Homily for the 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time

August 28, 2011

Bellarmine Chapel, Cincinnati


(Based on Jeremiah 20:7-9; Romans 12:1-2; Matthew 16:21-27)


These are not easy readings. Anyone who came to church tonight looking for some soothing Hallmark spirituality was in for a shock!


The reading from the prophet Jeremiah and the account in the Gospel of Matthew are about conflict. And what might make us more uncomfortable, they are about conflict with religious authorities. These readings compel us to ask ourselves that most difficult ethical and religious question: When is it right to keep silent—and when must I, or you, or we, risk speaking up? Even in the face of resistance from religious leadership?


It puts us before a difficult moment of decision, especially when it concerns the fidelity of our church to its mission.


Let’s look at the situation which Jeremiah faces. The Assyrians are the super-power of that day. They have conquered everything; their empire stretches across the whole of what we would call the Middle East. The people of Judah are tiny fish in that big sea, dependent totally on the whims of the empire. But then, during the lifetime of Jeremiah there arises another super-power, Babylon, threatening the ascendancy of Assyria. Judah is caught in the middle. What to do?


The religious leaders of the Israelites—kings and high priests anointed by the Lord—were scrambling to avoid disaster. They were trying to ‘save their life,’ and we have just read in the Gospel what happens to those who would try to do that.


Their strategy was to engage in back-room political games, trying to play one empire off against the other. The goal was to be with the winners when the time for victory and defeat came. They kept assuring the ordinary people that everything was going to be alright. Just trust us and go about your normal rituals. Go to church and say your prayers.


But Jeremiah sees what is going on. And this is what the Lord tells him to do:


“Stand at the gate of the house of the Lord, and there proclaim this message: ‘Hear the word of the Lord, all you of Judah who enter these gates to worship the Lord! Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: reform your ways and your deeds so that I may remain with you in this place. Put not your trust in the deceitful words: ”This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.!” Only if you thoroughly reform your ways and your deeds; if each of you deals justly with his neighbor; if you no longer oppress the resident alien, the orphan, and the widow; if you no longer shed blood in this place, or follow strange gods to your own harm, will I remain with you in this place. . .” (Jer 7:2-7)


Jeremiah sees that the status quo, just keeping on keeping on, will not do. All is not going to be well.


There is an irony here. In our language we have taken Jeremiah’s lament and used it to coin an expressive word. We speak of a jeremiad. The way the word is often used it suggests a whiner; someone who is paranoid, whose sky is always falling; someone who is caught up in his own dreadful fantasies.


The irony is that Jeremiah was actually the one who was in touch with reality. The reality was that the time for game-playing had already passed. He was telling them to face reality and stop attempting to avoid it. The right course was simply to prepare for the inevitable. The Babylonians had already won, the Israelites were going into exile. And indeed that is what happened. They were to spend the next 50 years in exile from their homeland.


Then we turn to Jesus and today’s Gospel. Last week we read the story of Peter’s declaration that Jesus was the messiah. And today we reach what Scripture scholars tell us is the turning-point, the hinge of the whole Gospel story. It’s signaled by Matthew’s sober language: “from that time on.” Luke puts the turning point in more graphic terms: Jesus “set his face like flint” toward Jerusalem and his confrontation with the religious leaders of his people. He knows exactly where it is all heading and he will not be deterred. The message is so startling he has to repeat it on three separate occasions. It’s as if he is saying to his disciples: “You’ve made your commitment to follow me; now I am going to show you what it will cost.”


Peter will have none of it. This cannot be!


We begin to see how feeble Peter’s grasp of what his great declaration meant. Jesus had already called the leaders “hypocrites” and whited sepulchers” and “blind guides” who placed more value on merely human traditions than on the demands of the Covenant, but Peter and the rest of the disciples couldn’t take that in.


It’s not just Peter’s story, though. It’s my story and your story—and the story of our church. We make solemn professions and lofty commitments. We stand at the altar and exchange marriage vows; we commit ourselves to lives of service through ordination and religious vows. Our church proclaims its lofty commitment to social justice, to challenging the principalities of this earth. And then we begin to see the implications of what we have said. “I didn’t realize” is heard all too often on our lips. We squirm at words like “suffer” and “die.”


