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Road to Hallelujah

Caring For Others: The Christian Vocation In The World

Sermon
Sermons on the Second Readings
Series II, Cycle C
When Bobby Smith was a youngster, his family lived near Mrs. Hildebrand, a widow, who at 95 years of age, was in constant pain and crippled by arthritis, which ravaged her body. Living alone, she could only take a few steps at a time with the help of her cane. Every week when Bobby's mom went to the market, she took her son who would always deliver groceries to the old widow. The family car would pull up into Mrs. Hildebrand's driveway and the command would be heard, "Bobby, here are Mrs. Hildebrand's groceries." That was all the instruction that was needed. Bobby sprang into action, delivering the groceries with a sense of delight. Without fail, Mrs. Hildebrand always gave Bobby a dime for his efforts.

The boy enjoyed the older woman, especially listening to her stories. She told him about her life, a steepled church in the woods, horse and buggy rides on Sunday afternoons, and much about her family's farm which had no electricity or running water. After a short time together, the older woman would offer Bobby his dime, which he would half-heartedly refuse, knowing that she would insist on him keeping it. Usually he walked across the street to Beyer's candy store and bought himself a treat.

One day in mid-December, Bobby was delivering the woman's groceries as usual, but the season's first significant snow was falling and the boy very much wanted to go out and play. He decided, therefore, to make his delivery and refuse to accept Mrs. Hildebrand's weekly offering of ten cents. He could hear the snow beckoning him to go outside. Thus, Bobby delivered the groceries in a bit more hurried fashion. The older woman took the items out of the bag and told Bobby where each went in the cabinets. Normally he enjoyed this, but the snow was calling. Then, somewhat suddenly, Bobby began to realize how lonely Mrs. Hildebrand must have been. Her husband had died some twenty years earlier; she had no children. Her only living relative, who never came to visit, lived far away in Philadelphia. Nobody even called her at Christmas. He noticed that while the holiday was near, the house had no tree, no presents, no stockings. For her, Christmas was just another day on the calendar. Bobby began to think, "Maybe the snow could wait a bit."

Bobby and Mrs. Hildebrand sat and talked about many things, but especially Christmases past. The journey through time must have been somewhat healing for the older woman. Then she said, "Well, Bobby, I bet you want to go out and play in the snow." She reached into her purse, fumbling to find the proper coin. "No, Mrs. Hildebrand," he said, "I cannot take your money this time. I am sure you have more important uses for it." But she replied, "What more important thing could I do with it than give some to a friend at Christmas time?" She placed a quarter in Bobby's hand. He tried to give it back, but she would have none of that.

Bobby hurried out the door and ran to Beyer's candy store. He wondered what he would buy -- a comic book, a chocolate soda, or ice cream. Then he spotted a Christmas card with an old country church on the cover. It was just like the church Mrs. Hildebrand had described from her youth. Bobby purchased the card and borrowed a pen to sign his name. "Is this for your girlfriend?" Mr. Beyer asked. Bobby started to say no, but responded, "Well, yeah, I guess it is."

Bobby walked across the street and rang Mrs. Hildebrand's doorbell. He handed her the card, saying, "Merry Christmas, Mrs. Hildebrand. Thank you for your kindness." The older woman's hand began to tremble as she opened the card and read its contents. She began to cry. "Thank you very much," and then in almost a whisper, "Merry Christmas to you."

Several weeks later, one cold and blustery day, an ambulance arrived at Mrs. Hildebrand's home. Mrs. Smith told Bobby that she had found Mrs. Hildebrand in bed; she had died peacefully in her sleep. On her night stand was found, still illuminated by a light, a solitary Christmas card with an old country church on the cover.

This very touching story, while centered on the season of Christmas is, nonetheless, a perfect example of what it means to be a Christian. It serves, therefore, as a message for our celebration of Ascension Sunday. Jesus ascends to the Father; he returns to the one from whom he came. But as he instructed his disciples and as Saint Paul instructs us today, we must do as Bobby and Mrs. Hildebrand did: We must live the Christian life and by example encourage others to do the same.

Biblical scholars argue several points about the letter to the Ephesians, most especially its Pauline authenticity and the place of its origin. Many exegetes believe, due to the language used and theology of Ephesians, the letter was not penned by Paul, but rather one of his disciples. Experts also point to the rather impersonal nature of the letter, something that seems odd since Paul used Ephesus as the base of operation for his third missionary journey and spent three years of his life in the city. Thus, this letter, along with Colossians and 2 Thessalonians are often classified as pseudo-Pauline. The author says that he is a prisoner, but we know that Paul was imprisoned in several locations. Thus the letter's city of origin is uncertain, although most scholars believe it was written during the period of his Caesarea imprisonment.

