Homily for the 15th Sunday in Ordinary Time

July 16, 2000

(At St. Anthony, Madisonville)

(Based on Amos 7:12-15; Eph 1:3-14; Mk 6:7-13)

In last week's liturgy we witnessed the event of Jesus' return to the synagogue in his native village. He got up to address the people -- and "they took offense at him". Because he was so ordinary. The issue was not God being so remote but God getting so close, in the form of somebody from our neighborhood.

In today's reading Mark tells us of the next stage in the development of Jesus' mission. He moves the project further along by entrusting it into the hands of disciples, people who have been with him only a while, people like you and me.

But before we can appreciate all that is contained in that mission, we need first to reflect on that Old Testament reading about Amos. Unfortunately (as is so often the case) we are only given a brief snippet of the story, without any context, so it's really impossible to appreciate what's really going on.

After a bit of study it turns out that there are some very interesting things going on.

Here's the scene. It's the 8th century before Christ. Israel is divided into two separate kingdoms, Israel in the North and Juda in the South. After long years of wars with neighboring tribes, we learn that finally it is a time of peace. Not only are there no foreign threats but even Israel and Juda are at peace between themselves (they frequently were at each other's throats). And what's more significant, the economy is going like gang-busters. (Does it all begin to sound familiar? The Soviets are gone, the Wall is down, and look at how incredibly the economy is producing.

At that point at the great religious center at Bethel arrives this fellow Amos, from a town in the South below Jerusalem.

And he holds up the mirror to the people at Bethel, in a devastating fashion: all this prosperity has come as a result of abandonment of the Covenant. Listen to some of his phrases: "you trample upon the weak"; "you exact harsh levies (so that they could have nice houses -- with lots of ivory --- and large vineyards); "by oppressing the just, accepting bribes, repelling the needy at the gate". At one point he even says that the Lord will destroy both their winter homes and their summer homes. They were doing very well indeed!

Oh, he says, you love coming up to offer sacrifices, but then you just go back to your unjust ways.

Now to appreciate all this, we need to realize that Bethel was the religious center of the Northern kingdom, the center also of political power. The priests supported the whole economic structure by collecting the taxes. It's the king's sanctuary. Just a few verses before the passage we read in the Mass, we read the outcry, "the community cannot endure all his words!" Get him out of here! And that's where our passage begins.

Notice how Amos responds: "Hey, I'm no professional prophet; I don't hang out with that group. I'm just an ordinary citizen, a herder of sheep and a dresser of sycamores." (It seems that the trees called 'sycamores' produced a small fruit of little taste. It was the fruit of the poor. To succeed in getting it even to that poor state someone had to puncture the skin of the fruit while on the tree. That's what the 'dresser' did.) But if he was no professional prophet Amos knew what the Covenant called for; he sees what is going on and he feels compelled by God to denounce it.

It occurred to me that Amos is the perfect model of the layperson. We should have statues to St. Amos the patron of the laity. To grasp what he was doing, in today's terms we would need to imagine him going down to the chancery (!) or to St. Peter in chains, or perhaps to the Vatican or St. Peter's in Rome. He might be compelled to ask questions: what are we doing to insure the provision for the Eucharist for the people, in face of the emerging shortage of priests? What about people in second marriages being denied the Eucharist? Can we find better ways to care pastorally for gays and lesbians? Or maybe he'd be downtown asking why, when our school buildings are in shambles, we're contemplating giving tax abatements for yet one more boutique store to 'save downtown'.

And so with Amos in the background we return to the Gospel story where Jesus empowers ordinary men and women and entrusts them with his mission.

Just think of what they are going out to. They are going to confront Israelites armed, not with a book (the New Testament hasn't been written yet and their hearers know the Old Testament all too well) -- but with their experience of Jesus, the proclamation of what has happened to them in meeting him. And they have to call people to get back to the Covenant (that's the meaning of 'repent').

And what's all this stuff about no money, no bread, no second tunic, only a walking stick? That's all about credibility: if the church is going to proclaim freedom for the poor, the disciples have to be in solidarity with the poor. The word won't be listened to unless it shows in their lives.

Two events took place in our city this week, and they touch this idea.

The first was the historic decision of the AME church to ordain the first woman bishop in their history. It is surely something to be celebrated, one more step forward in the long struggle for women's empowerment. But I have to acknowledge that for me there was a certain regrettable aspect: in the commentary in the media so much play was given to the fact of the great salary she would get, and how she would now have a big car and driver at her disposal. Such a mixed blessing! Do we gain these victories for that?

The second event was the opening of Gertrude House, a facility for temporary housing for low-income people in need. That is Gospel work, it seems to me. It's credible because Fr. Tom Bokenkotter and the people who volunteer with him walk the walk, they don't just talk the talk.

And Jesus' instructions to the disciples make it clear that their audience won't just receive it all with delight. There will be opposition (as there was for Amos). You won't be welcomed everywhere with outstretched arms. In Matthew's version of the same account, written probably about 20 years later, the results are portrayed more starkly, from lived experience: they will hand you over to the courts and synagogue (read: within the church, too); you will be hated and scourged.

But they went, and their lives were credible. And we are here today because of their word.

I heard recently that when people go to El Salvador, as soon as the plane lands, they asked to be taken to the chapel where Archbishop Romero was shot, or to the Jesuit residence where the six Jesuits and their housekeeper and her daughter were butchered, or to the road where the four Maryknoll women were ambushed. They want to see how credibility was demonstrated.

As we receive Eucharist today let's pray for that appreciation of our calling as the baptized, to be prophets, proclaimers of the good news. As Vatican II taught, that it not only the privilege of the laity to speak out against injustice even within the church ("Bethel") -- but sometimes it becomes their duty. Even when leaders don't want to hear, when "the country cannot endure these words".

But as we pray for that gift, let us be mindful that our word will only be as credible as our lives.