Homily for the Twelfth Sunday in Ordinary Time
June 19, 2005
St. Martin de Porres, Cincinnati
(Based .on Jeremiah 20:10-13; Psalm 69; Romans 5:12-15; Matthew 10:26-33)
I’ve got a great offer for you this morning. You could make a lot of money with it.
That woke you up, didn’t it?
All you have to do is make a bet with your neighbor, that he or she won’t be able to guess the theme that occurs most prominently in Jesus’ preaching. What is the one command or directive or challenge that he put before his listeners most often?
If you are talking to some of our evangelical brethren you could get the answer: “It’s all about sex! Adultery and fornication and sodomy and all that.” Maybe with some others the answer would be: “drinkin’ and gamblin’ and cussin’.”
Actually he gave very little attention to things like that.
Then if you are dealing with people who have actually read the Gospels, they’d tell you he spent a lot of energy on warning us of the spiritual dangers of having material wealth, the risks of greed. They would be a lot closer because he did indeed come back to that theme often.
But really, the theme he repeated over and over cuts much more deeply; it’s much more basic. Don’t be afraid! Fear not. Let not your hearts be troubled, little flock.
Why did he feel the need to repeat that call so often?
Jesus knew us and our hearts. He knew that it is our fear and insecurity which is the greatest obstacle, the deepest reality that keeps us from becoming what the Father wills us to be.
Above all he knew the long tradition of our fear of God. Apparently when we humans confront the reality of God our primordial response is to shrink away in fear. It’s an age-old story. God is so immense and mighty and we are so small, and sinful besides. It is there right from the beginning, in Genesis 3, when the man and woman have eaten of the forbidden fruit and God comes walking through the garden “at the breezy time of the day.” God calls out, “Where are you?” And the man answers “I heard you in the garden; but I was afraid, because I was naked, so I hid myself.”
And it continues all the way down to Jesus’ day. Remember that parable he told, about the master who entrusted talents to his servants (Matthew 25). Some used them to enhance the master’s wealth but there was that fellow who buried the talent he was given. When the master asked him why de did it, he replied, “I knew that you were a demanding person, harvesting where you didn’t plant; so out of fear I went off and buried your talent in the ground.” He’s accusing the Lord of being dishonest!
Even the apostles, who had walked closely with Jesus for a couple of years, when they first see Jesus on Easter Sunday evening, have to first be told: “Do not be afraid! It is I.”
It’s a central aspect of the ministry of Jesus: to transform our unredeemed view of God. He has to get us to see ourselves as the Father really sees us, to show us our great value in the Father’s eyes. He has to show us who the Father is, in order to have us learn who we are.
We thought of God as mighty and distant, and Jesus uses the tiny sparrow, this most insignificant of birds, to reveal how intimately the Father is engaged in tending and watching over us. We are worth so much more than the sparrows than all of the sparrows! Every hair on our head is numbered.
Our God is not remote oriental potentate on a lofty throne, before whom we are cringe in abject fear.
In today’s readings that general challenge to overcome our fear is focused on our lives as prophets.
Do you think of yourself as a prophet?
When we are baptized we are given a share not only in the priestly role of Christ, as worshipers, but also in his prophetic mission. Each of us is called to bear God’s word and express it in our own small way. Remember the command Francis of Assisi gave to his followers: “Proclaim the Gospel always — and sometimes use words.”
How you and I live is meant to be a proclamation of God’s word to our world: what we value; the things we promote, or reject; the way we use our time and our talents; what we say yes to, or no to; the way we refuse to exclude anyone from our community because the Lord excludes no one from his mercy.
I was going to tell you a story at this point. Then I realized that this is fathers’ day. So I need to tell you two stories.
The first is a true story about the role of a father as a prophet, a bearer of the word.
There was a couple who went away on a Marriage Encounter. It was a wonderful breakthrough experience for them. They reached levels of openness and intimacy they had never experienced before. The leaders of the encounter encouraged them to go back to their family and offer the same welcome to their children, to invite them to share what was perhaps weighing on them that they had never felt free to talk about with their parents.