It’s not too long afterward that we meet Peter again. It’s the night of Jesus’ arrest and Peter is warming himself by the fire in the courtyard of the high-priest. A nameless servant-girl recognizes him and says, “You’re one of his companions, aren’t you?” And Peter cries out, “I don’t know this man!”


They are arguably the most truthful words he ever spoke. He didn’t know the man. And I suspect that none of us ever really knows Jesus until we have passed through some form of death with him. The death of loss, or the death of failure, or the death of rejection, or the death of recognition of our sinfulness.


Jesus is challenging the high-priests! They are charging him with blasphemy!


Fortunately that moment of Peter’s failure is not the final act. In the Acts of the Apostles we read how Peter and John, after the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, heal the crippled beggar at the Beautiful Gate of the temple. The authorities arrest them and they are brought into the presence of “all who were of the high-priestly class.” And Peter answers their charge: “if we are being examined today about a good deed done to a cripple . . . then all of you and all of the people of Israel should know that it was in the name of Jesus Christ the Nazorean whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead; in his name this man stands before you healed.” (4:8-10)


And we read that they were amazed at the boldness of Peter and John. It’s a word that runs all through the story of the early followers of Jesus. The authorities are struck by the fact that they were uneducated, ordinary men. And here’s the interesting part: they recognized them as “the companions of Jesus”—the same identity Peter rejected when challenged by the servant-girl at the side of the fire. The authorities forbid them to speak. But Peter answers, whether it is right in the sight of God for us to obey you rather than God, you be the judges. It is impossible for us not to speak about what we have seen and heard.” (4:19-20)


And what of us? By our Baptism we have been called to share in the prophetic mission of Jesus. Vatican II declared that it was not only our privilege but our responsibility to speak up and share with church leaders our concerns about what is happening in our church; our hopes and our fears and our visions for its future.


Jeremiah, and Jesus, and now Peter, found that they had to speak. They named what they had seen and heard. What was really happening.


You probably are aware of small groups of laity and priests calling for reform in our church. You may not be aware that a couple of months ago a whole network of those scattered groups met in Cobo Hall in Detroit, the site of the original Call to Action over 40 years ago. The archbishop was not pleased. He forbade his priest to attend, but several did anyway. Some 2,000 of the baptized spoke and listened and shared their concerns and visions for our church’s future. And there have been similar gatherings in many countries around our world.


What are we to make of these things?


Some would say that they are simply a bunch of grey-heads venting their disappointment that their interpretation of Vatican II was not accepted by church leaders. Perhaps there is some truth there.


And are the solutions they propose in response to our situation the work of the Holy Spirit? Perhaps; or perhaps not.


And are their motives all that pure and unmixed, untainted with unacknowledged personal interest? Probably not. That’s not how things are with sinful humanity.


But maybe those aren’t the best questions to be asking in the first place. The first need is, not to begin to interpret the meaning of the events but to acknowledge and come to terms with the fact that they really happened. They are part of the reality of our reality as church in 2011. Some of the baptized are taking their baptismal responsibility seriously and risking speaking up.


They may make us uncomfortable. In that respect they are much like the servant-girl who made Peter uncomfortable by the fire in the courtyard. Scripture doesn’t give her a name, but she has one. It is Reality.


Accepting responsibility for the role of prophet is risky. We are reminded not to assume it lightly. Paul tells the Romans that we are to do so only after testing ourselves in the light of faith. When it comes to the role of prophet there is only one outcome we can be sure of: it will cost our death. The death of separation from those we love; the death of rejection and isolation and misunderstanding.


When we receive the Lord today, let us pray for the gift of wisdom. The wisdom to know when to be silent and when to speak. To know when to submit and when to challenge. If we find ourselves called to be silent, that we do so without resentment but rather in a spirit of deep submission to the will of the Father. And if we find that we must speak, that our words come from the unquenchable fire of the Spirit of Jesus.