Homily for the Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time

February 11, 2007

St. Agnes, Cincinnati

(Based on Jeremiah 17:5-8; Psalm 1; 1 Corinthians 15:12-20; Luke 6:17, 20-26)

Where am I rooted? Where are you? Where do we find the deepest sources of our lives? Where do we get the energy that makes us bear fruit in this world? Where is our center, the place where we are grounded?

These are the serious questions that today’s readings put before us and call us to answer.

The prophet Jeremiah gives us two rich images to help us in our search. They are starkly contrasting.

First he would have us see a lovely tree situated by the side of a fresh running stream. It is strong and flourishing, able to withstand the strongest of storms. Its leaves are green, nourished continuously by the flowing water. It’s fruitful, enriching the world with its seed. We’ve all seen pictures of trees like that.

And I’m sure each of us has known men and women like that. They know who they are and where they’re going and what they stand for. They’ve got a clear focus. They make commitments and then keep them. You can count on them. They bring life to those they meet.

And the other image is of that lone barren bush out in the desert. It has no leaves, it’s just a bundle of dry sticks. We’ve seen images like that, too. Perhaps in scenes from the dust-bowl storms of the 30's, when everything was dry and the top soil was being blown away. Or perhaps we’ve seen them in pictures from some of the countries suffering famine in Africa. If you’ve ever driven through some of the desert areas in our Western plains you might have seen a giant tumbleweed bouncing along and glancing off your car.

And sadly we know people like that. Too many, maybe more today than ever. Hollow people, lost and bouncing from one empty event to the next. They don’t know who they are or where they’re going. We even describe them as people who are rootless. They seem incapable of committing themselves to anyone. Trying to find meaning in all the wrong places, going night after night to one bar and then the next, going from one one-night-stand to the next, drifting in and out marriages, unable to bring any joy to anyone else because they have no genuine joy in themselves.

We have been treated to a sorry example in recent days with the death of Anna Nicole Smith. What a sad, sorry tale! A woman whose whole need in life was to be recognized, to be a celebrity, to be the center of attention, a toy for a public with nothing better to do than follow her story in the checkout-counter tabloids.

We see these two very differing images and we ask why? What accounts for the difference between them? Why do people turn out so different?

Jeremiah gives us the answer: it all depends on where we place our trust. Where our center is. Whether it is in the Lord and the promise of a faithful God or in the passing whim and fads of this world. When he says we’re not to ‘put our trust in humans’ he’s not telling us to avoid human relationships. Exactly the opposite is true. We need committed relationships if we are to grow in human maturity. No, ‘putting our trust in humans’ means relying on all those things that the world around us tells us are so central. The things that will insure us that we are ‘with it,’ that we are ‘in.’

Then Luke goes on to translate that further, in the account of Jesus’ presentation of the Beatitudes. Matthew had Jesus going up the mountain and addressing the Sermon on the Mount to those he was calling to leadership. Luke goes out of his way to present Jesus offering the same beatitudes on a flat, open space. Scripture scholars call it the Sermon on the Plain. And it’s important to note who the audience is. They are the ordinary people, not the in crowd; people from all the surrounding cities who have been drawn to him. Including the Gentiles. Nobody special. The message is for everyone.

And the answer he offers is striking. It goes against all the messages we get from our society. From what St. John called “the world.”

He tells us the poor are blessed. The hungry possess the kingdom. It’s OK to be weeping and hated and ostracized because we’re connected to him and his way. Who wants things like that?

Wealth and food and comfort and being respected are not evil in themselves. They are goods; what St. Ignatius called “creatures.” But they are not meant to be the center, not where we place our fundamental trust. They’re means only. The source of genuine life lies elsewhere, in commitment to the Lord.

We live in a society which offers a totally contrary message. It tells us that the main thing is to look out for Number One. Claw your way to the top, and if that means climbing over others on the way, so be it. In our society you don’t count if you’re not making more, if you haven’t been the prom queen or a Mardi Gras king..The kid who doesn’t make the first team but sits on the bench is a loser.

We speak a lot about addictions like the need for alcohol or drugs or gambling as a way to dull someone’s sense of meaninglessness. We don’t want to look at our addiction to things. Most of the machinery of our world is designed to transform things we might want into things we absolutely have to have. From wants to needs. When things aren’t going all that well and you’re in danger of getting ‘down’, what are we told to do? Go shopping! Buy more things, as if they will satisfy our real hungers.. What 15-year-old kid can survive if he doesn’t own the latest pair of gym shoes? And is he any different from the people who are building these McMansions just to show they have more than their neighbor? Or those who are consumed with the idea that their world will fall apart if their son or daughter doesn’t get into the very best university, who allow themselves to be manipulated by magazines pushing inane ‘ratings’ that purport to prove where you’ll get the best education?

We have 3-year-olds who just have to have the latest designer jeans or a particular kind of shoes. “But Mom, all the other kids have them . . .”

How do we resist these messages when we’re bombarded by them from the moment we wake up till the moment our head hits the pillow?

I First Corinthians Paul gives us the answer: we have a center. We belong to Jesus, we’re called to be rooted in him..He went to his death for contradicting the false prophets, the scribes and pharisees. But his offering was blessed by the Father: he rose from the dead and lives now. Paul tells us he is “the first-fruits” – what does that mean? When the Jewish farmer began to bring in the harvest he took the very first basket and offered it in thanksgiving. Jesus is only the first fruit; we are the rest of the harvest He died to himself.

In chapter 2 of the Epistle to the Philippians Paul shares with us a very early hymn of the church:

Your attitude must be that of Christ:

      Though he was in the form of God,

            he did not deem equality with God

            something to be grasped at.

      Rather, he emptied himself

            and took the form of a slave,

            being born in the likeness of men.

      He was known to be of human estate,

            and it was thus that he humbled himself,

            obediently accepting even death,

            death on a cross!

      Because of this,

            God highly exalted him 

            and bestowed on him the name

            above every other name,

      So that at Jesus’ name

            every knee must bend

            in the heavens, on the earth,

            and under the earth,

            and every tongue proclaim

            to the glory of God the Father:

            Jesus Christ is Lord. (Phil 2:5-11)

He became the bearer of eternal life for all who follow his way.

It’s a challenging ideal — but is it real? Does it happen? Yes, it does. And I can tell you where. I’m sure we’ve all been to the funerals of people who were not celebrities, not on the ‘A’ team. First we may find ourselves surprised at how many people are there. “I never knew she affected so many circles.” Then you listen to the conversation and you hear people say: “This was a good man.” “I don’t think she ever realized how many lives she touched.” “He’s the man I always looked up to, the kind of person I hoped to be.” “I’m sure she didn’t know how she changed my life when . . .”

It happens. And not just to those in the history books. The ultimate irony is that the promise is fulfilled even in this world. And not just in isolated individuals. Listen to what Paul writes to the Corinthians in his second letter. This community is not many years away from the beginning of the church and Paul wants to let them know how the surrounding peoples already view them:

      We’re called imposters, yet we are truthful;

      nobodies who are in fact well known; 

      dead, yet here we are alive;

      punished, but not put to death;

      sorrowful, though we are always rejoicing;

      poor, yet we enrich many.

      We seem to have nothing, yet we possess all things! (2 Cor 6:9-10)

Let’s pray that we may be grounded ever more surely in the vision and heart of Jesus. Then maybe we’ll be able to say to the world: You know what? We know something you guys haven’t figured out yet.