Homily for the 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time

St. Agnes Church, August 19, 2001

(Jeremiah 38:4-6, 8-10; Hebrews 12:1-4; Luke 12:49-53)

I want to tell you about an experience I had on Friday afternoon.

I went to the public library downtown. I wanted to check on a periodical article. If you've been to the library you know that the periodical reading area is in 'the connector' which spans Ninth Street and joins the two library buildings. As I sat down I noticed a group of 5 or 6 high-school age kids, boys and girls, all African-Americans, lounging in a corner of the connector. They were just messing around; talking a little loud but not really enough to disturb me. One thing is sure: none of them were there to work on a school project!

In a few minutes a white policeman came over to the group. As he arrived there he was speaking into his shoulder walkie-talkie notifying his supervisor where he was and what was going on. He approached the kids and in a normal tone of voice said, "OK, you guys, you gotta move on out of here." There was silence for a minute as they all looked at each other. He said, "C'mon, you have to leave." One of the boys was a big kid, very imposing. He spoke up (I think he wanted to impress his girl friend with a bit of macho talk) "Why we gotta leave?" He was right on the edge of mouthing off and giving the policeman some lip. By that time an African-American officer had arrived to support his fellow policeman. He just stood there very business-like. The white officer said, "You're making too much noise. This is a library, not a place to hang out." After a pause the kids finally got up and left, with long faces.

When I was leaving the library I passed the stand near the door where the cops have their station and I saw the officer who had moved the kids off. I said, "Nice job, the way you handled that scene up at the connector. Is this something new? I don't think I've noticed that before." He said, "It's happening more and more. The kids come downtown on the bus and the library's right where they get off so they just want to make this their hangout. They don't want to go home and they don't have anything else to do or place to go."

Why am I sharing this story with you? It's tense and it makes us uncomfortable. And it's very ambiguous.

Were they really being 'too loud'? That's a judgment call. And there are plenty of people who are in the library and not reading or studying; some are just resting or sleeping. I wondered what I would have done if the kids were really acting up. I felt for the officer but I also felt for the kids. I'm sure there are a lot of good reasons why they might not want to go home, and they don't really have places where they can just hang.

None of us really enjoys being uncomfortable and in a tense situation. We all want peace.

During this period of 'Ordinary Time', when it isn't either Advent or Lent, the readings are unfolding before us different dimensions of the mission of Jesus and the implications of our Baptism. In today's reading we are confronted with a dimension that is disturbing and makes us uneasy.

First there is Jeremiah, thrown into the cistern and literally stuck in the mud. Why are people doing this to him? Because he was proclaiming a message the leaders and the people didn't want to hear. He was 'demoralizing the troops and the people'. You see, the Babylonians were besieging the city of Jerusalem, and the leaders were assuring everyone that it was all going to be alright, they were making political alliances with the Assyrians and Egyptians and were going to win. And Jeremiah was telling them that they were out of touch with the reality of the situation, that the game was all over and the city was going to be overrun. The only wise course was to accept the conquerors. They were being abandoned by God because they had abandoned the covenant and were worshiping idols.

And then there are the words of Jesus. "I haven't come to bring peace but division?" Is this the Prince of Peace? What's going on here?

It's a hard message. It turns out that the kind of peace Jesus is proclaiming, the peace of his Father's kingdom, is not the absence of tension, it's not the status quo, it's not being comfortable. Proclaiming the Kingdom, what we believe is right, will mean saying and doing things that can make even those closest to us very comfortable. Standing up for our conscience can be costly.

There are a lot of people in our church who want to remove all tension from the church. Why can't we all just 'get along'? Why do we have to have all this disagreement?

You may have heard of the situation with the Benedictine Sisters in Erie. One of their sisters is a well-known speaker and is invited to speak at lots of conferences. She was asked to speak at a Women's Ordination Conference. The Vatican got very upset at that and they ordered her religious superior to stop her and forbid her to give the talk. The Benedictine superior prayed over the matter with all her community; she got advice of respected canonists. And finally she said she wouldn't carry out the order, that the Benedictine notion of obedience -- 1400 years old -- wasn't a matter of 'the boss speaks and you are expected to obey'. It involves communal search for God's will.

Now there will be some people who will shake their fingers and say those sisters are bad girls; and there will be others who will say there goes that bad Vatican oppressing women. What if it's just mature people in tension about God's will? Each one taking their position, doing what they believe God asks of them -- but respecting each other. The Benedictines declined -- with respect: you made your move and we respect that, now we're making our move and ask you to respect us.

It's a difficult peace to achieve. It's so much easier to just resort to force, or to just cave in and abandon one's conviction.

How do we follow our conscience and yet not demonize the other person for seeing things differently? The tension is painful, so people pick one side of the conflict. In the library story some people will settle for just saying 'those kids are bad, they need to be reined in' and others will want to just see it as another instance of bad cops harassing innocent black people. How do we hold on to the painful ambiguities of life? How do we stand up for what we believe -- and still respect those who believe God has given them a different message?

It's hard. I think the answer lies in today's second reading. The author of the Letter to the Hebrews has just completed going through that great catalog of all the men and women of faith down through the ages: Abraham and Moses and David and all the others who had to find their way by faith when the answers weren't all that clear. And in today's reading he has imagine them in a big arena surrounding us who are in the race. In the Olympics, really. They're a collection of cheerleaders supporting us and cheering us on. We are not alone in the lonely choices we may be called to make. They did it and so can we.

And at their head is Jesus, who has run the same race. Jesus had to say difficult things in order to proclaim his Father's will, things the religious leaders of his day didn't want to hear. They tried to define the Sabbath and he had to tell them they were wrong; they told what foods were holy and which were unclean, and he said they were wrong; they proclaimed the meaning of the Temple, and he said his body was the temple.

Notice how he put it when the time came. "This is your hour and the hour of darkness." What you are going to do, just get on with it. Even at the moment of Judas' betrayal, he says "what you have to do, do quickly." You make your moves, I've made mine.

I think that in the midst of that body of all the holy ones looking down on us and encouraging us as we run our race there is one special woman cheering us. Joan of Arc. She had to disagree and stand up to church leaders. And after it was all over the church finally realized that she was holy in following the voice of her conscience.

As we receive the body of the Lord in Communion let's pray that we may be given the deep sense of personal integrity to take our stand for what we feel called to proclaim -- along with the deepest respect for those who come to a different answer to life's questions. And pray that we may know the support of all the holy ones in our choices, with Jesus at their head.