Homily for the 13th Sunday in Ordinary Time
June 30, 2002
St. Agnes, Cincinnati
(Based on 2 Kings 4:8-11, 14-16a; Ps 89:23-, 16-17,18-19; Romans 6:3-4,8-11; Matthew 10:37-42)
The readings in today's liturgy pull us in two very different directions. We might be inclined to wonder where we should focus.
The first theme is a very consoling one. It is one of promise and reward. The reward God promises if we receive God's messenger with hospitality. If it's a prophet, there is the promise of a prophet's reward; if it's someone with integrity who reveals God's integrity, we receive the reward for such a life. Even if we receive only one of "the little ones" -- and that's not a reference here to children, it's pointing to the ordinary people who don't wear the official mantle of prophet -- if we attend to God addressing us through people like that, we are promised the Lord's blessing.
We see it in the story of the Sunamite woman who befriended the prophet Elisha. She went out of her way to set up a little guest room for him on her roof, where he could stop and rest. It was very nice -- a bed and table and chair and lamp -- that was quite luxurious for that time. Sort of like his own little condo; a Holiday Inn. As we listen to the story we could almost expect the writer to tell us there were chocolates on the pillow at night.
The woman is highly rewarded for her hospitality. She is promised a son after years of barrenness.
But in order to appreciate the full power of the interaction we need to know 'the rest of the story'. When Elisha tells her of the child that will come to her, she protests: "You are a man of God; you're not going to deceive me, are you?" This is a woman who has had her hopes dashed before and she doesn't want it to happen again. And then when she does have the child and everything looks wonderful, at the time the child is old enough to go out with his father into the fields, he is afflicted with a fatal disease and dies in his mother's arms.
What does she do? She tells her servant to saddle their donkey and take her to the prophet. She throws herself at his feet and cries out, "I begged you not to deceive me!" Elisha's servant tries to pull her away but the prophet says, "Let her alone; this woman is in deep pain." And he goes and lies down on the dead body of the boy until his warmth brings him back to life. Yes, there is a reward for her hospitality but it is no simple matter, her faith is tested.
So that's the first direction in the readings: promise and consolation. God rewards our attentive care for those who bring us revelation.
The second theme is darker, more disturbing.
Romans introduces us to the images of death and being buried with Christ in Baptism. The little girl we baptize today is entering upon a journey which can involve painful growth as her life unfolds.
In the Gospel the message is even more dramatic and challenging. Jesus talks of 'being worthy of me' and what that will cost: being split off from father or mother or son or daughter. In a parallel passage Luke speaks of having to hate one's relatives if the call of the Gospel demands it. It's scary stuff. No prophet or religious leader ever challenged the priority of the biological family as strongly as Jesus does.
And there is more. Jesus introduces for the first time in the Gospels the expression: to "take up your cross." Commentators tell us it is almost impossible for us to grasp how shocking that saying was for Jesus' hearers. Their imaginations didn't jump to a figure like the one we see on this stylized cross with a glorious Christ. They had seen; they knew real crucifixions. I think the risk of Christian artistic expression is that it could make us think there was only one crucifixion, of Jesus and the thieves. They saw crucifixions frequently -- and they knew who was crucified. Slaves. And rebels who fomented revolution against the Roman oppressors. It was illegal to crucify a Roman citizen; they were protected.
Is Jesus suggesting that his followers must identify with riffraff like that, the outcasts and rejects of society? Do we really have to 'lose our lives'? Our reputations?
And so we're pulled. Hospitality, and consolation and reward -- or death and disgrace and a cross?.
Actually they are two sides of the same coin.
Hospitality doesn't mean simply playing the role of a host. It involves a radical openness to all the ways God chooses to come and to speak to us. To prophets who may not look all that inviting. That kind of openness isn't easy. It is painful and involves forms of death. God comes to us in forms we didn't expect.
Perhaps in the form of the present scandals in the church. "You deceived us."
I have been thinking a lot this week, as I am sure you have, about the Billy Graham Mission taking place this weekend. What is that all about -- for us Catholics?
When I was growing up -- a long time ago! -- we heard of Billy Sunday. And Aimee Semple McPherson. The sawdust trail. Tent revivals. That was bad stuff! Not just Protestant (that was bad enough) but Evangelical or Pentecostal. They believed in individual interpretation of the Bible! But we had the church to explain it for us, and the church had all the truth!
Then along came Vatican II, and our bishops and popes were led by God to acknowledge that we belong to a sinful people always in need of reformation. That it was a form of arrogance to make the claim that you had to be Catholic to be saved. Not only were individual faithful Protestants able to be saved but their churches had elements of the Gospel we need to attend to.
It wasn't an easy message. Many good Catholics were disturbed. Their security was shaken. It opened up questions. And today we see our archdiocese collaborating with Billy Graham and seeing his call as perhaps the way some Catholics will re-kindle their faith
On another level this week I was thinking about that court decision out in San Francisco, that perhaps the words "under God" just might be unconstitutional. Oh my, did that bring out our political leaders! They just about tripped over themselves trying to be the first to get before a TV camera or a microphone to express their outrage at this attack on our country -- and God. Somebody observed that there were representatives standing tall in the House chambers proclaiming the pledge, who hadn't been seen in the place for weeks when important bills were being debated and voted on. And what was it all really about? An ordinary single citizen, a father, went to court to protect his young daughter from being taunted and harassed by her schoolmates. If we want to know what this is really all about, we need to know that the man has received death threats simply because he challenged something that wasn't in the pledge for over 150 years in the first place. There are people so insecure that they want to kill him -- and people are circulating the addresses of the two judges so they can be flooded with hate.
And Matthew, a few chapters before today's reading, give us Jesus' final words at the end of the Sermon on the Mount: "Not everyone who says "Lord, Lord" will enter the kingdom of God but those who do the will of my Father." It's not about words, it's all about deeds. Let's see what our representatives do about the 17,000 people who got their last paycheck from Worldcom on Friday, or all those people whose retirements have been wiped out by the greed and arrogance and deceit of the corporate leaders of our society.
Hospitality involves the readiness to hear God's voice in all the ways revelation comes, and that costs death to some of our most cherished illusions.
As we continue our Eucharist let us pray for two things. First, that we may not presume to tell God the forms in which truth must come, the kinds of prophets we will accept. And then let us pray for the difficult gift which will come when the Lord breaks us open to the fullness of truth. For only the truth will make us free.