Homily for the 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time

August 13, 2006

St. Agnes, Cincinnati

(Based on 1 Kings 19:4-8; Psalm 34:2-9; Ephesians 4:30-5:2; John 6:41-52)

“Get up and eat. Else the journey may be too long for you!”

I think we all have had times on our lives when we could identify with the mood of Elijah in this first reading. He’s tired. Bone-weary. He just wants to lay down his burden and die.

But we’re not told why. You see, Elijah is on the run. On the lam. He is being chased out of the land by the king of Israel, Ahab And why is the king pursuing him? Because Elijah had presumed to speak truth to power. He told the king things he didn’t want to hear about himself and his kingdom. The reason trials and defeats had come upon Ahab’s kingdom was because he had abandoned Yahweh and led his people to the worship of Baal. (The writer of 1 Kings wrote that “Ahab . . . did evil in the sight of the Lord more than any of his predecessors. . . . He did more to anger the Lord, the God of Israel, than any of the kings of Israel before him.”)

But there is an even more fierce person behind Ahab’s anger. He is under the spell of a dramatically famous woman.

I am reminded of a film from my high-school days. A film with Bette Davis. It had a one-word title: “JEZEBEL!” All the images attached to that name made the film one our parents didn’t want us to see – so of course we went to see it. (They needn’t have worried, it was all pretty tame by today’s standards. Let’s face it, on her best day Bette Davis was no Lena Horne or Marilyn Monroe. . . .)

Elijah has been preaching the word of truth and all it’s gotten him is threats against his life. He wants it over – no more responsibility.

But the Lord tells him he still has more of a journey ahead of him. “Get up and eat, else the journey will be too long for you!”

And when we turn to the account of Jesus’ revealing the Eucharist in Chapter Six of John’s Gospel, we find once again that it is no placid scene. This is not some academic treatise. It takes place within a conflict. Jesus has been gaining more and more followers and the Jewish leaders can see where this is all heading. So they have to stop him, to challenge his credentials.

They try to bring him down by showing how ordinary he is. “He’s just the fellow from the neighborhood; we know all about him.” They bring up their heaviest guns, by appealing to their holy tradition. We belong to a people who had Moses bring down manna on them from heaven. Who are you? What have you done to compare with that?

Jesus does not back down in the face of their assault. He tells them the truth about their own heritage. It wasn’t Moses who gave you manna, it was God. And besides, those ancestors all died. I’m telling you I came from God. Believe in me and I am promising you food that will never fail but give you life that is everlasting.

He’s raising the ante, going way beyond what he had demanded of his follower up to then. This new message causes the Jews to fall into bickering among themselves. And it will end with Jesus’ own followers beginning to drop out and leave him He has his own Elijah moment as he appeals to them “Will you also leave me . . . Did I not choose you twelve? Yet is not one of you a devil?”

The message that you and I are called to proclaim to the world is one the world doesn’t want to hear.

We’re called to speak out when we see injustice: when our neighbors are unable to even live at the poverty level and feed their families on a minimum wage of $5.15 an hour. While our politicians play cynical games with the lives of the poor in order to avoid this question of injustice. We are called to proclaim that violence and war are not the way to resolve conflicts between individuals or countries. There are many who trumpeted John Paul II’s message about abortion but did not want to listen to him when he proclaimed that the war in Iraq is immoral. His biographer – who would dearly want to see him canonized (that sells a lot of books) even denies that John Paul was one of the harshest critics of unfettered capitalism.

It can get tiring and depressing fighting the uphill battle against the principalities and powers of this world. We can be tempted to just give up. “Things will never change.” Just take off the backpack and lie down and quit.

But the Lord reminds us that we still have a journey ahead of us and we need energy and strength.

I read an article the other day by a woman who can be an example and lift our spirits. She was a volunteer teacher of the Confirmation class in her parish. “But the pastor of my parish is under pressure to get rid of me. A group of parents does not want a person like me teaching [their children.] The men of a certain chivalrous organization want me censured, then booted. . I have offered to resign..My pastor has asked me to stay.

“What sinful thing have I done? I have written, in my secular newspaper column, in support of marriage equality for gay Americans: civil rights, not religious belief. My fellow parishioners have a brought a copy of that particular column . . . as proof of my unsuitability. I am a bad Catholic. I should not be in a position of leadership, they tell the pastor, especially of impressionable teenagers. . . . You have to understand, my pastor says to me later, after I have assured him that I am not teaching teenagers to be gay, that they are parents protecting their children.

Father, I say, so am I. . . . I tell him that my 21-year-old daughter is a lesbian. She has left the church, feeling there is no room for her and people like her in its unforgiving pews. She feels that the parishioners who want me gone believe and teach their children that there is something wrong with people like her, that somehow God made a mistake when forming her in her mother’s womb. On days like this, how can I argue with her?

On days when Rome issues a document directing that gay men should not be allowed into a Catholic seminary, in spite of whatever intimate calling from God they may hear, how can I argue with her? On days when gay men who are already priests are mistakenly made to feel inferior, dirty and entirely responsible for the pedophilia scandal in the church, how can I argue with her? What can I say?”

. . . I think it is possible, after much prayer and soul-searching, that God entrusted me with a lesbian child so that I might be one small voice for change in outlook. So that I might be one to stand up and affirm that gays and lesbians are equal and beloved in the eyes of God, that they are our children and God’s children, and that we err in treating them like modern-day lepers, in placing them outside the circle of God’s love.”

She tells of visiting the new cathedral in Los Angeles. “As I walked slowly through the main cathedral, reading the names of the various saints whose likenesses appear in the tapestries on the walls, tears were gathering in my eyes. These were my people, eccentric and prophetic and colorful Catholics, all facing forward to the altar, all with God on their minds. Suddenly I noticed that interspersed among the saints were the figures of regular people, children and mothers, teenagers and just plain folks, holy but unknown. Just as suddenly, tears were streaming down my face. . .

I knew also, wrapped up warmly in God’s presence, that I was home – home, where the heart is, where we live in community with the people who are more closely related than anyone else on earth, where we break bread together, pray together, laugh together, hold each other up in times of trouble and love each other. Until I am evicted, the Catholic Church is my home.”

Until I am evicted, the Catholic Church is my home! She knows what she is called to proclaim – and she knows where the strength comes to proclaim it. Even in a church which does not want to hear her message.

We need energy and strength for the journey still ahead of us. “Get up, come to the table, and eat!” Lest the journey may be too long for you and me.

After all, this is the food and drink of everlasting life!