Homily for the Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

July 28, 2002

St. Agnes, Cincinnati

(Based on 1 Kings 3:5,7-12; Ps 119; Romans 8:28-30; Matthew 13:44-46)

Before the readings:

In order to appreciate fully today's readings I'd like you to join me in a brief reflective exercise to prepare ourselves.

Imagine that you are lying on your bed sleeping and the Lord appears to you in a dream and says, "Ask something of me and I will give it to you." Take a few minutes of quiet time and ask yourself: What would I ask of God if that happened to me?

* * * * * * *

It's easy to see that in today's readings the Spirit acting in the church is calling us to the central issue of our spiritual lives: Where do we find our center, the focus or attitude that gives meaning to everything else, that holds it all together?

It is the one core that we must not let go of, or else we get off track and lose our bearings. It's a question of the one priority before which everything else is minor league, ultimately insignificant.

Solomon answers God's offer by asking for an understanding heart, for the wisdom he needed in order to govern this numerous people aright. And God is pleased with his focus. He could have asked for a long life. That's a good thing; you can do a lot of good with length of days on earth. He could have asked for great wealth, and that's also a good thing, if it is used well and for the benefit of the people. He could even have asked that his enemies be overthrown, and that's also a good thing, because it would mean bringing peace to his people and not squandering all their resources on fighting constant wars. None of those things would have been bad in themselves -- but they weren't the center he wanted to stand on.

Solomon, and the person finding the treasure in the field, and the merchant who discovers the pearl of great price are centered. They can put up with everything else and stay on track, they know what they are looking for.

We all have had a wonderful example of that kind of focused commitment these past few days, in the people who worked tirelessly with one single purpose: to get those trapped miners out. They were blessed with success, thank God. But we saw the same passion in those who labored unquestioningly at Ground Zero even though they experienced no success.

How we answer the question of a center which can ground our lives is crucial.

During the week I've been thinking of a number of individuals whose lives touch on this question. I'd like to introduce you to six of them (briefly!). Two are professional athletes; one is an entertainer; one is a religious sister; one is a bishop. And one is a figure of mystery who has touched us all.

Those of you familiar with professional basketball may recognize the name of Walt Frazer. He came up from nothing and became a star on great championship teams; eventually he was in the Hall of Fame.

You might say he had it all: fame, money, the good life kids dream of. And how does he spend his retirement? Going around to high schools and trying to help today's kids not to build their lives on the illusion that they are going to play in the NBA. Oh, he doesn't knock the rings and the acclaim. But he tries to teach them there are more substantial things they need to build on: education and learning to grow up. He shocks them by telling them that the day he graduated from college basketball became a job: grinding it out night after night in different cities and motels, practice, practice, practice. He gives them a tough dose of reality by asking this question: if you add up the number of people earning their living at the top of every sport -- football, basketball, baseball, track, golf, swimming, prizefighting, you name it -- how many does it come to? Less than 3,000 men and women. Out of a country of 260-plus million people.

An opposite example: The sad story of Pete Rose, Junior. A tragic waste, really. 39 years old and still plugging away in the lowest minor leagues, trying to show he can make it into the big leagues when every wise and caring manager along the way has been telling him he just doesn't have what it takes. He won't listen. He's pursuing a mirage.

What did you ask from the Lord in our reflection time?

The entertainer is Peggy Lee. She paints for us an indelible picture of the sad life of a person without a center:

Is that all there is?

Is that all there is?

If that's all there is, my friend,

then let's keep dancing --

Break out the booze and have a ball,

if that's all

there is . . .

(See? The deacon is not the only one at St. Agnes who can break into song . . . Of course the difference is, he knows how to do it. . . )

Is that all there is? Just look at our college campuses. We see young men and women who have everything: possessions and clothing and money to throw away. And what's the biggest concern colleges face? An epidemic of suicides among these bright young people. Is that all there is? No adult has taught them how to build a center based on caring for others. Life is a perpetual blast -- until it all crashes. Is that all there is?

The religious sister is Helen Prejean. This past week several of us from St. Agnes were privileged to attend the opera Dead Man Walking, based on her life.

At the mention of her name I'm sure there are people who probably would say, "Oh yeah, she's that nun up on the soap box protesting the death penalty. Another agitator. They're a dime a dozen in our country these days."

What makes her different from all the other fanatics? She knows that the abolition of the death penalty is not what her life is all about. It's not her center. It just happens to be where her journey toward God led her; against her natural leanings. She never anticipated that by simply writing a letter to an unknown convict her whole life would be changed.

Some people who believe that they have found the pearl of great price are so blinded by their obsession that they will walk over anyone. Others don't count, they are right. People who are so sure they are committed to life that they will murder a doctor who performs abortions, or vilify and shame the poor woman who sees no way out of a tragic situation.

Helen is not a fanatic because she is open to listen, to learn and have her views challenged and shaped by those of others. Early on, when she is getting more and more angry at capital punishment, she is brought up short by meeting the parents of those killed by the man she has befriended. She has to confront their pain and it shakes her. She is compelled to wrestle with the complexity of the whole truth, that it's not a simple black-and-white business.

But she knows her center: Jesus living now. At her last meeting with the condemned man she doesn't say, "After you die I'm going to keep up the fight so that others won't have to die." No, she says, "I want to be the face of Christ for you. I want the very last thing you see on the face of this earth to be the face of someone who loves you."

The bishop is a man I was privileged to work with: Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen of Seattle.

Once again, there will be people who would say, "Oh yeah, he was that peace nut, anti-patriotic, against the war in Vietnam." And they would miss the point. Let me tell you a story that shows his center was in a much different place.

When Hunthausen became convinced and spoke out on the immorality of the war, all the peace crowd became avid fans. They glommed onto him as their poster-boy celebrity. They didn't realize what he was made of.

At one point there was to be the commissioning of a new nuclear submarine. The protesters decided to stage a demonstration at the shipyard and they asked the archbishop to be the main speaker. When he got up to speak he turned and challenged the protesters: "Let's be clear, the men on those ships are not our enemy. They are committed to seeking peace; they just happen to believe in different means than we do. If we become so convinced of the rightness of our position that we make them into our enemy, we've missed the whole point." He had the courage to take on his own followers. The groupies didn't enjoy what he had to say to them.

The mystery person is obviously Jesus of Nazareth. The Gospel writer tells us that he set his face like flint toward Jerusalem. He himself said he had a Baptism with which he was to be baptized, and he was on fire until it was accomplished. He knew his center: the kingship of his Father -- even if that meant going up to the Temple and challenging the religious leadership of his people. Yet in the heart of that profound focus he is not centered on himself, he attends to the needs of others. Even Judas he will not unmask before the others but says simply, "Do what you have to do." In the garden he tells the apostles to take their rest, they need it. And even on the cross he is solicitous for his mother and John: behold your son, behold your mother.

What did you ask for from God? Was it big enough?

Because we need to be reminded of what it was all for. Was it to 'save us from sin'? That's frequently the short-hand that's used: Jesus died for our sins. Yes, that for sure. But that wasn't the center, the target of our God's plan. In the passage we read from Romans Paul tells us "he destined us to be conformed to the image of his Son." That is the passion of our God, wanting to shape us into the likeness of Jesus.

You see, the parables of the person finding the treasure and the merchant seeking the pearl of great price are not only about us. They are about our God. Our God has found a great treasure, a rich pearl -- and it is us, the people loved with an infinite love.

What did you ask for? What did I ask for? Was it big enough? Are we asking for something that matches the awesome generosity of our God?