Homily for the Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time
February 14, 2010
St. Agnes, Cincinnati
(Based on Jeremiah 17:5-8; 1 Corinthians 15:12, 16-20; Luke 6:17, 20-26)
Where are we to find meaning in this world? Where can ewe place our hope? What’s more important, or less? What’s the best way to live?
These are the kinds of questions that give rise to the answers we find in today’s readings from Jeremiah and the Beatitudes of Luke.
They are not particularly religious questions. They are universal human questions that have been asked for centuries and centuries. Across the Near East in the ages before Jesus there were collections of wisdom sayings; in today’s world we find similar questions in the self-help columns of our magazines and newspapers. We humans are by our very nature seekers. We need, and constantly look for, guideposts to make wise choices and decisions in the face of a myriad of issues and proposed responses.
In today’s readings Jeremiah and Jesus give us two sets of possible answers, two different ideas of what wisdom consists in. One set is the answer of the world, the other is that of the Lord.
When Jeremiah challenges us not to put our trust in humans, he’s not advising us to go off and isolate ourselves in some dark corner away from others out of a sense of paranoia. Exactly the opposite is true: we are meant to live and find meaning in community, in relationship, in mutual interdependence.
What he’s critiquing as misguided is a world-view that leaves God and the divine mystery out of the process, to think that we humans can go it on our own. That way ends in his image of a sterile bush, “a salt and empty earth.”
Then Jesus in the Beatitudes goes much further. He confronts the attitudes and ideals of this world very directly.
Just what passes for wisdom, for the good life, for success, in our society? It’s not hard to find the answer: just look at what the advertising in our media tells us is important.
What are the messages they project at us every day? You count, you are somebody, if you possess things. Especially if you have more of them than the other guy. You surely aren’t living right if you don’t have the right teeth-whitener. The advertising world is failing if it doesn’t get us to recognize new ‘needs’ we didn’t know we had last year.
And you count if you are Number One, if your name is up in lights. If you’re the last one left standing when you’ve beaten all your competitors. (Isn’t that a nice way to see our neighbor, as the one who is the way of my success?)
What’s the worst thing you can say of someone in our society? That he or she is a loser.
It’s not a question of any particular object of our striving, it’s a totally pervasive world-view, the very air we breathe every day. It’s an engulfing set of images and persuaders that condition how we see ourselves and how we are to behave. And in the face of that powerful wave Jesus projects a totally different set of answers..
And notice that he doesn’t offer us a set of abstractions, it’s not an ideology. It’s all very concrete and real. Being poor – and finding blessedness in that – is not an abstraction. Being hungry is not an abstraction. Being in pain and grief is not an abstraction. Being laughed at is not an abstraction.
Can we make sense of all that? Find meaning – and blessedness! – in things like that?
No, not really. Not if we continue to approach them with the eyes supplied by our culture, if we are still mired in the illusions and half-truths that seduce us.
It took Paul years of prayer and pondering and reflection until he was able to pierce the illusions, the spectacular but superficial sound-and-light show. Listen to what he came to realize:
The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written:
“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the learning of the learned I will set aside.”
Where is the wise one?. . . Has not God made the wisdom of the world foolish? . . . For Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles . . For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength. [1 Cor 1: 18-25]
The ‘way’ of Jesus – life coming out of death and riches to be found in being stripped of wealth and plenty – is foolish And if we grasp its message and try to live out of it, the Beatitudes remind us that it will evoke conflict and rejection. We may not actually be persecuted as the early disciples were, but we will be misunderstood, even by peoplewho have no ill will toward us..
It’s all about a prophetic view of life. The genuine prophet is not caught in the illusions, the surface reality. The prophet sees things whole. And that means challenging the ‘wisdom’ of the surrounding world. And the world doesn’t like to be rejected and told it is blind.
By our Baptism you and I have been given a share in the priestly mission of Jesus, we are a priestly people. But we mustn’t forget that we also share in his prophetic mission. We are called to challenge the world, not with some ethereal vision of a life to come but with a picture of what’s really going on now.
In these recent weeks we have watched how the media reported the story of Haiti and its people, and an interesting thing happened. This most secular communications world found that it could not ignore the fact that something quite mysterious was presenting itself. In the midst of such enormous devastation they saw an incredibly resilient people. Children were playing amid the rubble, and adults were singing! The people of the media simply could not fathom the reality of faith. It went against all reasonableness, all they had been ‘taught’ to see or believe.
And the effect took unusual form. You might have seen the story of the young American girl from a rather wealthy family who saw those images and confronted a powerful question. She said to herself, “We have so much and they have so little. Something’s wrong here! Why can that be?” And she began to pester her parents with an idea: what if we were to move out of this very large house to a small one and begin to live on half of what we now do, and give the rest to people like they?
Her parents thought this is crazy! But over time they decided that that is what they would do. They sold the McMansion, gave away half their income, and moved into a very small home.
And here’s the interesting thing. When a reporter asked the girl’s younger brother, a high-school adolescent, did he miss the comforts of the big house, he said, “No. Because we now have something we never had there: we talk to each other. We have to relate to one another.” He was beginning to see things whole.
I was reminded of the recent publicity about Temple Grandin. You might have seen or heard about her in connection with a film of her story on HBO. She was born severely autistic, but step by step she confronted her autism. She learned to talk and interact socially. She got her Ph.D and a is a professor of Animal Husbandry at the University of Colorado. She has invented methods for humane treatment of cattle, which are used by ranchers across the country. She is a brilliant woman – but still wrestling with her autism. The interviewer Terry Gross asked her, “Temple, wouldn’t you want to be free of your autism if we could find a cure?” And she said emphatically, “No! That would mean I’d have to give up the great gifts and competences I have, that ‘normal’ people will never have.”
It’s much like the response of some deaf people to the possibility of being able to hear through implantation of cochlear implants: “Why would I want o hear like you? I would lose the gift of sensitivity that makes me who I am . . ..”
The other day I attended a Holy Week planning meeting out at Grailville, and one of the members shared with us a poem. It’s by Wendell Berry, the writer who celebrates and tries to raise our consciousness about creation and our responsibility for the earth. The poem is entitled “The Real Work” and it goes like this:
It may be that when we no longer know what to do
we have come to our real work,
and that when we no longer know which way to go
we have come to our real journey.
The mind that is not baffled is not employed.
The impeded stream is the one that sings.
“The impeded stream is the one that sings.” The great flowing river that rushes along with nothing to obstruct it may be impressive – but it doesn’t sing. For that we look to the humble creek and the music of the gurgling waters as they splash over the rocks. Rocks that are ‘impediments.’ The impediments make the beauty.
It isn’t easy to grasp the message of Jesus, much less to live it. Nobody likes to look foolish. Why would you choose to give up a mansion it took a life to reach? Why would anyone choose to lay down their life, even for a friend?
Let’s just listen to Paul’s wisdom once more:
“The foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.”