Hitler, but he did it anyway. He calculated the cost and was ready to pay the price. He was willing to sacrifice his life for the sake of the Gospel. His family were willing to stand with him. If I had been in his place, could I have done that? Could you?

Next Thursday it will be exactly 40 years since I joined the Redemptorists. I was 17 years old, just finished the Leaving Cert, pimple-faced and full of zeal. The religious life was what I wanted. I thought I had it all worked out, certain I knew what I was getting into. Nine years of study, profession, ordination, then parish missions. A cloudless horizon ahead. But clouds drifted in, often obscuring the horizon. Scandals, clericalism, loneliness, celibacy, friends leaving, vocations falling, church attendance plummeting, the Vatican censoring what I said – so many crises, obstacles. Like a Sat Nav after going off-route, I had to recalculate, reimagine, recommit. Entering religious life seemed much easier in 1979 than today. Now there is a deeper awareness of the cost, of the price.

As there is for all of us gathered here. In Ireland today, to be a Christian doesn’t mean literally risking your life, but putting Jesus first is still a risk, because it means going against the grain. It means believing and acting in ways that the cool people think are foolish.

Today’s Gospel asks us to think about our response to our baptismal calling; whether we are totally committed. Do you stick your neck out for the Gospel? Are you all-in? Do you know the potential consequences? Have you calculated the cost?

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Just how humble are you? Homily for the 22nd Sunday of the Year

I’m a natural backbencher. I’m shy around people I don’t know well. I don’t mix easily. I prefer the background.

It’s one of the reasons I don’t like doing weddings, unless they are of family or close friends. The church part is ok, but the hotel part – the eating and dancing part – I find taxing. When it comes to mealtime, I try to sit at an inconspicuous  table, but almost invariably I am told to sit at the top table. Usually, I end up at the end of the table, with nobody on one side of me and the deaf granny of the bride on the other. After a few minutes, the conversation runs dry, and I sit there uncomfortably waiting for the meal to end. I prefer the backbenches.

Today’s readings stress the importance of being humble. In the Book of Ecclesiasticus, the author advises that “the greater you are, the more you should behave humbly. There is no cure for the proud person’s malady,” the author says, “since an evil growth has taken root in him.”

In the Gospel, Jesus advises that if you’re a guest at a party, go to the lowest place and sit there, so that when your host arrives, you may be told to move higher. Jesus also proposes that when you hold a party, don’t invite the rich and influential, who can pay you back, but rather the poor and the outcast.

His advice sounds like a recipe for social suicide, but the point Jesus makes is clear: The Christian isn’t concerned with image or status or power or social standing but with service of others. Humble service of God and neighbour is what counts.

Jesus, the servant king, is the best example of humility. Jesus identified with the least of all. He chose the sick over the healthy, the weak over the powerful; the poor over the rich, sinners over the pious. He washed his disciples’ feet. He mixed with outcasts. He emptied himself, taking the form of a servant. Hr is our model. We imitate Jesus by living humble lives.

Today’s social media world, with its focus on beauty and bling, makes it harder than ever to live humbly. Our competitive environment promotes individualism, the survival of the fittest, vanity, vaulting ambition. To get on in life, you must be aggressive, driven, obsessive. To succeed, you must be selfish, self-centred, ruthless.

Humility is different. Humility is the opposite of Me First individualism. It’s the ability to stand in the other’s shoes; to consider experiences that are not our own. It is revolving our actions around others rather than ourselves. It is being least, being last, being servant, being little, being insignificant.

How, then, must we be humble? Three ways, I suggest. 

Humility is self-awareness, acknowledging our smallness before God. Despite our best efforts, we sin all the time. No matter what our role or rank in society or church, we sin all the time. We know we’re not perfect. And so the humble person never has a big head. The humble person is without ego or vanity or pride. The humble person doesn’t rush to judge. The humble do not look down on anyone based on race, sexuality, gender, religion. They never discriminate against, bully, exclude. How can we look down on another when we know how imperfect we are?

We acknowledge our littleness before God at Holy Communion when we say, “Lord, I am not worthy…” I am not worthy that you should come into my house. I am not worthy of being in your presence. I don’t deserve you. Humility is honest self-awareness writ large.

Humility is selflessness. Pope Benedict caused a sensation six years ago when he announced he was resigning. For age and health reasons, he was stepping down. Popes didn’t do that. No pope had done it in over 600 years. Few had ever done so willingly. Benedict did. He voluntarily relinquished the top job in the church. He renounced power, and the perks, privileges and pomp that accompany it.

What he did was rare because people are not inclined to give up office or status, if they can help it. We want to hold onto what we have attained for as long as we can. The world is full of people desperately scrambling for the top. Humility is the opposite of that. It’s not self-seeking, not lording it over anybody, but placing ourselves at the service of the other, any other, all others. Washing feet. Humility is selflessness writ large.

Humility is simplicity of life. It’s an attitude Francis has trademarked since becoming pope – his refusal to live in the papal apartments or use a limousine. His insistence on wearing the same black shoes. His use of ordinary language.

Our world is greedy and grasping. It brainhacks us to believe we need to look young and perfect, never to be content with how we look. It encourages reckless narcissism; more bling; persuades us we can never have enough. We always need more to provide that extra security, extra comfort – because we’re worth it.

Humility is being satisfied with enough. It’s knowing that our biggest treasure, our ultimate security, is God. Always wanting more gets in the way of putting God first. Simplicity of life is also a way of cherishing the earth, which is facing imminent catastrophe, and of showing solidarity with the poor, who through others’ greed are denied life’s basic comforts. Humility is simplicity of life writ large.

Today’s readings aren’t about shunning the limelight, or being invisible, or staying silent. They’re a summons to a selfless, wholesome way of living that imitates Jesus, the servant king.