Death, but not sin

Homily, Ordinary Time Sunday 20C

“In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood.” Our second reading today, taken from the Letter to the Hebrews, is very familiar to me. When I first entered seminary, my classmates and I were told to memorize this entire chapter, Hebrews 12. I’m not sure I ever got it completely word for word, and after all these years, I definitely can’t recite it for you anymore, but it is a very beautiful passage of Scripture that provides motivation for Christian living. 

“Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us[…] persevere in running the race that lies before us.” What is this cloud of witnesses, who are the spectators of our lives? Whenever I hear this passage, I always remember attending Mass at the Cathedral of St. Paul, where they have so many statues and images of saints and angels that surround you on every side in that space. Now Hebrews talks about the heavenly worship that we join in whenever we attend Mass, but I would say that the saints and angels and all those who have gone before us in the faith and died in God’s grace, even our own relatives and friends who have died, this whole great cloud of witnesses is always watching us and cheering us on in living the Christian life. 

Our main obstacle and problem and the reason that many of us don’t actually make a lot of progress in our spiritual lives or in running this race is that we don’t see sin for what it really is, our greatest “burden” and hindrance from really thriving as human beings. At our coffee break in the morning with the Holy Spirit Office Staff, we usually come across a political article in the paper. A few weeks ago as we were discussing our options or lack of options for presidential candidates, Deacon Brian pointed out that a huge problem in our political system is that we tend to think that good policies can replace actually having good and virtuous leaders, that the integrity of our system can make up for the lack of integrity in our leaders and in our people. But depending on even the best systems and policies never works once you can no longer depend on good people to uphold them.

Beyond our political system, though, we fail to see that sin is the worst evil in our own personal lives. And because we treat our own sin as a minor problem, we continue to run up against the same walls time and again in our spiritual lives. It’s no great wonder that we continue to face the same problems in our relationships, in our families, in our workplace and in our free time when we have not yet taken a real stand against the greatest evil in our lives. In our struggle against sin, we have not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood. 

As I was growing up, I came across a very short biography of St. Dominic Savio, a student of St. John Bosco in Italy. St. Dominic Savio from a very early age had a motto that he would often repeat to himself, “Death, but not sin.” Death, but not sin. He was very clear in his own approach to life of what his greatest enemy was and the lengths that he should go to to avoid it, that he would rather die than willfully commit even one sin. He would allow his physical life to come to an end rather than jeopardize his spiritual life in the slightest way. 

In my own life, I often wonder what my motto would be, if I’m really honest with myself. Instead of, “Death, but not sin,” it might sound more like, “Sin, but not the slightest inconvenience,” that the greatest evil that I see for myself is being prevented in any moment from doing what I happen to think that I want to do, whether what I want to do is good for me or not. This is why I continue to make little if any progress, because I do not recognize and fight against my greatest enemy. In our struggle against sin, we have not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood. 

Jeremiah and Jesus in our other readings today were uncompromising in the Truth of God’s message that had been entrusted to them, and they were willing to suffer and die rather than disobey the One who sent them. Jesus longs to see this fire break out upon the earth, the fire of God’s love and the fire of hatred for our sin. Do not think that Jesus came “to establish peace on the earth.” He came not to bring peace but the sword. We should never be at peace with our own sins. May the fire of God’s love make us see our true enemy, our own disobedience, that, “surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses,” we might begin to really live and to run “the race that lies before us while keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the leader and perfecter of faith.” 

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