Homily for the 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time
November 19, 2006
St. Martin de Porres, Cincinnati
(Based on Daniel 12:1-3; Psalm 16; Hebrews 10:11-14, 18; Mark 13:24-32)
“He will send out his messengers and assemble his chosen from the four winds, from the farthest bounds of earth and sky.”
Once again we find ourselves at the closing days of the church’s liturgical year. Even in nature (in the Northern hemisphere) we sense things winding down. Our days are getting shorter, the skies are darker. The elements seem to be at war with life; we feel a cold that seeps into our bones.
In the readings for these last few weeks of the church year we are compelled to confront that question that lurks in the back of our minds: How is it all going to turn out, this amazing experiment of our God; this creation (and our own lives)?
We get readings from the Book of Daniel, and Malachi, and Revelation. Scholars call the genre apocalyptic – and indeed you may remember that we used to call John’s Book of Revelation “the Apocalypse.”
It’s Stephen Spielberg time! Lightning and thunder, destruction, the sun dark, stars falling. It’s a special-effects person’s dream! You can almost imagine them sitting around talking about what they’d love to do: “I’ve always wanted to do a whole mountain coming crashing down on some poor villagers! What a kick that would be!”
And it’s the time most beloved by fundamentalist preachers. Those who read the bible as if it were the daily newspaper – “literally,” as they would say – have a field day with these texts. Down through the ages we’ve seen one ‘prophet’ after another telling us for sure that he knows when Jesus will return. Because the clues are right there in the bible. You know, you see a new one almost every week in The National Enquirer at the checkout counter. “Jesus will return on the third Wednesday afer Easter. At 1:32 in the afternoon. At Findlay Market. Right next to the guy selling brats and metts.” (And he’ll probably have Princess Di and Grace Kelly there with him. The tabloids love them.)
And they delight in showing how contemporary events are predicted very clearly, how they can be matched to scenes in these apocalypses. Katrina proves that God is angry with a sinful world. The word “towers” shows up in some obscure text, so it must clearly be a reference to the destruction of the World Trade Center. And “floods” obviously points to the tsunami.
They attract great numbers of people because of our common desire to know. We want certitude.
It’s funny, isn’t it, that those who want to see every word of Scripture as literally true seem to pass right by the clear words of Jesus in this very passage: “Of that day and hour no one knows. Not even the Son. Even I don’t know when it will take place Only the Father knows.”
They want to get people to turn to God out of fear. Which is exactly not the approach of Jesus. He spent his whole ministry trying to get us to let go of our fear and trust in the compassion of his Father. On Easter Sunday evening he said “Don’t be afraid, I’m not a ghost.” He said “Fear not, little flock, the Father has prepared a kingdom for you.” And even after that harrowing experience of almost drowning in the Sea of Galilee, he said, “Why were you afraid, you of little faith?” He came to bring us joy: “That my joy may be in you and your joy may be complete.” As Hebrews tells us, his one sacrifice has completed the task, there is no further need of sacrifice for sin.
No, it’s a message of hope. The day of the Lord is about a gathering, an assembly of his people from all corners of the earth. For a banquet.
The fear-mongers do their work by separating and selecting out some passages while blocking out the word of the Risen Jesus: “I will be with you to the end of the age.” “I will send my Spirit to gather you together, to break down all barriers.”
The day of the Lord holds out hope for us, it’s a promise – but it’s already begun, it’s here already. “The kingdom of God is in your midst.” Jesus tells us that we need to be observant, to watch for the signs of the kingdom already at work. It’s like watching the blooming of the fig tree or the beginning of the light at dawn. There are only small beginnings to be seen but they are a promise of the full flowering, the full light of day. “When you see these things happening you will know that he is near, even at your door.”
What things? When people are working for peace and reconciliation, when they are caring for those who are excluded and devalued by our society. Those in prison, and single moms, and gays and lesbians. Yes, and Muslims.
Just think of this. Only sixty years ago (a very brief time in the story of humanity) our country demonized two whole peoples. We fought a brutal world war against the Germans and the Japanese, in which hundreds of thousands of people were killed. Today, only a few short years later, they are our allies and partners. And thirty years ago we fought a disastrous conflict in Southeast Asia, in Vietnam. And today our president is drinking toasts with their leaders.
That’s on the big screen, but even on the micro front we are given signs that the deeds of the Kingdom are real. A few months ago the Amish people showed us that it is possible to forgive even someone who murders your children. One of their favorite words is “witness.” (It was even the title of a movie about their world some years ago.) They witnessed to us, they gave us a gift and a grace by their deeds of care.
The Lord is at work. For now it may be only in seeds which seem to be dead in the earth. Only the faint glimmer of first light at dawn.
The day of the Lord works on two levels: as a promise giving us hope for the future but also as a challenge to us in the present moment. The full blossom and the full light will come. But the effect of it all on us depends on our response to the Jesus who identifies with the neighbor who sits next to us here in church, and on our streets, in our places of work, and on our playgrounds.
Our mission is not to waste our lives and energies on National Enquirer speculations and titillation, but to nurture the tiny seeds of goodness near at hand, to spread the light by our love for our neighbor. No matter what he or she looks like, no matter what they believe, no matter how their ways challenge our small vision.