Homily for the 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Dignity Nova/DC – September 15/16, 2012

Readings

Our first reading for today should be very familiar.  It’s part of a long section from the prophet Isaiah that includes what scripture scholars refer to as the “four servant songs.”  Beginning in Chapter 40 and going through Chapter 53 of “second Isaiah” or “deutero Isaiah,” these poetic passages introduce the Servant of Yahweh in what we as post-resurrection Christians see as prophecies about the Messiah.  The sacred author describes this Servant:

  • First, as Chosen – “My chosen one in whom my soul delights.”
  • Second, as Missioned – “I will make you a light to the nations.”
  • Fourth, as Suffering – “He was oppressed and afflicted; … like a lamb that is led to the slaughter.”

It’s from the third of such poetic songs that we hear today, as the Servant of God is described as steadfast and obedient. Even when faced with the violence and cruelty of rejection, God’s Servant has set his face “like flint,” trusting in the presence and promise of God, believing that whatever may befall him, God is there.

That’s the backdrop by which we must hear the words of Mark in today’s Gospel. Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” It’s a prelude to the real question that the disciples must answer – and one that we must answer as well:  Jesus wants to know, “Who do you say that I am?” This is a question not of Identity, but of Being.  Jesus wants to know if they have yet grasped who HE IS?

And while Jesus must surely have been pleased with Peter’s quick declaration, “You are the Christ – the anointed one – the Messiah,” we know that Peter the Rock quickly becomes Peter the stumbling block.  In not wanting to accept the fact that Jesus’ Messiah-ship is different than what he (Peter) thinks it should be, Peter in that all-too-human, cocky, “just like a guy” kind of way, stops being a disciple, a learner, a follower … and figuratively jumps out in front of Jesus.  Peter at least did have the good sense to rebuke Jesus in private – and you can almost see the two off to the side with Peter saying some version of, “Hey, look Boss, you’re supposed to be the Messiah, not some common criminal who is going to suffer and get rejected and get killed. Where’s the victory in that? Where’s the Kingdom in that? You’re sounding not like a winner, but like the worst possible loser.  C’mon, get with the program!”

But Jesus will have none of it.  Then, Jesus does an interesting thing.  He “turns around” and looks at his disciples, and then he rebukes Peter.  It’s almost as if both by his actions and his words, Jesus teaches Peter the lesson he needs to learn.  Jesus rebukes Peter, calling him “Satan” and telling him to “get behind me.” In doing so, Jesus is telling Peter that he has forgotten who is the leader and who is the disciple.  What Jesus is saying is that ‘on this, my journey of doing the will of the Father – a journey that leads ultimately to rejection and pain and suffering and even death – you as my disciple belong behind me, not in front of me. I am leading the way, because I am doing the will of my Abba/Father. ’

And then, Jesus speaks in a way that certainly must have been confusing to those disciples and the crowd that heard him – as it’s certainly something confusing to us.  The Christian scriptures and the teachings of Jesus are often filled with paradox.  Paradox is the sort of statement that seems contradictory; it’s the type of statement or declaration that makes no sense to our rational, logical, Western way of thinking – to what many spiritual guides calls the dualistic mind.  If the way we experience life and the world and others and reality is dualistic – namely, always in terms of right and wrong, good and bad, yes and no, in and out, included and excluded, black and white … or, for that matter … Democrat and Republican, male and female, American and foreigner, rich and poor, gay and straight, young and old… the list could go on and on! … if we experience the world only on this way, then we will never fully understand and grasp the many paradoxes of Christian faith.  In this instance, Jesus proclaims what is perhaps the ultimate paradox of Christianity – life means death, and death is life. “Whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and that of the gospel will save it.

Earlier this week I was listening to an audio book by a psychotherapist who has worked in the gay community for a long time.  He made a comment almost in passing that struck me.  He said that we as gay people – especially gay men and women of a certain age, though I suspect it’s true of many of us regardless of age – sometimes have difficulty accessing our feelings, sometimes have difficulty being fully aware of our emotional self.  And, he pointed out, when we do have access to that side of ourselves and are “in touch with our emotions,” the feeling that very many of us have the easiest access to is our anger.  The therapist was making this point in the context of gay men and their relationships, having grown up largely in a society and culture that was, more likely than not, unwelcoming. Having to hide who we are for much of our lives, being taught by the dominant culture that we are some sort of abominable aberration, and having the experience of being rejected in so many direct and indirect ways – it’s no wonder that many of us have such anger.  As I heard that, what struck me was not only the probable truth of his observation, but also how equally true it probably is for us as Gay Catholics in our religious context of “the Church.” Perhaps I’m just speaking for myself and engaging in a little projection, but I know that I have anger – dare I say, a “righteous anger?” – toward the institution I love so dearly called Church.  I suspect I’m not alone in saying that.

Whether we can see that in ourselves or not, each of us is challenged by the Gospel of Jesus to follow him even when and perhaps especially when we experience anger, when we feel hurt, when we know pain, and when we are rejected.  In those situations our first tendency is to be not like Jesus or the Servant of God, but rather like Peter, isn’t it?  Our inclination is to put up our defenses, saying this isn’t how it’s supposed to be, and change the game plan to what we want. Now … don’t get me wrong… I’m not saying that situations that give rise to anger and hurt and pain and rejection are necessarily part of God’s plan and that we should simply be passive and docile in the face of what may truly be situations of injustice or even evil.  What I AM saying is that the mind and heart we must bring to those situations – and really to every person and every situation in life – is the mind of Jesus, the heart of the one sought always to know and do the will of God.  After all, doesn’t the passage from the Letter of James remind us that action is essential to a life of faith … that claims of faithfulness are empty and meaningless if we don’t put that faith into concrete practice that make better the lives of others in need? Let our prayer this day and every day be that we do, indeed, have what it takes to be faithful disciples of Jesus, following him wherever the Spirit of God may lead us.

