Homily for the Third Sunday in Ordinary Time

January 25, 2004

St. Martin de Porres, Cincinnati

(Based on Nehemiah 8:2-4, 5-6, 8-10; 1 Corinthians 12:22-30; Ps 19:8-10, 15; Luke 1:1-4; 4:14-21)

Rejoicing in the Lord must be your strength.

The Christmas season has come to an end with the baptism of Jesus and his first miracle at Cana. Now the church begins to take us, once again, on the journey into deeper understanding of Jesus and his mission. Who is he? What is he about? And what does that mean for our lives?

Today we are presented with two dramatic scenes of proclamation, one before thousands of people in the restored city of Jerusalem, one in a little synagogue in the back-water village of Nazareth.

As different as the two scenes are, they are both about the same question: where do we get guidance for our lives? As individuals and as a people?

We need to understand the background of the scene in Nehemiah. The people had been led into exile in Babylon. We can scarcely imagine what a devastating reality that had been for them -- especially for their religious life. The Temple was gone, their holy scriptures were missing. They were lost, all was in ruins.

And now they have returned. After some struggles among them the walls have been re-built. And now their holy scriptures have been restored and can be proclaimed. This is an exciting new beginning, a day they had thought they would never see again. They are gathered, assembled, they are 'church', they have light to guide their steps. They have a way.

All their pent-up pain and sadness bursts forth in tears. Ezra stands up on a platform before them and interprets the meaning of this day: a day not for tears but for rejoicing: we can hear once again who we are, who God is for us. We are not lost, without light.

And in Luke's Gospel Jesus too has a proclamation. He is going to proclaim his platform. In our modern-day expression, he's making his stump speech. He doesn't go up to the Temple, he's in the presence of his own neighbors, in their ordinary place of worship.

Everyone in the synagogue has their eyes fixed on him, wondering what he is going to proclaim. As one translation puts it, they were "on tiptoe in anticipation of what he would say." If you want to know who I am and what I am about, who you are going to be asked to follow, this is it.

What I stand for is this: I am on the side of the poor, the outsiders, those imprisoned, the marginated, those who don't have access to the levers of power in our society.

As a friend of mine, Dominican Brother Ignatius Perkins, a nurse who did research with homeless men with AIDS on the streets of Washington, put it in a recent article, "the vulnerable people:

* those who are in the dawn of life -- the unborn, our infants and children

* those who are in the twilight of life -- our aged and dying

* those who remain in the shadow of life -- the disabled, people of color

* those who are alienated and homeless.

* those who have lost hope.

When he wants to declare his platform Jesus doesn't begin with the 10 Commandments (as the political posturers of our day do). He doesn't focus on what we are to avoid, on sin. It's about doing, about caring, about liberating.

And his platform is meant to be our platform, the lens through which we are to interpret Christian life, our part in the coming of the Kingdom. It's the question we need to ask ourselves as individuals and as a people: how might this behavior affect those at the margins. Choices about how we view people, choices about how we use this world's resources, choices about what we buy and consume, what's important to us.

And when we hear words like 'platform' and 'stump speech' and 'campaign' it should make us think about the judgment we will make in this years' election. The church, and the word of the Lord, don't tell us who to vote for, but Jesus does give us the standard, the criterion we need to apply in making our choices. How do we evaluate the candidates and nominees? How do we continue the mission of Jesus in the serious choices we are called to make about who will govern and lead us?

Oh, we know that the politicians will try to spin us in every which way. They will appeal to our narrowest interests. "Vote for me and I'll take care of you -- you seniors, you big business, you women, you straights or gays, you 110% patriots, you black or Latinos -- I'll fill your pocketbooks."

We are called to be wise listeners, to cut through the spinning and ask the more radical question: what will be the effects of your policies on the poor, on those who can't make it in our society and world?

An odd thing is showing up in our political discourse. We hear about 'foreign policy issues' and 'economic issues' -- and then "values issues." Apparently that refers to questions like abortion and gay marriage. What could be more about values than how we as a country use our resources, how we treat our environment, or the legacy --- and the burdens --- we are leaving for our children? Is using the language of 'values' to refer only to things like abortion and dealing with homosexuality just one more way of keeping the issue of the poor off the table?

One thing is sure, that the mission of Jesus runs counter to the prevailing values of our society and its culture.

But there is something else equally clear: where it will take us. When we heard the story of the opening of Jesus' campaign we heard of the people's admiration for what he said. But we didn't hear what Paul Harvey calls us to: "the rest of the story." After his hearers got over their initial admiration at Jesus' words, they began to ask about where he got his wisdom. Wasn't he just the son of that fellow down the road, the carpenter? Who was he to make himself a prophet and challenge their ways?

So they dragged him out to the top of a ragged hill and were going to push him over to his death. He escaped. But only for a while.

It's a costly platform, a dangerous mission. We need the strength of the Eucharist to live it.