The husband in particular was all fired up, so he opened up the conversation at the dinner table, inviting the kids to ask anything they wanted to. One of their sons was about 17 years old and had given up on church and the faith, a source of stress and sorrow for his father. The kids sat there almost embarrassed and saying nothing, when finally the 17-year old said, “I have a question I’ve always wanted to ask you, Dad.” The father was very excited — it was really happening! — so he said, “What is it?” And the boy said, “What does Eucharist mean to you? I’ve sat in the back of the church and watched you and my mother going up to Communion every Sunday. I know what Eucharist means to Mom, because I know how she lives. But I’ve wondered, ‘what does this really mean to him?’”
It’s a painful story. The father never realized that he was a prophet. He never thought that his children might be watching how he lived and what it all meant. He broke down in tears at his failure to appreciate the role he was supposed to play in his son’s growth.
The second story is a bit lighter, but about another prophet
You may know that we Jesuits have members of our community who are brothers. They are fully Jesuits, with the same worth as those of us who happen to be ordained, committed to the same mission by the same vows. They care for our houses, the infrastructure that enables us to carry on our mission.
Yesterday one of our brothers was in town for a meeting and I met him for lunch. He’ll be 80 years old next week. For many years he was stationed in our novitiate, where we are first sent on entrance into the community. A couple of years ago one of our priests was back visiting the seminary. He was a long-time friend of Brother ‘Suds’ and he suggested that they take a walk after dinner. They met at the front door and the priest said, “Which way do you want to walk — over by the basketball courts or down to the front gate?” “The brother said, “Let’s walk down to the cemetery, and visit last year’s indispensable people. . .”
Last year’s indispensable people. That’s a wise prophet. Enough material for prayer there for a whole month of retreat.
In today’s liturgy we meet two prophets. Jeremiah and Jesus. Jeremiah had the difficult mission to proclaim tough news to the people, that their city was going to be overrun and they would be led into captivity. So those who didn’t want the people troubled by such a message lay in wait for Jeremiah. They arrested him and imprisoned him in a tiny cell to shut out his message. But Jeremiah put his trust in God. He called the Lord a ‘mighty champion’ who would rescue him. He would not be ruled by fear.
In today’s Gospel we read that other prophet, Jesus, telling not to be afraid. In the translation I read as I was preparing my comments, the expression is translated much more pointedly: “Don’t let them intimidate you!” He’s very aware that people won’t want to hear some of the message we have to bring to our world. They will try to drown it out. He’s telling us to listen in prayer to the voice of the Spirit inside us that says things in our world, in our country and in our church are not right and need to be changed — then be courageous and speak out.
I think our model should be that blind fellow cured by Jesus (John 9). First there is the response of his parents when the Pharisees tried to bully them. These were ordinary people coming up before the religious leaders of their society. It’s so much fun to read their way of dealing with their intimidators. They say in effect, “Hey, we don’t know much. We do know our experience: he’s our son; he was born blind; and we don’t know how he can now see. Ask him yourselves.” And clearly the con had been shaped by the courage of such parents, because his response is also very direct and based on his personal experience. “Here’s the deal: (1) I was born blind. (2) I met this fellow and he rubbed clay in my eyes. (3) Now I can see. All the rest is theory. If you have trouble with that, that’s your problem, isn’t it?”
Don’t let them intimidate you! Even if they are civic powers — or church leaders.
When the man who had been born blind was in the presence of Jesus he knew his own worth, his dignity as a person. He was worth more than a whole flock of sparrows.
When we come to Communion this morning we are not only in the presence of that same Lord, he becomes more intimate to us than we could ever have imagined possible. We need to ask him to reveal to us our great dignity before his Father, to remove from our hearts all fear so we can proclaim with our lives — boldly — the care he has for the least of our brothers and sisters.