(c) Copyright 2012 – Timothy J MacGeorge

“Give them some food yourselves”

Homily for the 18th Sunday of Ordinary Time – July 30/31, 2011
Dignity NoVA/DC

Readings: Is: 55: 1-3, Rom 8:35;37-39, Mt. 14:13-21

One of the inescapable aspects of human life is that we all wear many hats. Almost from the day we are born we play different parts and relate in different ways to the people and situations of our lives. We begin as children, sons and daughters of our parents or caretakers. We may have siblings with whom we relate as sister or brother. Later we become playmates and friends; students and athletes. As we grow older and mature, we become workers; boyfriends and girlfriends; perhaps even someone’s “significant other” or spouse, and maybe even a mother or father to children of our own. Some of these roles are relational, based on our connections with others; while some of them are more functional, based on what we do or activities in which we engage.

Today we have listened to Matthew’s accounting of a miracle story that must have been so important to the early Christian communities that it is recounted in all four Gospels. It’s the story of the feeding of the multitudes. As with many gospel stories that are so familiar to us, it’s very easy to miss some of the significant and very telling details. When I first read this particular passage in preparing for today, something struck me that I had never taken notice of before. It’s that first line, delivered almost parenthetically, in which Matthew says, “When Jesus heard of the death of John the Baptist…” It’s easy to miss that the reason Jesus gets into a boat and goes off by himself, alone, … is because he’s in mourning. He has just heard the sad news, delivered directly by the disciples of his cousin John, that his cousin has been brutally killed. Immediately before this sentence, Matthew tells of the terrible way in which Herod – fulfilling the request of his niece who danced for him at his birthday – had ordered John to be beheaded, his head presented on a silver platter. Hearing this news from eyewitnesses directly, is it any wonder that Jesus wants some time to be alone with his grief, and to mourn in solitude, the way any grieving family member would do?

And yet, the crowds who knew of his preaching, will not let him be. In the previous chapter, Jesus had delivered a number of sermons which biblical scholars call “Kingdom Parables.” Jesus gives numerous examples of what “The Kingdom of Heaven is like…” It is like a man who sowed good seed in his field; it is like a mustard seed that grows to be the largest of plants; it is like the yeast a woman mixes with three measures of wheat flour; and it is like a treasure buried in field, or a net thrown into the sea.

This is the background of what we listen to today. And even though Jesus wanted to be alone, wanted to honor his role as the cousin of John the Baptizer, Matthew tells us that his heart is moved with pity at the sight of so many people who came to hear him, who knew him as the one who spoke of God and the Reign of God for which they longed. I don’t need to recount the story, but there’s another element that we can so easily miss. Up until this point, the disciples of Jesus, the ones who even now encourage Jesus to tell the crowds to go away, have largely been observers of his preaching and the miracles he has accomplished. The hat they have worn, the role they have played has largely been passive and receptive.

With this event, however, the disciples begin to take on a new role. They begin to mature in their role as disciples and become active participants in the miracle that unfolds. They bring to Jesus what little they have for just themselves; at Jesus’ direction they distribute the 7 items of blessed food – five loaves and two fishes – to the thousands now seated in this deserted place; and they gather up the leftovers, filling 12 wicker baskets. The symbolism of these numbers is important – for 7 was the number of known Gentile nations, and 12 the number of the Tribes of Israel. In short, Matthew is telling us that the message of Jesus about the Kingdom of Heaven, is for everyone, Jew and Gentile alike.  Matthew is reminding us that NO ONE – no nation, no race, no people, no tribe, no clan, no group, no person – is excluded from the bounteous goodness and reign of God. He is saying, in effect, that Jesus fulfills the word of Isaiah in that if we listen to Jesus, we will “eat well” and “delight in rich fare.” If we come to Jesus and don’t just merely “listen” but listen “heedfully,” … then we will have life itself.

Each week we gather here wearing the many hats of the roles of our current lives. At times, one such role may be more prominent than the other. But if we are to be faithful followers, faithful disciples of Jesus, we must do in our own lives what the disciples do in today’s Gospel. We must heed the command of Jesus to give food to our brothers and sisters who hunger. As we look at the world around us, let’s be careful not to spiritualize away the hunger that Matthew speaks of. Yes, the hunger of the spirit must be fed, and we must not be afraid to live in the light as disciples of Jesus. But so too must the hunger of the belly, the hunger of the body, be nourished. In saying that, I am so very mindful of not only the thousands and thousands of our fellow citizens – mostly children – who go to bed hungry every day; but I am also so very mindful of the millions upon millions of people around the world – especially in the drought-stricken countries of East Africa, where the lack of food has pushed hunger into starvation. Hunger and starvation in AfricaThe United Nations estimates that 12.5 million people in countries in the horn of Africa are on the brink of starvation, lacking water and the simplest of food; and, if aid is not increased to help, by the middle of September 2,500 women, men and children will die each day.

Like those first disciples, we too are called not simply to sit by the sidelines. Rather, Jesus speaks to us today, as he did two thousand years ago: “Give them some food yourselves.”