Homily for the 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time

September 9, 2007

St. Agnes, Cincinnati

(Based on Wisdom 9:13-18; Psalm 90; Philemon 9-17; Luke 14:25-33)

I’m sure most of us who have e-mail have received our share of those touching little stories that are designed to pick up our faith and reassure us that all is well, that God is in his heaven watching over us. Their emphasis is on comfort and consolation. They resonate with Jesus’ teaching that God watches over every sparrow, that every hair on our heads is numbered (even on heads with much more hair than mine...)

At their best they can be a needed support for us as we face the demands of a world filled with conflict and pain and darkness.

But they carry their own risk. At their worst they can be cute and romantic and sentimental. The risk is that they trivialize God, making God and instrument, a projection of our needs. They contain a truth, but only half of the truth. And half-truths can be seductive and dangerous to our spiritual growth. They let us avoid important realities we need if we are to be whole.

In today’s readings the church challenges us to the other side of God, what Paul Harvey might call “the rest of the story.” They put before the truth of a God who lives in unattainable mystery, beyond all our imaginings.

If we are to place ourselves before the whole truth we have to confront the God who lives in eternity, before whom we are as the grass which srpings up with the evening dew and is gone by the noonday sun. A God who says “My ways are not your ways,” who, as Wisdom tells us, “makes an end of us even in our sleep.”

The author of the Book of Wisdom says, “Who can conceive what the Lord intends?” And the Psalmist cries out, “Teach us to number our days aright.”

My sisters and brothers, in the coming weeks and months we as a nation confront a painful moral dilemma.

Will we continue to send our young men and women to their deaths in pursuit of a utopian fantasy that we can fashion a democratic peace in the midst of a brutal civil war?

Or will we be guilty of an even greater immorality by saving our own skins and abandoning thousands of innocent Iraqis—and perhaps many others in the region—to a sure fate of slaughter, after we by our actions were responsible for creating the strife in the first place? We broke it, we own it.

Sadly, whichever course we choose, we will be a divided people for decades, a people with blood on our hands.

And I say “we” because in a democratic society we do not have the luxury of simply throwing up our hands and saying our leaders ‘did it.’ As a free people we share responsibility with our leaders. We rightly celebrate their successes as our successes, and we are equally complicit in their blindness and sin.

How can we possibly meet the challenge of this dilemma? How can we find the wisdom to discover a response that does the least harm?

In the Gospel for today Jesus lifts up the need for prudence and for reason—and indeed calculation—as we face our moral choices. He tells us of the man who wanted to build a tower and the general who was going out to fight an enemy. His counsel is the same for both. First discern the real situation. Have a clear idea of your resources and your limitations. Do your best to know the likely consequences of your choices before you act on them. And be prepared to accept the possibility that some things you’d like to accomplish are beyond your capabilities. And if you find that’s the case, cut your losses: go and make the best deal you can make with your opponents.

We’re the little fish in the national conversation, but we have to be part of it. The spin doctors have been in full campaign mode for weeks—on both sides. The administration emphasizes only what it wants us to see in every supposedly neutral report, while the opposition weights the evidence to favor its position it position only. We can’t hope to find any balance there, there’s too much ego at stake. And both sides will try mightily to get us to make our choice on the basis of fear rather than our deepest values.

Jesus told us in another setting that we must be as sly as serpents and as simple as doves. I think the ‘simple as doves’ part points to the need to keep our focus on, to stay rooted in, our fundamental values, while the ‘sly as serpents’ element lies in the ways we have to use to protect ourselves from the distortions of those values by people with other agendas.

In any case, wherever we have a chance to affect the national debate we are responsible to speak out, whether that is in neighborhood conversations or letters to our leaders in Congress, or even in public demonstrations. We will not have the luxury of 100% assurance that we are right. By our earlier actions we have painted ourselves into a corner where there are no ‘good’ options, only more or less bad ones.

What we can do, no matter how little political power we have, and what we must do is to pray, to throw ourselves on the mercy of the Lord. The writer of Wisdom says to God: “Who ever knew your counsel, except you had given Wisdom and sent your holy spirit from on high? Only thus were the paths of those on earth made straight.” We must go as beggars before the Lord to ask for the gift of the Holy Spirit of wisdom—for ourselves as bit players and for our leaders who bear the heaviest responsibility.

We can only acknowledge our shame that we did not speak up loudly enough when the decision to initiate this immoral war was being made. Then we must make our choices and pray that our leaders make their choices, not as members of a blustering empire of self-righteousness but as a people humbled with a haunting sense of responsibility for choices beyond our human capabilities.

Then we need to trust in the kindness and care of our God, that God will use even our sinful choices to bring our the promise of the kingdom. We join the offering of our best efforts to the offering of Jesus. He paid for his choices on a cross but his offering was so pleasing to the Father that it wrought our redemption.

The kingdom will come; the word which came down from heaven will achieve that for which the Lord sent it—but it will come in the mystery of God’s time, not ours.