Homily for the 12th Sunday in Ordinary Time
June 22, 2008
St. Agnes, Cincinnati
(Based on Jeremiah 20:10-13; Romans5:12-15; Matthew 10:26-33)
“Don’t be afraid! You are worth more than many sparrows. . .”
In last Sunday’s gospel we heard the account of Jesus’ selection of his first disciples, the Apostles. He was sending them out to proclaim his message and heal in his name. He gave them instructions for how they were to behave: no gold or silver; no extra tunic or sandals. Things like that. They were to strip down to the bare essentials. Cut out the frills so they could stay focused on their mission.
Then, between that account and the words of today’s Gospel he made them realize that it wasn’t going to be a stroll in the park. They were going to be beaten and brought up as criminals before magistrates. They would be scourged and whipped right in their own synagogues. They will be resisted. And persecuted.
And then, in the face of such a threatening prospect, today they are told, “Don’t be afraid!”
“Don’t be afraid.” How often Jesus repeats that exhortation in the Gospels! “Fear not.”
“Let not your hearts be troubled.” “Why were you fearful, O you of little faith?” It occurs so often that it’s not hard to see that it was the major challenge Jesus faced in creating his disciples, his band of witnesses.
And that is us. We are all called to be witnesses to the Gospel. To be evangelists, proclaiming a word that will challenge the power of the princes of this world – a word that is good news to the oppressed and down-trodden but decidedly not good news to those who control them and keep them down.
We may be inclined to forget that Jesus said one time “I came not to bring peace but division. Father will be against son and mother against daughter.” God’s word requires decision, it is a two-edged sword.
Just think for a minute about Mary. You know, in our community we sometimes sing a lovely song to her: ♬ Gentle woman, quiet light; gentle woman, peaceful dove, teach us wisdom, teach us love. ♬ But listen to what this ‘gentle woman’ proclaims in her great prayer, the Magnificat. Sure, she praises God for God’s endless mercy to the holy ones, but then she goes on to say
He has shown might with his arm,
dispersed the arrogant of mind and heart.
He has thrown down the rulers from their thrones
but lifted up the lowly.
The hungry he has filled with good things;
the rich he has sent away empty.
‘Gentle woman? Peaceful dove’?
If we’re honest with ourselves, we cringe at the thought that we are responsible to keep God’s word alive in our world. We – the whole body of the faithful, not just the pope and bishops and the ordained.
You know, we need to remember that none of the great prophets of the Old Testament wanted to be prophets. They all shied away from the burden of responsibility for God’s word to the people. One says, “I’m too young!” and the next one says, “I don’t know how to speak” and another says “I have a speech defect: I stutter.”
In today’s first reading from the prophet Jeremiah we get a small inkling of what it cost him. Just before the passage in today’s liturgy we get to hear the way he prays to the Lord:
“You duped me, O Lord, and I let myself be duped.”
‘Duped.’ Conned. But the actual meaning is starker than that. Biblical scholars tell us that the real image in that word is one of sexual seduction. God seduced him into becoming a prophet, the way a sexual predator lures his victim. He goes on:
“You were too strong for me, and you triumphed.
All the day I am an object of laughter
everyone mocks me.
Whenever I speak, I must cry out.
Violence and outrage is my message;
The word of the Lord has brought me derision and reproach all the day.
He tries to throw off the burden by deciding simply to keep silence. I’m just not going to do it – but he can’t:
I say to myself, I will not mention him,
I will speak his name no more.
But then it becomes like fire burning on my heart,
imprisoned in my bones;
I grow weary holding it in,
I cannot endure it.
The conflict leads him to tell God he regrets even being born:
Cursed be the day
on which I was born!
May the day my mother gave me birth
never be blessed! (Jer 20:7-18)
The Gospel we are called to witness to is not sentimental.
Oh sure, it’s about love. But not romantic love, not adolescent love, not cost-free love. It’s about what we have come in our day to know as tough love. Proclaiming it, and practicing it, can involve rejection and painful division. Death to self. Being unpopular. The cross. Life out of death
How can we bear responsibility for a word like that? No wonder that we hesitate. How can we overcome our resistance, our fear?
Jesus gives us two keys.
The first involves the reality that the word is not ours. It is the Lord’s word. Remember that powerful proclamation in Isaiah 55:
For just as from the heavens
the rain and snow come down
and do not return there
till they have watered the earth,
making it fertile and fruitful,
Giving seed to the one who sows,
and bread to the one who eats,
So shall my word be
that goes forth from my mouth;
It shall not return to me void,
but shall do my will,
achieving the end for which I sent it. (Is 55: 10-11)
The rain can’t be stopped. The seed that is sown will come to fruition. The fire will not be quenched. Jesus tells them that when they are hauled up before the court they shouldn’t be concerned about what they are ‘supposed’ to say: “at that moment you will be given what you are to say – for it will not be you who speak but the spirit of your Father speaking through you.”
But even the assurance that we are in the hands of the Lord who will work through us is not the total answer. Jesus goes on to tell us that ultimately it will come down to our belief in our own worth. We are worth more than many sparrows.
It comes down to the conviction that you and I have been loved with a love beyond our wildest imagining. The love of a Father who is nothing but total compassion. The love of One who loves us a mother loves the child at her breast. “Even if a mother were to forget her child I will never forget you.”
You know, we Catholics shy away from the word ‘evangelization.’ We’re not into getting up on a soap box or preaching on street corners or ringing doorbells. We don’t like to push ourselves or intrude on others’ space. Maybe we would get a different ‘take’ on evangelization if we listened to Pope Paul VI. In his great encyclical on evangelization he reminds us that there are several stages in the process of spreading the Gospel, of evangelizing. Evangelization is not, in the first instance, about trying to bring others to conversion. The first, the foundational stage, the one on which all the others depend and without which the others are so much hot air, is the evangelization of presence. It means simply being fully present to our neighbor. Walking with a sister or brother as a peer, not a keeper. Sharing my neighbor’s joy, and pain, celebrating life and confronting death. It means being a neighbor. Being a brother or a sister.
The reality, though, is that we won’t do that, we will be locked up in our own anxiety and fear unless we have allowed ourselves to be loved, to trust in the infinite love of the Lord. To believe in our supreme value in God’s eye.
Let me tell you a story of a Jesuit friend of mine. Some of you may know Fr. Al Bischoff over at Xavier. He’s an 80-year old, 6'2'’ teddy bear. A pied piper to the students. Al shares with others the results of his prayer. He told me that when he prays he frequently gets all in knots. “Oh I’m so unworthy; I don’t live up to what you want of me; I’m a flop and a sinner.” And then in hi prayer he hears a tiny voice. It says,”Oh Albert – JUST SHUT UP! And let me love you.” It’s not about you; just get out of the way and let me love you. Stop fighting, stop trying to save yourself, stop bargaining with me. BE STILL! Let me be God, let me love you.
It’s the one gift the Lord wants to give us, because we are precious in God’s eye. We are worth more than many sparrows.
If we can allow the Lord to touch us, and love us, what is the first response that will emerge? We will sing! Remember, it’s one of the 5 most frequent words in all the scriptures:
♬ I sing because I’m happy,
I sing because I’m free,
For his eye is on the sparrow,
and I know he watches me,
His eye is on the sparrow
and I know he watches me. ♬
And that song – the joy of one who is loved and simply wants to be a neighbor, a sister, a brother – is the most powerful witness of all.