25th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Wis 2:12, 17-20; Jam 3:16-4:3; Mk 9:30-37
Something that connects all three of our readings this morning is the presence or absence of team spirit. In sports you have some things where a player competes as an individual. I’m thinking of something like a marathon or a triathlon. Maybe even something like Nascar or horse racing, but the race car driver would have his pit crew, and the jockey would have the people who feed, groom, and own the horse. In other sports the athletes compete as individuals but they’re also part of a team, like swimming or track. It’s sort of a semi-team situation. A person can be all focused on himself and making himself look good, and it only incidentally helps the team by adding more points. Then there are sports where having a good team spirit is essential. If I was a basketball player who only cared about myself and how many points I scored at the end of the game, I would hog the ball all the time and never pass it to a teammate. The same would be true in something like soccer. If I never passed the ball and only looked for opportunities to score a goal myself, it would seriously hurt the team. Individualism and narcissism do not mix well in sports like soccer and basketball.
I would like to build on this last model to demonstrate the lesson we can learn from today’s readings. In the gospel passage we heard about the apostles arguing among themselves about who was the greatest. That does not sound like healthy team spirit but rather individuals competing among themselves as individuals – each one looking out for his own personal glory. Jesus corrects them by saying, “If anyone wishes to be the first, he shall be the last of all and the servant of all.” This attitude of service and self-sacrifice is much more healthy for the group as a whole. And Jesus demonstrates it in a personal way in the first part of the gospel reading when he told his disciples, “The Son of Man is to be handed over to men and they will kill him.” He was willing to sacrifice his own life for the sake of the many. That is team spirit to a heroic degree.
Team spirit sees things as a “we.” Where there are divisions we encounter attitudes of “me against him” or “us against them.” These divisions do not come from God. God is all about unity, and the closer we get to God, the closer we will feel toward our fellow man. Division and disunity always bear the hand print of the devil. Satan loves to divide and conquer, or just to divide and stir up discord and hatred and wars. When people are at peace and cooperating with one another it bugs the heck out of him. Which spirit do you hear in these lines from our first reading? “Let us beset the just one, because he is obnoxious to us; he sets himself against our doings, reproaches us for transgressions of the law and charges us with violations of our training.” And further, “With revilement and torture let us put the just one to the test that we may have proof of his gentleness and try his patience. Let us condemn him to a shameful death.” Certainly, these lines sound more like disunity than unity. And the just one showed a healthy team spirit, a healthy family spirit, a healthy clan spirit when he pointed out their transgressions to them. He had the well-being of the whole group in mind and didn’t want these malefactors or anyone else among the people to be led astray. And of course this “just one” was a type of Christ, who was willing to lay down his life for the redemption of the world. Those in Israel who were all about their own interests were threatened by him and intent on finding a way to destroy him.
Meanwhile, our second reading completely focuses on this contrast of team spirit verses individualism and disunity. St. James points out the dysfunctional spirit: “Beloved: Where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every foul practice.” And a little further: “Where do wars and where do conflicts among you come from? Is it not from your passions that make war within your members? You covet but do not possess. You kill and envy but you cannot obtain; you fight and wage war.”
Now let him describe for us unity and concord and a generous spirit: “The wisdom from above is first of all pure, then peaceable, gentle, compliant, full of mercy and good fruits, without inconstancy or insincerity. And the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace for those who cultivate peace.” A group with these traits is definitely more healthy and easier to live in than the former.
Okay, so most people who don’t live in a monastery have to work in order to pay the bills. And in the business world and workplace it can be highly competitive and even “dog-eat-dog.” If you turn the other cheek too often, pretty soon you don’t have much of a cheek left to turn. So, as Jesus counselled, you have to be as cunning as snakes and yet innocent as doves (Mt 10:16). Working in an environment of back-stabbing and lack of trust is not healthy. As Christians, we need to bring our values to the workplace and be leaven in the dough. Little by little we can make the world a friendlier, more loving place. Conquer evil with good.
I’ve mentioned before that I played baseball when I was in high school. When I started junior varsity I tried out for second base. Another kid named George was also trying out for second base. I was impressed that during practice he was always cheering me on. He’d say things like, “Good catch,” or “Good throw.” He was very encouraging even though we were both competing for the same position. He was genuinely not putting his own interests first. He was a great example for me of sportsman-like conduct, team spirit and the lack of individualism and narcissism. As it ended up, he beat me out on that position and I moved to outfield.
Here at Genesee Fr. Gerard is working on moving away from the model of “hermits living in community” toward a more tight-knit family spirit. We’re trying to move away from individualism and “doing our own thing” to playing as a team and sacrificing the “I” for a “We.” Our Abbot has arranged for a core group, the under 65 monks, to have monthly meetings facilitated by a professional from the outside, Tom Paul. The hope is that it will foster bonding between us and we’ll gel more as a group. Newcomers to the community will sense this healthy family spirit and cohesiveness and will feel welcomed by it. If we want to pass this treasure of our monastery on to the future, we need to attract recruits and keep them. If there is a warm and welcoming heart to the community, this is a lot more likely to happen.
To wind up, we can see others as competitors or as team members. One brings you more happiness than the other in the long run.