Sunday, January 29, 2012

For Goodness' Sake

Without a doubt, the first time I've cited Bart Simpson in a homily...

   Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time   B 

There are some catchphrases
that just seem to spread like wildfire—
or, better yet, to infect our way of speaking like a virus.
Slogans are picked up from advertisements, movies, music,
and once they take hold, they seem to hang on—
even if we forget where they came from.
 “Here’s looking at you, kid,” comes to us from…Casablanca.
 “I’ll be back,” from…the Terminator.
 “Good grief!” from…Charlie Brown.
 “Don’t have a cow, man!” from…Bart Simpson.

One catchphrase that I’ve heard quite a lot in recent years—
although no one seems to know where it came from—
is, “It’s all good.”
You hear it all over the place.
“It’s all good.”
It sounds nice—very encouraging and optimistic.
The sentiment aims to keep you smiling in the face of any difficulty.
“It’s all good.”

But the trouble is…it’s not.

You don’t have to look very long or very far
to see that it’s not all good.
Sickness and pain are not good.
Death and despair are not good.
Poverty and hunger are not good.
Selfishness and wrath are not good.
Oh, some good can be and often is drawn out from any of these…
…but, no—they aren’t good in and of themselves.
It’s not all good out there in the world,
and it’s not all good here in this sinner’s heart,
and it can be downright dangerous to try and fool ourselves
into thinking otherwise.

Ruins of the Synagogue in Capernaum

Jesus’ encounter with the unclean spirit
in the synagogue at Capernaum
is just one of many episodes in his life and ministry
where he confronts the not-goodness in the world.
And if driving out evil was such an essential part
of what Jesus came to do among us and for us,
then how do we propose to carry on that same battle today?

English author C. S. Lewis—
who returned to the Christian faith in middle age—put it this way:
Enemy-occupied territory—that is what this world is.
Christianity is the story 
of how the rightful king has landed,
you might say landed in disguise,
and is calling us all to take part 
in a great campaign of sabotage. 
When you go to church you are really listening-in
to the secret wireless [communications]* 
from our friends:
that is why the enemy is so anxious 
to prevent us from going.
He does it by playing on our conceit and laziness
and intellectual snobbery.
I know someone will ask me,
‘Do you really mean, at this time of day,
to re-introduce our old friend the devil—hoofs and horns and all?’
Well, what the time of day has to do with it I do not know.
And I am not particular about the hoofs and horns.
But in other respects my answer is ‘Yes, I do.
I do not claim to know anything about his personal appearance.
If anybody really wants to know him better
I would say to that person. ‘Don’t worry.
If you really want to, you will.
Whether you’ll like it when you do
is another question.’  (Mere Christianity)

Now, to think of evil only in terms of devils and demons
does tend to keep the whole matter at a respectable distance.
And the evil, the not-goodness, with which we’re more familiar
is of a rather less-overtly-diabolical sort:
the personal evils of greed and of lust,
the societal evils of discrimination and of apathy,
of warfare and famine, addiction and disease.

“The devil made me do it”
can seem a rather too convenient excuse for these or any other ill.
But I don’t suspect the Son of God
would have wasted so much time and effort
facing off with a mere figment of our imaginations.
As was once so wisely observed:
The greatest trick the devil ever pulled
was convincing the world he didn’t exist.  (cf. C. Baudelaire)

Much like certain catchphrases eventually spread far and wide,
we human beings have long understood
that contact with the bad can infect the good—
that one rotten apple can spoil the whole bunch.  (cf. B. Stoffregen)
A fear of uncleanness, of becoming spiritually defiled,
preoccupied the Jewish religious leadership of Jesus’ times.
But it clearly didn’t preoccupy Jesus.
Notice how he reacts in this Sunday’s gospel.
In the synagogue—a holy place—
and on the Sabbath—a holy day—
an unclean spirit dares to enter and to speak.
But Jesus does not flee—just as he won’t flee
from the lepers or the prostitutes or the caskets of the dead.
Jesus isn’t worried that he’ll catch a fatal case of evil.
No—Jesus knows that his goodness is even more contagious.
He is the Holy One of God, and his holiness rubs off.
The miracles and exorcisms of Jesus
not only challenge the laws of nature, but the laws of society
which tend to keep the sick and the sinner safely at arm’s length.
Jesus, instead, keeps reaching out to the outcast, the untaouchables,
and pulling them back in.

The people of Capernaum recognized
a particular power, a particular authority in Jesus:
his words matched his actions;
what he said came to pass.
He would not be controlled or intimidated by the unclean spirit—
or anything else, for that matter.
It should be likewise for us who follow him.
We do not have to be controlled by the forces of evil—
whether they emerge from within us or without.
Like Jesus, we can—we must—take firm command,
for he has shared his power, his authority, with his Church.
Before ascending to the Father, Jesus tells the Eleven:
These signs will accompany those who believe:
in my name they will drive out demons,
they will speak new languages.
They will pick up serpents with their hands,
and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not harm them.
They will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover.”  (Mk 16:17-18)
Do we really believe this?
Are we ready to rely totally on Christ’s divine authority
rather than any human power?
Do we trust that, by staying in close contact with Jesus,
we can catch a strong case of the all-goodness of the Holy One of God?
Yes, the devil is real…
…but that should be no cause for anxiety.
By his own dying and rising,
Christ has conquered him once and for all…
…it’s just that evil has a terrible time admitting defeat.

It’s claimed that Helen Keller once wrote,
It is wonderful how much time
good people spend fighting the devil.
If they would only expend the same amount of energy
loving their fellow men,
the devil would die in his own tracks of [boredom].**
How true!
If, then, in Jesus, God was sneaking behind enemy lines
(behind the lines, I might add, of a particularly sneaky enemy),
then maybe our best plan of attack is not to charge in head on.
Is not the work of sabotage best accomplished through the back door?
So let us combat the evil found around and within us
by increasing the amount of goodness there
until that day when, at last, we can truthfully say,
“It’s all good.”

*I added "communications " to the Lewis passage 
since "wireless" means something rather different now 
than it did when written back in 1952.

**The quote credited to Keller actually says "ennui,"
which is a really great word...just not used much in these parts.

1 comment:

muffin24 said...

its all good is the name of a song that was done i wanna say like 20 years ago by phrase its a rap song and probably just caught on from there, and yes i never thought you would actually quote Bart Simpson your turning gangsta first with that t shirt and now bart Simpson.