Regardless of its precise Pauline authenticity and its origins, the letter is very important in providing many ideas on the proper Christian life, including this magnificent prayer which we have just heard proclaimed. The apostle prays in thanksgiving for the Christian community at Ephesus asking that God enlighten the people: "I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him." But the Pauline author goes on to say what this enlightened state of God's presence must generate in the Ephesian community: "[That] you may come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints." Believers have been given great power by God. This power is to be used to build God's kingdom. In essence, God has enlightened the Ephesian community, and by extension all believers, with the power and the opportunity to model for others a proper Christian life. This is our task; it is our common vocation to holiness. And we must realize that nothing can or will stand in God's way to assure this reality. The resurrected Christ, who today ascends to the Father, "far above all rule and authority and power and dominion," leads the way. Jesus is the perfect example for us and thus, as the Pauline writer concludes the prayer, "[God] has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all" (Ephesians 1:21a, 22).

The Easter season, celebrating the triumph of Christ over sin and death, now draws to a close and we stand on the eve of Pentecost, the arrival of the Spirit. As we learn from Ephesians today, we have been enlightened by God; next week we will be enlightened by the Spirit. Besides being enlightened, however, we have also been commissioned to go forth and continue Christ's work and mission in our world. We are called to build God's kingdom and we do so by living well and fully the Christian life.

The late Pope John Paul II, who shepherded Roman Catholicism for over 26 years, provided to the Christian community in general a powerful witness of the proper Christian life, from his own actions and certainly his words. What the Pope preached was rooted in the need for us to follow in the footsteps of Jesus, who took on our humanity in all aspects save sin. He often spoke of the need to be disciples of Jesus and to realize that this was the only authentic path to life. In a talk to youth in New Orleans during his 1987 United States visit, he stated, "The true success of our lives consists in knowing and doing the will of Jesus." There is a need, therefore, to pray and reflect sufficiently to know what Jesus asks of us. All of us have different vocations, but each Christian is called to the general vocation of holiness. We live holy and Spirit-filled lives when we are willing to give ourselves completely to the Christian life. Sometimes we hesitate and are filled with fear concerning what God asks of us. The future is uncertain and, therefore, we are rather cautious about our forays into unknown territory. But John Paul II encouraged us to be bold and give ourselves to God, confident that through such action we would know God's will. In a 1996 message on the World Day of Prayer for Vocations, he stated, "Be generous in giving your life to the Lord. Do not be afraid ... The more ready you are to give yourselves to God and to others, the more you will discover the authentic meaning of life. God expects much of you."

A second powerful and important theme addressed by John Paul II on the Christian life was the need to engage the world, not to stand idly by as others build God's kingdom. In a 1996 talk to evangelicals, the Pope articulated the challenge in this way: "True holiness does not mean a flight from the world; rather it lies in the effort to incarnate the gospel in everyday life, at school and at work, and in social and political involvement." Rather than standing aloof from the reality of the world, John Paul II demonstrated, by his own life, of the importance of never shying away, but rather always being one who models a positive and forward-thinking countenance, one who sets the example that others would wish to follow. Speaking to a meeting of the laity in San Francisco in 1987 he stated, "Your great contribution to the evangelization of your society is made through your lives. Christ's message must live in you and the way you live and in the way you refuse to live ... Your lives must spread the fragrance of Christ's gospel throughout the world."

The pope's call to engage society and set the proper example in a society often shrouded in darkness is challenging at the very least, but this should be no surprise to anyone. Jesus warned his followers that suffering would follow those who chose his more narrow path to life. He described families torn apart and delivering each other to the authorities (Luke 12:49-53). But the Lord also brought encouragement: "In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have overcome the world" (John 16:33). Too often the more difficult path is avoided; we seek the path of least resistance. It is true, the easy path might be inviting; we have too many challenges and do not wish to add more. But in his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus was very clear that only one path leads to life: "Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it" (Matthew 7:13-14).

John Paul II, ever a man of conviction, reminded us "Christians sometimes have to suffer marginalization and persecution -- at times heroically -- because of moral choices which are contrary to the world's behavior ... This is the cost of Christian witness, of a worthy life in the eyes of God. If you are not willing to pay this price, your lives will be empty." Still, John Paul II, addressing the crowd on World Youth Day in 1996, stated the benefits of this more difficult choice: "The way Jesus shows you is not easy. Rather, it is like a path winding up a mountain. Do not lose heart. The steeper the road, the faster it rises toward ever wider horizons."

Baptism, the basic common denominator for Christian people, calls us to live holy lives that demonstrate our faith and belief in Jesus. Bobby Smith learned the meaning of the Christian life through his encounter with an elderly widow. Jesus, at the time of his ascension, commissioned his apostles to go to all parts of the world, to baptize, and proclaim the good news. The author of the letter to the Ephesians, in the line of the apostles, learned from his experience that his enlightened state, obtained at the hand of God, mandated that he go forward to build the kingdom and encourage his readers to do the same. More recently, the late Pope John Paul II, speaking for all Christian peoples of faith, called us to a full actualization of the Christian life. Let us continue the tradition clearly mapped out as we strive daily to follow in the footsteps of Jesus, the one who died to set us free and will always be our brother, friend, and Lord.
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