Homily: “God can’t fill us if we are full of ourselves.”

July 31, 2022 – Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Ecclesiastes 1:2, 2:21-23 / Colossians 3:1-5, 9-11 / Luke 12:13-21

The following is the homily I will be delivering at St. Pius X Parish in Indianapolis this morning:

Today’s readings appear to focus on the pitfalls of spending too much of our time and energy on accumulating “stuff” – warning us against our inherent desire to acquire, store up, or hoard earthly things or treasure.

However, it goes deeper than “stuff.” From the Book of Ecclesiastes, we heard: “Vanity of vanities!  All things are vanity!” In many religions, vanity is considered a form of self-idolatry.  

The readings call us to reflect upon our desire for earthly things, but also on our desire to impress others – to be seen as smart or wealthy or powerful. We like titles and rank, terms of superiority and status. We feel better about ourselves when others think highly of us.

I remember when I was hired as the Director of Fatima Retreat House and was interviewed for an article in The Criterion. After the interview, I received an email with a follow-up question. The writer asked, “Before we publish the article, could you confirm your official title for me? Is it Director or Executive Director?”

The answer was Director. That’s what the ad for the open position had said. It’s what was listed on the website. That said, you wouldn’t believe how long I hesitated on answering the question. Executive Director sounded really important. I’d never been an executive anything. If I told the writer the title was Executive Director, who would know? Perhaps I could increase the prestige of the role without anyone catching on.

I did eventually answer – the official title was Director.

To be clear, there is nothing wrong with being smart, wealthy, or powerful. There is nothing wrong with having a title of distinction. The question is, what do we hope to achieve by attaining these attributes or titles? Are we trying to stand out as better than others, seeking adulation from those around us? Or are our efforts centered on being the best version of ourselves, seeking to fulfill God’s will for us?

I came across a quote this week that said: “God can’t fill us if we are full of ourselves.”

Today’s readings point us toward the virtue of humility.

The cornerstone of humility is self-awareness — an honest, in-depth understanding of both our gifts and our limitations. We humbly use our gifts to glorify God while working to improve upon our limitations. The greatest gift of my formation for ordination was an increased self-awareness. I discovered I was not nearly as gifted – or as limited – as I thought I was.

Attaining and maintaining humility is challenging. True humility requires a willingness to being held accountable and makes us vulnerable.

We all know, others will point out our limitations and our failings. Our conditioned response to such criticism is to become defensive. Humility calls us to listen to their words, reflect upon them, and continue to grow in self-awareness. Clearly there is vulnerability; human beings do not like to have their shortcomings or failures pointed out.

However, if a person offers a critique with a true sense of charity, that person and those words are gifts to us. They become sacramental lessons – signs of God’s loving presence and grace. God is speaking through that person, calling us to look into our hearts and consider the question, “What can I learn from this?”

Regardless of how graciously the critique is delivered, the words will sting, but they may also offer us an insight into becoming a better Christian.

With nearly thirty-five years as an educator and ten as a deacon in the Church, I have been affirmed in many ways: I have received letters from former students or athletes that have thanked me and shared how my work in the classroom or as a coach impacted their lives in a positive way. Parishioners here at St. Pius have been very gracious in affirming the work I do as a deacon.

However, as I said before, others will point out our limitations and our failings.

When I was younger, I would immediately take offense to such criticism. I tended to be dismissive, regardless of how much merit the criticism might have. I regret that now. In dismissing their critical comments, I may have missed out on several sacramental lessons – gifts being offered to me.

With age came a certain amount of wisdom and with formation for ordination came a more fine-tuned self-awareness. I don’t think I miss out on nearly as many sacramental lessons these days.

Here is an example of such a sacramental lesson: About nine years ago – I had been a deacon for a little over a year – I delivered a homily here at St. Pius. I was speaking on the incredible response Mary gave the angel Gabriel when told she had been chosen to be the mother of the Son of God. Mary, at the very young age of approximately thirteen years old, had said, “Yes” to this mind-blowing revelation. She had been completely selfless.

I followed that by sharing my experience as a father of four and principal at a school full of teenagers. I said the teenage years tended to be ones of selfishness rather than selflessness and that I would be surprised if a modern teenage girl would respond in the same way Mary did. Most adults in the congregation nodded in agreement.

It was only 2-3 sentences. I had absolutely no intention of hurting anyone’s feelings or calling anyone out – I love teenagers! It was an offhand comment that could easily have been left out of the homily.

And no one took offense to those 2-3 sentences…EXCEPT for one young, teenage girl sitting in the congregation. And she let me know about it.

That young lady wrote me a letter. Among other things, she took me to task for painting all modern teenage girls with one brush. She asked how an educator and a minister of the church could offer such a pessimistic and distorted view of teenagers. She was very passionate.

I learned several things in reading her letter:

One, regardless of how charitably written the letter was, it stung. Criticism hurts.

Two, she was RIGHT. I should not  – as an educator or a deacon – make offhand, irrelevant comments that could potentially hurt or demean someone, regardless of my intent.

Three, words are powerful. They must be selected and used carefully.

Four, I could learn from her.

And finally, because I could learn from her, because it helped form me and make me a better person, it was a sacramental lesson. It was a gift. God spoke through this young girl, holding me accountable and re-directing me.

Humility comes when we open ourselves up to sacramental lessons and the grace of God. Rather than immediately becoming defensive or reacting with emotion, perhaps we should push ‘Pause’ while we ask some questions:

Is the person offering the criticism coming from a place of love, without ulterior motives?

Is it possible our way is not the best way?

Are we willing to listen to and reflect upon what we’ve heard? 

If we can answer, “Yes” to any or all of these questions, we are opening ourselves up to the possibility of real growth and healthy formation.

When our days on earth come to an end, I don’t believe we will be judged by the amount of acclaim we have received during our lifetime. However, we may be judged on whether or not we took advantage of opportunities to grow as good Christian men and women. We may be judged on our level of humility.

“God can’t fill us if we are full of ourselves.”

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