I'd like to lead into this topic with some humor. I once got into an unusual competition. My friend, Fr. Jim Coyne and I started competing about who could do the most funerals. A parishioner would call about someone who died. I would listen and express my condolences, but when the call finished I'd think, "One more for me!" This whole competition, of course, was silly and juvenile. (Pause) But I did win! :) Coyne got back: "With your monotone, Bloom, they were probably dying of boredom!" :)
We humans naturally compete - and sometimes it can be beneficial. For example, it can lead to seek excellence or simply to provide better service. Still it has a dark side. In ancient times Jews and Greeks competed. It sometimes led to name-calling and violence. Jesus brought Greeks and Jews together in a remarkable way. Our faith combines Hebrew revelation and Greek rational philosophy. When people focus of Jesus we can listen to each other and take the best from each person.
The problem is that instead of focusing on Jesus we easily fall into ego gratification. Fr. Robert Spitzer shared a painful personal experience. You may have heard of him - a brilliant priest who served as president of Gonzaga University. Fr. Spitzer has done outstanding work on the relationship of faith and science. He spent weeks putting together a lecture on what modern physics indicates about God's existence. Afterward he received much praise but one guy approached him maybe he a little self-satisfied. He announced to Fr. Spitzer that he had mispronounced a certain scientific word. Fr. Spitzer tells how he fell into a depression that lasted several days. In spite of all his achievement he felt like a failure.
Like a good Jesuit, however, he analyzed the movements in his soul. He recognized that his sadness stemmed from striving for ego-gratification. We can start thinking our happiness depends on achieving some sort of superiority. I gave the humorous example of my competition with Fr. Coyne. It can extend to other things. For example if I see another parish achieving their Annual Appeal goal and we haven't, I feel bad. Or maybe some other parish is 20% over their goal. I think, Bloom, you're a failure.
OK, some good news: Last week I received the latest Appeal report. We are now over our goal - by almost $3000! (you can applaud) I printed out the report and put in my office bulletin board.
Now, like I said, competition is not bad in itself. If it gives me motivation to do funerals or raise funds for a common need, that's a good thing. I'm glad we have Jack in the Box to compete with McDonald's. I'm glad our young people compete as athletes and scholars. But as Father Spitzer points out it's not good to base one's happiness on ego gratification. It's a step above the pursuit of sensual pleasure but it's always precarious. Mispronouncing a word, falling short on a goal, some blow to self-esteem - and the whole world crashes down.
Fortunately pleasure and ego-gratification are only the first two levels of happiness. There's a third level - service: the sense of purpose a person experiences when caring for others. And beyond service is the fourth and highest level: seeking ultimate truth, beauty and goodness.
That's what Jesus invites today: "Come away by yourselves to a deserted place and rest a while." They had spent exhausting and exhilarating days serving others, but now it is time for what ultimately counts: being with Jesus. As St. Paul tells us: Jesus brings us together by his blood. He is our peace. He breaks down the dividing wall that separate us from those we compete with. Through him we have access in the one Spirit to the Father.
This week I will be making a pilgrimage to Sister Barbara's grave. It's a five-day road trip to San Francisco and back - time to thank God for Sister Barbara and reflect on what she means for us. I'll say something about it next week when we hear Paul explain how Jesus wants us to live. For today we look to Jesus to overcome the negative side of competition and ego gratification. In him we who were once far off have become near by the blood of Christ. He is our peace; he breaks down the dividing wall of enmity. Amen.